A little bit about AtomicZombie
The SkyCycle was featured on page 134 of the 2005 Guinness Record Book
The “TallBike” has been around as long as the regular bicycle, and in the 1800s these sky scraping contraptions were referred to as “Lamp Lighters” because those who rode them had the job of igniting oil burning streetlights. These brave tallbike pilots would climb up their 6 foot tall ladder framed two wheelers and then ride from one streetlight pole to another, igniting the wick of the lamp fastened to the pole. Today, tallbikes are only ridden by the thrill seeking adrenaline junkies, but the process of hugging a pole to mount and dismount the bike is pretty much the same as it was in the 1800s.
There is no real definition of what best describes a tallbike, but most would agree that it normally is any two wheeled bicycle that has its crankset raised over the height of the wheels. Some tallbikes can actually be mounted from the ground as the pedals are just over 2 feet from the ground, while others require the pilot to climb up the frame and launch from a standstill while clinging to a telephone pole. In the case of my over-engineered 12 foot tallbike “SkyWalker”, the pilot can climb up the built in frame ladder while steering the bike using a built in steering rail that doubles as a handrail. SkyWalker is kind of hard to explain really, so check it out on our main page if you are curious. The tallbike presented here (SkyCycle) is reminiscent of the classic Lamplighter design, and requires the pilot to climb the frame and use a telephone pole to launch or come in for landing.
The scrap metal heap at the dump is a bike builder’s wonderland!
This is the story of how I took a pile of scrap tubing found at the dump and merged it with a few old bicycles in order to get my mug into the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, along with about TV interviews, radio interviews, and several magazines and newspapers. Normally, I am not much into seeking the spotlight, and I had no idea how massive the media storm would be when I broke the world record in 2003. The journey to stardom begins at the city dump.
So, I rolled into the dump one lazy afternoon with a pile of junk from the yearly spring garage cleaning. The smell of burning tires, seagull waste and diesel fuel filled the air as I begin to launch my scrap into the ever growing piles that are forming huge islands in the muck. As I finished emptying the back of the truck, I noticed a lot of bicycles lying around along with various metal tubing from bed frames, exercise machines, and fence posts. The year was 2002, and I was not really much into bike building or welding as I had a full time gig programming and fixing computers. As I looked at the endless supply of bike parts and scrap tubing, I remembered back to my youth when I used to hunt for old bikes and metal to concoct all sorts of scary yet fun human powered contraptions, including some 6 foot tall bikes. At that instant I decided, “Why not!” and ventured up to my knees in the muck to reach the twisted heap of metal and bike parts.
I filled the back of the truck with more than I came with, adding a mountain of twisted mountain bikes and old fence tubing to my collection. Each time the “dump police” would drive past, I would pretend to be unloading, but then put the junk back when they were not looking. The “no scavenging” rule was violated as much as possible that day! On my way out, they thought something was wrong at the scale because I actually weighed more than when I came in with the loads of scrap 486 computers and monitors! Oh well, I was now on my way home to begin a journey that eventually became this website.
Bikes like the Marauder and DeltaWolf were all built this way!
So, now I had a massive pile of scrap bikes and metal tubing sitting on the floor of my 1940s rotting wood garage and a cheap AC welder to zap things together with - the fun begins! Actually, I had no way to use my welder since the garage had no power so I hacked together a long extension cord and then retro fitted my welder plug to fit into the stove outlet. To use the welder, I dragged it over to the back door of the house and did all of my work kneeling in the wet grass at the base of the back stairs. This system actually worked for over four years.
Winter was setting in fast so the building season ended before I really got to make anything useful that year. I did manage to sketch out the design for my tallbike, and several bizarre recumbent contraptions that never really worked that well. It wasn’t until December of 2002 that I decided to start building the tallbike, but knew I would only be able to cut the tubing as my welder was now frozen under a 4 foot pile of snow in the back yard. I actually began building the SkyCycle right on the floor of my computer room, so you will have to excuse the shag rug backgrounds on some of the photos presented here. Hey - it was cool to have shag carpet back in those days! So, here I was with a pile of old fence tubing and electrical conduit on the floor next to my computer table. Now, I had something to do while the Windows 95 setup screen counted from zero to 100 percent…yah, I had LOTS of free time!
