California’s Vehicle Code prohibits tall bikes, stating you have to be able to put your foot down and stop safely. I agree with the ‘stop safely’ spirit of this law. We don’t want to be seeing people keeling over. But tall bikes are fun, can be designed to be safe, and are great for Bike Culture events and rides. Here’s how I designed a tall bike that keeps to the spirit of the law, and then successfully defended myself in court!
When I started making my tall bike, El Arbol, three years ago, I knew it was going to be bigger and heavier than the other ones I’d seen. So I began looking for ways to stabilize it at low speeds so I could stop without needing to put my hand on a nearby truck.
Kipchoge riding his Long Tall Sally in San Francisco traffic.
I saw the retractable stabilizers on the truck below on my way to work.
My early sketches show retractable wheels pivoting from fairly far back on the frame, and at a fairly steep angle. At this point I thought the system would rely on pneumatic pistons to ‘drop’ the extra wheels down on command, then raise them back up.
Later I realized the ‘roots’ needed to be much wider and pivot from closer to the center of the rig, to offer the most stabilization. So we experimented with various angles, and then welded in aluminum head tubes to house strong headset bearings that would allow the roots to swing smoothly.
I devised a cable system that would yank the roots out at low speeds, and then allow them to swing back to a nesting point at the rear swingarm. Below, Jay welds in a bracket for a pulley that allows a cable to pull the roots out when I stomp on the lever that’s welded 2/3 of the way up the head tube.
When you stomp on the pedal at the end of the root deployment lever, it hooks into a catch so that the roots stay out. See the detail shot below.
Here’s a video that shows how the roots swing out and retract:
OK, so now the root system worked. Next we used fiberglass to create a hollow tree trunk 14″ in diameter, root, and branch. I show the fiberglass process in depth on my build log for El Arbol, but here are the highlights. Basically, I shaped foam using a hot wire, razor swords, and cheese graters, then used fiberglass in exactly the same method as Papier Mache. Then I removed the foam and bonded the fiberglass pieces to the aluminum frame.
The fiberglass add lots of integrity to the overall system. It’s very easy to balance and ride El Arbol. The rear suspension and the 3″ tires help a lot.
Once the roots are deployed, the rig is over 6 feet wide and 8′ long. It’s extremely stable. Now that we’re using the tree at Rock The Bike events, it’s not uncommon for people to climb up and down to get up to the branch while two others are pedaling. The root system has no problem dealing with the awkward side loads involved in these maneuvers.
OK, so I built a bike tree with deployable roots and I started taking it out to events to have fun, make music, and get people smiling. I love that with art bikes like El Arbol and Jay Broemmel’s Dragon Bike, the art comes to you. You can be walking down the street, and suddenly you hear music, see some people riding by having a good time, and one of them is 6′ up on a tree branch. It’s a breath of fresh air. You continue on your way with a smile, and you didn’t have to decide “I’m going to see some art today.”
It’s a little different and very visible, so even though San Francisco is a pretty liberal city when it comes to enforcement of bicycle related offenses, I did get pulled over at Critical Mass when I drifted to the back of the group, where the motorcycle cops ride. I deployed the roots, climbed down and talked to the officer, pointing out the safety features, how I am able to keep both hands on the handlebars, how wide the roots are, etc. He thought that the rig was illegal due to its height, but couldn’t recall the tall bike statute by heart and wrote me up for no front headlight instead. I thought that was odd considering how bright the Down Low Glow was shining, but he had to pick something, i guess. I took care of the ticket and kept riding.
