Cycling Stories

Tall Bikes Will Save the World

January 29, 2020


Tall Bikes Will Save the World

“Weld a frame on top of another, extend the chain, consider installing both front and rear brakes, and bam! Away you go! Just don’t lean too far back.”

Joshua Carr

The Floating City

In a poor neighborhood in Copenhagen, with a name foreigners struggle to pronounce, there was – perhaps still is – a warehouse.

Up a hand-stamped path, next to a closed-down recycling center, was a sliding barn door. Dragging it aside on its rusty, well-worn rollers revealed the base of operations for the Flydende By collective, its asbestos roof held high with steam-bent beams like the keel and ribs of a ship.

Floating City, as it’s known in English, got its start trying to make a seasteading community out of trash. I lived there on-and-off for around three years, seemingly always in winter.

Inside the cavernous warehouse – filled with scaffolding, materials, hand-built mosaics of rooms, and a sprawling community bike workshop – was a small common area where the community planned, ate, watched movies, and kept warm.

It had a wood fire, whose ridiculously long chimney didn’t draw properly and continually sputtered out. There was a gas stove for cooking, a whiteboard full of to-do lists, and action groups. Walls covered in colorful quotes and drawings. Scavenged insulation – stuffed into plastic bags and jammed between the exposed trusses – lined the ceiling. There was a semi-functioning toilet and a storeroom always filled with dumpster-dived treats.

A community of sometimes eight, sometimes thirty, lived there, and they eked out a slice of freedom on the periphery of society.

The Three Beans

One night, whilst enjoying the peace and quiet that only 3 AM brought to the community, I stumbled upon a video series featuring Canada-based Zenga Brothers. It was called “Tall Bikes Will Save the World.”

“The Ultimate Overland Vehicle,
A Machine of Precision and Balance. Speed, Maneuverability, Flight.It keeps you alert, and the more you use it, the stronger you become…
There are many popular, widely accessible forms of bicycle…
But there’s one type of bicycle that remains on the fringes:
The Tall Bike”

The Zenga Brothers

For the uninitiated, a tall bike is exactly what it sounds like: a type of bike that’s… well, tall. Weld a frame on top of another, extend the chain, consider installing both front andrear brakes, and bam! Away you go! Just don’t lean too far back.

At Floating City – alongside our trailer fashioned from a fiberglass boat, towed by a mobility scooter, and our boat, stage-suspended from the ceiling – was a small collection of tall bikes.

They were a novelty. A rusty heirloom to wheel out now and then used to remind oneself of what the rush of being a living, breathing, terrified human felt like.

The Zenga Brothers rode tall bikes, but not as I knew them. Theirs were sleek, exciting, beautiful. They were even designed so that they were physically incapable of tipping backward!

I was captured by the joy of exploration the Brothers displayed when speaking about tall bikes, and their potential. I was humbled to see them TIG weld frames from scratch, but most of all, I was inspired by their attitude and philosophy represented through “The Three Beans:”

1. Create Everywhere
Don’t be a spectator. Build with your hands. Make the world you want to see.

2. Redeem Everything
Don’t be a consumer. Work with what you have. Transform everyday life.

3. Be a Fool
Don’t be a follower. Express reckless optimism. Spread love and joy fearlessly.

The Zenga Brothers

I would like to say that I leaped out of my winter doldrums the very next day. That I fired up the rickety MIG welder in the corner of the warehouse, dug out a few frames from Copenhagen’s abundant piles of cycling detritus, tidied up the workshop, and found that damn chain break… but to be honest, I found the whole thing quite intimidating to do by myself.

There was so much going on in the project, and I didn’t think I could put time aside. Besides, motivation can leave your body as quickly as heat from your fingers in a frigid warehouse.

DIT (Do It Together)

It was a year later – in the dying days of summer, after taking a “break” from Copenhagen to build playgrounds in London – that I returned to Floating City to build my tall bike.

The cool thing about tall bikes, aside from their history as lamp-lighting and flood vehicles, is how one can’t be bought. To paraphrase the Zenga Brothers, “If you want to be a skater, you can buy that aesthetic. Tall bike culture is, as yet, undefined.”

You can’t buy into the nascent culture of eccentric bicycles, but what if you lack the skills, space, tools, and materials to do it yourself?

The Floating City was founded on the principle of DIT, Do It Together. We tried to nurture a culture of support and skill-sharing. Whilst I failed to make my tall bike in London, being back in Copenhagen, working with friends for the common purpose of self-expression and the breaking of norms, made getting to work that much easier.

