what you learn from a big wheel race

Me and my Cheering Section

Recently I was “volunteered” by my wife to ride in a big wheel race for a charity benefitting our children’s day school. I was reluctant at first, being somewhat competitive, I like to assess my odds of winning before signing up for anything. The entire concept of racing children’s big wheels brought up more questions than answers, but being a good sport I am game for anything. For those unaware as I was, full grown adults race children’s big wheels, sometimes down hills, other times in a parking lot, the incongruous spectacle amuses onlookers, at to me that appears to be the draw. Pretty much the only information available when I was signed up: Standardized children’s big wheel to be ordered and delivered before the race, a parking lot at a local brewery.

In it to win it, I spent weeks before the race, altering my normal workout routine at the gym trying to simulate what it might be like riding a child’s big wheel focusing on the stationary recumbent bike. To ensure I would be in the right mindset, I moved the exercise equipment’s seat impossibly close to the pedals, my knees sticking out at awkward angles; babies in the womb have more room to stretch. Figuring the race would be over quickly, I programmed the machine’s settings for two minutes at maximum resistance where it felt like I was trying to pedal up a vertical wall, then two minutes at half resistance to give a breather of sorts, before the machine would go back trying to get me to push up a mountain. Even on the display of lights mere inches from my face, it looked like I was headed for a cliff, then ride on top of one, then falling off, only to hit an impossibly high wall again and again.

It was apparent glancing around how bewildered people were to this spectacle – a grown man, apparently torturing himself, or a performance artist perhaps, practicing human origami saunters in contorting himself in a contraption, to some it appeared more a form of torture than tedious exercise. A young woman on an elliptical machine almost fell off it trying to figure out what my deal was. Two older men on a treadmill kept glancing over their shoulders, back at their mindless morning TV shows, then back to me again. One morning a couple occupied two of the three recumbent bikes, chatting, having a loverly conversation until this six feet tall man walks up, says “good morning,” then proceeds to grind the seat as far forward as possible, cram himself between the seat back and handlebars, nose inches from front display panel, knees out almost touching the gentleman on the bike next to me. Going about setting the machine to essentially must have appeared to be on and off, then pedaling like a mad man. “I’m in training” I yelled over the music in my headphones to the couple after I turned to meet their stares. Much like the others, they too would move further away, many I noted altering their own morning routines, choosing machines far away from the recumbent bicycles.

The day our official standardized children’s big wheels arrived it was like Christmas, but such high hopes dashed upon opening the box. “Some assembly required” was an understatement, ruining the immediate sense of instant gratification. Using a hammer whether the instructions called for it or not I went about putting it together. Some parts would slam into place, never to be taken apart if you made a mistake, there were screws that once you were done sloppily screwing them in through irregular pre-cut holes, regardless of the angle, that’s where they’d be stay for all of eternity. Finally I stood back and looked at chariot, the winning race tricycle. I decided not to put all the Finding Dory stickers on it as that was one of two options of trike, the other being Frozen-themed, that one I had to let it go.

I couldn’t help notice that the big wheel for the race seemed to be made with cheaper materials and workmanship than the Radio Flyer brand of big wheel we had gotten our eldest three years prior. Comparing the two even visually one looked sturdy, almost a throwback to the days of yore when things were built with metal later rusting and acquiring sharp sharp edges though use, cutting their young riders as god intended. The older big wheel harkened of a more simple, fun time when childhood had more danger, and danger is good for children. This modern big wheel was made thin cheap plastic, flimsy molding, the only part of any substance was it’s metal rod they gave you for a rear axel, but even that was so small in diameter a kitten with opposable thumbs could bend it as if at a young feline strongest cat competition. For a brief moment thought “maybe I could ride my eldest son’s big wheel?” Alas, where some races are BYOBW (Bring Your Own Big Wheel), this was a standardized affair. I’d have to live with this Kia Sorrento version big wheel and keep my son’s Mercedes of big wheels home.

Ages 3-8, weight limit 70 pounds, meaning I'm 5 times as old and 2.5 times too heavy.

Wait, they’re serious?

Upon snapping the rear seat into two large peg holes, I noted the instructions said “weight limit 70 pounds,” or 32 kilograms if you’re anywhere but the US. “Is that give-or-take a hundred” ran through my mind, at least, I hoped it was an error, maybe based on a guess at a Chinese factory, especially as I’m well over twice that figure.

