Riding a tallbike does something fascinating to the people around you. Where you once met unfriendly glares or downcast eyes, you suddenly find a city full of laughter, smiles, and quickly snapped photographs. People cheer and clap, children stare and point, and the same question is on everyone’s lips: “How the hell did you get up there, and how are you going to get down?”
Building one yourself takes a good chunk of time–five or six hours at least–but is a lot less complicated than it might look. This is how I do it, but the beauty of the Frankenstein bike is that with enough scrap metal and time you can create just about anything as long as you remember one thing: gravity is not on our side.
You’ll need at least two old bike frames, all the parts you need to make a regular bicycle go round (i.e. working pedals, wheels, brakes, etc) plus extra chain, and a metal pole small enough to fit into your bottom frame’s fork (but must not be small enough to fit into the bottom of the top one). You’re also going to need bike mechanic tools (wrenches, screwdrivers, WD-40, etc), a bit of experience taking bikes apart and putting them back together, an angle grinder, and a welding machine.
Step One: Preparing the Frames
Pick two frames out of your pile of junk, and lay them on the ground one over the other, as you imagine them fitting together on your completed bike (see the picture to the left). Now look at the angle between the two frames’ forks. Can you create a straight line between them with your pole? If yes, then this combination should work.
Now get your frames naked. This means taking off all the little bits, from the lights to the wheels and the brakes. Leave the forks on both frames unless you want to change them out or clean them up. You can also save yourself some sweat by leaving the top bike’s handlebar and seat attached. I find it incredibly annoying to remove pedals, but you need to do this anyway. Otherwise you might up melting them during welding and then you’re just fucked.
Step Two: Fitting the Extension Pole, Welding
With your frames bare, you can now affix the bottom end of the extension pole snugly into the bottom frame’s fork (from above), where the rod from the handbar mount goes on a normal-sized bike. On the top frame, where the pedals once lived, is now a little empty metal tunnel. Place this part of the bike on top of the other frame’s “I formerly held a seat” part–these are the two peices you will be welding together later.
Measure roughly how long your fork extension pole needs to be (leaving an extra bit that will disappear into the top frame’s fork) and cut it to size with an angle grinder. Then, on the end of the pole that will be inserted into the top fork, cut two horizontal slits, several inches long. Hammer these now slightly moveable bits together until the top bit of the pole fits into the bottom of the top frame’s fork. Hammer it in as tightly as you can, violence is recommended and encouraged.
In the above picture someone checks to see if the frames will work together. In the picture below the builder has removed the top frame’s fork and threaded the pole through it in an attempt to build a triple decker. She ended up a double decker though, at the end of the weekend.
Now you can weld the two frames together at the top frame pedal tunnel (I prefer to invent my own bike terminology as I go…)/bottom frame seat post, and at the point where the extension pole enters the top fork. Do a sturdy job or prepare yourself for the two-meter fall you will endure when it falls apart.
Step Three: Details
Now that your two frames have become one, you can put all the parts back on that you took off–seat, handlebars, wheels, brakes, pedals. Extend the chain to stretch between the now-higher pedals and the back wheel. To avoid needing extra-long brake cables, I like to use back-pedal brakes. And using a smaller wheel in the front is sometimes a good idea as it helps bring the center of balance back toward the center as tallbikes have a tendency to tip backward. Once you get the hang of it though, having a tallbike with the center of balance in the back makes for a sweet dismount if you’re brave enough to try it. That is, pull the bike forward out from under you, landing with your feet on the ground where your bike just stood.
This is also a good time to use the angle grinder to cut off any extra bits of metal you don’t really need–for example the place where the top frame’s back wheel used to sit or the wings hanging around on the sides of the top frame’s fork. Weld on any extra supports you think you’ll need to distribute your weight more evenly over the frame, and you’re ready for the road.
Step Four: Test Drive
The hardest thing to get used to is getting on. Everybody’s got their own mounting and dismounting strategy. I like to put my left foot up on the left pedal, push the bike a bit, and then hop on once the bike gets a little momentum. To dismount I put my right leg through the top frame (I have a woman’s bike frame on the top for just this reason) and hop off to the side. And remember that riding a tallbike involves planning–are you going to make it through the light, steer over to a sign that you can hold onto, or lean on the shoulder of a friend on a regular bike.
And there you have it. If you have any questions, send away, and I’ll answer them if I can. If none of this made any sense at all or if you have another awesome tallbike building method, let me know that too. Good luck.
Instructabless has a large number of tall bike building descriptions, complete with step by step pictures. If you register with them, you’ll get an even longer list of possibile freak bike building manuals to check out.
Johny Pay Phone has a very interesting article about the history of tall bikes, with mind-blowing pictures and construction ideas, and a video from 1915. (Tandom tallbike, what?)
Atomic Zombie is a gold mine of photographs of finished really fucking tall bikes and Mad Max choppers.
And here The Rat Patrol, a Chicago freak bike group, has a gallery of their tall bike creations.
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