Jonathan and his Tomo x On-One x Kona Tall Bike

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In this Rider and Rig, we chat with UK framebuilder Jonathan Thompson about his Tomo x On-One x Kona Tall Bike. We find out about the tall bike scene, bikepacking on a tall bike, and dive into an alternative world where bicycle design collides with unhindered imagination…

Perhaps you’ve seen a tall bike before, its rider aloft, soaring through the air like a wingless bird, high above the surrounding traffic. Or maybe you’ve watched the seminal, soul-stirring film Tall Bikes Will Save The World and been inspired by the unbridled imagination—and the grand, life-changing vision—of those who fabricate them.

Whether you consider tall bikes to be inherently ridiculous or wonderfully whimsical, there’s no denying there’s something intriguing about them. Be it the ‘land of the giants’ sensation to standing beside a tall bike, or the childlike delight at successfully figuring out how to get on one. Be it the unexpected views from up high (peer into the neighbour’s garden or gaze over the hedgerows!) or the final dismount (which, once mastered, feels as graceful as a gymnast finishing a routine, to the point that I always half expect to hear a round of applause). In any case, I admit to being surprisingly besotted.

After a chance encounter in the bike park outside Bristol’s Bespoked UK last year, and during a follow-up local overnighter, I asked bikepacker and framebuilder Jonathan Thompson to share some thoughts on the sheer joy of tall bike DIY and the fascinating interplay between movement, creativity, and interactivity.

Tall bikes… so, what’s the story? What made you want to build one?

Intrigue, I guess! I’ve built various types of bikes over the years, so partly fancied the challenge of making something different. I wanted to find out what they were like to ride and I liked 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 the world. Riding them is also a blast!

A lot of the cycling world is fairly conservative, but 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 okay, are safe, and to try to make them look decent.

Each tall bike appears to be almost completely unique, be it conjoining two bikes or adding new tubes to a donor bike. Can you talk us through the process of choosing bikes 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 donors. 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 from other bikes to create what I think looks and works right.

I like making tall bikes that are completely usable, so there are a few challenges beyond those for a normal bike. Getting a drivetrain to work needs a bit of thought depending on the design. As does creating something with enough stiffness, a wheelbase that works, and the right balance to make it ride okay. And building it to a certain height that keeps it easy to transport in a car or public transport. It’s nice to include individual touches to personalise them. It might be a favourite old frame as the donor, bottle openers, custom racks… hopefully something that will mean something to the owner and raise a smile.

Speaking of mods, I see your bike has a few changes since we first met. Part of the Tall Bike R&D process?

I found some potential improvements I could make as I rode my On-One, so I made a few changes. I’d ridden it off road but as I tried more adventurous trails, the long, unsupported fork seemed a bit vulnerable, so I added a link to reduce the flex (and hopefully add longevity to it). With more of a nod towards bikepacking, I also fancied adding some extra luggage capacity, so I added a couple of extra hoops for strapping on bags, plus another bottle mount. If you’re adding tubes, you could use pretty much any sort of steel, but I tend to make mine out of 4130 cromoly as it’s strong and relatively light. I tend not to use butted tubing as it’s more expensive and I don’t have to worry about where the butts end. I think there’s ‘a thing’ about the ethos of a tall bike, too. Some would say they should be self built and completely created from old bikes and materials. I think that’s cool and have seen many stick welded or even bolted together. But if I’m carrying a load of gear over hundreds of miles, I also like mine to ride nicely, so a bit of weight saving and extra strength never goes a miss.

And, er, how do you get on it?!

It’s easier than you’d think, but does require a little technique. Think back to black and white films in the 50s, when people got on their bikes by scooting along with the left foot on the left pedal, then throwing the right leg over the saddle. It’s just like that, apart from your left foot needs to be up by your waist! This makes the scooting a little more difficult but because the balance of a tall bike is so good, you don’t need to be going that fast. Normally, two scoots are enough and you’re away. It’s best not to be pointing uphill when you first try it, though!

There are various methods on the taller versions, from adding steps to the frame—like on a penny farthing—or having to literally climb the frame itself, not to mention ‘off-bike help’ like step ladders, walls, lamp posts, street signs, etc!

Would you consider commuting on it, or is it purely for pleasure cruises? And what’s the longest ride you’ve done on your tall bike? How about bikepacking?

My commute is into the centre of London, so I would think twice. I’m 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, so 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 the bike is pretty straightforward. But you do have to concentrate on where and when to do both. They do make great tourers, though. The view is great (especially over British hedgerows!), they have loads of space, and you generally don’t have to get off the bike 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. That was 140 miles with quite a lot of off road in just over a day.

Off-road tall bike riding brings a few additional hazards. The Sustrans type trails—converted railways—are fine. You have to watch out for branches overheard, the height of bridges along the canal (!), and things are easier in the dry. More adventurous trails can get pretty interesting. Anywhere you normally have a dab: wet roots, muddy cambers, and loose rocks need a dose of caution and can make it a bit harder to get going again. Depending on the design, a tall bike also has a maximum gradient it can climb. For instance, sticking one frame on top of another puts the weight a long way back over the rear axle. Short, sharp climbs over canal bridges can require an extra level of commitment!

Is there a tall bike scene? Any tall bike films and sites you know of?

I think it’s thinly spread across many 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 in California for the North American Handmade Bike Show in 2019. We were talking about organising a UK meetup later in the year as an excuse for a bit of fun. A guy contacted me recently about taking on the Tall Bike Tour of Britain as a 15th anniversary of the original ride (see Rabbit Hole below), so I’ll hopefully be able to help him out and perhaps do some of the ride with him, too.

Do you build other bikes too? Any 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, cargo bikes, Ritchey Breakaway frame, and e-scooter, so hopefully pretty much anything. I built a bikepacking specific 27.5″ mountain bike recently for a friend which turned out pretty well, so we could ride together across southern England. I’d like to develop it more, as it’s the main type of riding I like doing. Next on the list are a 36er, an e-bike, and maybe an artisan fixie. And then there’s another tall bike frame hopefully, too.

Given the variety of bikes, it’s been handy to be able to build wheels and I’d like to develop that more with my son, as he’s now started building his own too. As part of the crossover of bikepacking and frame building, I’m also getting into making custom bike bags. The first tests have gone well so far. It looks like it might lead to another project next year related to tall bikes.

I’ve had a few contacts from people wanting to get started framebuilding. There are some great courses out there, but they’re not cheap. I’ve done a bit of initial introduction to get people started and see if it’s for them before they go it alone or commit to a longer course.

When my son was doing GCSE sport, we started doing track riding at Lee Valley Velodrome and training rides with some of his mates. It would be good to continue these if they can get up on a Saturday! I’ve also done my fair share of XC racing but have a passion for touring and bikepacking. There are so many places I’d like to ride, hopefully a fair few on tall bikes. We were planning to get a UK Tall Bike weekend tour going but the COVID situation may have put that off this year. Something for 2021, hopefully.

Down the Tall Bike Rabbit Hole

To follow along with Jonathan’s cycling journey, tall bikes, family riding, crits, and more, visit his website or follow him on Instagram at @tomobikes.

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