So, I was causally rolling down the street enjoying the view when I heard this voice behind me yelling something about a World Record. I rolled up to a telephone pole and let him catch up with me. I usually stop for those asking questions as this is part of the fun. At this point, I never thought about any kind of World Record setting, but this guy told me that the current World Record for tallest bike was only 7 feet tall (as measured from the handlebars to the ground). That really surprised me, as I was already 3 feet taller than that with my current tallbike! Wow, I could actually beat the current World Record with this bike. That thought was interesting as I always enjoyed reading about those eccentric crazy inventors in the Guinness Book of Records, and now I could become one of them! I talked for awhile then rolled home to dig around on the Guinness Record website to check the current record.
I was now all pumped up about possible having the World’s Tallest Bicycle, so I sat down at my computer and began to do some research. I found several tall bikes from various clubs and other garage hackers that were tall, but not as tall as the SkyCycle, so that was good. I then found the official Guinness Record site and the guy I talked to was correct - the current record for “Tallest Rideable Bicycle” was only 7 feet tall as measure from the top of the handlebars to the ground. Currently, the SkyCycle was already 2 feet better than the record! That was really cool to know, and I filled out an online form to find out how I could submit my bike for the record.
A week later, I received the data, and it stated the actual “rules” to define the bike and how to submit a claim. It all seemed very easy, actually, but I realized that Guinness was all about the bling factor, so if I wanted something more than a text mention on the website, I would have to make a big production out of my record attempt. They like the eccentric and crazy stuff, so the bike itself was good, but I decided to make it into a public event with video and lots of great photos so they would be more apt to show a photo of my bike on their site. Little did I know how much publicity was heading my way!
I chopped the top of the original SkyCycle and added another 2 foot section with another ladder rung, making the official record height now 14.5 feet from the ground! The seat was about 13 feet high, and the bike was so tall that even laying down it had no chance of fitting in the garage. I painted it a bright yellow for the bling factor and sky contrast and then did up all of the trimmings in black. The media were all over the event and I had just finished painting the bike on the day before the ride. This meant that my initial test run would be the actual record attempt on TV, so the outcome was either a World Record or absolute failure for the world to see. Astronauts are always under such pressure!
I took this photo five minutes prior to setting a new World Record
It was now July 1st, and I was up early to strap the new SkyCycle Maximus to the top of a truck and get it over to the large parking lot where I was going to meet the TV and newspaper crew for the World Record attempt. I was getting a bit nervous now because the day before my name was all over the radio and local news non-stop about this record attempt and that if successful, I would be the only Guinness Record holder in our city of 115,000 people!
Yikes! failure was definitely not an option now, and I was looking up the frame of a currently untested 15 foot tall two wheeled monstrosity! People soon began to pour into the parking lot, even though the location was kept secret. I guess the sight of the bike was enough to draw a crowd, and with all the media exposure, it was obvious what was about to happen - a record breaking, or my leg breaking!
Ground control to Major Tom...I could not get that out of my head!
It wasn’t long before the TV crews had their cameras ready to go and the news paper reports were all in position. All that was left to do was climb up the 15 foot tall untested bike, and launch with one hand off the steel pole for a nice leisurely cruise around the parking lot! To make things more dangerous, I decided to wave a flag for Canada Day and snap photos as I rode around. Some people asked why I did not wear a helmet, but let’s face it - if you are going down on this bike, it’s going to be the road versus your ankles, so what would be the point? I don’t wear a helmet when I am up on a ladder either.
As I climbed up the SkyCycle Maximus to a crowd of cheering onlookers, the song “Major Tom” played through my head, and I tuned out the ground below. I knew there was a high probability of success, but the fact that the new extended SkyCycle was completely untested made me a tad bit nervous. At the top, it was very apparent that “just 2 feet more” was a stupid phrase indeed as it seemed like I was a hundred feet in the air now! “It’s gonna fly, it’s gonna fly!” - I kept telling myself that as I looked into the ever growing crowd and tried to look relaxed while clutching the pole with one hand. I decided that it was time to meet my destiny and gave the pole one hard push.
