TEDxUCLA 2012: Open

How do you get off that thing?


About Bobby

Bobby Gadda is a bicycle activist who lives and works in Los Angeles. He co-founded and is board president of CicLAvia, L.A.’s premiere car-free happening that started in Bogotá, Colombia, over 30 years ago. Bobby volunteers at the Bicycle Kitchen community bike project and works at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC)  bike valet program.  He also co-founded and coordinates the Bici Libre Bike Co-op.


So yes, I just rode his bike from Vancouver, Canada, all the way back here. And the first thing people usually ask me is, “How do you get off that thing?”

And I’ve been, you know, trying a couple different —

That was actually a joke. It’s not how I usually get off the bike, but I think it’s a pretty good comeback because I’ve been asked that question about like two thousand times now. So I will park this thing in a safe place.

So yes, I’ve been riding this for 1600 miles. And the second question people usually ask me is why. Why are you doing this? And I’ve been asked it so many times, I started to question it myself.

The initial reason I did it was to get attention. So mission accomplished, a lot of people looked at me, and… But obviously it’s deeper than that. I’m really into bicycles.

So for the past several years here in Los Angeles, I’ve been working in bicycle advocacy. So I work with the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and as a program coordinator, so I help run events, I do education. I’m also a co-founder and the board president of the CicLAvia organization, which I hear some of you have been to. We close ten miles of streets to cars and let people walk and bike in the street. And it’s really amazing, people are blown away by how fun it is just to be out in the streets without cars and trucks blasting past you and really kind of change a lot of people’s minds about what’s possible with bicycles.

The other thing I do is I work with bicycle cooperatives, like the Bicycle Kitchen and Bici Libre, where we teach people how to fix bikes themselves. So if you have a flat tire, you can come into the shop and we’ll show you how to fix it. And that’s really empowering and really gets people thinking like, you know, it’s possible to use bikes for daily transportation if you know how to fix it yourself.

So I love bicycles and I’m always trying to figure out how to get people to ride bikes instead of drive cars everywhere. And this summer, I thought I’d do something different and kind of do this crazy thing and ride a tall bike 1600 miles.

So I ride tall bikes in LA a lot and I just think it’s really fun because people are always curious about it, like, “Wow, what’s that crazy bike? How do you get off it? You know, what, what’s what’s with the bike?” And people are always really fascinated by it. So I thought a really cool thing would be to ride all the way from Vancouver, Canada, back to LA across the country and have that experience just for months at a time and just meet lots of people.

And I really didn’t know what was going to happen. And it worked out really amazingly well. And I had an amazing time. And I could just stand here and tell you how fun it was and how cool it was and show you all these pretty pictures. But what I want to do is I want to tell you how to do it. It was way easier than I thought it would be and cheaper and more fun.

So anyone can do a bike tour. And the first step is get yourself a graphic design. So I’m sure you probably have a friend who’s a, you know, amateur graphic designer. I have a really good friend who helped me out with this graphic design of evolution from apes to a person riding a tall bike. And this gave me some collateral on the trip. I had these stickers I printed up for, you know, 10 bucks at Kinko’s. And when I was hanging out with people, I’d give them a sticker or sell them a sticker to raise money for food along the way. And, you know, get a blog or a Facebook fan page or something so people can find you and support you in your trip. So start with the graphic design.

The next step is to acquire a bicycle. So if you don’t already have a bike, I wanna let you know that you can tour on pretty much any kind of bicycle. You don’t need to get a really expensive touring bike. Any bike that you can put a rack on and strap things to, you can go on a ride with.

So my vehicle of choice is the tall bike, and I want to talk a little bit about that choice. So initially it was just, I felt I wanted to do a crazy thing. I have some friends who’ve done tall bike tours. I’m not the first person to ever do this, but I do have a pretty unique one. And so initially I was just being crazy, but then I realized it was actually surprisingly practical.

So if you’ll notice, you’ll see I have a lot of stuff on here. I’ve got a computer and books and food in these bags down here. Big sleeping bag, big tent, sleeping pad, more food back here, the banjo up front. And really, you know, my whole life was just on this bike, living off this thing. And that’s way more stuff than you can carry on normal life just because it’s bigger.

And then the other main difference is actually it’s easier to balance, and I know that sounds crazy, but think about it this way. So if you have a short broomstick like this, it falls kind of quickly and you have to kind of, you know, move your hand pretty fast to keep it balanced. But if you have a longer one, it’s actually way easier to balance because it falls way more slowly, so I can just kind of stand here and balances it. So you can try this at home and prove this to yourself. This actually is easier. The taller stakes. This is kind of a secret of circus people, I think, that they don’t tell you that tall things are actually easier to balance just because they’re taller and they fall more slowly.

