In the same way that a classic Chevy El Camino turns heads — with that familiar combination of amusement and interest — so does an unusual bicycle, one that doesn’t fit into our day-to-day lexicon of things that we pedal for sport or exercise. We may not own such a bike, but we’re always drawn to them when they cruise by.
To check out some really unique rides, look no further than New Belgium Brewing’s Tour de Fat, a traveling bike/music/beer festival that raises money for local bike non-profits. At every event are 30-50 “art bikes,” which are fully ridable creations that celebrate the fun of bicycles while bringing a one-of-a-kind experience to attendees.
“They’re a huge component of the Tour de Fat,” said John Yeast, non-profit relationship associate at New Belgium. “Riding them is a chance to be creative and have fun in a new way.”
The bikes run the gamut of wacky ways to propel a wheeled machine by pedaling. There’s a side-by-side tandem and tiny pixie bikes to warm up on, then riders graduate to the harder stuff: a bike with shoes for wheels, a bike that runs on gigantic car tires, swing bikes (where the bike pivots at the seat tube in addition to the handlebars), and the real challenge — a bike that straight-up steers backwards. Beyond that, for the very skilled and slightly more sober, are the five or six unicycle variations.
“When adults jump on the art bikes, it takes them back to that genesis of learning to ride a bike,” said Coleman Morris-Goodrick, one of the company’s three full-time fabricators for the tour. “We all have fond memories of that experience, and this brings back that same sense of freedom and fun. We want people to feel like a kid again.”
He creates many of the art bikes, in addition to making infrastructure for the tour. He’s most proud of the “Squirrelly,” a swing bike variation with the bottom bracket right behind the headset.
Yeast’s favorite is a very long chopper bike, featuring a 26” rear wheel paired with a 12” front wheel, and the handlebars are located behind the seat. “That one is so hard to ride! It’s really tough to turn.”
Morris-Goodrick uses as many parts from old bikes as he can, but will also do complete fabrication to create what he needs. “Not to toot my own horn, but the level of engineering and craftsmanship that goes into these is generally overlooked. Full-size people use these for hours while consuming alcohol, and they’re pretty hard on them.”
So what if something more practical is your style? Then a custom cargo bike might fit the bill. Jake Ryder, the proprietor of Fiets of Strength, began making custom bikes in 2006, but the cargo bikes really took off after he moved to Portland, Oregon in 2011. There, he had a pleasant bike commute but kept driving to work so he could bring his dog, Juniper. Eventually, he built a cargo bike to carry her along.
“It breaks down a lot of barriers to be out riding it. People talk to me, they stop me to take pictures of her on the bike,” he said. “Any unique bike is great to get peoples’ attention in a way that removes confrontation, to make them reevaluate what it means to commute by bike.”
After his own bike, he made two very unusual cargo bikes — both tall bikes (a double-decker bike) with articulating sidecars. One was for a photographer who wanted to ride to photo shoots with his gear, then use the bike as a lighting rig while he worked. The other was for a rider who led party rides and wanted to be seen above the crowd while hauling a sound system.
Those bikes got attention, and as Ryder began getting more requests for cargo bikes, he realized he could keep costs down for people by repurposing a steel-frame bicycle that they already owned. It turned out to be a great way to bring new life to a bike that already had meaning for the customer.
He works with each client to create the optimal cargo space for their needs, and he does all the woodworking for the cargo boxes himself, in addition to other details like seatbelts. “The legacy culture here really helped pave the way for people to ditch cars or work bikes into the equation. But I think it doesn’t have to be a Portland thing at all, any number of cities could be a good place to have a cargo bike,” he said. “People from all over the country have reached out to me for these, which has been really cool to see.”
Ryder is also known for his custom furniture, and that intersection of art and functionality appears to be his goal for his bike projects as well.
“There are a lot of awesome mass produced bikes out there, and I’ve never set out to compete with them, I just enjoy the work,” he said. “I love to make a unique and fun bike more accessible to people.”
While most cyclists aren’t fabricators, many have more than enough mechanical savvy to maintain that garage favorite — the Frankenbike. There’s a lot of fun in cobbling together something unique from the leftover parts of previous bikes, especially if the results are not only cool but also enjoyable to ride.
Kristin Butcher, a freelance writer for BIKE magazine who rides pretty much anything on two wheels, has a garage full of bikes. There’s definitely some turnover in them, and some of the older bikes get repurposed for new adventures. But the one that never gets sold or changed is the 20-inch BMX bike, outfitted with a banana seat, ancient suspension fork, ape-hanger bars, and a 62-tooth chainring.
“It’s a bike designed around levity,” she said. “It’s entire purpose is fun. It’s not going to get you anywhere fast, but it never fails to make you smile.”
The bike is known as Zed, as in, “Zed’s dead” from the movie “Pulp Fiction” — the last words of the story if the movie was shown in chronological order when Bruce Willis rides off on a chopper with his girlfriend.
Butcher acquired the bike around the year 2000 while living in Deerfield Beach, Florida, where it was the perfect bike to ride to the beach or to get ice cream. It was also the go-to choice for chopper rides organized by the Freakbike Militia.
“Those guys were a bunch of old mountain bikers who started families and didn’t have as much time to ride. So they hung out in their garages creating weird bikes because there was time for that.” The ride, located in West Palm Beach, grew rapidly until hundreds of riders were joining it. “There were so many different kinds of people, and families, too,” Butcher said. “It’s an environment where everyone has their own story, so it feels very inclusive. That’s the appeal of that kind of ride, since with every other kind of ride, you’re supposed to be very fast and very skilled to fit in. With this, the only competition is who is having the most fun.”
After moving to Boulder, Colo. years later, Butcher put Zed to use in parades, cruiser rides and on more ice cream runs. Now she’s learning how to wheelie it.
“I’ve ridden it over teeter-totters, I’ve ridden it on a dual slalom course, I rode it in the fat tire crit at the Fruita Fat Tire Festival, and I’ve had friends ride double up on the banana seat,” Butcher said. “It’s the bike I ride when nothing else makes sense, and that bike never makes sense.”
When the time comes to put fun and style above all else, cutting-edge performance bikes no longer seem like the right machine for the job. Maybe those El Camino owners are on to something.