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The Lamplighter

January 6, 2010

It was not so long ago that Back Alley Bikes really was in the back of a building, and the entrance was at the end of an alley.  At the time, the shop was in a 1200 square foot room that was shared with Leo Gaev Metalworks.  It was a tight squeeze for both of us,  but having a metal shop in the building was at times luxurious.  The Back Alley Tall Bike is a living reminder of those days.  Two hacked up bikes, some metal scrap, and a TIG welder, voila!

Back Alley Tall Bike

This bike is frequently the subject of puzzled looks and baffled questions such as: 

“What is that?” 

“Does someone ride that?” 

And the ever popular “Why?” 

The common answers are: 

“It’s a tall bike.” 


And the equally popular retort, “Why not?” 

The history of this particular bike is fairly common to some of the more unusual bikes that have lingered in this shop over the years, it’s the product of a slow day and some bicycle leftovers, but the history of the tall bike and it’s modern uses is a bit more involved. 


Turn of the century lamplighter


Tall bikes were originally called lamplighters, and they were the invention of necessity.  In the days of the original bicycle boom, the streets were lit by natural gas lamps perched several feet in the air.  The need to manually light each of these lamps led to the adaptation of the simple bicycle into the compound bicycle.  This cutting edge use of technology saved literally thousands of hours that were previously devoted to walking from lamp to lamp with a ladder.  It’s easy to forget that there was a time in the recent past that the bicycle in it’s simplest iterations was at the forefront of technology and a powerful force of industry. 


Modern day, homemade tall bikes are an increasingly common sight in major cities.  The contemporary bike boom has resulted in more people on bikes, but it has also inspired the commonality of more types of bikes.  For a lot of modern day activists, the tall bike, made from the waste of modern society, and a symbol of life lived outside the norms,  is the middle finger jutting proudly from the fist of bicycle resistance. 

For others, it’s an easy way to get extra attention, or even set world records.  Michael Mooney of Asheville, NC is the current record holder for riding the world’s tallest bicycle. 

Our tall bike is is about 5 ft. tall. 

This bike is 44 ft. tall! 



Regardless of the intentions of the rider, it’s thrilling to fly down a crowded street, looming over everyone, your line of sight uninterrupted by even the tallest SUV.  One of the greatest feelings when riding a bicycle is the feeling of weightless gliding.  It’s how I imagine it would feel to be a bird.  When this feeling strikes you from the saddle of a tall bike it can be difficult to swallow the urge to squawk.

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