So when I’m up on this bike, it has a really cool feeling because I’m kind of floating up there because it’s so easy to balance. I can go really slow, I can stop in one spot. If you’re interested, I’ll teach you how to ride it after the TEDx today. I’ve gotten dozens people on this bike this summer. If you can ride a normal bike, you can get on this thing.

And the other major advantage is visibility. So I can, since I’m up here at like ten feet, I can see over most cars so I can see any obstacles that are coming up. And then the main thing is that cars can see me way better.

So when I’m on the road, when a car is driving up behind me, their reaction is kind of like, “What is that thing?” Like, it looks it looks weird, it doesn’t look right. This is, when most of the time, when a driver is coming up behind a bicycle, there are a lot of people’s reactions. “Oh, I need to get around that. That’s an obstacle.” It’s just like these bicycles taking up the road. And sometimes people drive too fast and pass you too close, it can be dangerous.

I did not have that problem this summer. People stay way the heck away from me. People kind of drive in this big circle and they slow down and they look and get out their iPhones to take pictures. There’s probably thousands of really terrible iPhone pictures of me from people that are driving by me. And that’s what really made it safer is being a spectacle.

Another cool thing that happened that I was not expecting either was a lot of drivers, when I’m out on these country roads, would pull over to get out of their car and take a good picture of me. And so quickly I decided one of my rules for the trip would be if someone stops, like, I have to stop too and talk to them and answer their questions and just be friendly. Give me a chance to sell some stickers so I can go buy some food that day.

And oftentimes I met really cool people and people invited me to their houses and, you know, put me up for the night, fed me, take a shower, wash my clothes, just really luxurious for a bike tour across the country.

So what ended up happening is actually didn’t camp that much! Like, I stayed with people, people were so generous in putting me up, I actually really didn’t even use all this camping gear I scrounged, which was another surprise.

I met one guy who pulled over who was really excited to talk to me. He did his first bike tour at the age of 65 across the country. And so he was just super excited about bike terrain. You really don’t have to be an athlete to do this. I’d only rode like 30 miles a day, tops, so anyone can do it.

And you don’t have to have a tall bike to be a spectacle. Even with a normal bike, one thing I really discovered was garage sales are great for picking up stuff and picking up flair. So anything you find on the side of the road y’know, strap it to the bike, like taxidermy I think would be really cool, antlers, make some flags, just anything so when drivers are going past you like, what? Like what’s going on? Like there’s a like, crazy thing happening with that bike. And it just makes it way more fun of a trip and you meet way more people.

So I wanna talk a little bit about stuff. So here’s a garage sale I visited outside of Cottage Grove, this guy named Hass is really great and he was really excited about the bike. So he hooked me up with some great sunglasses and a water reservoir.

And you don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on fancy camping gear. Most of the stuff I’ve scrounged is from friends. I just said, you know, “Hey, look, I need a sleeping bag for this trip. Does anyone have one I can borrow for the summer?”

And even so, I still ended up losing lots of stuff because I’m pretty scatterbrained. So at like one point I left my sleeping bag behind. I lost a cooking pot. I lost six water bottles, two headlamps over the course of the summer. So, but each each of those times I found a replacement that was y’know, better or just as good. And losing all this stuff gave me more of an opportunity to ask for help.

And so one really important part of doing this is to have good communication tools. And one of the best one for that I found is these little portable whiteboards, and you can get these at a dollar store for a dollar. Really cheap. This is like my third one.

And just write down what you’re doing and say, “Hey, my name is Bobby. I’m riding this tall bike across the country.” I usually went with the universal “I need money, food and shelter.” Just kind of general needs. But you can put more specific, like if I lose my knife, I just be like, “Hey, do you have an extra folding knife? Like, I’m looking for one.”

And the great thing about the sign is that it works when you’re not even on the bike. So I’m inside the grocery store stocking up on ramen and someone walks by the bike, sees a sign and they can put money in the donation bucket. A lot of people were just interested enough, they’d come in the store and like, find me. Like, are you Tall Bike Bobby? Like, so it was, it’s a really great tool to have. I learned this from Rex Hazard, a guy who did a tall bike ride across the country last year.

Another good sign I found was this, I found this hungry sign on the side of the road. And at the time, I was quite hungry. So I just kind of did one of these and strapped it on the bike there, and that day I got handed really like, probably like a ten dollar sandwich out of like a Lexus. The guy’s like, “Here, take a sandwich.” And I grabbed it from the moving car. I got trail mix, a bunch of fruit, there was a field trip and they gave me like a whole bag of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

And so I had those hanging off here. And by the end of the day, I had to start giving food away because I couldn’t I couldn’t carry anymore. And I was trying to find people who would accept food. So I ended up, it’s actually kind of interesting, you start trying to give things away, like trying to find people who will take stuff from you, because not everyone will take food from a stranger or just like stuff. You’re like, “Here, will you take this?” Really? Okay, like I guess? So that became a really fun game, just trying to give stuff away.