To do the story justice I have to add the following detail: Sometime after I got the first ticket but before the second, we had the Bicycle Music Festival. It was an awesome day, but one of the most challenging aspects, and a huge wakeup call for me, was the failure of the Roots of El Arbol. More than once. The first time was the worst. We fell hard. My friend and percussion player Mafi was sitting below me on the stoker seat. Obo Martin’s bass player Tom was facing backwards on the rear LiveOnBike seat. I hit the ground and did a kung fu roll, Mafi got banged up and ended up getting acupuncture, and Tom survived with only a cosmetic scratch on his bass. A bolt in the root system had snapped and one of the roots flopped away while we trying climb out of Golden Gate Park. 300 people were watching. My mom was watching! The crowd waited for me to fix the roots so I could get back up and continue the LiveOnBike ride to Showplace Triangle. It was an intense moment and it happened again on Church St., this time one of the plastic outrigger wheels wearing through a plastic bushings and falling off. Fortunately I was able to do an emergency jumping dismount to prevent injury. Also fortunately, we had an awesome LiveOnBike performance by Justin Ancheta to keep the ride positive and musical. We made it to Showplace Triangle and continued the Festival. Shortly after BMF I was back in Jay’s shop after hours, replacing the weak links of system, beefing it up. Stronger cables. Stronger stops. Stronger springs. An engineer friend on Flickr sent me a pair of pneumatic wheels with quality metal hardware. They soak up bumps and help the roots roll more smoothly and quietly.
Fortunately, we’ve had a perfect safety record ever since BMF. Only one person has ever really been hurt on El Arbol.
Back to the story. A month later, I was on my way to a Fix Fell protest in which we were shutting down the ARCO station at Fell and Divisidero. A lot of people were dismayed by the BP Oil Spill and wanted to do something about it, so we set up a blockade across the entrance to the ARCO station (a BP brand). This particular ARCO station has an unfortunate placement at the mouth of the main East-West bicycle route in San Francisco, the Wiggle. Cars have to cut across the bike lane to get into the gas station. If there’s a line at the gas station, cars will block the bike lane and bikes have to improvise, squeezing through the gaps like blood cells in a clogged artery. So I was riding El Arbol to this protest. I was rounding the corner at Dolores Park when the I saw the same officer talking to a couple other motorcycle cops on a break. He smiled and gave me a hand motion to come over, and I think he said “I have something to show you.” It was unclear whether I was getting pulled over, and I was running late for the protest, so I gave him a shrug and kept riding. I guess in retrospect it was pretty obvious what was going to happen next. He caught up to me on Church St. and pulled me over. This time he had researched the tall bike law and cited me for it. My arguments ranged from “C’mon man, I’m not hurting anyone” to nitpicky ”
I went through the process and scheduled a court date. When the day came I printed out photos, put the video on my laptop, and rode El Arbol to court.
I got to court on time, in fact court was running late. I wasn’t the only one in the hallway with pre-courtroom jitters.
We shuffled into the courtroom and I took a seat at the front. They handed out a stack of documents to a few of us. Mine included a police report from the officer that was pretty damning. I was called out into the hallway to talk to the DA. She gave me the choice to either schedule a trial for August or do it then and there, but waive a bunch of rights, including my right to cross examine the officer. I decided to go for it since I didn’t want to have the issue hanging over my head all spring as we’re t working on the Canopy whick will double its height.
So I’m back in the courtroom and the commissioner is moving through a couple dozen red light and stop sign violations, most people pleading guilty to get a reduced fine. Soon I look around and realize I am the last one in the courtroom. The commissioner says “Who’s this guy?”. The court officer figures it out and then the commissioner says “OK, Where’s the DA?” The DA walks in, we meet at the two podiums in front of the bench, and the commissioner starts reading through the documents including the police report.
There’s a silence, then he picks up his eyes and looks at me.
“Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Basically it has four wheels. It’s not a bicycle. Here are the pictures.
“Show them to the DA.”
I did. Yes passed them to the commissioner.
“But you were operating it as a bicycle when the officer stopped you.”
“OK. More importantly, I believe in the spirit of this law. I think we should be riding safe vehicles when we’re coming through the community. And thiis is a safe vehicle.”
“It doesn’t look very safe to me. How is it safe?”
“I keep both hands on the brakes at all times. The two wheels that swing out make it six and a half feet wide.
“How do you climb up it?”
“You make sure the roots are out and then you just climb up it.”
“No, I mean how do you do it?” he said.
“Well you step on the root beneath the branch, and then you step on the pedal and you swing over.”
I noticed that he kept flipping through the photos as he talked to me. There were only three shots. At one point he stopped questioning me, asked the DA if she had anything more to say, and said “It is novel. Dismissed.”
“May I ask what “It is novel” means?”
“It means I’ve never seen it before.”
So I walked out of the room with my DISMISSED slip, snapped a couple pictures up on El Arbol, and rode home.