The new SkyCycle felt a little heavier than before with the added weight, and it did not help that it was a very windy day. It must have looked like I was going to topple as I slowly began to move, but once rolling the cheering started and I knew I would soon have a World Record! I rolled up to a comfortable speed and then stood up on the pedals to hold the Canadian Flag up in the air for the “money shot”, which would eventually be the one used in the Guinness Book of Records. The camera people followed the bike with their TV cameras and the news people ran behind me asking questions. I rolled around the lot for about half an hour to please the crowd and then casually rolled up to the original light post to make a soft landing.
From the junk yard scrap pile right into the World Record Book!
The new World Record now belonged to the SkyCycle Maximus, and the cameras were all over me the second my feet hit the earth again. It was kinda cool to be famous for the moment, and I now had all the video and photos needed to get the record and maybe even some exposure on the Guinness website. I took some detailed photos of the bike being measured and had the news people sign the forms as witnesses to the event.
The record attempt was now a record success and it aired on the local news (TV and print) the same night. I thought my instant of fame was now over, but to my surprise, the phone began to ring and emails began to pour in from all corners of the globe! I did live radio interviews from all over the World, Texas, Japan, Australia, and the list goes on! Magazines contacted us for photos, and the event aired on many other TV stations around the World.
I was really surprised that the record event was getting so much coverage. Even our hardly known website was brought down in a flurry of hits overt eh next few days, going from 1,000 visitors to over a million! The real kicker was when the TV news show “Canada AM” called up and said they wanted to do a live interview with me and the bike in our home town of Thunder Bay! It was cool to be on live National TV, but looking into that camera lens was more unnerving than the first test ride! Ah, the price of fame.
The SkyCycle Maximus soon became a local media icon
After a live interview with Canada AM on national TV, I took a break from paparazzi and compiled all of the data to send off to the Guinness Record people. I had all of the required signatures, measurements, photos, and video to make the record official, so the package was sent off priority post in hopes that they might mention me on their website as well as sending out some kind of certificate. Since there are so many World Records, only a very small number of them receive any mention at all, and I was hoping for a line of text under “World’s Tallest Rideable Bicycle”. Little did I know that I would be getting more World Record attention than I could have ever hoped for, even an overseas interview on a Japanese radio station!
Dude, your SkyCycle tallbike is in the Guinness Book!
A few weeks later, I received the official record certificate from the Guinness Record keeper, and they actually printed my info on their website under “World’s Tallest Rideable Bicycle”. It was so cool to be official now, and once again the phone calls and emails poured in for more interviews and to get photos for print. Then I got a call from someone I know telling me that my photo was actually taking up half a page in the 2005 Gold Edition of the Guinness Book of World Records! Surely, they must be joking?
I zipped over to the book store and to my amazement there it was on page 134 - a full color photo of the SkyCycle Maximus with me holding up the flag! All of that bling really paid off, and the printed my mug in the actual Guinness Book! That was more than I was ever expecting, and now I was officially one of those eccentric record holding inventors that I always read about when I was young! The phone calls once again started up, and continued for at least four years. Even now, I still receive the odd request for a photo or interview. It’s always fun to talk about the SkyCycle.
The official Guinness World Record Certificate
So, there you have it! A pile of rusty scrap metal from the dump mixed with a crazy idea turns into Worldwide fame and everlasting glory! Well, ok, it wasn’t that incredible, but it was sure a fun journey, considering the entire thing was done on almost no budget in an unheated winter garage using inexpensive tools, I would say it was an absolute success.
Sadly, I no longer have the World Famous SkyCycle Maximus as it was too large to store in the garage, but I still enjoy building tall bikes and other crazy contraptions that serve no purpose other than entertainment. Sure, there were suggestions to put it up for auction on eBay, but imagine the shipping cost!
