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Team Pineapple Takes a Victory Lap
A 4-person, 500-pound kinetic bike sculpture with a sense of humor and strong purpose.
If you were at Ives Park last Saturday for the town’s birthday party, you might have seen folks from Team Pineapple walking around with scuba gear mounted on yellow bike helmets. You might also have seen the kinetic bike sculpture called “Humpbacks of Notre Dame.” Robert van de Walle of Team Pineapple explained that the “Humpbacks” rig competed in the 54th Annual Kinetic Grand Championships in Arcata, CA. The 50-mile race over land and water for human-powered vehicles takes place on Memorial Day weekend. I interviewed Robert by email.
You won! The Humpbacks of Notre Dame by Team Pineapple was named the Grand Champion.
We earned Grand Champion. We had an amazing team this year. Our athletes, artists, performers and people who handled logistics and meals simply knocked it out of the park. Everyone delivered 110% and showed adaptability and humor under pressure. We achieved a final score of 297 points, a nearly perfect 300.
What best describes your creation?
Humpbacks of Notre Dame is a kinetic sculpture, designed around a big message with big art using only the kinetic energy of muscles and wind to power along roads, sand, and water. It's a 4-person amphibious pedal car weighing in at around 500 pounds with all our art and gear onboard.
What did you and your team have to do to win this race?
This is the "Triathlon of the Art World." To win, you have to field a team with great artists, great athletes, great engineers, and great crew. Even then you might not win! There are several vehicle and team-destroying obstacles along the 50-mile, three-day course. Exertion and dehydration can make people cranky, while punishing terrain can break a rig's frame or axles. The rigs have to be light enough to pedal, but also strong. Failures I've seen include all four wheels coming off of a rig and losing a pontoon in the bay so the whole thing capsizes!
How did Humpbacks perform during the race itself? What was the biggest challenge or obstacle? Any crashes?
I designed the art to function as a small sail, to take advantage of the near constant onshore winds of Humboldt County. Humpbacks also has 4-wheel independent drives, which can be repaired without stopping in most cases. We simply flew down the course. We had a 2-hour lead on the next closest team at the end of day two! However, on day three, we had trouble on the final water crossing. We entered the Eel River with a strategy, but the wind was coming right up the river at that point and a big gust carried us into a bridge pylon where we tipped over. We didn't fully capsize, since our art is buoyant, but we did have a scary moment while we waited for everyone to get their heads above water. I am very grateful because before we started across, one of our teammates wondered out loud: "Shouldn't we put on our PFDs (life-jackets)?"
Struggling to recover from our dump in the drink, I and another teammate became hypothermic. We received treatment but the medical hold ate up our lead. Even worse, our pit crew had to tow the vehicle 50 feet to shore. When a kinetic sculpture moves forward on the course without its pilots, it loses its “ACE”, which is a set of special rules that must be followed if you are to be Grand Champion. When Search and Rescue (SAR) told me we had to get out of the water or be rescued, I knew it meant we'd lost our ACE.
The biggest challenge was listening to SAR because in that moment, all the adrenaline of the weekend and all the effort of years of work is saying keep pushing, take another risk, don't stop.
The race's ACE and engineering judges conferred with the SAR team and determined that because we'd followed a lawfully given order, our ACE was intact. We didn't know this until the awards ceremony, so we finished the race believing we'd lost our opportunity to be Grand Champions. I'm super proud of the team during those last miles between the river and the finish line. Our mood was perhaps a bit subdued, but we still had fun and did our best.
How did you get into this? Who came up with the climate change scenario?
We've been making ridiculous slightly dangerous human powered things since 2010. The race is a fun opportunity to be with other people who are similar to us. Dawn Thomas and I realized climate change can explain our wordplay on Hunchback of Notre Dame. Why are there whales? Well, clearly, the ice has melted and the oceans have risen.
We were pretty much ready to go when the pandemic hit and everything got canceled. We see the pandemic as a practice run for how people will respond to climate change. We're pretty sad about how people behaved. But instead of giving in to bad feelings, we expanded our art and published New Planet News, our newsletter from the future. Using a tongue-in-cheek, Onion style of reporting, we comment on human nature in the face of catastrophe.
Humor and climate change are not something we often see together. Favorite story in New Planet News is “Species Assignment Therapy Goes Mainstream” with the quote: "My mom and dad got the gills upgrade years ago." That’s coming fifty years from now?
Ha, thanks. That's simply classic sci-fi extrapolation following the question "What happens when old people can't afford to move out of their beachfront property even as it falls beneath the waves?" to its ridiculous conclusion, that some kind of technology will be developed so we can avoid change.
The entire fallacy that we can engineer and tech our way out is untenable. We ride our human powered vehicle to show that the tech is already here. We don't have to wait for anything other than behavioral change. That's why we advocate that people add their voices to your state level bike advocacy groups. We support CalBike, for example. Bike infrastructure is something everyone can advocate for, even if you don't ride a bike yourself. Imagine if some of those commuters clogging up your freeway were on bikes, instead. Don't you want that? Helping others helps yourself.
How did you build Humpbacks? How long did it take?
It's made of steel, aluminum, insulation foam, floor mats, ABS pipe, bike parts, several kinds of glue, paper, fabric and paint. We started in 2019 in a glorious large barn at a friend's ranch. Other parts have been built in a school room, on a driveway, and most recently in a pipe and tarp carport in the back of the house. There's no excuse for not making what you want to make; if you really want it, you find a way. The final version of the art was commissioned by SFMOMA for the Soapbox Derby at McLaren Park 2022.
Was it built in Sebastopol?
We built the final version in Sebastopol. No one cares that we got notice to move out of our rental, scrambled together some savings and managed to buy a house last fall. We still built art and made it to the event! That's what we did.
What's next for Team Pineapple?
"I'm going to hunt down that shark, or whatever it is, and hopefully kill it." Haha, Life Aquatic references aside, we're considering perpetuating Humpbacks since its message is so strong and needs to be acted upon. Next year for the race, though? Our activism will show up in some other way. The purpose of the race for us is "Adults having responsible fun so children desire to grow older."