Fun Bikes

Every field of endevour has its eccentrics. Is it the mechanical simplicity of the humble bicycle and the ease with which it can be butchered which has resulting in cycling being blessed with more than its fair share of mad inventors? Whatever the reason, there is no shortage of wackyness in the cycling world. From micro-bikes to tall-bikes with a detour around the sofa-cycle.....

Pedal-power has always attracted inventive minds. When the major alternative to pedal power was still horse power, practical if odd looking vehicles were designed to perform many civic functions. In Germany a firemen's quadricycle could be rushed to a blaze to deploy its pedal-powered pump, In America a Police Patrol Tricycle was used to transport criminals, secured hand and foot, to the lock up. There was a pedal-powered fish and chip shop in the UK, and knife-grinding bicycles, once common in Europe, are still found in India. The low running and purchase costs of pedal-powered vehicles have kept classics like the ice cream tricycle competitive against motorised equivalents.

[Ricky Mac (left) pilots a Staller Studios Quintette. Stockton on Tees cycling event 2009]

Other specialised cycles have emphasised leisure and fun rather than utility – or the serious intent of their inventors was quickly subverted by entrepreneurs who spotted their entertainment potential. Arthur Hotchkiss, for example, devised a monorail at the end of the 19th Century for commuters to ride to an American factory. They powered themselves along a fence rail by means of a treadle mechanism driving a twenty-inch wheel. Such a comical contraption could be transformed into the perfect ride for amusement parks; which is where most monorails are now found.

The dream of bicycles on tracks persists: a Canadian firm has plans for a high tech system in which pedal-powered vehicles on rails would be boosted along tubes by air pumps. In complete contrast, enthusiastic mechanics around the world are designing their own bikes to ride along abandoned railways tracks; there are over 80,000 miles of abandoned rails in the United States alone. Dozens of patents have been granted for different designs.

Pedal-powered boats have been cruising lakes and rivers since the 1880s, driven by paddle wheels, or propellers. In the 1880s a Mr. Terry invented a tricycle which he rode to Dover, converted within minutes into a boat, and rowed over the Channel to France. Since then at least four waterbikes have crossed oceans. As part of their ‘Pedal for the Planet' expedition, Jason Lewis and Steve Smith from Britain crossed the Atlantic from Portugal to Miami in 111 days.

The Americans were particularly inventive, especially during the great cycling boom of the late 1890s. That fascination for experimentation in cycling has returned in the USA, but there is also a great sense of fun. For the last twenty years, for example, an annual event has been held in Northern California in which a number of fantastic, locally concocted machines have taken to streets, beaches, rivers and bay for a three-day 'Kinetic Sculpture' race.

Everyone loves to go beyond the everyday experience of cycling, to create a spectacle, a splash or to turn cycling into a group experience. As you will see, there are pedal-powered vehicles which go that little bit further. Tall bikes, micro bikes, micro tandems, eccentric wheeled bikes, choppers, cruisers, Not built for speed nor even for utility, they serve no useful purpose at all. They're built just to put a smile on someone's face. There can be no more worthy cause.

In recent years, particularly in North America but with hot-spots all over the world (especially Germany) we have witnessed an amazing growth in an underground grass-roots phenomenon. Drawing its influences from many aspects of popular culture what started as a few individuals knocking lumps out of metal in sheds has hit the mainstream with many bike companies now producing custom inspired models.  Indeed there are now whole companies based entirely on making or selling custom culture inspired bicycles.

Custom culture has always embraced the internal combustion engine. Custom bicycle builders draw on many of the same influences as their high-octane brethren, rust, chrome plating, metal-flake paint, drilled holes, the worlds of drag racing, rock 'n roll culture, fat tyres, skinny tyres, tiki kulture, tattoos, chopper motorbikes and anything else they fancy. The difference, and it's a fundamental one, is that these creations have no engines, only pedals.

Until recently in many countries the preserve of only children and those considered too poor to afford a car, bicycles have come of age. Bicycles are cool. As worthy as it is to ride your bicycle to work every day, great as it is to ride up and down trails on your mountain bike every weekend or beat your personal best on the track, wacky bikes let us into a secret.

Hey, you know what?!

It's ok to ride a bike just for fun!