A museum in Ottawa, Ontario, was interested in procuring it for an exhibit, but again the shipping cost was an issue.
My latest tallbike design “SkyWalker” allows the rider to climb up or down while the bike is moving, so it requires no launching pole, and can be taken anywhere. (see the Tutorials section). In the future I may shoot for a new World Record tall bike with a design I call “Bad Altitude”. This new record tallbike uses the “SkyWalker” design and will be 25 feet tall from seat to road! Stay tuned.
The making of "OVERKILL" for Bike Rod & Custom
OverKill chopper by AtomicZombie Brad Graham
It's no secret, choppers have hit the mainstream. With the great success of the many chopper shows on TV, it's no wonder you can purchase a "chopper bicycle" at just about every store that sells bicycles. All the bike racks look the same these days - first your kids bikes, then your freestyle bikes, now a row of mountain bikes followed by the granny bikes, but now the aisle has expanded and there sits the chopper.
At first it was cool to see these chrome forked extendos sitting there among the granny bikes, almost taunting them - drawing the young rider's gaze and spitting defiantly at the hardened "roadie", but after a while I felt uneasy about this new addition to the bike store.
"Cookie cutter chopper". That phrase kept running through my mind, and after a while, every time I saw a "chopper" in a department store, it felt like a little more defiance was whittled from the ever-dwindling totem pole of nonconformity.
How can you call a bike made in the thousands by little old ladies that only get a five-minute lunch break
once a day a chopper? Isn't a chopper a "chopped" bicycle? Doesn't the very art of chopping involve the creation of a radical and unique vehicle from something mundane? What the hell is going on here? Those bikes cannot be choppers - they are not chopped in any way shape or form!
I'm not saying the new Stingray isn't a sweet ride, I'm just saying that these bikes should not be referred to as choppers, no more than you would refer to a 2005 Dodge Neon fresh off the lot as a hotrod. You will never feel the same pride on a cookie cutter chop as you would on a machine built with your own ideas and hard work, especially when you head out for a ride and see a dozen other identical "choppers". It doesn't take rocket science to build a chopper, you do not need access to a machine shop nor do you need to invest a lot of money on exotic materials, you will only need the drive to create, and the ability to work your ass off to achieve your goals.
When I see a kid roll by on a bike that was obviously hand made - cut forks legs banged together end to end, painted with what looks to be left over house paint, I can only raise my thumb to the builder and spew out a loud "right on". When I see a rich kid roll past on a $2,000.00 store-bought chopper, I can only feel disappointment. Another sliver cut from the very soul of originality, another penny in the pockets of big enterprise that clearly does not understand our culture.
I built OverKill in retaliation to the mass marketing of soalled chopper bicycles. The entire bike is built using only an angle grinder, a welder and some basic tools. There are no machined parts, no expensive materials, just a few feet of department store electrical conduit and some bicycle scrap. Was this chopper hard to make? You're damn right it was hard to make pal, it kicked my ass for two days straight (putting a car tire on by hand is not that easy to do), but let me tell ya, I am just an average garage hacker, and the only skill I used to pull this off was my ability to work hard at my goals.
If you want it bad enough, you can do it as well. If it was easy to do, it wouldn't be worth as much in my opinion. If you want easy, head on over to the nearest bike shop and dump a few hundred bucks on a "chopper" with a six-digit serial number. If you want original, then be prepared to get dirty, bloody and tired.
Yes, it is worth it. What are you waiting for, start cutting up your sister's bike! Kudos to all garage hackers – you are my inspiration. ~ Brad Graham
Our first book - Bicycle Builders Bonanza
Reviewed by Jim Wilson, Bike Rod & Kustom
Anyone who spends much time here at BR&K is familiar with Brad Graham's work - he's one of those crazy bike builders who's not content with the ordinary form of the bicycle, so he playfully stretches the boundaries about as far as anyone ever has. And he's been doing it since he was a child. Now he and Kathy McGowan have produced a "how-to" book on the subject, of great interest to anyone who'd like to mess around with bikes the Brad Graham way, or their own.
