Photo courtesy of Jon Christian
Lumber supports groan and chewed-up plywood rumbles under stressed wheels. Riders speed around the perimeter at something approaching a 45-degree angle with the floor, centrifugal force pressing them down against the track, their tires at face-level with onlookers, sometimes just inches away.
This is the Bowl of Death, a portable fixed-gear cycling track its creators describe as a “mini-velodrome.” Tonight is the second time they’ve set it up for public use in Somerville’s Artisan’s Asylum, and the vibe is somewhere between a skate park and Thunderdome. The stranger side of Greater Boston’s cycling scene is out in force, with punks, couriers, mechanics, and their friends drinking beers and crowding around the edge of the bowl, shouting words of encouragement at riders. M.I.A’s “Paper Planes” plays in the background.
Behind the Bowl of Death, prominent local bicycle frame-builder Paul Carson cheers along with his apprentice, Amanda Scotto, who’s known around these parts as Piranha Fuzbug. The two make a striking pair, Carson in a button-down shirt with a carefully-manicured beard and coif, and Scotto covered in tattoos and decked in punk gear.
“I wanted to ride on a track without driving five hours,” says Carson, who believes the nearest permanent velodrome that’s open to the public is in Queens. “So I shamelessly copied the Red Bull Mini Drome.”
That seems like a slight exaggeration. Velodromes date back to the mid-19th century, and remain popular in parts of Europe. On normal contemporary tracks–which are vastly larger than the Bowl of Death in Somerville–riders employ intense strategies for races, and conserve energy by drafting and then passing opponents at the last possible moment.
Carson designed the flat segments of the Bowl of Death with AutoCAD, then stenciled and cut the tailored planks from sheets of plywood. The frame, built from a cascade of 2x4s, breaks down into modules for easy transport. To set up shop in the Artisan’s Asylum, they had to push cubicles and couches out of the central warehouse space to clear room.
Upon completion, the Bowl of Death’s diameter measures about 34-feet–narrow enough that it’s nerve-racking to watch riders circle it like bugs revolving down a drain. For the most part, only one rider mounts at a time, but occasionally, two climb in at once. At various points throughout the evening, participants attempt to ride a unicycle and a recumbent bicycle. I see a few accidents, but nothing terribly serious. Nobody, Scotto says, has tripped over the edge or wasted spectators.
Still, climbing into the Bowl is an intimidating prospect.
“A bunch of my friends who act all tough got here, took a look at it, and said ‘No way,’” says Scotto, who worked as a bike courier before she started building frames for Carson.
Carson and Scotto purchased insurance for the events, made sure that riders wore helmets, and did their best to make sure nobody rode under the influence of alcohol. In the case of one rider who does fall in front of me, he tumbles safely away from his bike, and, once laying at the bottom, makes as if he’s carving a snow angel.
As tends to be the case with daredevil stunts, there seems to be a social component to the Bowl of Death gatherings that helps draw onlookers with little prior interest in track racing. Some get caught up in the moment, and even end up riding.
According to Chris Knighton, an Allston cycling enthusiast who dipped into the Bowl of Death tonight, the thrill “is fun because it sort of fits into a certain subculture in cycling, sort of the DIY culture of urban cycling and alleycat racing.” Still, he says the main reason he went in the first place “was just to see a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a while.”
Both Carson and Scotto are members of the local oddball bike gang SCUL, which originated in the 1990s. For SCUL missions, members are assigned space opera titles–last season, Scotto was a Captain and Carson was a Maggot–and sent out on freakishly tall and mutated bicycles. Scotto says that inscrutable but tight network, which treats high-fives as cherished social capital, probably helps attracts crowds to these events.
After the session I check out, Scotto says members of SCUL tore the bowl to pieces at a raucous party. All that’s left now is scrap lumber. But if all goes well, Carson and Scotto will crowdsource a larger, more permanent version. They’ll call it the Popup Velodrome, and it will be about the size of a basketball court, built from metal and not plywood. If all goes according to plan, they’ll take it out into the Greater Boston community, setting up in parking lots, public halls, and possibly parks. On their current timetable, the project will be finished by early summer.
“The Bowl of Death was a proof of concept,” Carson says. “It was super cool, and we can’t wait to do it again.”
Starting this month, the Bowl of Death brigade will shoot to raise $60,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, which will cover construction costs, storage for a year, transportation, insurance, and a few dedicated bikes. Perks will include pre-sale tickets for events, as well as quirky offerings like stencils to build your own full-scale replica of the original track.
Will young and daring bikers cough up the funds? Perhaps, but Carson also hopes to find support among older, more affluent cyclists who want access to a local velodrome.
“Most track riders are probably dentists,” Carson says. He pauses, perhaps realizing it wouldn’t be the worst idea to have a dental surgeon on hand. “Not that there’s anything wrong with dentists.”