Meet Silverback Ron

[We introduced SB Ron of Muskegon last week, so you already know that he has a screw loose. We’re very tolerant in the Jungle, however, so now we’ll show you that he is not just a one-trick automaton. Here is Ron, the builder of impractical bikes.]

Bike Building: A Crash Course

Silverback Ron Varga, Muskegon, MI

Back in the early Spring of 2019 I was performing the annual changing of the guard; putting away the snow blower and bringing out the lawnmower. I keep these machines in a small shed. Along with the mower there are garden hoses, pots, planters and a host of other items stacked haphazardly. Every Spring I empty the contents of the shed and repack it with the snow shovels, snow blower and other wintry items towards the back hoping that Winter has left the building not to return for at least 7 months, if we’re lucky.

Amongst all the treasures I keep in the shed were 2 old Huffy 10 speed bikes that my wife and I have had for 30 plus years. I’m not sure why I kept those bikes around. We have both bought newer bikes to replace them although the newer bikes get as much action as the old Huffy’s. I have that common disease where I see value in everything and hate to throw anything away. Unfortunately I don’t get the chance to put the value I see in many of my collectibles to the use they deserve. Not so with these blue beauties.

A few years prior I was at a local art event. Part of the event was an art bike parade. People could deck out their bicycles in whatever fashion they wanted and pedal their rolling art down Main Street. One of the bikes that showed up at the parade was a tall bike. A tall bike for the uninformed is bike that has been made up from 2 or more bikes and places the rider 4 or more feet off the ground. When I saw the tall bike I thought to myself, “I need to make one of those and I have just the 2 bikes to do it.” 2019 was the year of the bike build(s).

Building a tall bike is pretty straight forward. My job was made even easier because the Huffy’s were identical except for the normal difference between a woman’s and man’s bikes. The rake of the fron t forks are the same and the wheel spacing are the same. You just place the woman’s bike on top of the men’s bike, cut off the pieces you don’t need and weld it back together. Easy peasy. Ok, it is a bit more involved than that, especially when you don’t know how to weld. Oh well, onward and upward, pun intended. Cutting the bike apart was easy enough. I bought a cheap arc welder from Harbor Freight and enlisted my son-in-law to do most of the welding. I got a chance to do some welding too. There’s a good reason why welders wear those leather jackets, gloves and boots. Molten bits of metal flying here and there sometimes land on hands, arms and feet. Nylon sneakers aren’t a match for man-made lava. I found out quickly to remove my wedding ring when I discovered a small chunk of slag embedded in my gold band, don’t tell my wife.

Before I knew it I had myself a tall bike. It was beautiful. Now comes the hardest part, figuring out how to get up on it and ride it. It shouldn’t be that hard. The seat is only about 2 feet higher than the normal seat after all. Those 2 feet seems like 20. Lucky for me I own a pickup truck. I dropped the tailgate and pulled the bike alongside. Mounting the bike was a piece of cake. Take a deep breath and off we go. It worked! Riding the bike was actually easy. It handles very normally, but the view from 7 or so feet is still a bit alarming. After a few circuits I returned to the tailgate and was able to dismount. Now, can I do it from the ground? All I could do was try…..and try… and try again and again and again. It took me a long time to figure out how to keep it upright while I got myself to seat level. Timidity and lack of trust in my ability caused me to dump the bike more times than I needed to. I have to tell you though, hitting concrete in a 65 year old body gives one pause, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.

Now that the bike was built and there was success in riding it, what should I do next? Should I make an even taller bike? Are you crazy? No way. But there other crazy bike builds out there. When looking around the internet for information on how to build a tall bike I came across quite a few eccentrics like myself who put together all sorts of odd bikes, sometimes referred to as freak bikes. One of the more inspirational sites was Atomic Zombie at (https://www.atomiczombie.com/ ). Brad Graham and his wife Kathy McGowan have been creating all sorts of bikes, tall and small, for many years. They sell plans for DIYers. I bought 6 plans but have yet to make any.

Another type of freak bike I came across is something labeled as a Penny Fakething, a play on words for the Penny Farthing bike that was popular near the end of the 19th century. It is also known as a high wheeler and standard bike. I’ve always wanted to try and ride one of those but you rarely see them in my neck of the woods. A Penny Fakething mimics the look and feel of a Penny Farthing by cobbling parts of other bikes together. I just so happen to have a few bikes lying around. Did I forget to mention that after building the tall bike and visiting Atomic Zombie I started hunting for old bikes at garage sales and online auctions so I could accumulate a sufficient reserve of parts for all the bikes I would build. By summers end I probably bought 30 or so relics of all different sizes and colors. My wife was thrilled!

