The velodrome gets a makeover in Scotland

"The Comedown" is velodrome cycling track meets sculpture—an update to the 1990s-era "Human Powered Rollercoaster" installation. Photo courtesy Stephen Murray

While many wildly ambitious ideas are born in bars, not many of these concepts live long enough to see the light of the next (usually cloudy) day. But The Comedown, one of the coolest bike tracks that exists, is the exception.

The project was conceived last fall; artist/sculptor/cyclist/Scotsman Stephen Murray was chatting with his mates over a few pints when he told them he wanted to build a mini velodrome. Murray's friends let him know they thought it was a crap idea and the conversation turned to a legendary track from the '90s, the "Human Powered Rollercoaster."

Unlike a traditional velodrome, which is shaped like an oval, the HPR was a figure eight. Over more beers, Murray and his buddies toyed with the idea of building a scaled-down version. And the next day, everyone but Murray forgot about the idea.

Murray doubled down, applying for a grant as well as drawing up plans and enlisting a few friends to create some CAD drawings, build some 3D printouts, and provide feedback on cambers and transitions. Fast-forward to October 11 of this year: The Comedown made its debut in Glasgow, Scotland, at Wasps Artists' Studios.

Beautifully constructed, the sculpture-cum-track is open to the public, who is allowed to walk on it. With no barriers keep one from launching off the side of it, riding this 3D infinity symbol is reserved for experienced riders at specific times.

We caught up with Murray to get the backstory on the huge project.

What's it like to ride this beast?
A total buzz—you don’t need any caffeine for a while afterwards.

Where did you draw your inspiration?
A night in the pub with John Silvera and Brian from Rig Bike Shop in Glasgow. It was [Brian] that set the seed. He'd ridden the Human Powered Rollercoaster in Canada and kinda challenged me to build one. Then he kinda forgot and I went away and did it, starting from a sculptural/architectural point of view, and kept it pretty quiet. I think that's why it was such a surprise when the videos started going viral and interest from around the world started to crank up. A nice surprise, but I was glad I've had too much work to do to stop and think about it too much.

The Comedown is up in Glasgow until November 1. Photo courtesy of Patrick Jamison.
The Comedown qs up in Glasgow until November 1. Photo courtesy Patrick Jamison

Have there been any gnarly crashes?
No. There [have] been a couple of really un-gnarly spills—just not enough momentum on the climb. And one painful exit early on, so we built an exit ramp, "Sam’s Ramp."

What was building it like?
Brilliant, especially being on site for two weeks, where we had real close friends working and more people started to get involved and help out, with Dear Green Coffee Roasters supplying the black stuff, Brian and Movie at Rig helping out, personal messenger Sam, and good egg Calum Stirling dropping screws off!

As for the previous 10 months it's mostly just been me working on it with [co-conspirator] Liam being a great foil to discuss the design and visit horrible sites with.

How many man hours went into it?
Well, from funding application process to now—still have a week to run, then got to take it down—that's been a year for me, personally. Obviously, I've been working as a freelance tech alongside the project, but it's been mostly on my mind in some aspect, so always making wee drawings or thinking about detailing or building test sections. The design and development process with Liam is beyond describable; without his skills, this would not have been possible on a budget this tight.

To give you an idea, I've done all the labor and engineering for zilch, I paid everyone else what I could. The first time I took delivery of [wood], it took me four hours to move it from the loading bay to my workshop by myself. It's lots of that sort of nonsense. All good fun.

What does the future have in store for The Comedown?
Physically this one’s done; it's a pile of raw materials that's going to go into a couple of things for me and some friends. However, I'm thinking [of] it as a maquette [Maquette is the French word for scale model.—Ed.] Through the process we’ve done, I think we’ve now worked out a way to make it de-mountable and raceable. We would like to make that happen and take it on tour or something—still in the midst of this one at the moment, but it was too good working with everyone and too good on the [celebration on] October 18th to not revisit/rework/expand it in some way. Stay tuned.

How is The Comedown different than the Human Powered Rollercoaster?
It doesn’t have a multinational tobacco company paying the bills [Dunhill funded the HPR.—Ed.]; it exists through a relatively modest arts grant to make a sculpture for the Culture Programme for Scotland in 2014. It is a sculpture, but works in different ways and isn’t too concerned about how you engage with it. It's up to you: If you wanna ride, ride; if you wanna look, look. Also, the budget was so tight we could only make it rideable, not raceable. To make it raceable we would have needed easily three times the budget to bump up the track scale and build barriers. I think from what I can see of the Human Powered Rollercoaster, ours is more of a mindf–k—tighter, higher, huge drop-offs with no barriers. And an extremely dangerous transition when passing under the bridge. F–k knows how Jenny hit 27 mph on the 18th of October, but I think the two drummers pounding helped.

How has the project changed since you installed it earlier this month?
I’ve got gout.

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