Called Atomic Zombie's Bicycle Builder's Bonanza (McGraw-Hill/TAB Books) it starts with the basics you need to know, setting up a shop to do it in, acquiring raw materials, stripping down bike carcasses for parts, etc. He also provides a surprisingly short list of tools actually needed to do the work, and their functions. Unlike many recent authors of "how-to" materials, Brad doesn't assume that everyone has a sophisticated shop filled with state-of-the-art tools and equipment.
According to him, all the budding metal butcher needs is a workbench (for which he provides plans), a vise, a hammer, a hacksaw, an electric grinder, some adjustable wrenches, the cheapest and most basic type of arc welder and some accessories for it. He gives a good basic instructional write-up on welding techniques with the stick welder, which is about as good as can be done within a printed text. He stresses that hands-on practice is the only way to really learn the art, but he shows and tells enough, through words and photos, to get you to the practicing point. Amazingly, this extremely minimal equipment is what he still uses to build his bike creations, and he does it in what most of us would consider a squalid, unheated shed.
This lowball approach applies to materials as well. He recommends common thin-wall electrical conduit, rather than fancier and more expensive tubing types. Sure, conduit isn't as strong or light as CrMo, but it sure is cheap and is certainly adequate to the task. This is very important if you whip up as many bikes as Brad Graham. And like we say, you aren't going to be running it in the Tour de Bloody France, eh?
After the basic information, Brad gets down to projects he's actually built, ranging from the ordinary to the extraordinary, with extremely detailed instructions on building them yourself, or using his tricks to build something different, using some of the aspects taught in a given project.
He starts with the simplest chopper type, based on the "gazelle" fork technique, in which another fork leg is added onto the original leg by pounding it on with a hammer and drilling a hole through the result for a nut and bolt to secure it. This is a very good introduction to chopper building for younger builders, and it's followed by two more choppers of increasingly more sophisticated design and construction. Among the components of these are many useful techniques for building fenders, a triple-tree fork, etc.
These are followed by a snow-going hammerhead trike which he then transforms into a tandem trike he calls the "Snow Bus" It features Ackermann steering and a very strong front end, suitable for extremely rough usage in snow and ice.
From there, things get weirder. Brad gets into the construction of two bikes of the tall variety, one a 10-footer, one of more modest aspirations made by turning the frame upside down and adding a new seat tube and extended steering stem. As usual, Brad's instructions are lucid and his plans are workable.
Brad then goes into the construction of recumbents and "low racers". These are ground-hugging machines built for speed, which look like they'd be lots of fun to build and play with.
Back into weirdness territory, Brad gives instruction on building a very interesting take on the hinged-in-the-middle "swingbike" concept, then goes even further out with a free-castored-rear, front-wheel-driven machine which is part low racer, part thrill ride.
Also sort of in the thrill ride category are a pair of unicycles, one of which, the "Wild Bull" is so challenging to ride that Brad's technique involves steering with one hand, to free the other one for wildly waving to help maintain balance. Bike Builder's Bonanza is a very apt title for this book.
If you just want to learn the skills to build that chopper or stretch that sled, you'll find the knowledge here. And if you want to learn what it takes to actually build some of those really crazy bike ideas you have, you'll definitely love this book. Brad and Kathy have produced a fine and useful book, and in doing so, have made it possible for many people to make their own bike dreams a reality.
Jim Wilson promoted custom bikes and builders on his webzine for years. He was always a proud supporter of Brad and AtomicZombie. Sadly, Jim died and his web site containing thousands of bike pictures, interviews and reviews was taken off-line. A huge loss to the bike building community.
SpinCycle travels to exhibit
The SpinCycle Stunt Trike
It never ceases to amaze us how people find out about Atomic Zombie Extreme Machines. In early 2006, Terry from the Telus World of Science in Calgary posted on our builders forum that they were having a bike exhibit from the National Museum of Science and Technology, May through September 2006. He was looking to acquire a Spincycle or tandem for a hands-on display where the public could ride bikes in the indoor arena.
