Sunday, May 17, 2009


When people ask if it's weird to be back at the same place I went to college, I usually answer that what's weird about it is how not weird it feels. My old coffeehouse is now a bar, but same owners, and I order the same things I used to make when I cooked there; nearly all of my mentors and professors are still here, now my colleagues; my fellow alums are everywhere, teaching and administrating and running restaurants and just living. Not much changes in a town of 8,000 people. From the day I arrived, I felt at home, and if Guided by Voices comes up in the shuffle I sometimes have to remind myself what decade it is.

Today, though, I felt the schism between my two lives here. What happened was that some students here revived an O.C. tradition that originally ended in 1993, the Bike Derby, but has been picked up off and on again over the last couple of years. The Bike Derby was an annual demolition derby on bikes, with costumes, in front of Harkness Co-op, but that doesn't begin to describe the gleefully destructive punk mayhem that it was. You can get a pretty good sense of it from this two-part video of the 1992 Derby:

The enterprising students involved in today's Derby apparently sought to recreate the whole thing from YouTube, down to every live-music and throwing-buckets-of-compost detail. But it's like when you try to clone a pet. It just isn't the same animal. Or maybe it's just that I am not the same animal.

Originally I posted a longer detailed report/critique, a viscercal reaction written in the heat of the post-Derby moment. A day later my feelings have cooled off, and I've got more information from people involved directly and indirectly, and accordingly I've come around on several of the things that bothered me as an observer. [See REDUX, above.]

Don't get me wrong, the costumes and the spirit of the thing were great.

The part where they torch the bikes still bothers me and is the part I believe is worth rethinking.

It was particularly ironic to see a pile of newly-destroyed bicycles set aflame, black smoke billowing from the burning tires, before the backdrop of the state-of-the-art new environmental studies building. In that moment, I couldn't help thinking the whole stunt could just as well have been a demonstration by Republican wingnuts.

Amazingly enough, the whole thing was apparently cleaned up within the hour. So props for that. Over and out.


Anonymous said...

1. we cleaned up the bikes.
2. we saved the bikes that were still functional from the pile. they are currently being ridden. if you want one go build one.
3. the derby functions as a way to get rid of crap that is non-functional.
4. the bike programs on campus do a lot for the town. especially for the kids. we do care. a lot. all year. this is a small moment of not caring in a sea of care. it's a tradition.
5. the burning is environmentally degrading, but driving around in yr car is probably a lot worse.
5. if you can't hack it, don't come back

CHELSEY said...

Hi Anonymous Commenter,
a. Yes, these are things I learned today from friends who knew more than I did about it--had I known them while watching the spectacle, my perception of it would have been quite different. I don't think my reactions as an observer were surprising or unreasonable. But I'm glad to have had some of my original assumptions upended. The edited post reflects this.
b. My perceptions are also colored by my original experience of the Bike Derby sixteen years ago. But that was a different time, a different Derby, and in some ways a different Oberlin, and I came with expectations that were perhaps unreasonable and not fair.
c. Still not into the burning.
d. But I can appreciate the community, artistry, and revelry that you guys put into the event.
e. Feel free to e-mail me.