Tallbikepacking on my On One Inbred (after chopping it in pieces)
Can there be a more poetic swansong for your favourite old mountain bike – the one you could never bring yourself to part with – than transforming it into something completely wondrous and magical? Cass remembers touring on his On One Inbred of yesteryear, and after painfully witnessing its dismemberment, rejoices in its imaginative reanimation…
Back in 2006, I bought an On One Inbred, which was very much a cult bike in the UK. It was the brand new 29er version that I’d ridden in a photoshoot for a mountain bike magazine. Within a few hours, I was completely obsessed with its big wheels. Finally, a barebones bike that made riding my local woodland trails fun to tear around without suspension! At last, a bike that felt in proportion to me! And better yet, it cost £399 complete!
I rode it all around the Lake District’s rugged bridleways and I delighted in island hopping with it in the Hebrides. Back then, my summers were spent guiding bike tours in Northern India with my partner at the time. We’d tack on our own adventure at the end of the season with our modest profits, making the most of the long journey east. I knew full well that quality spares were hard enough to find in the region, without introducing weird rim and tyre sizes into the mix. And yet… whilst riding a bike without 26in wheels went completely against the time’s conventional, and imminently sensible, bike touring wisdom, I just couldn’t imagine a whole season without riding it. So that year, I decided to take it away with me anyway.
As our summer guiding trips came to an end, we set our sights on a ride through China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces before the onset of winter, with the intention of finishing our tour in Thailand. Paranoid about worst-case scenarios, I decided that if I was too stubborn not to ride this bike in Asia, I’d also have to pull an Xtrawheel trailer with a 29er wheel, because at least I’d be carrying a spare rim and tyre with me too. This also suited the way I enjoyed touring at the time, preferring a setup that allowed me to unload my camping gear quickly and have fun on trails with local riders. I love how a passion for mountain biking has a knack for transcending cultural and linguistic divides. Visiting bike shops along the way to meet people, and incorporating day rides with them into our travels, made them feel so much more enriching.
Thankfully, this early 29er experiment turned out just as I’d hoped because 1/ I connected with riders around the region and shared memorable trails with them on my trusty, fully rigid Inbred and 2/ my rear rim did implode after crossing the border on Laotian singletrack, allowing me to put into practice my backup plan. After carrying, pushing, and dragging the bike to the nearest town – a somewhat inconvenient 40km away – I rebuilt my Rohloff hub using the rim from the ‘spare’ wheel that I was pulling, sourced a replacement for the trailer in a local market, and continued on my way once more.
All of which is to say that I grew attached to this bike. I later brazed on rack mounts myself. I covered it in travel stickers. I set it up with my Rohloff internally geared hub, that had travelled with me from bike to bike. And when the time came to move again to another frame, I never quite managed to let it go. Instead, I recycled its best parts and stripped it down to a singlespeed, even if it was destined to hang in my workshop gathering dust more than it was ridden.
Until I met Jonathan!
Jonathan Thompson stood head and shoulders above everyone else in the bike park outside Bristol’s Bespoked UK Handmade Bike Show. Not because he’s tall as such, but rather, because he was aboard a tall bike. And not just any tall bike, because his was built around an On One Inbred that, I excitedly noted, was a very similar vintage to mine. I’ve long been curious about tall bikes but I’d only ever gawked at them from afar. Jonathan’s Tomo x On One x Kona Tall Bike immediately set my mind whirling and had me giddy with delight.
Perhaps you’ve seen one of these Brobdingnagian wonders before, its rider soaring through the air like a wingless bird, leaving you wondering how it can even stay aloft. Or maybe you’ve watched the seminal, soul-stirring film, Tall Bikes Will Save the World. It recounts the exploits of the six-strong Zenga Brothers, an eccentric family from small-town Canada, and their quest to expand their world and touch their community through bicycles and art. If you haven’t, I urge you to load it up on Vimeo straight away, because whatever style of riding you subscribe to, it’s a startling vision of our collective passion for all things two-wheeled, and even of humanity as a whole.
Of course, I struck up a conversation with Jonathan and before long I was test riding his bike, an experience that was both nerve-racking and made by day. Before we knew it, I’d arranged to spend a weekend at his house, with the intention of chopping up my own old Inbred, frankenbiking it into something similarly wondrous, so we could tallbikepack together later in the summer.
After all, Jonathan is the quintessential ‘Englishman With a Shed’, albeit it with a bike-centric, specialist skillset. Come the weekend, he’s to be found building track bikes for his son, exquisite custom frames for customers, and yes, reimagining old donor bikes he’s long been accumulating. Homemade longtail? Yep, he’s done that with a Kona HumuHumu, because “old Kona’s never die, they just get recycled”. Ragley Blue Pig Midtail? Just take a look at this. How about a Brompton with 20in wheels and disc brakes? Sure, why not!
Over breakfast, we sifted through Instagram feeds until I was ready to visualize the tall bike of my imagination: I wanted it to be instantly recognisable as an On One hardtail, to see its history and its DNA, but it needed to fit on the train home, too. Then, it was time for the napkin sketch. Not literally on a napkin as such, but it was on a small pad of paper, in pencil, with neither a computer nor CAD program in sight.
Heading out to his shed, we removed my last mud-encrusted components from the bike and sorted through his stack of assorted tubing, which Jonathan pondered like a chef deliberating a recipe. Then we laid out our collection of metal pipes on the ground, old and new, in the rough shape of a tall bike, like we were chalking out a possible crime scene. We measured. And re-measured. Being so much larger than anything that could fit in a conventional jig, it was more eyeballing than a precise science. But still, wherever they come from and whatever lies in their future, Jon likes to make bikes that are structurally sound and satisfying to ride, rather than single outing curiosities.
