When I first started thinking about this tour; my thoughts immediately went to the tried&true options for bike touring (Surly LHT for example), and I was waiting for a deal to pounce on online for months. But living in a co-operative house which is part of the bicycle community here in L.A. opens your world up to bikes you’ve never seen or heard of before- Before long I was riding tall bikes, and I’m hooked-
It’s astounding to see people’s reactions when riding down the street. On a standard bicycle, you’re lucky if drivers ignore you and just go around you. Then you have the more aggressive types who honk, rev their engines, and shoot you the middle finger as they speed by. Yet somehow on a tall bike the surliest of soccer mom’s in their giant SUV’s take a minute to stop texting-while-driving to stare in awe of that newfangled contraption you’re riding and might even crack a smile. This chart from another tall bike touring blog is dead on-
Thanks to TallBikeBobby for this image from his blog. Hope this unauthorized use of your image is rectified by the gift of beer should we ever cross paths.
So, how you do build one of your own? Well, there are many schools of thought here, and I’ll turn to those who have inspired me-
1. Atomic Zombie– This website has an amazing array of tutorials which can help you not only build a tall bike, but build & understand many other types of human powered machinery. It’s a fantastic resource which I’ve consulted countless times to get a handle on what to do and how to do it.
2. Your local bicycle co-operative. Here in L.A., we’re lucky enough to have a few that I know of (The Bike Kitchen, Bici Libre, & Bikerowave). If you don’t have anything like this where you are, your local bike shop can probably help.
3. Your local freak-bike gang. Probably a bit harder to find, but if you have rides like Critical Mass in your area you’re bound to run into some folks during the ride on something homemade and way cooler than what you’re on. Buy them beer and proceed.
There are many schools of thought here, but I’ll just tell you my way. First, since my experience working on bicycles is limited to assembling low to mid range bikes in a Trek dealership, I’ve never actually built anything like this before- so I turned to my friend Adrian for help. He’s built quite a few, and had all the equipment (welding, cutting) that we needed to get going. After visiting his house, and seeing all the bikes in view above the 6ft fence, I knew I had found the right dude.
I first found a complete steel framed bike in my size (I’m 5’6″)- This was a trek 800 with a 17″ frame; just about right for my size. Pretty much looks like this-
Even though it was a ladies frame, it didn’t have a ladies’ specific frame (i.e. lowered top tube).
I completely disassembled the bike, leaving only the bare frame (bottom bracket removed also). Next, we bought some steel tubing in various diameters. First, we bought tubing typically used by electricians to house cabling; (aka EMT). You can purchase this at any Lowe’s/Home Depot. We got 2″ for the head tube& lower downtube(s), and 1.25″ for the fork extension. We also got some heavier grade 1″ for “sleeving” the for extension, and a few other sections. (I’ll explain later what this all means)
So now we’ve got all our tubing, and we started cutting. We first removed the stock head tube using an angle grinder and cutting wheel.
You can leave it on, and just extend it using the same diameter tubing; but I think if you’ve got the time, why not go for a cleaner look? Also, this makes fewer joined pieces; so there’s no chance of a failed weld while on the road.
Next we removed the rear triangle; (seat stay & chain stay).
Since the design I’m going for has what looks to be a custom rear end, I’ll have to ask around and figure out what will work- the hard part seems to be giving the chain stay enough clearance to let the chain pass through; a common problem for tall bikes.
Next we welded a fresh head tube, which would pretty much dictate how the rest of the bike would be sized- The final length is 28″; which we just eyeballed while the whole thing was on the ground to get a sense of how tall it would be overall.
Since this was my first welding project, and this was a VERY important weld to get right, I turned to Adrian- he’s damn good.
What height you end up with (I’m measuring the height as the top of the seat) depends on the size of your frame to begin with; and I wanted mine to be about as tall as me, 5’6″. I didn’t want too much of a jump to the pedals to mount it, and I also didn’t want the handlebars to be out of reach for me from the ground.
Next we extended the fork to match our new head tube length. After stripping the fork of it’s various seals (races); you should be left with a bare fork.
If you need, here’s a good tutorial of how to complete this process. Next part is the actual extension- Again, Atombie Zombie has a great set of pics to explain the process, here. Also, if you’re curious to know about the terminology I’m using; this is a pretty rad drawing to explain things-
Now to connect the removed rear triangle to the seat tube; we made a seat stay extension from some heavy grade 1″ tubing. (#1) You can also see where we widened the chainstay to allow for chain clearance (#2), and connected it to the headtube (#3). The width needs to be about the length of the skewer (rear of course), otherwise the chain will hit the chainstay.
For the next few steps, I’m afraid I’m lacking in photos! But- I have pic of the final product which can help point out a few more details-
There are a few additional bracing pieces which were added. The first was to house the front derailleur. (#1) The second was a stiffening piece (#2). After taking this iteration of the bike on a mini tour to Ojai (about 225 miles), I’ve decided the bike needs more bracing, and will put in some additional pieces (the lines in black).
Here’s a pic of the bike fully ladden with luggage on my Ojai tour-
Aside from a broken link that popped on a steep ascent, the bike performed beautifully. I’d actually expected minor chain issues, so the chain was a few links longer than necessary- I just removed the broken link and was on my way.
*One tip though, for all you starry-eyed gypsies who might be inspired to embark on a tall-bike tour of their own- practice dismounting on inclines. I know it sounds stupid, since you’ll start to tip over and potentially crash- but you can at least start by doing this without any luggage on the bike, so you can be prepared. When my chain did break (and trust me so will yours), I had an immediate loss of power, and started to roll backwards. Luckily I was able to throw my leg over and apply the back brake before disaster, but it could have been worse!