Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #120, published in April 2006. Words by James Flynn. Photography by Ian Merritt.
Let me tell you about the time I made my tallbike. Shortly after I moved to Chicago, my friend Mike showed up to my place to sit on the stoop. He rolled up on “8-Bit,” a jet-black tallbike with neon green grips and a bright blue seat.
A tallbike is, roughly speaking, a double-decker. You weld one frame on top of another, the wheels on the bottom frame—the pedals, seat and handlebars on the top frame. Connect the two with a chain and you’ve got something sweet to show off to the neighbors, who usually yell, “How did you get up there?”
The answer is, of course, “Practice!”
I had never seen anything like Mike’s bike. I went wild and told him that instead of just sitting around drinking beers, he should teach me to the ride the thing. Or, you know, we could do both.
So Mike gave me step-by-step instructions on how to ride the tallbike [see below]. It took me several tries to get it right, but once I did, I was hooked. I immediately asked Mike when, where and how I could make my own.
Saturday. Woke up at 8 a.m. and rode three blocks to The Dive, which used to be one of those fantastic neighborhood bars that seem to pepper every corner in certain parts of Chicago. Old-timers drinking Old Style, TV always on The Game, jukebox full of Seger and Springsteen and a rotating cast of regulars so regular that the bartenders know what everyone wants before they even order it.
Then the owner died and some young crusty punks moved in. In short time it turned into a flophouse for freakbikers. The bar became an entertaining/workshop area, and the kitchen served as a kitchen/garage with parts strewn about and at least 50 bikes—tallbikes, choppers, cargo bikes, pixies, fixies. Very few unmodified bikes, so I felt out of place with my purple Gary Fisher.
My aforementioned friend Mike met me there, and we hooked up with Al and his girlfriend Erika, one of The Dive’s residents. We waited for some unreliables for about a half hour, then tired of it. Rode south. Erika and I talked about her summer—she had spent a good portion of it hoboing about on trains. Her latest adventure took her to Louisiana. She spent countless hours cooped up in a boxcar, unable to sleep because of the constant noise and lack of room to spread out.
We took a detour to borrow a welding mask, then arrived at Bubbly Dynamics in the Bridgeport neighborhood, near the White Sox stadium. Like The Dive, Bubbly Dynamics serves as one of the main spaces of the Rat Patrol, Chicago’s most high-profile freakbike club. This all sounds well thought out and official when written on paper, but in reality, it’s rather catch-as-catch-can. In this case, Bubbly is owned by fellow freakbiker Jon Edel, who decided some years ago to buy an old factory and restore it using green building practices and eventually lease it out to artists and other workers needing space. When he bought the place, there were still bums and crackheads squatting there, as well as serious electrical problems and various other concerns. So Edel offered the Rat Patrol use of the basement for storage and equipment for “build-days” in exchange for occasional help hauling trash to dumpsters or fixing up the place.
Our gang of four showed up and went to the basement. As we descended the stairs, I saw on the left a small room with bike frames stacked about four feet high and at least twenty feet long. Across from that stack was a stack of wheels the same height, but much shorter. Throughout the rest of the adjacent, larger room were little piles and stacks of various other bike parts: pedals, seats and handlebars. There were various workspaces spread around, including a table with a grinder and another for the Sawzall.
The most interesting part, in my mind, was the numerous half-finished bikes tucked in nooks all over the room. One was Al’s work-in-progress, a rickshaw with the cart/chair in front, so that he would be pushing patrons instead of pulling. Another was Mike’s “starbike,” a modification of the tallbike with several frames stacked into a rough pentagram. There was also a chopper with a tiny pixie wheel attached to a twenty-foot fork—the full length of plumbing pipe. This one wasn’t so much a work-in-progress as much as it was a lost cause.
With some guidance from the others, I got started. The first and probably most important part was choosing the frames. I went over to the stack of frames and wrestled out two good ones. I used an old woman’s Jacques Anquetil mixte as the bottom frame and a shitty blue boy’s Huffy 10-speed for the top. There are several important points here, including making sure the bottom frame is heavier than the top, as well as making sure the tubes of the two frames line up, since you’ll be placing plumbing pipe in the head tube of the bottom frame to weld it to the top frame.
