Defying death on the Star Wheel

At Maker Faire Austin, the crew behind the giant Star Wheel put together their bike-tech-powered carnival ride for the first time outside of Burning Man.

AUSTIN, Texas--I'm high in the air, aboard a carnival ride cum Burning Man art piece cum bicycle-tech-powered people mover known as the Star Wheel.

It's hard to describe this: It's a giant wheel, maybe 20 feet high that has three seats built into the middle of it--independent of the outer frame--that are geared to spin around when their occupants pedal like crazy. As they pedal, the wheel moves slowly forward while those inside whoop and scream their way through rapid 360 degree rotations.

Paul daPlumber and his Star Wheel crew work on their bicycle-tech-powered carnival ride at the Travis County fairgrounds in Austin, Texas, in preparation for the Maker Faire. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

It's quite the experience. I had first seen this at Burning Man 2004, and then again the following year. I had always wanted to ride it because of its particularly silly blend of carnival attraction and obvious genius engineering. But I'd never gotten the chance.

So when I arrived Thursday at the Travis County fairgrounds--where Maker Faire Austin is taking place this weekend--to report on the preparations for the event, I was very pleased to see the Star Wheel being assembled.

At first, I just stood by and shot photographs as the project's crew put the finishing touches on it. They were working slowly and methodically, their progress slowed only by occasional lewd banter.

Finally, they were ready to try it out.

"I think that's it," the project's leader, Paul daPlumber, shouted out. "We're ready. Let's roll it over."

Rolling the Star Wheel anywhere is not the easiest of tasks. It requires several people to push it and turn it, and it's slow going. But the crew wanted to test it out in advance of letting hundreds of people ride it this weekend.

So, the team jumped on and started pushing and rolling it across the grounds. Six of them turned it 90 degrees so it was pointed in the right direction--aimed at the inside of the livestock building they were working just outside of--and they're talking about getting the first riders on it.

I really wanted to be in the first group, so I volunteered. But sadly, they already had three folks lined up. Swallowing my disappointment, I followed them into the building, snapping photos, taking notes and watching.

As the Star Wheel moved forward, they realized it was on a path to collide with something, so they stopped and redirected it a few feet. After that, the three guys riding it started whooping and screaming, especially as they neared full upside-down turns.

One of the people watching this was Maker Faire safety officer Joseph Pred--stay tuned for a story on his role here later. I asked him what he thought about the test.

"They're testing it because they've never done it on a grade," Pred said. The Black Rock desert in Nevada, where Burning Man is held is flat, so "they're testing the tolerances. My job is to observe and help them figure it out, and give them a nudge. And they're doing a good job."

Just about then, they did indeed begin to take the Star Wheel down the slight incline. It was slight, so it wasn't too much extra work, but it was the first time they'd ever done it, and the tension rose.

Just about then, the crew stopped the Star Wheel and decided to get some new riders. I eagerly volunteered, and next thing you know, I'm sitting in one of the seats, belted in like crazy and holding onto the "Oh f--- bars" that are designed to keep riders from falling out of their seats.

The wheel begins to move and I begin to pedal and it's crazy fun. But also crazy scary. My knuckles are white as I grab hold of those bars with all my life, knowing that at any moment, the whole thing could fall apart and I could fall to my death.

The Star Wheel emerges from a livestock building at the Travis County fairgrounds with three riders having the time of their life. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

But it doesn't fall, and we roll forward slowly, the three of us riders spinning around on a vertical axis in glee, baking in the Texas sun and loving every moment of it.

I decide that if I die, well, at least I was having fun when it happened.

The thing is, though, these guys know what they're doing. The Star Wheel is very well engineered, with many redundant failure points, so as I ride, I become more and more confident that the bolts won't shear off and I won't get crushed.

That confidence allows me to enjoy it more.

Finally, I get off and pull daPlumber aside for a quick chat about the project.

He tells me that he and his crew of six drove the wheel from San Francisco on a trailer behind a pickup. It then took a day-and-a-half to put together, the most time-consuming part of it being the painting it needed to look shiny and colorful again after much of it had been stored in the Nevada desert for the last couple of years.

"It's just a lot of labor," said daPlumber. "There are 300 nuts and bolts, so it's a lot of nutting and bolting."

He added that while this is the first time he's brought the Star Wheel anywhere other than Burning Man, he has fantasies of taking it to parades and possibly even to Mardi Gras in New Orleans in February.

For daPlumber, the best thing about the Star Wheel is watching people have fun riding it and directing it.

"It's just great, it's very spiritual and visceral and real," he said.

Finally, I say goodbye and begin to walk off. And just as I'm doing so, I hear daPlumber say one last thing.

"Thanks for flying," he said. "We know you have a choice in bicycle carnival rides, and we'd like to thank you."

 

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