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5/19/2005
Freak bikes in Chicago Tribune
Korn on Tall Bike (c) Chicago Tribune
Not sure how long this link will last so copied the whole article, including references to two members of the Hub Housing Cooperative, Dan Korn in the photo and Sam Van Dellen, quoted.

Chicago Tribune | Freak bikes!
For these alley cats, recycled cycles only way to ride

By Trine Tsouderos
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 19, 2005

John Edel likes bicycles so much he rides two of them.

They're welded together, one old Schwinn perched on top of a Raleigh connected by a long greasy chain and topped with a seat that rides five feet off the ground.

The guy can see over the top of Cadillacs. Heck, he's practically level with a Hummer.

Edel's not your typical cyclist out for a Sunday ride. He's a bike freak, one of a core of 'kustom' bike enthusiasts across the state who live, breathe and dream about bikes to the extent that a simple bicycle won't do.

So they build and change them, welding bits of one to another, inventing new ways to steer or brake or haul stuff and creating bikes that look unrideable and sometimes are.

They either work alone in their garages, or in groups like the Rat Patrol (led by The Rat King) or the Scallywags, a local Christian freakbike gang that favors tallbikes and is known to ride around in jackets emblazoned with the words 'Jesus Is Lord.'

Some of these bike freaks spend thousands of dollars on custom parts. But others, like the Rat Patrollers, pedal through alleys late at night, scouring dumpsters for parts in order to turn yesterday's Huffy into today's Franken-bike.

'I think people are far more satisfied with things they create than things they consume,' said Alex Wilson, 34, founder of West Town Bikes on North Avenue and the owner of multiple ratbikes.

'Things you create are personal to you. They show who you are and what you are about. With bikes, you can create this crazy contraption and it works. And you have this audience out there.'

At his home in Logan Square, Edel, a 35-year-old set designer for TV, has a bunch of homemade bikes that look like they pedaled out of someone's nightmare. There's 'Snugglebunch,' which he made out of a woman's 10-speed FreeSpirit, a chunk of gas pipe and a lawnmower. 'FunTime,' which he welded together using two bikes, including a little girl's, is virtually impossible to steer.

'In our world, easy to ride is not necessarily a virtue,' said Edel, a tall guy who looks like he ought to be riding a tallbike. 'We like bikes that are more difficult to master . . . There are a lot of different things you can do to a bike that can make it more fun.'

Edel and his friends once moved a piano on a bike with a trailer and at other times hauled 500 pounds of bricks, a queen-sized bed, an apple tree and a three-piece band--with the accordion player pedaling from the back.

Motorists tend to give people riding these cycles a lot of room--which is good, because some, especially tallbikes, don't have brakes.

'People freak out,' said Sam Van Dellen, 25, a bike mechanic who builds both gorgeous custom road bikes and trashbikes in his spare time and who has been known to ride a homemade tallbike-for-two solo. 'It gets annoying when people say the same things: `How's the weather up there?' `How do you stop?' A million questions. Of course, if you didn't want the attention, you wouldn't be riding the bike.'

Nobody knows exactly when people began modifying their bikes, but experts agree that it probably happened about the same time people began pedaling them.

'Humans aren't really content with what they get,' said Jim Wilson, founder of Bike Rod & Kustom, a Webzine (bikerodnkustom.homestead.com) dedicated to customized bicycles that gets 45,000 to 60,000 hits per issue. 'When I was a kid in the '50s, I customized my bicycles. Everyone sort of did that.'

Over the years in Chicago, which was once to bikes what Detroit was to cars, newspapers have featured weird bikes people built as much as a century ago.

Sixty years ago, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran numerous photos of silly-looking bikes built by the Steinlauf family, including a bike made from an old iron bedframe, a bike with spikes on its tires to ride on the ice and most gloriously, a bike made by Charles Steinlauf to carry himself, his daughter, his son and his wife, who sewed on a sewing machine installed on the vehicle, all at once.

