The Tall Bike Project

Our friend Mitch got a welder for Christmas, and ever since then, we’ve been thinking about that welder. He doesn’t know how to weld but he’s got a book. Bryan doesn’t know how to weld but he’s been around his dad who can weld. I don’t know how to weld, which makes no sense because all the guys in my family can, but they never taught me, which I’ve always been slightly offended about.

We’ve all been thinking about tall bikes for awhile. And we have this lovely welder. Welding can’t be that hard, right? You just wear a funny hat, put pieces of metal near each other, and poke them with that stick thing. 

So I stop by Ron King’s Recycle Bikes for Kids (that’s three different links, check ’em all out!) one Saturday about lunchtime. I get some old steel-framed Chicago Schwinn Varsities from the mid-seventies. There are about a thousand of them around, and nobody wants them, and they’ll be easy to weld, I figure. All the parts will fit with all the other parts. It’ll be like legos, but with more rust and dirt.

And so we set to work to teach ourselves to weld, on the driveway outside Mitch’s garage. We’re no good. We can barely get the bead in the groove between our practice pieces. It’s completely terrible. We drink beer and eat fajitas and guacamole, and we improve only marginally in two hours. Those not welding, meanwhile, jump on the trampoline with assorted dogs, and dismantle bikes on the concrete. Bryan, having emerged as the Person Most Likely To Actually Attach Things To Each Other, begins trying to weld the bike pieces together and by midnight we have a tall bike.

We realize with disappointment that we can’t try riding it, though, because we have no brakes. The next day it pours down rain, but Bryan puts some brakes on the bike in the morning, and after lunch we meet behind the Rivermarket, in the pavilion, to teach ourselves to ride.

I take the tall bike to work the next day, for some reason that seemed clear at the time. Somehow in my enthusiasm, I talk my boss and several coworkers into riding. It’s not until the end of the day that I realize that the seat tube weld has come completely apart, and the bikes are only attached through the precarious steerer tube.

Back to the welding table we go to attach extra angle iron. Mitch and the kids come to our house the following Saturday. We fix Tall Bike v1.0 and brace the frames together. We also swap the 26″ front tire for a smaller one from a kids’ bike, which makes the bike look even sillier. But it’s easier to ride now, since the smaller tire moves the seat forward, so it feels less like riding on the perpetual edge of a wheelie.

We decide to try a different design with Tall Bike V2.0, flipping a girls’ frame over and using it on the bottom rather than the top. This means that we’ll use the bottom bracket from the bottom bike, rather than the top, so the bike should be easier to get on and off. Also, the chain tension will be easier to adjust since the dropouts will fall along the chain line of this bike. We weld it with bracing the first time and add brakes, and we put a small front wheel on this one too. By the end of the day we’ve got two tall bikes on the road in front of our house.

Nick’s taking the lead on Tall Bike v3.0, aka the Tall Small. He’s taken two kid bikes from their garage, dismantled them, and tacked them frames together. His sister’s spraybombed the whole thing orange. He spends part of the day working on the steerer tube, and by the end of the day it’s finished but without brakes, a seat, or a chain. Undaunted, Mandy rides it anyway.

Crash is enjoying this whole process. She’s being careful to dress in conflicting plaids, and she’s enjoying the hell out of the combination of tinkering, athleticism, and silliness that goes into tall bikes.

Two weeks from our first welding lesson, we’ve got three tall bikes ready to ride. We take them to Ron’s first, for smiles all around and a few rides for his morning volunteers. Then it’s on to the Clinton Library and over the bridge to David Fike’s, back again to the Rivermarket, and then out toward the Big Dam Bridge. We give out riding lessons all along the way – Cliff Li and his kids meet up with us for rides, and kids behind the River Market ride in big slow loops, grinning at their friends.

It’s our first fifteen miles on the tall bikes, but they won’t be our only fifteen miles. And they won’t be our only tall bikes, either. Mitch is already working on an idea for a tandem.