Big Wheel riders without brakes careen down Vermont Street on March 31, 2024 at San Franciscos annual Bring Your Own Big Wheel event. The inevitable collisions created scenes of total chaos.
Big Wheel riders without brakes careen down Vermont Street on March 31, 2024 at San Francisco’s annual Bring Your Own Big Wheel event. The inevitable collisions created scenes of total chaos.
John Greenwood

Opinion: Big Wheels keep on turning: I found my thrill on Potrero Hill

I had been anticipating this spectacular event on the calendar for months. This was my first time attending the annual Bring Your Own Big Wheel (BYOBW) event, in which people of all ages fly down what is labeled “the crookedest street in the world” on a child’s plastic toy with no brakes. What could go wrong?

First, let’s clear up the myth about Lombard, the street that tourists from all over the world flock to by the thousands, being the world’s most crooked street. Lombard isn’t even the crookedest street in San Francisco: That title goes to Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd streets, near McKinley Square on Potrero Hill. Vermont, while steeper than Lombard, has fewer turns.

In an episode of Fact or Fiction on the Travel Channel, photographer Jayms Ramirez measured the sinuosity of Lombard and Vermont streets and found that Vermont is indeed more crooked — with a sinuosity of 1.56 versus 1.2 for Lombard Street. This is also backed up by various members of San Francisco’s Department of Public Works on California’s Gold episode #13011.

Still, what better idea for an Easter Sunday afternoon’s entertainment than to watch people navigate the curves on Big Wheels? I arrived at the potential crash zone early to see the event setup come together, as well as secure decent parking near the area. I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite the throngs of Big Wheel fans clogging their street and blocking their doors, the Lombard residents appeared to be quite tolerant and welcoming of the Potrero Hill District staged event.

I watched residents open their garage doors to invent makeshift charity bake sales to cater to the multitudes. I was there early to hunt for the best vantage point on the tight-cornered crash zones hours before the event started. The general mood of the competitors and crowd alike was one of good spirit, lighthearted fun and inclusivity with plenty of creative costumes and free spirit thrown in for good measure.

BYOBW is supported by public donations without corporate sponsorship, a very refreshing finding. Otherwise, we would probably be regulated out of any form of enjoyment, pushed and prodded around like cattle and forced to buy $25 beers for the privilege.

First down the hill, at 2 p.m. sharp, were the children under 12, and I was overwhelmed at the sheer volume of willing kids who came tumbling and sliding down the daunting grade of unforgiving concrete with no brakes on their vehicles. It was interesting to see even at this early age the different expressions on tiny faces — from absolute terror to sheer revelry, depending on the spirit of the child.

For the main event, the adults rolled down the hill in their various crazy get-ups and decorated chariots of the hour. Many spectacular crashes ensued, replete with flying parts, as spectators were warned repeatedly to stay back from the hay bales lining the street. I even had a few close encounters when low-flying humans descended upon my lap out of nowhere.

At the bottom of the hill, I was surprised to find a “Big Wheel Repair Shop,” where a capable crew of Big Wheel mechanics helped competitors glue, tape and bandage these war wagons back together so as to make one more run down the hill. Once repaired, the competitors limped off with their cuts, bruises and road rash, their hastily repaired death buggies in hand, to the top of the hill for more chaos and mayhem.

One negative aspect that needs addressing was the number of late-coming spectators who took it upon themselves to walk down the center of the race course looking for front-row seats that sensible people had claimed hours earlier. Upon finding no space available, these people then delayed riders from starting downhill until they were removed from the course to prevent them from being run over by a mob of adults descending the steep hill at great speed on plastic children’s toys with no brakes.

It’s sort of a no-brainer that to walk on an actual race course at any kind of event is dangerous and stupid. But hey, people are people. The vast majority of the more informed crowd greeted these trespassers with a richly earned loud chorus of boos. It was quite interesting to watch the public barracking become too much for the track blockers, who then tried to hide from the embarrassment by conveniently melting to the back of the assembled crowds.

As the competitors limped away into the sunset, the death toll of the innocent Big Wheel event was revealed by the broken plastic trike parts scattered on Vermont’s street and sidewalks for the event organizers to recycle.

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About the Contributor
John Greenwood
John Greenwood, Reporter
John is in his first semester at the Oakleaf and J1. He is also studying J59 photojournalism. He has a keen interest in alternative music, live shows and film. He loves travel and travel stories, and has a strong affiliation and lifetime involvement with all forms of short circuit Stock Car Racing and Demolition Derby, as well as interests in various other contact sports.

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