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Online archives from The Colorado Daily

June 15, 2001

Chariots of plastic
Big wheel rally takes to downtown sidewalks once again

By BRAD WEISMANN/For the Colorado Daily

Twice a year, on spring and fall evenings, the phantom riders take to the streets. Their approach is signaled by a low rumble in the distance, the guttering rattle of hollow plastic on pavement. Next may be heard a snatch of siren, the clang of bells, yelps of excitement. Then a flying wedge of low-slung children's chariots crowding the sidewalk suddenly bursts around the corner - strange vehicles from out of the past, pedaled by costumed thrill-seeking freebooters.

For the random passerby on the Pearl Street Mall, it's a chance revelation - an intersection with an enthusiastic band who celebrate life, whimsy, and a certain brand of plastic injection-molded riding toy. Strap on, saddle up and get ready for the Almost-Annual Matt Armbruster Memorial Big Wheel Rally.

It all began innocently enough. In the spring of 1991, CU engineering student Armbruster was having a really bad day. He had abruptly returned to Boulder from a canceled study abroad program, and he was too late to get the classes he needed at registration.

Sitting around a friend's place one afternoon, Armbruster blurted out, "Hey, let's get Big Wheels and ride the mall!" Unlike most spontaneous inspirations, this one wasn't disregarded.

After typing up flyers on his Apple II E and distributing them, Armbruster managed to gather together 15 people and eight Big Wheels for a ride from bar to bar along the Pearl Street Mall.

"And we just had the best time," muses the cheerful Armbruster in a recent interview. "Then it was like - 'OK, we need to do this some more.'"

It became a biannual ritual that drew demented participants from as far away as Iowa and California. It holds its 20th running Saturday.

Big Wheel keep on turnin'

The original Big Wheel was produced by Louis B. Marx and Co. from 1962 to 1978. With its yellow and red color scheme, ground-scraping frame, adjustable pegboard seat, plastic tasseled handlebars, and, uh, big wheel in front, it looked like something a stripper's kid might pilot in a Las Vegas Fourth of July parade. Its bizarre and widespread popularity continued into the '80s, with garish, lightweight descendants such as Empire Industries' offering based on the original Marx designs, the Playskool Power Cycle, and others. Would-be riders can purchase contemporary equivalents reasonably cheaply at a toy or department store, but diehards comb garage sales and thrift stores for vintage models.

The rally saga is really a story of difficulties overcome, of human ingenuity triumphantly mischanneled. First of all, the rally requires dedicated riders and reinforced transportation.

A thoroughly daffy and inspired Web site (www. provides a helpful Handbook for the Uninformed: A Virgin's Guide to the Big Wheel Rally, a hilarious and comprehensive Standard Disclaimer, and a copiously illustrated how-to section on vehicle modifications, which are now considered a vital factor in the successful completion of the event.

The Handbook states: "For the average adult, the standard Big Wheel will be almost entirely unrideable. The obvious solution would be to forget the whole ludicrous idea and stay home. We are not here for obvious solutions: modify the hell out of it."

Strengthened Big Wheels can survive stunts such as leaps from the top step of the West End Tavern, head-ons, and "power slides."

"The early Big Wheels ... used to have that power brake on the one side. You could just come flyin' down the road and grab that ... it would just jam up one of the rear wheels and you'd spin out," says Armbruster as several of my own childhood Big Wheel-related near-death experiences suddenly flash before my eyes.

Several riders customize by adding bells, sirens, lights, and applying decorator colors to their tiny vehicles. Riding in costume and in character now seems a natural progression. The inspiration may have been the lucky rider who found and rode a G. I. Joe combat model, complete with camouflage coloring. Another showed up in cape and mask as Captain Chaos, in honor of Dom DeLuise's "Cannonball Run" character.

Enthusiasm spread, and soon there was Doctor Feelgood's Big Wheel, done up as an ambulance - and he kept a large syringe of tequila on hand all night in order to dispense shots as needed.

Armbruster himself found a gold lame jumpsuit, and Captain Obvious, with his powerful grasp of the unmistakable, was born.

The rally gathers and begins at the West End Tavern, moving on to various establishments on the Pearl Street Mall throughout the evening. When the bars close, the night's survivors make their way to the top of a nearby parking structure and ride the ramps down, a Ben-Hur kind of activity described as "one mass start, and see who you put into the wall."

The rally now obtains permission from business owners before including them on the tour, after run-ins with unprepared and/or hostile individuals in the past.

"Now they want to be there 'cause they have so much fun themselves," adds Armbruster.

And, as is the case with all rebels, these capricious charioteers have had their brushes with the law. Despite their avowal to use their superpowers for good, they have been harassed intermittently by the police for riding wheeled vehicles on the mall. Today Armbruster doesn't fear getting a ticket.

"As long as somewhere in the police report, it says 'Big Wheel,' I don't mind," he says.

Other hazards include unfriendly weather, run-ins with drunks, and thieves who walk off with unsecured Big Wheels under their arms. Disappointingly, there are sometimes many onlookers and few participants.

"It's really kind of funny that there's people that are very, very tentative," Armbruster says. "'Oh, oh, I'll come watch but I'm not gonna ride a Big Wheel.' What? What's wrong with you? Of course you wanna ride it. You know, truly, if you're not riding, you're not having as near as much fun as us."

The 10th Big Wheel Rally begins on Saturday at approximately 9 p.m. in the front of the West End Tavern, 926 Pearl St., Boulder. For more information please call 1-877-208-8703, or visit