Out came the angle grinder. I’ve seen a number of bikes being built and I’ve always marveled over the process. But never have I seen one being chopped up, especially a bike that’s given me so much joy. Sparks flew and I was surprised the neighbours didn’t complain about the noise. Yet only when two forlorn seatstays clattered to the ground did the consequences of what we were doing fully sink in. Even as a neglected bare frame, my Inbred had held latent potential; after all, I’d always enjoyed stripping it down and reinventing it over the years.
This, however, was something completely different. My Inbred was now no more than a collection of severed pieces, upon which I was completely reliant on Jonathan to puzzle back to life for me to ride once more. But I was excited too, because this wasn’t just Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that we were creating, with bicycle body parts, braze, and electricity. It was also Tim Burton’s Scissorhands, with whimsy and magic and wonder.
The world of tall bikes is, as you might imagine, is an especially eclectic and resourceful one. Some are fashioned from frames welded together and bridged with salvaged parts, whilst others are inventions built with such scope that they completely defy comprehension – Stoopid Tall is almost 15 feet in stature and sports a chain that’s thirty-two feet long! As I’ve mentioned, we’d decided that my bike’s more modest height would be dictated by my requirements to fit it into a train. It was also because I didn’t want to go Full Nonsense, or Mad Professor Invention for invention’s sake. Rather, I preferred a tall bike that served a purpose in moving me around, albeit unconventionally. The ones I’d seen in the States were magnificent in scale and certainly glorious to admire in flight, but here in Little England, I wasn’t quite sure I’d actually ride one.
We regrouped with strong coffee and studied the creation thus far. Additional tubes were cut and metered, then tacked into place. There was no doubt about it, something completely new and rather remarkable was taking shape. The fork required sleeving with a 1in steerer, to make up the length of the new head tube. The back end also needed to be extended, so two straight gauge chromoly tubes were welded in to form the structure. Jonathan added cross bracing for support, which we decided would double up well for luggage. Yes, it was starting definitely resembling a bike once, even if it was the bike of my childhood doodles, rather than one I’d race through my woodland trails.
Suffice to say, Jonathan knew what he was doing because by the end of the weekend, reanimation was complete and my colossal frameset was now ready to reassemble. In preparation for this moment, I’d gathered together a cardboard box of old parts, because it felt appropriate to use pieces I already owned and to not source anything new – except for the tandem-length gear cable I realised I’d need, when I saw the distance from the shifter to the derailleur!
I had a train to catch home back to Bristol but there was time for a maiden ride at least. How would it handle? Would my heart be broken or would it soar? Before I could even find out, I had to remember the technique to get started. Hoist up jeans. Left pedal down and left foot up. Push the bike. Hop two or three times with the right foot. Glide. Swing the right leg over in a dramatic arc. And ride! Off we went, giggling like kids, bobbing above the road as we pedalled towards the local park, where we raced up and down, swooping in circles under trees, grabbing at leaves, and laughing at the ludicrousness of it all. Compared to my Inbred of yesteryear, it was certainly different. And yet, my lingering memories lent it a dreamy familiarity.
Later, Jonathan returned to Bristol and we spent the day spent exploring the city’s bikepaths, riding pump tracks, and peering nosily into my neighbours’ gardens. I live at the top of a steep hill and I quickly noted that climbs are easy to wheelie and descents are thrilling. Keeping your weight back is key! Later we met up again, heading out for a local overnighter on byways and bridleways, rolling out our bivy bags far below our spindly steeds.
As for negotiating the city, I’ve long admired fixed-wheel bike messengers and the way they intuit exquisite courses through traffic lights. Whilst I know I wasn’t nearly as elegant, I like to imagine that I floated gracefully above a busy world below. Jonathon, on the other hand, definitely had it dialed. I admired his ability to tallbike-trackstand, his knack for grabbing hold of street furniture to keep himself upright, and even ride trails, teetering over roots and dodging low hanging branches like a limbo dancer.
It’s not hard not to wax lyrical at the vision the Zenga brothers share in their film: tall bikes force us, quite literally, to look up from a world that we’ve lost to our phones and marvel at reality once more. They make us talk and point, question and connect. They’re both frivolous and transformational. It’s as if the process of rearranging a simple bicycle – an object familiar to everyone – into something that’s both rideable and wildly imaginative, somehow reawakens the child-like joy of cycling for the very first time.
Plans for a longer bikepacking trip have had to be curtailed during Covid-19, but I’m looking forward to what I know will be a life-affirming experience. Still, even if my new Inbred is gathering dust again right now, I’ve no regrets about creating it. Whilst it will never be my daily ride, it will always be the bike I pull out when I want to startle myself, or the world. Like a tandem, it reaffirms goodness.
And I have a feeling the Purbeck Bimble, viewed from high above the hedgerows, will be just the trip for our next meeting. I can already imagine how its spectacular coastal panoramas and the promise of cream teas, swimming holes, and cider, have all the makings for an idyllic slice of British Tall Bike(packing) heaven. What’s more, I bet the views are even better from up there.
Get in touch with Jonathan Thompson – aka Tomo Bikes – if you like the idea of reimagining your old steel mountain bike into something new, be it a longtail or a tall bike… And find out more about tall bikes and the inspiration behind them in Jonathan’s Rider and Rig post.
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