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A music festival on two wheels

It’s a sunny morning at Stowe Lake Meadow in Golden Gate Park and the grass is already strewn with bikes. Amid the tinkering and whirring sounds of pedals and wheels, there’s an excited chatter of voices. The 5th annual Bicycle Music Festival is getting into gear.

This music festival is a little different than others – volunteers  power the stage with their own legs. Gabe Dominguez co-founded this festival with Paul Freedman of Rock the Bike, a Berkeley-based business that provides pedal-powered stages for various events. Dominguez breaks down how it works:

"So, Lance Armstrong can put out 500 watts when he’s bicycling down the street. But if you elevated Lance Armstrong’s rear wheel and he was pedaling in place, and if you hooked it up to a generator, instead of using electricity, you’d be producing electricity. And so if you hook that motor up to Lance Armstrong’s wheel, you have 500 watts of power that you can use to run anything you want." 

Generating power with bicycles isn’t a new idea. Even powering a stage with bikes has been done before. Dominquez mentions Bart Orlando, a man who did  pedal-powered concerts. Orlando had a giant sound system that he would bring in on a truck bed and it would be hauled in with fossil fuels. For the Bicycle Music Festival, however, everything needed for the festival is packed in and packed out on the backs of bicycles. 

The festival needs between two and five kilowatt hours of power to run the mics, lights, amps, and speakers for the 14 bands performing throughout the day. The power comes from volunteers in the audience who take turns pedaling. You can actually see when the bikers get tired because the sound will literally falter or the lights will flicker. This can also happen if the bikers get too excited and overburden the system.

Many of the people who attend the Bicycle Music Festival are already steeped in bike culture, but you don’t have to be a bike buff to show up and have a good time. The music here is as varied as the audience; with bands performing throughout the day ranging from opera to Bhangra to rock and roll to bluegrass. There was even a barn dance this year – a big square dance, with a dance caller.

One of the most dynamic parts of the festival is when half-way through the day, everyone packs up the entire festival again onto bikes and bike trailers, and then continue the music on a mobile stage. After a glorious operatic serenade through the streets, the whole bike parade ends up at the bottom of Potrero Hill in Showplace Triangle for Act II of the Festival.

There's no denying it's a party atmosphere. But for Dominguez, for the volunteers, and for many festival-goers, this event has a deeper significance. "It’s a life-changing moment when they see what we’re capable of," Dominguez says. "In terms of what human beings are capable of in terms of grassroots organizing for the sake of fun and art, and reshaping our city."

And other cities are catching on. From San Francisco to Chico, Seattle, Vancouver, and as far away as Vienna, London, Australia. But it all started right here.

This story originally aired on July 14, 2011. Audio available after 5pm. 

Ali Budner came to KALW as a volunteer reporter with Crosscurrents in early 2009, then joined the Your Call team as a producer in March of 2010. She loves the dynamic daily interactions of live radio and the inspiring guests and listeners that Your Call attracts. She still makes stories for Crosscurrents in her free time.