Anna Brones UnderSolenMedia.com
Emily B. WingsEmily B. Wings riding her tall bike, Libertine, down Davis St. in Portland.
Tall Bikes Tower Over Portland
By Mykle Hansen
Dedicated bike-spotters will find plenty of unique, unusual bikes in Portland: antiques, imports, choppers, recumbents, tricycles, unicycles ... and with patience, sooner or later they will spot the most dramatic of Portland’s bicycle fauna: a towering tall bike, built from some combination of smaller bikes welded together at unnatural angles. Seated eight feet in the sky or higher, its rider gazes regally across traffic like a Rajah on an elephant. The sight of it might amuse, inspire or worry you, but a tall bike never passes unnoticed.
The lone tall biker, once a rarity, is now seen almost regularly: commuting, shopping, exercising or just enjoying the view. The City of Portland doesn’t perform an official tall bike census, but riders agree that where once there were a handful of tall bikes, now there are 50–100 or more. That may not seem like many, but consider that these bikes aren’t available in stores – most tall bikes are hand-built by their riders – and that riding one involves facing a slew of complications. How do you get on and off? Can you even stop? To some, it looks dangerous, complicated and tiring. What’s the attraction?
“My favorite part is the change of perspective,” said Topher Moore, a local craftsman who has built, or helped others build, at least 15 tall bikes. “It’s this great view of everything,” he said. “The tall bike is nice in the rain; it gets you up above the water on the ground. And it gives you a certain stature on the road. People go pretty far around you.”
Moore mounts and dismounts “The Resume,” his favorite orange tall bike, in a graceful two-step procedure that’s hard to describe, but fun to watch. It takes some effort, so he avoids complete stops whenever it’s safe to do so, and he’s proud of his tall bike track-stand skills.
Moore got his start building tall bikes in a warehouse that housed an artist’s commune and a fledgling bike library for visitors. “I was the person at the warehouse with welding and bike repair experience. A guy from Austin showed up to build a tall bike – two frames stacked on top of each other, with a smaller wheel in front to adjust the balance,” Moore described. “I rode that, and thought, ‘I really need one of these!’ I think that must be how tall bikes propagate.”
Emily B. Wings, vegan baker at Black Sheep, agreed. In 2007, she moved to Portland to find a better home for Libertine, her red, white and blue tall bike. “The first time I rode a tall bike I nearly fell off,” she said. “But still I wanted one super bad. My friend Warren, at Circle-A Cycles, built Libertine for me, days before I jumped ship for Portland.”
On her bike Libertine, Wings meets many other tall bikers, including her current boyfriend. She also helped found The Irondelles, Portland’s all-lady tall bike gang. Their club has grown beyond biking; they also craft together, eat and drink together and perform community service. “It’s one of many, many awesome things that have happened to me while living here because of tall biking,” she said.
Wings rides her tall bike for short errands and fun rides – she rode horses as a child and finds tall biking similarly exhilarating. She analyzes intersections for poles she can lean against, or trash cans she can stand on, and she’s learned to trigger crosswalk buttons with her foot. She doesn’t find regular biking any safer; careless and aggressive drivers are still her major worry. But on her tall bike she’s much more careful and deliberate in traffic, “It’s more like driving a bus,” she said.
Wings praises Portland’s Bureau of Transportation for “taking care of bikers,” and Portland’s drivers for giving tall bikers the extra room they need. But tall bikes are not for everyone. “It’s no-nonsense stuff,” she said. “You can get doubly injured falling from tall bikes, but it’s also double the fun.”
Special sidebar on Tall Bike History available here.
The Irondelles, irondelles.net
Dropout Bike Club, dropoutbikeclub.blogspot.com
Chunk 666’s Tall bike Construction Primer, chunk666lab.blogspot.com/2008/09/tall-bike-construction-primer.html
Johnny Payphone’s Tall bike History Page, johnnypayphone.net/tallbikes