They say any bike is a gravel bike, and at the 2018 Barry-Roubaix gravel race in Michigan, Jeff Jacobi embodied that truism.
Jacobi is a Grand Rapids local who came up with a big idea for the 10th annual gravel event. Well, more like a big wheel idea.
After tackling the 22-mile race on a scooter in 2016, Jacobi returned to do the 36-mile race on a penny farthing in 2018. My colleague recently wrote a feature about rescuing bikes from the 1960s as steel gravel rides, but after Jacobi’s accomplishment, we may need to turn back the clock a bit further to the 19th century in our search for gravel-ready frames.
Jacobi completed his challenge and in turn, raised an impressive amount of money for a local charity. Not bad for a self-described “idiot on the penny farthing.”
Will we be seeing a penny farthing along side full suspension gravel bikes at Sea Otter nexy year? Jacobi shared his thoughts on the bike’s performance. “Not bad, but not good. Anything packed was good, but they freshly graded a lot of it and it was horrible. Solid rubber on loose gravel is not ideal.”
“I’m just the idiot on the penny farthing.” – Jeff Jacobi
The Road to Retro
So how did Jacobi end up doing the Barry-Roubaix on a penny farthing? Like many good / horrible ideas, it started with a friendly bet.
“One day a coworker asked another how much it would take to have him ride a BMX 36 miles at Barry,” Jacobi said. “My friend Austin was the guy, and he replied ‘A hundred dollars,’ thinking no one would ever come up with the hundred. Well, I chipped in $20, and we made that $100 fast. So he did it. Austin Russell did the 36 on a BMX bike in 2015. Damn near killed him he said.”
The next year, it was Jacobi’s turn. However, the endeavor morphed from a semi-bad idea among friends into something much bigger.
“The next year the joke was on me,” he said. “I was bet the same, and I said I’ll take your hundred and give it to charity. Another coworker Adam heard about this and set up a Go Fund Me and we raised $6,000.”
Jacobi did that … ride … on a scooter. In the promo video put together by Austin Russell, you can see Jacobi in action on the scooter.
Jacobi said even though he never imagined the garage sale scooter would go 22 miles, it was not as bad as you might expect, except for some mean calf cramps after his training scoots. “To avoid getting worn out, I would alternate legs, like five and five back and forth,” he said about the 22-miler. “I got pretty good at it. You want to rumble? I bring a mean scoot!”
A Penny Farthing or Two for Your Thoughts
After tackling the Barry-Roubaix course on his pink scooter, with a little prodding, Jacobi decided to raise the front wheel of his game After all, there were more miles and different bikes to ride. His friend Rick Plite offered the penny farthing as a challenge and Jacobi accepted.
Last time I checked, we have not done a bike profile on a penny farthing, so it’s unclear what kind of market exists for the 19th century throwbacks. To be fair, we did see Florida Man do a cyclocross race on one last fall, so maybe there is a growing market for the big-wheeled frame.
When Jacobi received the challenge, he had to look no further than his own garage for his ride. “I was working at a bike shop years ago and a guy called asking if we buy antique bikes,” Jacobi said. “I said the shop doesn’t, but I do. What do you have? He said a bone shaker, do you know what it is?”
Jacobi continued, “I said, ‘Hell yeah’ and went over after work. He rode it up the street to show me it worked and said, ‘One-hundred fifty dollars and it’s yours.’ I said, ‘How about $100?’ We settled on $125. Sucker! Now it’s worth $11,000 to me.”
The money raised by his 2016 effort made Jacobi’s Barry-Roubaix experience about more than just him tackling a personal challenge. In 2018, he found a charity and cause that is very personal for him and set out to raise a bigger sum.
“I was at Founders Brewery having a beer with a friend who is battling brain cancer after a group ride. I knew he had been through a lot,” Jacobi said. “I was about to do an event and wanted to help a local organization, so I asked him for ideas.”