Placing the big wheel down on our cement driveway for the first time I sat upon it. “This was even more cramped than the bikes at the gym,” I thought. I strained to get my feet past the handlebars, unlike the gym’s recumbent bike, to reach the big wheel’s pedals meant bending my knees awkwardly around or even over handlebars, contorted in such a way to get leverage seemed all but impossible. As if that weren’t enough of an issue, I realized the entire rear of the bike, which was really the not-adult width seat containing the axle within, sagged under my 185 pounds. Both rear wheels in fact now bent inward, their inside highest point of circumference rubbing against my leg as if my hips as if a ten speed bike’s brakes were stuck on, rubbing on the rims. In this case my hips are the rims.

Despite the pain shooting from my legs, knees, and ankles, forcing them into a position they were not meant for, all in order to get both feet to the front, I started to push the pedals. Nothing. I pushed a little harder with my ungainly legs bent, still nothing, just feet slipping occasionally off the pedals. No movement at all until finally the front wheel spun a little, then a bit more, and would keep on spinning while the bike stayed stationary. The front wheel, its tread made of hard flat plastic, may spin, but the bike with my weight wouldn’t budge on the concrete. Moving to the grass got the same if not worse results. As transportation, the big wheel is an even worse lawnmower.

I tried to rock forward and back, figured maybe if I got it going I could start pedaling. Our backyard has a slope, so I tried starting at the top of it. After contorting, I pushed off with an arm reaching behind me off the seat. Awkwardly down the hill I went where things went from bad to worse. The steering column of cheap thin plastic started to bend as I tried to steer, a process made difficult what with my legs going almost over then handlebars in a feeble attempt to reach the front pedals. No closer to getting the bike in motion under my own power, I sat at the bottom of our backyard in the grass, hips hurting where the inside of the rear tires were rubbing their way through the sides of my shorts bruising my hips. I sat there, trying to formulate a different plan.

At this point, the only big wheel that was in motion was my mind. “Maybe if I bought a rubberizing spray compound,” I thought, “I could rubberize the front wheel, then maybe it’d get traction. Better yet, if I drilled a small hole in the plastic wheel itself, it might probably hold water, or perhaps sand. A heavy front wheel, it would not only get traction but turning would be enhanced if I could bolster this steering column. Maybe wrap my feet in electrical tape around pedals to keep them from slipping off. Yeah, now we’re talking!” I thought.

I started getting excited on how I could MacGyver this big wheel into a lean, mean, front-wheel-heavy racing machine, but before I went too crazy tinkering, reached out to the race organizers about modifications to our big wheels. I was told, other than decorations, there could be no mods to the dynamics of the big wheel, mine, as the others, had to be stock condition, no rubberizing the wheel, weighing it, or attaching my feet to it.

For a couple days, I sat in the driveway on the big wheel, looking thinking, trying to figure out how to make this work, the bike’s plastic frame with small metal rear axel bent under my body weight, wheels touching my hips, legs awkwardly bent up and almost over the handlebars. Occasionally I’d even try in an act of futility, hoping anything could happen if I pedal like the wind just maybe… alas, the definition of crazy really is doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result. It would not go.

After some time sitting even if I found the most crooked lawyer I wasn’t breaking the laws of physics. My tall frame could not move this toy forward with all my weight on it. Near the end of the driveway I got up, kneeled on the big wheel like it a chariot, and kicked one leg out, as the other knee was down on the seat. I kick pushed and kick pushed and started to go faster and faster whipping around the house zooming up to the kitchen door.

That’s when it hit me, what exactly are the rules for the person riding the big wheel? Were there any rules for riding the big wheel? So I contacted the race organizers these same questions. The rules for riding the big wheel were simply:

All three wheels must stay firming on the ground.

Wait, that’s it? What about pedaling? Nope. What about sitting on the big wheel? Nope. Three wheels on the ground, that’s it. The sadness lifted, a new determination overcome me, a plan, sure-fire and perfect emerged.

A couple hours before the race I drove to an empty parking lot, pulled the big wheel from the trunk, set it on the pavement then, kneeling on the big wheel with one knee down, started kicking with my more dominant leg behind me. Faster and faster I went the length of a parking lot, cutting and partly sliding around a 90-degree bend where the lot had a grassy island, racing back the other direction. I did this several times, getting more confident and skilled, the front plasticky wheel sliding a bit out from underneath, steering column barely not folding, making another turn, completely a loop in a rough oval on patchy asphalt. The thin axel metal axel was bending to the point the wheels were touching the seat, rubbing and scuffing, but even with this braking effect, I could go fast, or fast enough. At this point, I figured two things:

  1. I was going to win this race with this new method
  2. I was probably the only contestant aware the rules of riding the big wheel. Advantage, me.
While I intentionally went with a sort-of steampunk cheap chariot driver motif, Jon went as Elsa's shower curtain.

