June 16, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Art, engineering and a few bicycles

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"In this race, when you design something, the next year when you come back, you see two or three other teams using your design," he said. "And that's the best compliment--when other teams copy your design."

Meanwhile, it's kind of hard to imagine what it's like to pedal one of these things in a race. With just two of us, we make very good speed along the flat streets of Arcata. But competing takes four committed racers working in tight coordination.

"It looks like fun," Flatmo said, "but inside, you're all trying to set a cadence, so you don't get too tired...You see a hill coming up, and all of a sudden, it'll be sand, so everybody shifts into their sand gears, and you can hear them, click, click, click."

The race itself lasts for three days and spans 42 miles from Arcata to nearby Ferndale. And entrants are judged in three categories: art, speed and engineering. And the team with the best combination of all three wins the grand prize.

Over the years, Flatmo said, he has won four grand prizes.

Of course, entrants also must be sure to carry all the required items with them. Those include a sleeping bag for every rider, a teddy bear, a map, water, a 2-gallon bucket for putting out fires and a toothbrush for each rider.

"That's to keep your teeth clean for the cameras," Flatmo said.

In any case, while each team spends months designing and engineering their creations, there's no replacement for skilled driving.

Flatmo described one part of the course known as "Dead Man's Drop," which includes a very steep downhill section that ends in a narrow passage.

"If you do it right, you can thread the needle and go right through," he said. "If you don't, you just eat it."

And making these machines maneuverable requires a great deal of skill. Especially since they weigh a ton. Well, half a ton, actually.

"Extreme Makeover" weighs about 580 pounds empty, Flatmo said, and 1,200 pounds with four riders.

So, as you might imagine, there's plenty of opportunity for error. And that's not something Flatmo or his opponents want to see during the races.

"You're constantly trying to come up with new (engineering) ideas that work," he said. "You don't want to go in the water and fail in front of the whole crowd."

Needless to say, Flatmo has succeeded many more times than he's failed, and he's become something of a celebrity in the area. As such, he teaches local kids about making kinetic sculptures.

"The community loves it," he said. "There's generations of kids who are inspired (by this). There are kids who have come here and next thing, their school is making a machine for the race."

In the end, one might ask why Flatmo and his colleagues spend so much time, year in and year out, building these machines and racing them.

"Every once in a while, I look over at Ken (Beidleman, his longtime friend) and I say, 'Why, why? (We) don't do it for the money, we do it for the glory.' And he looks over at me and says, 'Why not?'"

NEXT UP: A visit to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Ore., the permanent home of the "Spruce Goose."

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