“Get high on bikes!”
It’s a phrase you might hear in Del Ray, shouted by Michael Gilbert as he zooms past you sitting in the front seat of his tandem tall bicycle.
His tandem tall bike is exactly what it sounds like: a very tall two-seated bicycle. It is quite the sight with two riders perched up about as high as an SUV, speeding down the road. Reactions from onlookers tend to be positive, along with surprised faces, frantic waves and lots of smiles. In fact, that’s why Michael rides the bike.
“I’m on it to have fun. To make days,” he says, as in making people’s day. The height of the bike even lends itself well to the unique opportunity of high-fiving down a line of hands poking out the windows of a school bus—something Michael has attempted to do (with some success).
As crazy as they look, tall bikes actually have practical origins. Before the days of electricity, tall bikes were constructed so workers could ride up and down the streets and easily light the gas lamps lining the road. Tall bikes managed to stick around through time, mostly as attractions at events like the circus.
Though still a bit of an anomaly, tall bikes have grown in popularity lately as bicycle clubs have popped up around the country. Groups like the Cutthroats out of Richmond and Black Label from Brooklyn compete in events such as Tall Bike Jousting—using PVC pipe as a lance and bikes for horses. In fact, there’s an app for that.
But usually, if the bike is tall it’s just a single-seater. A tall tandem is especially rare. Gilbert’s is one of only a few on the East Coast.
Like most tall bikes, his is handmade. He and a friend, Kendal Ghee, built it in Richmond to represent their bike club, the Saddle Sores, for an upcoming annual bike festival called “Slaughterama.”
Their initial goal was to build two tall tandems and weld them together—a mammoth four-seat bicycle! Linked side-by-side, the riders wouldn’t have to worry about tipping over. People told them it would never work. Turns out that one didn’t, but only because they couldn’t find the final fourth tandem bike frame. With the festival fast approaching, they decided just to go with it as is.
It made quite the impression at Slaughterama. And why wouldn’t it? Even for folks used to seeing tall bikes, this one stands out. The front seat comes up to my shoulders and I’m about 5-foot-10. The backseat is at a similar height. So how do you even get on this thing?
Well, the simple solution is to lean it against a wall or a pole and climb. But Michael and his friends have developed an even better technique they dub the “Double Runner.” Each rider runs along opposite sides of the bike and, as it gets going, the back rider hops on and then the front does the same.
Things like stop lights or slow traffic can be an issue. You either have to ride around in circles or, again, lean up against something solid.
So really, why would you go through all this trouble to ride a bike? As Michael said, “To make days,” but I didn’t really fully understand this until he let me hop on the back seat of the bike and experience it myself.
We rode down Mt. Vernon Avenue one evening and, after getting over the initial apprehension, I couldn’t help but have a huge smile on my face. You are just so high up. And just as you start to get comfortable enough to forget that, you get a shout and a wave from people way down on the ground and you’re beaming again. It was a surprisingly great feeling. And it helped that they installed a bike bell for the rear rider, which I rang with abandon.
After our ride Michael guided the bike to a fence, we leaned and then took turns climbing off. A few minutes later I was back on Mt. Vernon Avenue, this time riding my regular-height, one-seat bike. I was looking left and right, waiting for those smiles and waves but there were none.
I was just a guy on a bike making no one’s day.