Discoveries: Ride a Big Wheel down Amador City's hill

Published: Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H

This whole phenomenon was started, as with so many wacky leisure-time pursuits, by meticulously scruffy hipsters in San Francisco as an excuse to drink too much beer, wear too few clothes and snarkily relive their supposedly idyllic childhoods.

Their recipe for fun:

• Get a Big Wheel, one of those plastic low-rider trikes from days of yore.

• Find a hill, preferably with more curves than Salma Hayek.

• Cram one's bloated adult carcass into the seat.

• Let gravity have its way with you.

• Say "wheeeeee" on the way down, but be sure to say it ironically while flashing finger quotes.

Yup, the annual Easter Sunday "Bring Your Own Big Wheel" derby – first contested down Lombard Street but now whizzing down Vermont Street in Potrero Hill – has become such an institution over the past decade that its highlights have been featured on blooper shows, TV commercials and end-of-the-newscast features.

And the event has spawned imitators from such far-flung locales as Sunapee Harbor, N.H., and Sugarcreek Township, Ohio.

Sacramento, alas, is hopelessly elevation-impaired, flat enough to see the curvature of the Earth.

Which is why you'll want to herd the kids or your bruised inner child to the Mother Lode on Saturday for Amador City's fourth annual Big Wheel Downhill Extravaganza, a rollicking afternoon of thrills, chills and spills on the town's S-curve course from Keystone Alley to Main Street (a.k.a, Old Highway 49).

No need to buy a Big Wheel – the city's Recreation Agency has a fleet (OK, two) available to borrow, and townsfolk are known to be mighty neighborly in sharing their pimped-out rides. Just bring a tenner to enter, a helmet to protect the noggin and closed-toe shoes lest you pull back bloody stubs by the end of your descent.

It is the brainchild of Amador City Mayor Aaron Brusatori, who readily admits he ripped off the idea from San Francisco. In fact, Brusatori can recall the moment he knew Amador City was ready to join the Grand Prix Big Wheel circuit.

"I was watching a Toyota commercial during the Super Bowl one year and they had clips of a Big Wheel downhill thing," Brusatori said, "and I did more research and it was the event they do in San Francisco. So I thought, that's one of the assets we have in Amador City – our hill."

The road from idea to actuality was surprisingly swift and smooth. Brusatori, with the powers vested in him by voters, essentially made it so. Tracey Towner, the head of the Recreation Agency, has been charged with running the event, dealing with pesky little details like insurance liability and other legal hoops through which a law- abiding town must jump.

Because, hey, this ain't we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-permits San Francisco, folks. Amador City couldn't just let anarchy reign. And, owing to its designation as a family-friendly event, outlandish costumes – or none at all – are not de rigueur in A-City's version of the Big Wheel race.

Oops, here's another thing: Don't use the "R" word.

"It's not a race," Towner said. "If it's a race, my insurance won't cover it. That's why we call it 'extravaganza.' "

If YouTube highlights ( are any indication, it certainly lives up to the billing. Time after time, smartphones catch Big Wheelers big and small as they careen down Keystone Alley and try to negotiate that tricky right turn onto Main Street.

"Maybe nobody dresses up, but I'm telling you, it's a sight," Towner said. "We had a couple of teenage kids just come flying down the hill. No fear. There's some spectacular hay-bale crashes."

The video shows all manner of NASCAR-like spin-outs, skids into the hay-bale barriers and one face-plant by a little tyke, who gamely dusted himself off and carried on.

"The kids get braver as the day goes on," Brusatori said.

So, too, do the overgrown kids. Brusatori is still smarting from last year's competition featuring local politicians. He got beaten on his home turf by Wayne Garibaldi, a Jackson councilman.

Garibaldi, 56, may have had an unfair advantage or two. He's 5-foot-6, so he fits the Big Wheel easier than Brusatori. Also, he's an avid motorcyclist accustomed to curvy routes.

"It's a pretty good thrill ride," he said. "I'm a guy who likes to do that sort of stuff. I'm probably more afraid of imminent injury in the Big Wheel contest than riding a motorcycle. Your odds of crashing go up quite a bit. When I get on a motorcycle, I assume I'll get from Point A to Point B in one piece without any contact with hard objects.

"But with the Big Wheel, that's not a realistic expectation. Others bump into you. You bump into them. You decide you want to take this turn and you want to win and, you know, things happen. But usually the injuries are minor, not more than a little road rash."

The key to Big Wheel success, apparently, is in the steering and braking. Pedaling? Not so much.

"There's that sharp turn you make onto the Main Street, and a lot of the guys will just lift their legs up and hold them out straight," Garibaldi said. "You hope you can maintain some sort of control. It's just a matter of whether you can stay vertical, not spin out or at least be able to straighten it out and hold it."

Brusatori's advice: "Lean back, hold your feet in the air and go for it."

Words to live by. In fact, that's probably the creed adhered to by those free-Big-Wheelin' San Francisco hipsters.


Saturday, 4-7 p.m., Main Street, Amador City

Cost: $10.

Rules: Helmet, closed-toe shoes requiredXYXYXYXYXYXY

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