We chat to framebuilder Jonathan Thompson about his Tomo x On One x Kona Tall Bike. And, we find out about the tall bike scene, diving into an alternative world where bicycle design and unhindered imagination collide.
Perhaps you’ve seen a tall bike before… its rider aloft, almost soaring through the air. Or perhaps you’ve watched the seminal, soul-stirring film Tall Bikes Will Save The World. After a chance encounter in the bikepark outside Bristol’s Bespoked UK, we asked tall bike builder Jonathan Thompson to share some thoughts on what these remarkable, two-wheel contraptions mean to him, the interplay between creativity and interactivity, and the sheer joy of tall bike DIY…
Tall bikes… what’s the story?! What made you want to build one?
Intrigue I guess! I’ve built various types of bike so partly fancied the challenge of building something different, I wanted to find out what they were like to ride and I like the idea of something unique. I was a bit worried about the ‘look at me’ aspect they might bring. But to be honest, the reaction you get from most people is just happiness and conversation, so it’s a great way of meeting people and bringing a little piece of joy to world. Riding them is also a blast!
I like things that are individual and there’s pretty much no boundaries with tall bikes. Taking old bikes or starting from scratch and creating something new from your imagination is pretty cool.
A lot of the cycling world is fairly conservative. I like things that are individual and there’s pretty much no boundaries with tall bikes. Taking old bikes or starting from scratch and creating something new from your imagination is pretty cool. I think there’s a different balance of important factors to building ‘normal’ bikes. It’s nice to be able to use some framebulding skills to make sure they ride ok, are safe, and to try to make them look decent.
Each bike tall bike appears to be almost completely unique. Can you talk us briefly through the process of choosing donor bikes, to your design vision, to actually fabricating one? What kind of design challenges do you typically face?
Ignoring the ‘build it completely from scratch option’, you can really use pretty much anything as a donor which is where I started. Everything I build is steel, which is probably the easiest material to use. It’s no real surprise that the end result rides better when you use better components, so the last few have all had cromoly mountain bike frames as the donor(s). They’re strong, light, stiff and decent 26 inch stuff is cheap as chips these days. I tend to have a design in mind then bend, shape and add cromoly tubes or parts of other bikes to create what I think looks and works right.
It might be a favourite old frame as the donor, bottle openers, custom racks, but hopefully something that will mean something to the owner and raise a smile.
I like making tall bikes that are completely usable, so there are a few challenges above those for a normal bike. Getting a drive train to work needs a bit of thought depending on the design. Creating something with enough stiffness, a wheelbase that works, and the right balance should make it rides ok. It’s nice to include individual touches to personalise them: it might be a favourite old frame as the donor, bottle openers, custom racks, but hopefully something that will mean something to the owner and raise a smile.
Would you consider commuting on it, or is it purely for pleasure cruises? What’s the longest ride you’ve done on your tall bike?
My commute is into the centre of London so I would think twice. Not saying no, but I’d probably adjust the route a bit! The only real obvious problem is when coming to a standstill. The balance is surprisingly good, you can grab hold of street furniture if it’s in the right place, and visibility is great.
I’ve actually found car drivers give you more space than they do on a normal bike. If it’s not too tall, then starting and getting off is pretty straight forward, but you do have to concentrate on where and when to do both. They do make great tourers though. The view is great, they have loads of space, and you generally don’t have to get off as much.
The longest ride so far was last year we rode three of them down to Bespoked along the Sustrans Route 4, in aid of Mind, the mental health charity, and we had a great crack. That was 140 miles with quite a lot of offroad in just over a day.
Is there a tall bike scene? Any tall bike films and sites that you know of?
I think it’s thinly spread to most places but if the internet is to be believed, Florida and California have their fair share. I was a bit gutted that I couldn’t make a meet with the Norcal guys when I was recently in California for the North American Handmade Bike Show this year.
We were talking about organising a UK meet later in the year, as an excuse for a bit of fun, so hopefully that will be a chance to meet a few more like-minded folks.
Do you build other bikes too? Any other bicycle-related passions to share?
I do build ‘normal’ bespoke bikes too. I try not to stick to one type. I’ve done balance bikes, road, track, MTB, fatbike, cyclocross/gravel, recumbent, folder, minivelo, mixte, e-scooter so hopefully pretty much anything. Next on the list are a cargo bike, 36er, jump frame, Ritchey Breakaway frame and maybe another team crit bike. And then there’s another tall bike frame too.
My son is doing GCSE sport, so we started doing track riding at Lee Valley Velodrome and training rides with some of his mates, which would be good to continue if they can get up on a Saturday!
I’ve done my fair share of xc racing but have a passion for touring and bike packing. There are so many places I’d like to ride, hopefully a fair few on tall bikes.
Jonathan’s tips for tall bike inspiration
- A TEDx talk by a guy called Bobby Gadda – ‘How do you get off that thing’– that convinced me to build my first one.
- There’s a series of films under the banner ‘How tall bikes will save the World’, which are just great.
- YouTube has plenty to offer but checkout Stoopidtall (and taller) for those with a long inside leg.
- There’s the Tall Bike Tour of Britain too.