BIRTH OF PROJECT :
We are at loose ends. We haven't spent time together for several years so decide to have an adventure ensemble.
After seeing the "Black Label" and "Scallywags" bike gangs pedalling high above the New York traffic, the idea of riding around Britain on tall bikes is born. We cast a line into the murky gloom of cyberspace to see how people think we should proceed.
The first bite comes as an email from a mysterious Bennito Chunkolini, 'Prince of Darkness', the head of the Rat Patrol bike gang's UK chapter. He sounds eager to get involved, so we arrange to pay him a visit at his Herefordshire HQ.
16th December 2005
We arrive in Ross on Wye to meet the master bike builder. He is nowhere to be seen when we pull up outside his garage, but the door is propped open so we can see binfulls of scrap bike parts and formidable-looking tools fililng the tiny workspace. "Welcome to the Rat Cave" says a voice from the darkness, and we turn to see the Prince himself, stepping from the shadows.
He has built all manner of exotic looking bicycles. The 'Ratweiler' was cobbled together with bits of a motorbike, while the 'Rat King' is ridden by Chunkolini's nine year old son, referred to affectionately as "Mr. Sellotape". The innocent-looking 'Knee Trembler's' frame is hinged down the middle, so that every time you pedal forward, the handles veer from side to side. Finally we are introduced to Godzilla, Chunkolini's tall bike. "I think you're looking for something along the lines of this!" he chuckles, leaping onto the saddle.
The Knee Trembler
My brother and myself realise we are in the company of a die-hard bicycle enthusiast who will give us much guidance and advice for our project. Wearing a mischievous smile, Chunkolini pulls an un-marked, green-capped bottle from beneath a bench and twists it open with a fizz. "Time for the Scrumpy initiation" he says.
17th December 2005
Sampling Godzilla. First attempts at getting on and off take some courage, though being so high is a great feeling - more like riding a giraffe than a normal bike.
Once back on solid ground, Chunkoini invites us into his pristine house to talk logistics. We tell him our schedule and ambitions as he explains what's required to build two tall bike frames. He sketches out a few designs and explains various ideas. "You'll be spending five months on top of them - bloody nutters!" he giggles, offering us black forest ham sandwiches. He sees me looking at a photo of he and his partner Jenny on a home-made tandem. Mr Sellotape is grinning from a little trailer at the back. "We were in Scotland for two weeks" he says "and it rained solidly. That photo is the last day when the sun came out. I hope you're ready for all that nonsense!..."
We leave that afternoon feeling excited that firm preparations have finally begun. The ball is rolling and with Chunkolini's advice and enthusiasm, Tall Bike Tour Britain 2006 is underway!
7th January 2006
We're back in Ross for a post-New Year 'Wassail', (an ancient ceremony banishing evil spirits from the cider orchards by flaming torchlight), and also to help build a prototype tall bike frame.
In Chunkolini's garage (the Rat Cave), we strip down and chop up two mountain bike frames before welding them together, which takes a lot of care and precision. After hours of work in the freezing cold, the prototype frame takes shape.
Sparks fly in the Rat Cave
Aligning the two original frames before welding
8th January 2006
Chunkolini and family bid us a kind farewell as we set off on the 200-mile ride from Ross to London (on our "normal" bikes).
The first day is a grim slog through unrelenting British drizzle and cold winter temperatures. After four punctures we arrive sodden and shivering in Bristol, long after nightfall. Despite the miserable weather and our sombre moods, we have managed to keep sibling bickery to a minimum. Good fare ultimately lessens our care thanks to some hospitable friends who receive us, dirt and all.
9th January 2006
Our meeting at the Sustrans head office goes well and begins what we hope will be a fruitful symbiotic relationship with the organisation. We leave Bristol following the trusty blue markers of the National Cycle Network along the canals of Avon and Wiltshire.
Again bestowed with good fortune in the hospitality department, our barge-owning, bee-keeping godfather welcomes us to his cosy canal-side cottage at very short notice. It has been our second day of hard pedalling, so we eat him out of house and home and clog his drains with mud.
The famous "100 locks" at Caen, Devizes
10th January 2006
We set off at first light, and can just see the outline of the 2000-year-old "Pewsey horse" etched into the Marlborough Downs. We pummel between thatched villages of Wiltshire and Berkshire, filling our tanks with no-nonsense fare at a roadside snackbar in Reading.
By nightfall, we've reached Slough, the industrial hinterland with the elegant backdrop of Windsor Castle's turrets and the Heathrow air-traffic rumbling overhead. Passing half-submerged shopping trolleys and fish-&-chip-papered factory backs, we leave the darkness of the Grand Union Canal for the bright lights and banghra of Southall. It's hard to believe the range of landscapes we've covered in a single day - and it's only a training ride!
12th January 2006
Despite Chunkolini's advice, our tall bikes are still without a maker. We pump out desperate letters to bike manufacturers across the country. Of the handful of responses we get, all are negative. Things are looking very gloomy indeed. One reply even suggests we try pushing a peanut from Land's End to John O'Groats with our noses... dark winter days grind by and high hopes start to crumble.
Will Tall Bike Tour Britain ever get off the ground?
