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Art, engineering and a few bicycles

Duane Flatmo's Arcata Kinetic Lab is a place where Picasso's spirit is alive and well--in human-powered movable sculpture. Photos: Extreme sculptures

ARCATA, Calif.--I'm riding along through the empty streets of this coastal college town on what can only be described as the bicycle Picasso would have built if he'd been told to throw a giant sculpture on top of it and provide seating for four.

This is "Extreme Makeover," and it is kinetic sculpture artist Duane Flatmo's latest creation. And I have to say, being inside it--for that's where we are, inside a giant abstract head--is really funny. Especially when we pedal past neighbors of Flatmo's who don't even blink at the incredible concoction. They just wave.

Kinetic sculptures

My visit here is the first stop on Road Trip 2006, my gadget, technology and geekery-filled journey around the Pacific Northwest. And a fitting first stop it is, as it presents a combination of engineering genius, artistic elegance and plain old fun.

Flatmo is one of the pre-eminent practitioners of kinetic sculpture racing, a pastime that started informally here in 1969 and now is celebrated with a giant three-day event involving dozens of entrants each Memorial Day weekend.

A kinetic sculpture, for those of you not familiar with the animal, is a human-powered machine engineered to cover long distances, ford rivers and cross sandy beaches. It is often a piece of great art to boot. And to visit the Arcata Kinetic Lab, which Flatmo operates along with several other teams, is like stepping into the dreams of an abstract painter who dabbles in making bicycles and entirely odd sculpture.

In any case, with this year's race behind him, Flatmo is nonetheless eager to show off "Extreme Makeover," which is about 10 feet tall, pinkish-orange and has really bad teeth.

From my vantage point inside the machine, I'm looking forward through its mouth and out beyond those teeth--a very unusual view.

Turf, surf, machinery
Back in the lab, where Flatmo has been tinkering for about 25 years, nearly every square inch of floor, wall and ceiling space is taken up with mementos of past kinetic sculpture races.

High in the rafters are a gorgeous green dragon, an entrant of Flamo's from a previous year, and a giant dog, a sculpture by June Moxon.

But down on the floor, right in the doorway of the lab and the very first thing I saw when Flatmo opened the garage door, is "Surf 'n Turf," a kinetic sculpture with a mechanical base he and his team has been racing since 1991 and a body that is about 3 years old.

Road Trip 2006

And "Surf 'n Turf" is no ordinary machine. It looks like some crustacean that got exposed to far too much radiation. It has giant, crab-like claws, bulging eyes, and off its back rises a beast that is part octopus and part starfish. And rising above the main part of its body is a massive bull's head. Naturally.

"Surf 'n Turf"--Flatmo tells me--is designed for six riders, with most parts moving as the people inside turn handles and pedal.

"The whole thing becomes this animated thing powered by human power," Flatmo explained, "so when kids see it, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, it's this (giant) moving thing.'"

For its part, "Extreme Makeover" seats only four. But what it lacks in extra seating it makes up for in sophisticated engineering. Flatmo explained that it has 18 speeds for street riding, and a second set of 18 speeds for riding across sand.

That's not to mention what it can do in water.

Because Flatmo and his compatriots have been at their game for so long, they are often seen as the source of many good ideas for other kinetic sculpture racers.

"In this race, when you design something, the next year when you come back, you see two or three other teams using your design," he said. "And that's the best compliment--when other teams copy your design."

Meanwhile, it's kind of hard to imagine what it's like to pedal one of these things in a race. With just two of us, we make very good speed along the flat streets of Arcata. But competing takes four committed racers working in tight coordination.

"It looks like fun," Flatmo said, "but inside, you're all trying to set a cadence, so you don't get too tired...You see a hill coming up, and all of a sudden, it'll be sand, so everybody shifts into their sand gears, and you can hear them, click, click, click."

The race itself lasts for three days and spans 42 miles from Arcata to nearby Ferndale. And entrants are judged in three categories: art, speed and engineering. And the team with the best combination of all three wins the grand prize.

Over the years, Flatmo said, he has won four grand prizes.

Of course, entrants also must be sure to carry all the required items with them. Those include a sleeping bag for every rider, a teddy bear, a map, water, a 2-gallon bucket for putting out fires and a toothbrush for each rider.

"That's to keep your teeth clean for the cameras," Flatmo said.

In any case, while each team spends months designing and engineering their creations, there's no replacement for skilled driving.

Flatmo described one part of the course known as "Dead Man's Drop," which includes a very steep downhill section that ends in a narrow passage.

"If you do it right, you can thread the needle and go right through," he said. "If you don't, you just eat it."

And making these machines maneuverable requires a great deal of skill. Especially since they weigh a ton. Well, half a ton, actually.

"Extreme Makeover" weighs about 580 pounds empty, Flatmo said, and 1,200 pounds with four riders.

So, as you might imagine, there's plenty of opportunity for error. And that's not something Flatmo or his opponents want to see during the races.

"You're constantly trying to come up with new (engineering) ideas that work," he said. "You don't want to go in the water and fail in front of the whole crowd."

Needless to say, Flatmo has succeeded many more times than he's failed, and he's become something of a celebrity in the area. As such, he teaches local kids about making kinetic sculptures.

"The community loves it," he said. "There's generations of kids who are inspired (by this). There are kids who have come here and next thing, their school is making a machine for the race."

In the end, one might ask why Flatmo and his colleagues spend so much time, year in and year out, building these machines and racing them.

"Every once in a while, I look over at Ken (Beidleman, his longtime friend) and I say, 'Why, why? (We) don't do it for the money, we do it for the glory.' And he looks over at me and says, 'Why not?'"

NEXT UP: A visit to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Ore., the permanent home of the "Spruce Goose."