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These fantastical works of whimsy and engineering can travel over surf and turf

By Dani Burlison


Giant bicycles, handcars with dragon heads and boats with wheels are just some of the fantastical designs you’ll see at kinetic sculpture races around the country. Using innovative engineering and automotive design, along with bicycle-building techniques, participants create human-powered kinetic sculptures that (ideally) can travel over land, sand, mud and water. The races—which really are more like festivals—draw enthusiasts from near and far. They also bring communities together, as families, friends and neighbors collaborate or compete goodheartedly against one another.

All this kinetic sculpture fun started in the late 1960s in Northern California’s Humboldt County. After a few years, the founding group of tinkerers and racers expanded the event—now known as the Kinetic Grand Championship—beyond the streets of Ferndale to 42 miles of complicated terrain. Now, for three days each May, participants maneuver their human-powered vehicles through sand and mud and across both the Eel River and Humboldt Bay.

Several other cities host major races as well, including the springtime East Coast Championship in Baltimore, Maryland and the mid-July Kinetic Sculpture Race in Boulder, Colorado.

But what inspires these visionaries and why did they start constructing these man-powered contraptions? Much like the designers of the Chevy Volt, Bay Area-based artist Todd Barricklow sees it as a mechanical and creative challenge.

“I always built go-karts as a kid. They were Flintstones style and I’d get all the neighborhood kids to push,” says Barricklow. “My college degree is in ceramics. But as soon as I got that degree I bought a welder, and bikes were some of the first welding experiments I did.”

A 2008 trip to Amsterdam renewed Barricklow’s interest in cargo bikes. He promptly built nearly a dozen bakfiets—or two-wheeler cargo bikes—for himself and others in his community. Soon after, he moved on to building contraptions no one had seen before.

He began with a modern-day adaptation of a Penny Farthing, but with a twist: His giant bike has two 8-foot wheels in the front and two 26-inch bicycle wheels in the back, elevating Barricklow to 14 feet high when he’s pedaling from the “Two Penny’s” seat. The bike, along with his “Oddcycle,” an 850-pound contraption loosely based on the 1887 Rudge Rotary Tricycle—but with one 9-foot drive wheel and two smaller side steering wheels on the left—were both built with train-track wheels for his local race, The Handcar Regatta. They were later retrofitted with rubber tires, headlights and taillights for street use.

Yet another vehicle, the 14-foot “Unnamed Amphibian,” includes a 9-foot aluminum boat hull, 6-foot front wheels and a 3-foot rear steering wheel, which doubles as a rudder wheel when it enters the water.

On top of his full-time job, Barricklow spends about a year building each of his vehicles and attends half a dozen events annually. He’s also ventured into constructing stainless steel, health-code-approved food bikes—similar to food carts—for Bay Area restaurants.

But Barricklow’s not in it alone. He’s among thousands who participate in these fantastical events around the nation each year. And some of these other inventors live right in his own community.

“We ended up having four different bike clubs. We all wanted to go places together and it became difficult for people to go to four different websites,” he says. “Then we had to get all those tough bike builder guys to come up with a team or group name.”

The name of their umbrella organization? Fun Bike Unicorn Club.

Barricklow and other members of the Fun Bike Unicorn Club go out pedaling—or paddling—vehicles toward a prize or for the sheer delight of it. Either way, the kinetic sculpture movement is a multifaceted artistic venture full of ingenious and whimsical creations that spark awe and wonder in all who are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them.

The trademarks mentioned in this story are held by their respective owners.

Dani Burlison is a wannabe anthropologist who lives, writes, teaches writing workshops and entertains her children in Northern California. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, the Pacific Sun, McSweeney’s and Ploughshares, among other publications.


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