Tall Bike Construction in the Andes
by Stephen Preer
The two obvious questions are, "why a tall bike?" and "why Peru?" Well, first of all, we were there already. My friend Brian and I had been biking and hiking around Peru for about three months, and I had a few days before I left for home. Brian and I already knew the joys of building and riding unconventional bicycles. In our time there, we had grown to appreciate Peruvian bicycle culture, and we wanted to give something back. And we were starting to get bored. It was either that or another hike to some more ruins. Not that there's anything wrong with ruins.
We sketched out our plan on a napkin in a Chinese restaurant (there are lots of Chinese restaurants in Peru), and resolved to start the next day.
Where to start? Well, my preferred method for finding things in third world countries is to get in a cab and say "take me to where they sell crappy used bicycles" or "cheap grain alcohol" or "llamas" or whatever. This usually works pretty well.
We tried it the following morning. Sure enough, the cab dropped us at a bike shop in the welding district. Their bikes were out of our price range, but some guys in one of the welding shops told us that there was a street market the next day where they sold used bikes. Now we knew where to get our raw materials, and where to take them for welding.
The next morning we bought hacksaw blades as a peace offering and headed to the market. Pickings were slimmer than we had hoped. Here in Boston you can build a respectable chopper with the parts you find on an average trash day. In Peru, even the trashiest bikes are still on the road, so it's hard to get your hands on anything cheap. After a while we were able to come up with the necessary raw materials: one frame and one complete bike.
Construction of a tallbike of the type we were planning involves creating an elongated steertube which passes trough both frames' headtubes. Only the upper bearing race of the top frame and the lower race of the bottom frame are used. Obviously, it really helps if both bikes have similar headtube angles. The good news was that our frame, a "Ninja Samurai," was in fine shape. The bad news was that in the flurry of our bargaining we had failed to notice some issues with the complete bike. At some point it had obviously crashed into something head on in a way that had necessitated the rewelding of the headtube, crooked. The rear dropouts had been similarly re-attached and were no longer the same height.
We didn't let this phase us. We headed over to the welding shop, where I tried to explain what we wanted to do. At first they looked at us as if we'd sprouted a third arm, but after the full explanation they seemed genuinely excited about the project. Fortunately, since we were touring, we already had a pretty full complement of bike tools with us. This plus a metal shop with a torch and an arc welder (and plenty of steel tubing) and we were ready to go.
By that afternoon, all of the welding was done. The arrangement we brokered was that we would do the prep work (with their tools) and they would do the welding. Neither of us is very skilled with an arc or a torch, so this was a much better idea than doing it ourselves. Two welds in the steertube, two to connect the headtubes, one to weld seattube to bottom bracket shell, and a couple for a gusset, and we were done. Unprovoked, the welding shop guys christened it by pouring beer on the headtube. We all got a little misty.
The next day we had to replace almost every part on the bottom bike. I'm not going to even try to enumerate the problems we had to deal with. Three trips to the bike stalls in the open-air market, a bit of wheel re-dishing, some filing of the asymmetrical dropouts, and we were ready for a test ride. We took a few laps around the central plaza, and then let a couple of local kids try it out. They did surprisingly well, despite short legs. After a couple of days tooling around town, we became the "crazy guys with the tall bike" even when we didn't have it with us. The party line was, we needed it to be tall so the dogs wouldn't be able to bite us.
Finally, I had to go home and Brian had to go to Bolivia, as his tourist visa was expiring. When we started the build, he'd wanted to ride it to La Paz, but it was clear that it would not make the grade. Apparently, after I left he traded the bike to a seventy year-old man for a poncho and a hat.
I like to imagine that the bike is out there being ridden right now. I saw Brian a couple of weeks ago, and he was wearing the hat.