So I wanted to share just a little, a few stories from like what it was actually like on the road. So this is when I was coming down across the California-Oregon border. This actually on the I-5 across the Siskiyou Pass. I was going into Mount Shasta into the National Forest and this is the 89 freeway, it’s a two-lane road. People told me, hey, it’s dangerous. There’s like log trucks going like, be careful.

And it was really hot, so I started riding at night and I was like, well, maybe this is dangerous to ride the two-lane highway in the middle of the night. But, you know, if I feel unsafe, I’ll just stop and camp on the side of the road because it’s a national forest, I can camp anywhere I want.

And so I started riding and I realized the trucks are only coming every 15 minutes so you can hear them coming from like five miles away. So anytime a truck was coming, I’d just get off and stand on the side of the road and kind of wave at the truck driver. And that is the funny part, is like, you start to feel crazy and note like, you see from the outside how you seem like such a spectacle.

So I came across this, this roadhouse bar, the Bartle Lodge, in the middle of this house, a forest in the middle of the night, like 50 miles from anywhere. And it was the beginning of bow hunting season. So there are all these bow hunters there. And they were very flabbergasted by my existence.

As I as I rode up on this tall bike with, you know, I had a bunch of lights on it. He’s like, you know, it’s like, “Wow, you’re lit up like a Christmas tree, like, what are you doing out here?” And this guy, Rufus, the bartender, was like, “I really want to make fun of you, but I just can’t. Like, this is too. It’s just too cool. Like, this is too weird.”


So I learned all about bow hunting and they learned all about whatever the heck this is that I do. And it’s a great, you know, cultural exchange kind of happened there. And the next morning, I’m in my tent here in the National Forest, a nice view of my bike. And by coincidence, one of the bow hunters just like walked past, like chasing down a deer and I was like, “Nice.” Bow hunting, I gotta get into that.

So I head further out into the desert. This is on my way to the Burning Man Festival, of course. I had to attend. And just really beautiful country I was in, this is another part where I was afraid, I thought, you know, I’m going to run out of water. This is dangerous. I’m going out into places where there’s like a hundred miles between towns. So I had six water bottles on here, gallon jug of water here, another reservoir underneath. I never even got through half of the water because there’s still houses with water. It was really not that big of a deal.

And it was just great fun. I did most of my riding at night. I had some good reading material and just stopping in the middle of nowhere during the middle of the day, I wanted to take a, I usually was taking siestas because it’s too hot. But in this case, there was no shade anywhere for really, really far. So I was like well, what can I do? Like, I don’t want to stand here in the sun. So I actually just leaned my bike up against a mile marker and, you know, got my book and just sat in the shade of my own bike on the side of the road, like reading a book for like a good three hours, just waving at people as they drove by, and again feeling like the weirdest person in the universe.

And once I actually got to Burning Man, I really, I didn’t, and this was another thing I didn’t expect, is that people treated me as like an art piece, that I’d done this, ridden this crazy bike so far. And for the first three days, I was just walking around with this bike, just telling people about my trip. And people, even more than like normal places, people were blown away.

That’s what was really fun about this, it’s just kind of the ability to be really creative and really interact with lots of different people and just share my story. And I really feel like I inspired a lot of people. Like a lot of people told me like, “Wow, this is really inspiring. I want to do a trip like this.” And you know, I’m here to tell you that you can. Like you don’t need much money, all you need is time. If you can find a way to get a month off of work, just strap some stuff to your bike and get rolling.

So another fun thing is I discovered this abandoned drive-in movie theater and was able to acquire some more branding materials in the form of the tall bike Bobby letters. So I could I could brand any campsite I was occupying, make sure people knew what was up. And so at this point on the trip, other bike tours, when they came up on me they’re like, “Oh, Tall Bike Bobby. I heard about you. Obviously, you’re that guy.”

It was an amazing journey and I just want to tell you that it’s really possible for you to do a similar thing. And, you know, come meet me afterwards. I’ll show you how to ride the bike.

And you’re probably wondering, okay, so what’s, how do I top this? Like, what’s next? Well, I’m kind of thinking about riding around the world on a tall bike and I think I’m gonna use boats to cross the oceans and then, you know, bring this kind of craziness to lots of countries around the world. And by the way, this is how you actually get off. Thanks.