I met up with Christoph and K-Dog, who had built their own tall bikes in my absence. The seat of towering black Mercedes hovered at around jaw height (I’m six foot one). Pickle Rick was gleaming green, its cargo bay an improvised wooden assembly.

I felt left out, but I also felt excited to get started!

We were going to make my tall bike in a few days, based on the Zenga design, and I was going to cycle through Sweden on it, with my banjo and backpack in its spacious cargo bay. With tall bikes like these, who needed panniers?

In short order, we designed and assembled the bike in five days, spray painted it hot pink, and thus, Flamingo was born (named after a kitschy song by Kero Kero Bonito we blasted during its construction.) It was an immediate necessity that we took to the streets as a tall bike gang to demonstrate to the world the future of transport.

Breaking Down Barriers

As far as major cities go, Copenhagen is quite beautiful – at least from the seat of a tall bike, cycling along shimmering watercourses. The bike lanes are spacious, and despite Danish people being reserved, they’re not afraid to react with wonder or interact with a particularly strange stranger. (This is more than can be said of the Swedes.)

“How do you get up there?” is usually the first question asked. Then, “How do you get down?” “What about traffic lights?” ranks a close third.

After explaining or demonstrating how to mount tall bikes, how getting down usually consists of a controlled jump, and how you can hold on to a lamppost (or a tall bike companion) when stuck at a red light, the last question is usually: “Why?”

At first, I was stumped. I would stumble through possible answers, grasping for the deeper meaning behind this ridiculous spectacle, before asking a question of my own: “Wanna try it out?” Experience is the best form of learning, after all.

But why? Well, why not? Tall bikes are fun, exciting, different… but those aren’t values everyone holds for themselves.

There is certainly the practical side of it – you can haul materials that any other bike style can’t accommodate (recently for me, it was 12 meters of square steel tubing). Still, there’s a more authentic layer to all of this: tall bikes makes people smile. They even make people smile when they see others smiling!

Tall bikes break down barriers to communication in public spaces.

Finding Authenticity & Joy In Everyday Life

Seeing someone cycling, weaving through traffic, passing business-dressed Copenhageners, all the whilst sitting two meters in the sky on a bright pink bike, also breaks the norm and drudgery of daily life.

Those of us in the cycling community idealize and enjoy the tours and the races, and that’s all well and good. These activities are means of self-exploration, of self-improvement.

But, I believe, they’re too often restricted to “the cycling community.” Too often, one must have a certain level of material wealth to fit in. It’s passively encouraged that one looks the part.

Meanwhile, I have found more joy in myself, and created more joy in others, by riding a rickety, self-made-weirdo-bike with a terrible gear ratio, than I ever have on a perfectly-balanced, top-of-the-line-bicycle; as exhilarating as the latter can be.

In a world where we are increasingly separated from one another, where too many people are stuck on their phones, in their heads, or within slow-burning anxiety of surviving whilst the world goes to hell, I would like to see and read about more strangeness. I would like to discover new ways to interact with one another, to break down walls between authenticity and us. I would like to see more tall bikes!

Of course, I’m not so unreasonable as to be ignorant of the wants and needs of others, and how they differ from mine. Campaigning for a world where everyone switches to a particularly unusual form of transport (that can exclude the less physically able) is not a hill I want to die on.

What I mean is that I hope to see more people – if it moves them, of course – take on the tall bike spirit.

There is some irony in suggesting this, due to the last Zenga bean’s stipulation, “Don’t be a follower.” But, what I’ve learned from tall biking is that it’s not about emulating others. It’s about creating a space for one to grow into, and that encourages others to do the same in their own way. A way that connects them to themselves and their communities.

You don’t have to ride a tall bike, but I would love to see you someday, out in the world, creating everywhere, redeeming everything, and being a fool.

Josh/Evelyn has lived in and around the cracks in society for the past five years, contributing to alternative spaces and culture. In 2019, they started studying design in Sweden with a focus on societal collapse, community building, and eco-anxiety. In their spare time, they make cool things out of wood, steel, and words.
  1. […] If you’d like to hear more about the construction and philosophy of tall bikes check out Josh/Evelyn’s post on Treadbikely. […]

  • Secret admirer

    Pretty sure one of these sexy raccoons stepped on the roof of my car for balance at a red light in inner cit recently! Keep on using y’all!

  • Ariel

    What a beautiful article. I really admire this kind of exploration of the self. It gives color to a seemingly black and white world (literally, hot pink bikes are not too common in Copenhagen) and when we see color again, it reminds each of us of how mainstream we’ve become.

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