We’re professionals.

2:30 PM, it’s race time and I line up with the rest of the competitors at a haphazard starting line, a seam in the pavement. I glanced to see the others unsure on how they were going to ride their big wheels. My plan was to sit down and act as if I was going to ride it, throw the others off, I did not want to give away there was a better way. Raised was the starting gun, I sat as the others did, awkwardly on their big wheels, tension filled the air. POP! We’re off! Rather, I’m off. In one fast motion I sprang up from sitting, slammed one knee down onto the seat and one leg kicked back, rocketing me forward. If and/or how the other big wheel racers reacted is still a matter of mystery, I was too focused to look back or look at the crowd that gathered, but knew I was far out ahead. I concentrated, made a sharp left, an 180-degree turn, then another left for the finish line, focusing on not falling over or lifting a wheel from the pavement.

At the moment I exited the last turn, the finish line mere feet away, I finally looked back to see almost every contestant barely off the starting line except one, a small woman, perhaps 110 or fewer pounds, who actually unlike me could not only fit on and not crush the bike, she could pedal too. She wasn’t gaining per se, part of me thought I should slow down to make it close, but then thought “nah,” all but diving across the finish line.

High fives to my support team, a kiss from my wife, low fives from my two boys. “That was GREAT!” I thought, I crushed the competition, everything went to plan! “Hold up,” said the race officials, “we’re going to do best two out of three.” “YES!!!” I heard a other competitors say before my “WHAT?” thought aloud. Best two out of three was never in the rules, then again, the rules seemed to be arbitrary at this point, so who am I to call them out?

super hero cape fluffer

Cape fluffing provided by the always adorable Stephana, who likes me even though I don’t know any lyrics from Frozen.

At this point I’m nervous, after all, everyone knows my secret sauce, it’s not required to be sitting and trying to pedal the bike like a demented circus clown. This time I need to flat-out run pushing the bike. I’m a pretty fast person, but am I that fast? And what of my bike with its rear wheels rubbing the seat, my front forks bent so it doesn’t steer, it’s like racing with a busted up horse. The first race I wasn’t very nervous, in fact, confident, now everybody knows they don’t need to sit because of my antics, what if someone runs faster or worse, I crash.

The next fastest person was most likely my friend Jon, who in fact was training for a half-marathon on top of being in the big wheel race for which, unlike me, he never contorted himself to gaping-mouth stares at the gym like I did, he didn’t know my suffering for the sport, he was simply competitive in a cool manner for which, I envied him. Half-marathon shape I’m not, but I used to be a sprinter. If sitting squished in a recumbent bike pedaling up the face of a cliff for two minutes is doable for a month, maybe I still have the advantage, or so I hoped.

Again we lined our bikes up at the starting groove of pavement, this time, me just taking a knee, no pretense, others did the same. The starter lifted his pistol, just as the gun popped I see something coming at me out of the corner of my eye, instinctively reacting, I dodge forward and away from whatever it was. I’m off like a bullet to the sound of the starter’s fake gun, this time running, hunched over the very little (from my perspective) big wheel, trying to keep all three worn and pocketed plastic wheels on the broken asphalt surface.

This is why you don't cheat.

This is why you don’t cheat.

I take the first corner, then the second, and upon the third and last corner notice, this time, there are people running as well, closer, but not enough of a threat, I jog out of breath across the finish line. Glancing back I see Jon had gone down at the starting line. Apparently, the object coming at me was him in an attempt to tackle me. He lunging as the pistol went off, trying to take me out of the action, but missed and in the process skinning his leg pretty badly. There’s a big difference between trying to cheat, and trying to win. Three wheels on the ground are going for gold, knocking a person down isn’t just cheating, if there were a big wheel race in the Olympics that would be an automatic disqualification.

In the end, I made the family proud, I entertained the audience (mostly), won a little swag, and having sort-of fixed the big wheel we have one for each child.

A valuable takeaway is learn ALL the rules BEFORE you start doing anything, look for ways you can achieve goals in unorthodox ways that go beyond doing the expected if you must follow the rules, and train and prepare like every big wheel race matters.

Also if there ever is an olympic big wheel event? I’m totally qualified to represent the country.

boys on big wheels