'You see,' Charles' brother Joe told the Daily News in 1947, 'no matter what happens, we make a bicycle out of it!'

In recent years, freakbiker clubs have popped up in cities throughout the U.S., from Portland to Minneapolis to New York City, in part thanks to the Internet, which has helped connect people with the same, slightly eccentric, interest, said Wilson."

It doesn't hurt that America is awash in abandoned Huffys, Schwinns, Treks and Raleighs waiting for new life as parts of Franken-bikes.

"You can go to any junkyard and it is amazing the stuff that is in there," said Leon Dixon, a bike historian who founded the Santa Ana, Calif.-based National Bicycle History Archive of America. "People in the rest of the earth would go to these places and they would be mesmerized. And this is stuff we are throwing away."

Nowhere is that more clear than at Working Bikes Cooperative on South Western Avenue, a freakbiker haven with a sea of old bikes that have been either donated or pulled out of garbage bins, landfills and alleys. The non-profit has so many Chicago-made Schwinn Varsities that staffers have dubbed their pile of them "Mount Varsity."

Many run-of-the-mill bikers would dismiss the Varsities as too heavy and clumsy. But to freakbikers, the tangle of cheap, indestructible bikes is the means to fulfill their cycling dreams.

One warm May morning in a Logan Square alley, Edel and some friends gathered to show off the bikes they had made. Edel pulled out a three-wheeled contraption he designed to steer with gear shifters called "The Lawnmower," which looks more like a mutant wheelchair than a bike.

"It didn't work," Edel said. "That's fine too. It was a lot of fun."

As Edel fiddled with a loose wheel on "The Lawnmower," Gareth Newfield, 43, a software programmer, tooled around on "Pixie," his tiny pink child's bike that tows a tiny, shiny, black homemade trailer. Wheeling around them was Kevin Womac, 31, owner of Logan Square's Boulevard Bikes, who zipped about on "Cocktail" built in part from a kid's bike.

All three are bike fanatics, occasional Rat Patrollers and neighbors.

After about an hour, Edel announced he had to head to work. He grabbed his tallbike, a cycle with only a front brake that leaves observers scratching their heads in wonder: How do people get up on those things? Do they have ladders? Platforms? Does someone hold the bike as the rider climbs on?

The reality is much simpler, and more impressive. After strapping on his bike helmet, Edel planted a foot on a pedal, pushed off and swung his body five feet over the seat in one swift and graceful movement, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Now if only stopping were as easy.

- - -

5 ways to go `kustom'

Want to build your first tallbike? Here, five ways to venture into the world of "kustom" rides:

Get dirty: Not sure how your gears work? Take a class and learn to repair your bike, a good first step to building one. Freakbikers like West Town Bikes, 2418 W. North Ave..

Hang out at trashbike central: Working Bikes Cooperative. Most of the staff at this non-profit, used bike seller are ratbikers eager to share their knowledge and happy to find cheap two-wheelers for your mutant creations. Better yet, volunteer at the organization and become an expert yourself. Working Bikes, 1125 S. Western Ave., 312 421-5048.

Get friendly with the Rat Patrol: A loose pack of likeminded bikers who love riding through Chicago's alleys and building bikes out of trash, the Rat Patrol regularly meets to ride their gonzo cycles through the city, and occasionally gathers to build bikes together. .

Join a Chicago Critical Mass ride: A good place to meet fellow ratbikers, Critical Mass rides often crawl with people pedaling homemade bicycles. Rides start at 5:30 p.m. from Daley Plaza on the last Friday of every month. The next ride is May 27. www.chicagocriticalmass.org.

Start messing with old bikes: The best way to learn, bike fanatics agree, is to just begin playing around. Change the tires. Screw in some weird handlebars. Buy a hacksaw and chop off the forks. Learn some basic welding. Start scheming new ways to steer, brake and pedal. Bounce ideas off your new biking friends and finally, take your new set of wheels out for a spin along the lakefront.