Brad set out to design a new version of the SpinCycle just for the exhibit. In the spring, we packed it up and shipped it to Calgary.
The SpinCycle spent months at the exhibit and was shipped back to us. Terry said a lot of people enjoyed trying it out, and we got some emails from visitors who said they traveled from parts of Canada and the USA to the exhibit when they found out our SpinCycle would be there. Cool!
Fun with junkyard robotics
and Build Your Own All-Terrain Robots
In 2004, we launched a new Atomic Zombie web site and wrote another book. We had millions of hits on the old site that profiled Brad’s passion for bike building. It’s too bad we didn’t have anything to sell at the time!
It wasn’t an easy task for two people who had very little experience in web design, but we finally put something online after being flooded with requests following the successful 2003 World Record tallbike ride. People just couldn’t get enough of that bike and the crazy guy who built it.
The site included some information on our two books, Bicycle Builders Bonanza (BBB) and Build Your Own All-Terrain Robots, photos of the bikes built in BBB, Sparky electric mini bike, and a gallery of Brad’s homebuilt robots.
At that time, we didn’t intend to make Atomic Zombie a real business, just a spare time hobby that included making custom bikes and robots, and showing others how they can do it, too.
Our main jobs were computer networking and repairs, so the after hours work in the small, unheated garage was on top of 12-16 hour days. Looking back, we wonder when we ever slept! I do remember many pots of coffee and late nights.
Brad built two robots for our second book, and another robot, VGER (Video Guided Entertainment Robot), made the local news at Halloween.
VGER entertains at a trade show
VGER also volunteered some time at a local trade show entertaining passersby. Brad controlled the ‘bot via remote control, TV and voice box nearby. It was entertaining for kids of all ages.
Unfortunately, our small garage couldn’t hold all of the projects and many had to be dismantled. A lot of work was put into them, but it just wasn’t feasible to keep dozens of projects around, especially in the winter and spring when the garage floor flooded. Every April or May, the garage turned into a swampy steam bath. Not good for electronics. So, all of the robots were eventually taken apart and either recycled into other projects or stored in plastic buckets, perhaps to be revived into something else in the future.
More books, more plans
Some of our latest books
After the Robot Builders book, we came up with some more ideas for the publisher’s Evil Genius series and wrote five more from 2005-2011. We are proud of the fact that we have seven books, but they are a TON of work and very little return, considering the amount of time and effort spent photographing and writing them.
I laugh when someone assumes we’re making a living off royalties. Yeah, right! That’s not how things really work in publishing for the vast majority of authors, especially when you’re doing the work for someone else. The reality that is once everybody else gets their piece of the profits, you get the crumbs. I always wondered why some authors have written well over a dozen books before I’ve even heard of them. The instant successes and Best Sellers in publishing are the exceptions, not the norms.
We were hoping that the royalties would be enough so that we could focus full-time on growing AZ, but as you can see, we are still not there yet. Maybe someday we will be able to devote all of our time and energy to AZ. I can only imagine the things we could accomplish.
We have more than 30 DIY plans as of this date (March 13, 2012), and will continue to have more available, as well as videos and tutorials. It all takes time and careful planning to pull everything together.
Moving to the country
This is the view from our picture window
In 2010, we embarked on our most ambitious venture to date. We moved from our Northern Ontario city to the country.
With limited space in our house and garage, expanding AZ was becoming more and more difficult. City life no longer appealed to us. We needed room to grow and explore other opportunities.
A Sunday drive through an area I knew as a teenager got things rolling. We found the land, picked the building spot and began an 18-month journey to leave the city.
Needless to say, the rest of that year and most of 2011 were spent packing, moving, unpacking, living in tents and a small trailer and getting the site ready for our new home.
Despite all of the stress and unpredictable nature of the construction industry, Brad managed to build two new bikes and we put some video tutorials online, our official launch of AZTV. Some of the trials and tribulations of bike building literally “in the field” are shown in our webisodes. Check out the videos section. That pretty much sums up our history to the present. Thanks for coming along!