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Big wheels, big fun

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Annual Cissal Hill race draws Sunday crowd

By Kacie Goode

As the third rider crashed into the ditch by the orange cone, laughter erupted from the crowd that had gathered by the guardrail. No one was seriously injured, but it was the anticipation of wrecks and wipe outs that brought hundreds to the sharp curves of Cissal Hill Road Sunday afternoon.

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“This is the biggest crowd yet,” said organizer Levi Wooldridge, adding that the number of spectators has grown each year.

The Cissal Hill Big Wheel Race has been a popular — if not a little dangerous — tradition in New Haven for the past seven years. The event started when Wooldridge and friend Jason Newton saw something similar on TV and thought the New Haven area would find such a race entertaining. They were right.

The Big Wheel Race involves dozens of adults and adolescents careening down a curvy stretch of road. To add to the fun, many of the big wheel “trikes” are homemade — so long as they are not motorized. Really, Wooldridge said, the only rules are all racers must wear a helmet and the big wheels must be built safely. Some racers invest thousands in their trikes, while others procrastinate a bit.

“I started on it Wednesday night, so I only got a couple days involved in it,” said a racer everyone knows as “Ronnie Mac” (Chandler Barnes). “I haven’t even tested it.”

With less than an hour before race time, “Mac” was getting the plastic sleeves cut for the rear wheels on his big wheel, which comprised part of a bicycle, an antique tractor seat and go-kart wheels. He was racing in each race and both classes Sunday, including rubber wheels and plastic wheels.

“This is probably the coolest thing around,” he said. “We look forward to it every year because it’s just something totally different and off the wall.”

The race also has a little bit of risk involved, and since its start, participants have seen their fair share of wrecks.

“We’ve never had any bad injuries, nothing crazy,” Wooldridge said. “Just scrapes and bruises.”

But one racer did get carted off in a truck for an ankle injury Sunday, and the video of his crash has since been uploaded to Youtube for “those who missed it” to see what happened.

When the event got its start, Wooldridge said, they had a crowd of about 20 local people, more than they had anticipated, and they all raced down the hill. Today, it’s a sport that attracts dozens of racers from around the area and even out of state.

Racer Bradley Douthat, of Delaware, came across the event online and decided to make his first trip down to Kentucky this weekend to take part.

“This is so much fun,” Douthat said after racing. “This has a lot more of a local support.”

Douthat, born and raised in Hockessin, Delaware, is the president of Slider King USA, part of a worldwide racing organization, and CEO of Delaware Drift Trikes. He has raced in events similar to Sunday’s all around the world, including recent trips to Italy, Argentina and Thailand. But his visit to New Haven, he said, was interesting as many of the races he attends are in remote areas where there are few spectators. Seeing Cissal Hill’s big crowds and all ages was “awesome,” he said.

Even with experienced blood entering the starting line, though, by the end of the day a good ol’ boy from New Hope walked away the grand prize winner.

Friends joked that Kurt Edelen had to buy a larger helmet every year as his ego grew, having been named champion five out of the seven years the race has been held. This year was Edelen’s third consecutive win.

“I’m the big champ. I’m the greatest big wheeler on Cissal Hill,” Edelen said with a smile. “I’ve just been big wheeling everybody.”

Edelen said he started competing the first year more as a joke, but then became serious about the sport. He says he tries to come back with something faster each year.

Edelen says he only competes in the plastic wheel class, because “the real racers race with plastic” since it’s harder to control the trikes. “It’s a challenge,” he said.

Over the years, Edelen has racked up a lot of wrecks and a lot of victories, and joked he might retire soon to give some of the other racers a better chance at the title.

The race, the crashes and the unique New Haven fun are what bring the crowds out, but the Cissal Hill Big Wheel Race also has a charitable foundation. The entry fees, shirt sales and other funds raised from the event go to a good cause, which Wooldridge said they decided to do after realizing how large the turnout was. For the last three years, the race has benefited the ALS Association, and this year $3,800 was raised.

Supporting a good cause is just a bonus for organizers, who love seeing how engaged and excited the community gets in preparing for race day each year.