Even though this is a Throwback Thursday (TBT), I want to say right at the top that freak bikes and tall bikes are far from history in Portland. Many folks still ride and build these wonderful whimsical machines. But, as with much of Portland’s vaunted creative bike culture, it’s not quite as widespread as it once was.
So if you weren’t around for those freak bike glory days of yore, I hope you’ll allow me to indulge myself and share some of what I’ve seen over the years…
Some of my first impressions of Portland bike culture when I moved here in 2004 were intertwined with freak bikes. Where I moved from (Santa Barbara, California), the freakiest bike people rode was a cruiser. And if someone did a wheelie on it, everyone would stare and point and be totally amazed. Suffice it to say, Portland was on a whole ‘nother level!
My earliest recollection of these handmade bikes that were welded and bended and bolted together to be tall or long or just odd or freaky in some way, was at the (now demolished, sniff) Alberta Street Clown House. The clowns were a fun-loving troupe of acrobats and jesters who regaled Last Thursday on Alberta crowds for years before gentrification and other factors pushed them out and the show went dark in 2007. My family loved the carfree street and we instantly took a liking to the antics on the corner of Alberta and 24th.
There was mud wrestling, spool rolling, flaming tall-bike jousting, music. We even watched two of our favorite clowns get married in the yard!
The Captain of the Clown House, Dingo Dizmal (above), has moved on from Alberta Street; but he’s still a professional clown who still gets to all his gigs atop his tall bike (along with his wonderful clowning companion Olive Rootbeer).
The Clown House was one of just several centers of freak bike inspiration. The underground club Chunk 666 were the progenitors of much of Portland’s freak bike culture and hosted their first Chunkathlon event in 2002 (I saw it and first reported on it in three years later). From these main points, concentric circles of cycling creativity rippled citywide.
At the annual Multnomah County Bike Fair (held as a capstone to Pedalpalooza), one of the main events was tall bike jousting and the event served as a place to show-off your latest creation. It was also a place where the interested but concerned were often welcome to give one a try. Climbing up a three or four bike-frame tall, moving bicycle while it’s rolling is quite a thrill. (Stopping and getting off without tipping over, even more so.)
Mini Bike Winter was also a must-attend event if you wanted to get noticed by freak bike veterans. And who recalls Freak Bike Fall? Starting in 2008, this was once an annual event that included an alleycat (urban scavenger hunt on bikes) where participants were required to compete on freak bikes.
The level of skill and artistry displayed by local freak bike builders and the popularity of their creations reached such a high point that in 2007, two local clubs — Dropout Bike Club and Zoobomb — were invited to display their bikes at the Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show. To get them ready, Portland even had informal workshops and garages around town where you could go and find parts and advice to get your bike together. The Portland Autonomous Zone (PAZ), which was open from 2012 to late 2021, was a space where anyone could show up, find some frames and forks and wheels, learn to weld, and make a freak bike.
Portland’s freak bike clubs (or gangs, as their denim vests suggest) like the Dropouts, the Dead Babies, Zoobomb, Irondelles, North Freak, as well all the events and people who made them so much fun, were all important parts of the freak bike ecosystem, each with different styles, traditions and personalities.
And while many of the prime movers behind these bikes, events and groups have moved on, there’s still a strong current that can still be felt today. Portland’s bike culture has changed dramatically in the past decade or so. But it hasn’t vanished! It’s just different now and there are always more wild and wonderful things to discover.
On that note, if you love weird bikes and the people who ride them, don’t miss the upcoming Ladds 500 event on April 9th. Better yet, make one yourself and see how many laps around Ladd Circle you can complete! And don’t forget: cool stuff existed/exists because people jumped in and created it. Culture dies if it becomes just a spectator sport. (And yes, I realize the hypocrisy of me writing that, since I’ve mostly just observed and documented for all these years.)
Thanks for letting me share these memories with you!