Took a break. In the meantime, several more folks came by: a lady helping Jon Edel, who brought chips and homemade cookies shaped like bikes and rats; a professional photographer, looking to do a stint with the Rat Patrol; and Johnny Payphone, the club’s most passionate and visible member. Johnny showed up, put some Beastie Boys on the stereo and started shooting the shit and helping others with their projects.
I got back to work. I’ve never welded before, so Johnny started me out attaching my plumber’s pipe from head tube to head tube. He did it awhile, then had me try. Johnny seemed okay with my lack of skill and wandered away to let me finish. I felt proud, like I was doing well, like I had hit a rite of passage. It wasn’t until after I saw all the bubbles on the welds that I realized Johnny leaving me to my own devices wasn’t a vote of confidence in my skills—instead, it was because someone had brought a case of beer and he was obviously thirsty.
No matter. Next step was to break out the chain tool and make an extra long chain to run from the chainring on the top frame to the back wheel of the bottom frame. This was a lot of trial and error, which turned out to be mostly error considering I’ve since had problems with the chain slipping off its teeth because of slack. Also, I probably should have put on a derailleur, but I was trying to be punk rock with my first freakbike, so I didn’t bother.
And then a front brake. This is a disputed element of tallbiking. It’s very similar to the messenger/fixie community and the debate between those who do and do not include a brake on their fixies. Many tallbikers, aware that they are being dangerous enough by biking some eight feet in the air, decide to up the ante by forgoing the brake. Instead, they either take a foot off one pedal and stomp on the back tire to slow down, or they simply try to always be in motion by timing lights and what-not, hopping off the bike when they want to stop. I’m not that hardcore, so I stripped some brakes off an old bike and attached them to mine.
Finishing touches: seat, handlebars (I tried beautiful gold BMX bars to no avail), flair. It was getting late and the cookies and beer were long gone, so we went out to the front of the old factory and test-rode our new creations. Erika had made an all-red tallbike. Another biker, Ben, had finished a chopper with a fork that could flip so that it became a weird, reverse, freakbike version of a penny-farthing.
Rode back seven miles north from Bridgeport to my neighborhood and had my first tallbike fall. It happened at Milwaukee, North and Damen—one of Chicago’s busiest intersections. I hesitated at a light, got flustered and the bike toppled. Snickers from pedestrians. I got up and winced as Mike asked what every freakbiker asks when there’s an accident: “Is the bike OK?”
I laughed, nodded and rode home. Like with anytime you start doing something new or getting into a new scene, since I made my tallbike, I’ve started seeing them everywhere: in ads for New Belgium’s Tour de Fat, in pictures of Amsterdam’s bike scene (where the World Tallbike Jousting Championship takes place) and the most egregious example—in a pretentious Coke commercial.
The commercial follows the travels of four “regular” teens who decide that they are going to thwart the media’s perception of adolescents. So they go on the road, have an “extreme” time, meet people and Come Of Age. Part of this is meeting some folks making tallbikes.
That’s fine. I won’t lie that I was initially angry that tallbikes were in a commercial, since it seems that every sort of counterculture gets exploited to make dollars and to show The Kids that product X is hip or extreme.
But I’ve softened somewhat in my stance against mass tallbiking, and here’s why: because if it takes tallbiking or freakbiking to make people realize that biking is Fun and Cool and Worth Your Time, and if that makes more people ride bikes, then the job is done.
Learning to Ride a Tallbike
Learning to ride a tallbike is a bit of a tricky thing and will require some trial and error.
- Start on the left side of the bike with your hands stabilized above you on the handlebars and your right foot planted on the lowest bar of the bottom frame. Give several pushes with your left foot until you are cruising along comfortably.
- At this point, lift up your left leg, straightening your body out. Here’s the trickiest part: Lean your body weight to the right a bit so that the bike is actually tilted slightly away from you as you scooter along with both feet off the ground.
- When you’ve gained your balance this way, place your left leg behind your right leg and place your left foot on the left pedal (it helps if you make sure the left pedal is in the 6 o’clock position when you start—that way you won’t be searching for your pedal with your foot).
- Then loop your right leg through the space between your left leg and the seat and swing it around the back of the seat and onto the right pedal. Sit down, start riding away and enjoy the view.
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