Liam Gimbel’s hands are dirty from a bike chain he has been fiddling with as he sits on the linoleum floor, the bright overhead fluorescents flickering as he works. He mutters a few choice words under his breath. “Don’t print that,” he says, laughing. “I’m almost done fixing this, it’s super engineered.”
The 15-mile race, sponsored by the American Visionary Art Museum, consists of sculptures made out of recycled materials on human-powered bikes making their way through mud, sand, harbor waters and all the land in between. The event has been a Baltimore tradition since its launch in 1998, and many of the staple sculptures from the annual May race have gone on to become unofficial mascots representing the weird, quirky and creative ways of the city.
Jemicy is no stranger to the amount of teamwork and quick thinking it takes to complete the arduous race. The Kinetic Sculpture Race classes — where students weld, build and utilize problem-solving through trial and error — have been taught by August DiMucci for the past 13 years. Each bike sculpture can be no more than 8 feet wide, 13 feet high and 35 feet long while on the road or highway, and every team has a pilot, co-pilot and supporting members to help get the bike through the various course obstacles.
The class, which is taught in three sections, originally started as a club in 2004 before becoming an official part of the curriculum the following year. The creation of both were spearheaded by Brandon Emmons, founder of Jemicy’s art department. The school’s first bike that was in the Kinetic Sculpture Race was made of wood and broke at the starting line, but the team pushed it and then drove it all the way to the waterfront obstacle just to see if they had correctly calculated its ability to float.
And float it did.
The tactile and visual aspects of the class are important for Jemicy, the first school accredited by the International Dyslexia Association as a recognized leader in educating students with dyslexia or other related language-based learning differences.
“For me, the hands-on part of it is super important,” said Oliver Smulyan, 17. “Sitting in my chair and doing classwork for an hour and a half is a lot different than coming in here and being able to be super hands-on. I think it’s just a nice way to decompress.”
Along with a relaxed and chill environment, the class also teaches the importance of teamwork.
“I think the bigger focus of this class is that we’re all working together even if we’re in several [different] periods. It’s just one big KSR team. It’s definitely an important thing to learn before you’re just thrown into the real world,” said student Dodge Roberts, 16.
“Each year the kids walk in and see the vehicles and we go over the history of each year — what worked, what didn’t work. They understand how we got here and how we solved the problem,” DiMucci said. “Every year is such an adventure. I have a student now that has a prosthetic for one of his legs and he’s been able to see one of our past vehicles that was hand-driven with a hand crank, and he said, ‘I can do that you know.’ He’s already started getting his ideas together.”
That student, Jake Buchanan, 17, says he was turned down for one of his ideas. “If I’m being completely honest, I asked Miss DiMucci if I could weld stuff to my leg. She said no. Evidently this metal is too light to actually weld stuff on,” he said. But he has persisted. “How I see myself doing this is ‘screw the legs,’ they’re the enemy. I have a hand cycle but it’s only cool if you have the upper body strength.”
Buchanan proceeded to do more than 10 pullups on the bar inside the door frame of the classroom. “I think I’ll be fine,” he said.
Last year’s race wasn’t complete without challenges and engineering issues, many of which the Jemicy team took into consideration when building and fine-tuning the five gold bikes that will be submitted this year.
“This is my revenge bike,” said Gimbel, pilot of the vehicle “AUSome” (AU is the periodic table symbol for gold). His kinetic sculpture features an ATV wheel on the back “to make sure it gets through the mud this year. We’ve also gotten every award except for the engineering award which is also why this year this thing is overly engineered — aggressively engineered even.”
Many of the second- and third-year students are able to give advice and help guide their first-year teammates to success.
“I’d like to finish this year in, you know, one piece,” said Jonathan Kuessner, pilot of the “Good as Gold” vehicle. His failed last year when it was damaged in the mud pit, and then its fate was sealed when he tried to hop a curb to get out of the way of an oncoming car near the finish line. He picked up the bike and carried it across the line. “This year’s challenges are making sure that things are reinforced in those spots where stuff broke last year. I’m not stressing this year because I know what to expect. It’s a whole different ballgame when you’re actually in it,” the 18-year-old said.
The KSR classes work together, picking up where their teammates left off. When one period ends, the next one comes in and gets to work right away. Each bike has a pilot, a co-pilot, a pit crew of five to six, and a team of three to four adults in case things get especially tricky.
“The biggest takeaway from what I got out of this is that you can’t really have mistakes, but if you do it’s not the biggest deal. You’ll fix it,” said Leo Moscarella, 18, co-pilot to Kuessner.
“One thing we talk about here is learning from failure. The process is just as valuable, if not more valuable, than the final product,” DiMucci said.
While students come from various backgrounds and levels of experience, their work together as a team is just as important as their individual talents.
“I didn’t know how to ride a bike before. I actually learned last year because it was senior skip day and I was the only one in class,” Smulyan said, and a teacher told him, “Well, we’re gonna teach you how to ride a bike.” After about 15 minutes, Smulyan was up and riding.
This weekend, Smulyan and his teammates will ride their engineered bikes miles together up hills, in water and through dirt, all in the hopes to take home another award for Jemicy School.
The opening ceremony for the Kinetic Sculpture Race will take place at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the American Visionary Art Museum.