There’s nothing quite like the sensation of riding an old English sheepdog. You look down, and you’re gripping the ears of this fuzzy-headed beast as he seems to fly unencumbered over the landscape. It’s like the Darling family’s Nana has been brushed with fairy dust and is whisking you away to Neverland.
It’s all fun and games until you decide you want to stop.
“Where’s the brake?” I ask, all too sure that the answer will be, “There isn’t one!”
“Just backpedal!” shouts Tim Randolph.
Oh, right … it’s a kids’ bike.
Randolph builds what he calls “animal bikes:” essentially oversized stuffed animals wrapped around children’s bicycles frames and meant to be ridden in style. The old English sheepdog is just one animal in an eclectic menagerie of spoke-and-fur critters that includes ponies, unicorns, Bassett hounds and dragons.
“I don’t usually name them,” says Randolph, “Because people always rename them, anyway.” But the sheepdog has a name: Dusty—a name he earned by accumulating playa dust at Burning Man.
“That was my first one,” says Randolph. “If it hadn’t been quite so successful, I probably wouldn’t have kept making them.”
Randolph’s original plan was to make a coat out of the stuffed dog, but when that proved problematic he stumbled onto an even better idea. He combined the stuffed dog with a Woolworth’s child’s bike with a bulky, heavy frame and fat, 3-inch tires and came up with an instant party hit and conversation piece.
This quickly progressed into an obsessive new artform and a burgeoning cottage industry. Randolph finds old toys and bikes at yard sales and thrift shops. He also picks up bikes from the Reno Bike Project and orders new and specialized parts from local shops. He outfits the children’s bikes with bigger, plumper seats and longer handlebars for adults. And carefully pairs the animals to the bikes. Some of the animals began life as children’s costumes but most were oversized novelty toys—the kind you might win playing carnival games.
Certain animals suggest certain bikes (and vice versa) based on their shape and color. Randolph had a pink kids’ bike with the festive slogan “Slumber Party!” adorned on the side and big pink dog—they were like peanut butter and jelly, just waiting to come together.
Randolph replaces parts on different bikes for a variety of reasons—often to accommodate the bulk of the animal and to increase the comfort of the rider. One thing he does for nearly every kids’ bike he works with is to replace the hard plastic of the seats with more comfortable padded seats.
“Whoever designed children’s bike seats should be condemned to a hell of being repeatedly kicked in the crotch with a steel-toe boot anytime they’re having fun,” he says. It sounds like a well-rehearsed line, but probably one often thought by an artist about his raw material. “Seriously, whoever designed these seats didn’t like children.”
With their bulky, often fuzzy, never aerodynamic frames, Randolph’s animal bikes aren’t really built for racing. They’re meant for cruising along through a crowd, attracting attention and starting conversations.
“To fully appreciate the bike, you have to ride it through a crowd,” says Randolph.
“I like art that’s useful and fun,” says Randolph. “These are meant to be played on, not hung on a wall. …They’re thrown-away toys to begin with. I cut them up and paint on them, and they’re ready to be played on again.”