Following Brad Graham’s lead, I employed the best eyeball engineering and produced my very own Penny Fakething. This time I did all the welding myself, not at all reassuring. I employed my tailgate launch system and it worked….but it was definitely unnerving. I was at about the same height as my tall bike but the feel was totally different. The pedal drive is directly connected to the steering similar to that of a tricycle. Every push of the pedal is transmitted up to the handlebars and you have to constantly adjust for the force pushing you to the right, then the left, then the right, etc. I have to believe that feeling would be similar in an actual Penny Farthing. The view looking over the handlebars was the scary bit. It felt like you were sitting atop that front wheel. After the initial test ride I had to try and mount it from the ground. This proved to be easier than the tall bike but I found the ride to be too unsettling to want to ride it.

I didn’t put any brakes on it because I thought the best way to brake it would be to install a brake to the small rear wheel. I didn’t want to buy an extra-long brake cable so I left it without brakes. A couple months later I thought maybe if I made the front wheel into a coaster brake that would work. On a normal rear actuated coaster brake bike you apply pressure on the pedals in a CCW fashion. The harder you press the quicker you stop. You can control how fast or slow you stop. I found a coaster brake wheel from my stockpile of parts that was the correct size and transformed my brakeless Penny Fakething into a safer braked model. I was anxious to try it out. I decided to forgo my tried and true tailgate test and down the driveway I went. As I settled into the seat and put my feet on the pedals, I accidentally put a little pressure in the CCW direction. The brakes worked…unfortunately. As you may have guessed, over the top I went and came crashing down onto the concrete which, by the way, hadn’t gotten any softer. The term “taking a header” actually comes from the all too common accidents of the original high wheelers. Add one more to the list. I wheeled my Penny Fakething over to a corner of my yard and leaned it against a fence and there she sits. Maybe I’ll try it again, maybe not.

As coincidence would have it, my wife and I were vacationing in southern Ohio that summer. In the little town of New Bremen is the Bicycle Museum of America. It is a marvelous place. They have several hundred bicycles on display. It was very inspirational. Two bikes interested me the most as far as potential projects. One was a bicycle built for two. This wasn’t your ordinary bicycle built for 2. This one actually allowed you to steer from the front or the rear seat. I never heard of that before but I guess they were made up until the 1940’s by companies like Schwinn and Columbia. I owned a bicycle built for two years ago and had some fun with it. I thought one you could steer from both seats would be even more fun and not too hard to build. The other bike that caught my attention was an odd little bike from the Netherlands called the Union Strano built in 1964. This bike was based on an older Italian design from 1933 called the Velocino. Today there is a new iteration from Germany called a Halbrad, German for half bike. I’m not the only one who thought this little bike was cool. I found many examples of people who were able to create a Velocino look-a-like. I wanted one too and besides, I would be a lot closer to the ground.

The 2-way steering, double seater went together fairly well. I decided to use 2 chains rather than one long chain that 2 seaters normally have. The rear seat has the ability to change gears through a derailleur but the front seat is stuck with one gear and unfortunately it takes some muscle to get it up to speed. Riding around from the back seat gets lots of attention. I thought about buying a full size plastic skeleton around Halloween and wire its hands and feet to the proper surfaces and ride around the neighborhood. That would have been fun. Maybe next year.

The little Velocino wanna-a-be was a little more difficult to build but in the end it turned out to be the favorite of my bikes so far. It has such a different feel to it when you ride. I can see why it never caught on. The original Velocino allowed you to have the handlebars in front like a normal bike or tucked in along the side. My version mimics the Halbrad more and has the handlebars mounted under and behind the seat. My handle bars are from a mountain bike with several extensions from other mountain bikes so the handles wrap around. I would like to replace all that with a nice one piece handle bar and work on better brake and gearing placement.

What’s next you might ask? Well I still have all those plans I purchased from Atomic Zombie plus there are a few other ideas floating around in my head. I didn’t do any bike building in 2020. There was another project that consumed all my time this year. Maybe 2021 will be a bike building year. Maybe not. We shall see.

Ron’s project for 2020 has been a pizza oven. Is he getting a bit more sensible in his dotage?

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