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A few weeks ago, an old Cannondale bicycle was on its way to being thrown out. Today, it’s living a second life — as a Pac-Man ghost.
Credit its revival to the Kensington Derby & Arts Festival, one of Philly’s quirkiest events, returning on Saturday for its 15th year.
A showcase of DIY skills and pageantry, the derby sees participants navigate homemade, human-powered vehicles across a 3-mile obstacle course that weaves through the neighborhood. It culminates with a glorious mud pit crossing, where many of the rigged-together contraptions meet their end.
It’s a fate Trevor Clifford is not sure his modified Cannondale can avoid.
“We did a very brief test run, and it worked,” the first-time racer told Billy Penn. “But there were plenty of points of failure.”
Clifford, 37, had been wanting to participate in the derby for years, but he splits time between Philadelphia and Chicago and the dates never lined up. Realizing it could finally work this year, he excitedly drew up a vehicle design. He abandoned it just as quickly, after friend Abe Rosenthal, lead operator at local fabrication workshop Philadelphia CNC, told him “cardboard flimsily attached to a bike” wouldn’t cut it.
The pair worked together out of Rosenthal’s workshop, taking items already in Clifford’s possession — a bicycle scavenged from his parents’ neighbor, some “arcade stuff” he had lying around — and combining them with handcart wheels sourced from Craigslist and $20 worth of plywood from Home Depot.
“The initial budget was $50,” Clifford said. “But we’ve doubled that at this point. Mostly on paint.”
The end result is a bike almost entirely surrounded by 40 lbs of half-inch plywood, cut into the shape of Clyde, the orange outcast of the Pac-Man ghost gang. Cherry on top: the rear of the vehicle hosts a playable version of the classic game. It’s essentially a mini arcade on wheels.
“It’s a bit heavier than I anticipated,” Clifford admitted. “But very sturdy, which is nice. It’ll probably survive better than I will.”
A few days before the derby, the pair still had some work to do. A recent test run revealed flaws — “there were these giant screws sticking up where, if I hit a bump, I’d faceplant into them” — and the arcade needs some wiring tweaks. The handcart wheels, on which the arcade cabinet rests, might also have to be replaced. “I can see those getting stuck [in the mud] pretty easily,” Clifford conceded.
At one point, the duo’s plan included a secondary vehicle, a Pac-Man to pursue the ghost, but they were unable to secure another bike in time.
On Saturday, it’ll likely be up to Clifford and his compensatory Pac-Man-emblazoned helmet to guide team Pacstreet Boys’ single-person cart across the finish line. “I need to practice turning more gracefully,” he said. “And get ready for mud.”
When a bubble bath meets a car wash
The event began its life as two separate happenings that merged in 2015: the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival, a showcase of local artists and craft makers spearheaded by the East Kensington Neighbors’ Association, and the Kinetic Sculpture Derby, organized by the New Kensington CDC.
With an overlap in date and location, the organizers eventually realized it would make more sense to join up instead of compete for resources.
The result is a rambunctious celebration of arts and crafts, improvised engineering, and the neighborhood as a whole. The event is now managed by the Fishtown Business Improvement District, with EKNA raising funds through beer sales and NKCDC providing the mud pit.
Local businesses contribute to the obstacles faced by this year’s 21 racing teams — including at least one group of six.
At Johnny Brenda’s, a bar and music venue at Frankford and Girard that’s near the beginning of the course, racers will meet the foam pit. A tradition for “at least the past 10 years,” according to bar co-owner William Reed, it stemmed from a desire to present chaos without causing too much damage.
“The mud pit takes a lot of people out, which is part of the carnage,” Reed explained. “We didn’t want to take the contestants right out of the race that early, so we decided to have fun with it.”
What resulted is a high-powered car wash of sorts, involving PVC piping, industrial fans, and “absurd amounts of bubble bath.” It’s a technique Reed has mastered after watching “hundreds of hours of YouTube videos” over the years, and a contribution he enjoys bringing to the spectacle.
“The vehicles are hilarious,” he told Billy Penn. “Everything from accomplished welders to completely homegrown [designs]. They all come ‘round, and it’s super fun.”
“Nobody thinks the foam will take them out,” Reed admitted, but “it’s still fun having giant blobs of foam floating through the air and landing on people. It’s sort of like watching the old [game show] Double Dare.”
For those not looking to catch blobs of foam or a wallow in the mud, the festival still has plenty to offer.
Alongside arts, crafts, and wacky races, the event also hosts a food truck festival, with this year’s expanded route allowing for more food and beverage options than previous editions.
Community groups and organizers will also be manning booths, including the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia, the School of Rock, and maker-space NextFab, which has partnered with this year’s derby to provide workshops and technical advice for vehicle-builders, plus free 3-month memberships for select teams. There’ll also be 12 musical acts performing across two stages, a clay studio truck for kids, and a mobile ax throwing unit.
“The whole neighborhood comes out, it’s just good vibes,” Reed said. “I’ve had kids come up to me and say, ‘This is the best day of my life! If that doesn’t do it for you, nothing will.”
Joked team Pacstreet Boys’ Clifford: “Come watch me in this death-trap box! It’ll be a good time.”
The Kensington Derby & Arts Festival will be held on Trenton Avenue from Norris Street to Frankford Avenue, 12 to 6 p.m. Saturday, May 13, rain or shine. The event is pay as you go, and there’s a PDF derby route map here.
Updated with the new name for the Cannondale derby team: Pacstreet Boys.