20th January 2006
A sudden glimmer of hope appears in the form of an email : "Saw your post on Velovision. Are you mad?....great stuff! We run cycle a co-op in Leicester called Cyclemagic. We have a lot of experience in bike building and organising bike-related events, so let me know if you need any assistance". signed: Roger the Hilldodger.
We dial the number immediately and blubber our woes down the phone. Roger the Hilldodger is calm and keen. "I have been described as the Jeremy Clarkson of the British Cycling community", he reassures us(!?). "Don't worry - we'll look after you here". Suddenly TBTB is on the brink of resuscitation.
27th January 2006
Moments after stepping off the bus in Leicester, a figure appears, perched on a very tall tallbike. He hops nimbly down from the saddle: "Hi, I'm Simon - I gather you're looking for a pair of tall bikes ?!"
The Cyclemagic workshop is crammed full of bicycles, from kiddies trikes to rickshaws and tandems to pedal-powered boats. As an organisation, Cyclemagic runs a range of schemes such as school workshops and Penny Farthing rallies. It is the hub of the Leicester cycling community, and has a reputation for innovation throughout the world of pedal power. Tall Bike Tour Britain is in capable hands!
Simon and Roger have built dozens of interesting bikes, and are clearly qualified to put together what we need. We try out a selection of the Cyclemagic fleet, including their own pair of experimental tall bikes.
Roger the Hilldodger built this Penny Farthing. He recently rode the splendid machine 140 miles from Leicester to York, in period costume. Moments after the above photo is taken, Ed looses control and hurtles spectacularly over the handlebars, onto the tarmac. The episode is later recounted several times over pints of Black Oyster at the local real-ale house.
28th January 2006
The canal outside the workshop window has frozen over. We huddle around a wood stove to keep warm. Having discussed deals and deadlines, Simon says he can finish the bikes by the end of February. This will give us plenty of time to accustomise ourselves to them before we leave in April. Hands are shaken warmly and we board the bus back to London with a lovely sense that Roger and Simon genuinely share our enthusiasm for TBTB. At last the bikes have a builder. Cyclemagic saves the day!
3rd March 2006
We arrive in Leicester with the energetic young film-maker Ivo Gormley, who has started gathering footage for a documentary about Tall Bike Tour Britain. He follows us into the workshop with the camera rolling, to catch our reactions as we meet our 5-foot war horses for the first time. Wow! We are both bowled over by the pair of amazing machines before us. Simon has been very busy, completing both of them in under four weeks. What a genius! We christen the bikes with a champagne toast.
The bikes shall be named after long-distance migratory seabirds. Will has 'Manx Shearwater' (blue), and Ed, 'Storm Petrel' (grey).
With panniers attached - kindly donated by Carradice of Nelson - the bikes are ready for their 'wheeled migration'.
4th March 2006
After a morning of adjustments and fine-tuning we are ready for a test ride. We set off into the Leicestershire countryside with an entourage of Cyclemagic supporters. Our first taster of public reaction to the bikes comes the moment we leave the workshop, with gasps of amazement and countless cries of "How d'you get on?!" Despite the finger-numbing temperature, we take tea at four - outside !
5th March 2006
We leave Leicester to begin the 150-mile ride back to London. Without an entourage to accompany us, we must fend off traffic alone, and feel a little apprehensive. It's just us and the open road.
Swans and ravens tip-toe over the frozen canal, and Ed gets three punctures in an hour.
Leaving the Grand Union Canal, we follow an old railway line from Market Harborough. A barn owl appears. The bird flies silently alongside us for five minutes before we duck into a tunnel.
The tunnel is 400m long and we can barely see the pin prick of light at the other end. Ed runs into a pot hole and takes his first tumble.
As darkness falls, we arrive at the outskirts of Northampton and pitch our tent near the railway line. A dose of Doner Kebabs eases us into the peace and tranquility of our camping spot.
6th March 2006
As the Midlands blend into the South-East, we suppress our smiles amidst an increasing applause of car toots and pedestrian exclamations. Tendons ache and buttocks groan as we break in spanking new Brooks saddles. What exactly have we embarked on? Is TBTB a Herculean expedition? Is it a quirky experiment? Is it a prank? Tall bikes enable us to see over hedges, fit more luggage onto our frames and avoid puddles splashing into our shoes. However, they also have their disadvantages :
Aghh! Will almost gets pulled backwards off his bike when he runs into an overhanging bramble.
7th March 2006
After a very improvised night among dogs' doings on Harpenden Common, we continue towards Hertford and follow the Lea & Stort into London town. The drizzle is gruesome. Just past the M25, we come across a pair of cabbies, sheltering beneath a bridge:
John and Gary from Waltham Abbey are probably the first Londoners to set eyes on Shearwater and Storm Petrel. The next time the tall bikes leave the city, they'll be journeying a lot further than Leicester....
26th March 2006
The clocks have gone forward and April showers are tapping on the window. One week to go and so much left to do! Last-minute equipment lists, errands to London Fields Cycles, adjustments to the bikes, publicity rides ...
The five-o are as amazed by the tall bikes as everyone else.
Hand-painted decals: you don't see them much these days.
MAKE A DONATION TO RE~CYCLE