Bound for Glory | People & Places | Smithsonian

Bound for Glory

Or maybe not. America's most grueling adult tricycle competition is tough on riders and equipment alike

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Each summer in towns and cities across the country, thousands of full-grown adults make utter fools of themselves in front of their friends and neighbors. They race beds through the streets. They row bathtubs in junk regattas. They spit watermelon seeds for distance. Call them childish. Call them weird. Whatever. Crazy competition is as American as, well, an apple-pie-eating contest.

For years, I've admired our wacky contests and longed to win one, but my talent for lunacy is limited. I considered entering a stone skipping contest held each July 4 on Mackinac Island, Michigan, but after two skips my stones always go splunk. The World Championship Posthole Contest in Boise City, Oklahoma, each June would be just my style if I'd ever dug a posthole. Once again this year, I just couldn't force myself to train for the Championship Muskrat Skinning Contest in Golden Hill, Maryland. But then I heard about an event for which I'd practiced while I was still chewing on carpets.

On the third weekend in June, Marysville, Washington, holds its annual Strawberry Festival, which features the most grueling adult tricycle races. On Friday evening, dozens of adults ride big trikes through downtown Marysville, a suburb pitched in the evergreens a half-hour north of Seattle. Never mind that an adult pedaling a trike is the silliest sight this side of a sack race. Lining the streets, spectators cheer as their hometown trikers take over State Avenue from Bundy Carpets to the Seafirst Bank. Then, after plaques are awarded to the fastest and slowest relay teams, racers put their trikes in garages to await next year's Grand Prix. Like certain animal mating behaviors, there is no explanation for all this. It just happens.

I hadn't ridden a trike since the Eisenhower administration. The only one I ever owned was a deep royal blue. I must have put 100,000 miles on it before moving on to a two-wheeler. "Trikes are for kids," I had said then, but when I heard about Marysville's race, my royal-blue roadster came roaring out of distant memory. So shiny, so sturdy, so tight in the turns. Did it really hit 70 miles per hour as I pumped the pedals? Wasn't I destined to be the Mario Andretti of adult triking? Might I even relive my childhood on three wheels?

The kind folks in Marysville told me the races were open to all comers. They'd gladly lend me a trike. Did I want to race solo or join a relay team? Both, I said. When it comes to trikes, I don't spare the horses.

As I pull into Marysville, I discern no hint that the locals are about to get a little loony. The Strawberry Festival merits a banner across 4th Street, where shopping centers have replaced the strawberry fields that inspired the town's first fest in 1932. Only when I approach Comfort Park do I see them — trikes that were born to be wild. During the time trials, three-wheelers with front tires as big as an adult bike's careen through the street in front of Flapjack's Restaurant. Each is unique, which is to say, handmade, welded together from a hodgepodge of parts. With bike helmet in hand, I join a small crowd talkin' trikes. "Think Brett'll win this year's Grand Prix again?" one man wonders. "Are the women doing the Powder Puff race?" another wants to know. "What kind of horsepower do these babies have under the hood?" I ask.

At 7 p.m., Toni Mathews of Cascade Bank, this year's race sponsor, explains the rules. During the time trials, we'll race around a block-long track. Based on our times, pole positions will be assigned for Friday night's obstacle course, complete with a Jell-O pit.

"Jell-O pit?" I ask.

"You'll see," Toni says.

Before I can come to my senses and grow up, I meet Rick Bates. A soft-spoken but serious triker, Rick ducttapes his shoelaces so they don't get caught in the spokes. He is captain of my team. I soon learn we don't ride for the thrill of victory. We ride because Rick's son can't ride, and is barely able to walk. He has ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T), a rare genetic disorder. Rick hopes our team, A-T Northwest, will raise public awareness of the disease, and perhaps some contributions, as well. (A-T Northwest is the regional chapter of a national charity, A-T Children's Project, Inc.) He introduces me to our teammates, John Haedt and Bruce Knechtel, but before I can ask how they were talked into becoming Buffoons for a Day, it's our team at the starting line. "On your mark..." a man shouts into a bullhorn, and the trials begin.

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