“He said Gilda’s Club,” Jacobi continued. “He had nothing but good things to say about them. Gilda’s is a place that patients and survivors can go for emotional healing and groups that help with the struggles of cancer.”
Jacobi recently lost his father to cancer, so doing the ride for Gilda’s Club made perfect sense for him. “My dad recently passed from cancer, and I feel it would have been a great place for him to have gone and learn and share what he was going through,” Jacobi said. “They also do grief counseling which I should have gone to, but we all deal with it in different ways. Mine was to do something that not everyone would have done. Ride a crazy bike to raise money for charity.”
Jacobi’s dad was there when he tackled the Barry-Roubaix on the scooter, and it’s a good bet he helped him during his 36 miles on the penny farthing in 2018. “He was there when I rode the scooter, I’ll never forget that. This was in honor of him, Curt Jacobi.”
“This was in honor of him, Curt Jacobi.” – Jeff Jacobi
After raising $6,000 in 2016 on kind of a whim, Jacoby went into the 2018 penny farthing experience a bit more organized. His friend Austin Russell put together the hype video above, and Jacobi set about raising money to support Gilda’s Club.
Thus far, Jacobi has raised $10,200.
He said some early reconnaissance let him know he was onto something with the penny farthing idea. “Before I opened my big mouth about his whole thing I asked a few people how crazy they thought it was and they said very,” he said. “And they even were a bit worried for my safety. So I knew we had something.”
Still, $10,000 is a lot of money for just one 36-mile ride. Jacobi gave most of the credit to the Michigan cycling community. “To think about the response is still unbelievable. I can’t thank my support system of riders and friends enough. They are the heroes. They stepped up to give their hard-earned cash to a local charity. I’m just the idiot on the penny farthing.”
The Big Wheel Grind
With an impressive amount of money raised for charity and the memory of his father along for the ride, Jacobi’s task turned to completing the 36-mile gravel ride on the penny farthing. The Barry-Roubaix course isn’t the climbiest out there, but as he said, freshly laid gravel is tough on any bike, much less one with a giant front wheel.
As he did with the scooter roubaix, Jacobi took the penny farthing out for some practice. Despite having it in his garage, his longest ride on the platform prior to 2018 was not very long. “Up ’til this my longest ride was seven miles on pavement and that sucked,” he said.
I could not find a Rocky-esque montage on the internet, but Jacobi said he definitely trained for the ride. “I knew this was going to take a lot, so I did train. I rode the 22-mile course three times to get my feel for it.”
With gravel tires really taking off, gravel grinders now have treads and sizes galore available. TIre companies such as Continental’s parent company date back to the 19th century, but it is highly unlikely there were big wheel gravel tires available at that time. So what did Jacobi run? “Bone stock, pun intended,” he said.
Jacobi said the hard rubber tires were best suited to the hard-packed sections, while the loose fresh gravel was much more challenging. Despite the challenge, he made it the full 36 miles. “It’s like walking backwards on an escalator. You have to put so much into it but get so little out. I wouldn’t suggest it.”
I asked him if he thinks penny farthing gravel grinding is going to catch on. He said based on his experience, it’s doubtful, even if penny farthings are arguably the original gravel bikes. “Only if you like walking and running up hills,” he said about the bike’s broader appeal. “But think about it, 130 years ago what did we have? Pavement? No. Gravel. So truly this is the first gravel bike. Sorry, I’m a huge bike nerd.”
Jacobi now has 58 miles of Barry Roubaix under wheels big and tiny and has raised over $16,000 for charity, and it all started with some friends making a goofy bet. Perhaps the next challenge facing Jacobi is one-upping what he has already accomplished.
So will there be a bigger and … more crazy … in 2019? “Officially retired,” he said. “The people stepped up big time and I’m forever grateful.”
“How do you top a penny farthing? Unless someone wants to challenge me to a race. You best bring it. But otherwise I’m done.”
“How do you top a penny farthing?” – Jeff Jacobi
Jacobi said he would like to thank Adam Lorenz, Austin Russell and Rick Plite for their contributions to his efforts.