Down and Dirty at the Kensington Derby

The Kensington Derby is a hallmark Philadelphia event, drawing thousands of spectators to experience art, music, community, and, most centrally, bikes.

Down and Dirty at the Kensington Derby
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Thousands of people came to East Kensington to see the bikes. There's art, food, beer, music, and everything else we like too - but it's the repurposed and intricately decorated bikes and their costumed jockeys that separate the Kensington Derby from all the other festivals that spring up across the city each May.

The Kensington Derby challenges teams to create human-powered vehicles to overcome obstacles across a three mile route, this year along Frankford Avenue, Front and Amber Streets. Anyone can enter. This past weekend's was the largest yet, with over 30 teams made up of first-timers and Derby veterans alike. Some kinetic sculptures were simple, some were sexy, and some were so elaborate that I still can't wrap my head around them.

Since 2007, annual versions of this event have been major fundraisers for community initiatives and neighborhood revitalization spearheaded by the East Kensington Neighbors Association. The neighborhood has changed a lot since then and will continue to change, but the Kensington Derby has always aimed to spotlight and cultivate the neighborhood's artistic spirit while maintaining a sense of pride in community.

Frankford Avenue was closed to traffic throughout the day from York to Huntingdon Streets, converting the road to public space where spectators enjoyed over 150 local art and food vendors. The event's major sponsors are locals too. Rather than soulless out-of-town organizers, Kensington Derby is hosted by Fishtown District and sponsored by local interests such as Philadelphia Federal Credit Union, Penn Treaty Special Services District, and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

A foam party attended by Vikings and Shrek on East Girard outside of Johnny Brenda's somehow doesn't seem all that strange. Nevertheless, unsuspecting bystanders were tickled silly as riders of all ages rolled slowly down the road in a sea of bubbles encouraged by honking horns and cheers from all directions.

Folks were ecstatic in the city seeing the Phanatic and Gritty.

As the riders paraded up Front Street beneath the roaring El train, spectators clamored for the best view of the event's main attraction: a slippery and menacing pit of ooey gooey mud. In true Philly fashion, a couple splashed their drinks into the pit to make it even more treacherous while another man climbed a pole for a bird's-eye view.

The audience went bananas as hot dogs went flying. Gondolas suited for Venetian canals succumbed to Philly muck. A caterpillar's quest for metamorphosis willed it successfully through the detritus. A guy from the crowd somehow ended up in the mud. I put down my camera and just laughed with the crowd.

The race wrapped up with awards presented to competitors in a variety of categories: Best Design, Best Costume, and People's Choice, for example. The judging committee represented hosting neighborhood organizations and included State Senator Nikil Saval and City Councilmember Mark Squila. Music from DJs and bands continued into the evening while beer flowed from the taps at Philadelphia Brewing Company.

Parts of Philadelphia support a higher percentage of bicycle commuting than anywhere else in the United States. A bike-based festival like Kensington Derby attracting 15,000 attendees reinforces Philadelphia's primacy for bicycle culture. As the wider Philadelphia community continues to embrace this event, it's imperative that more everyday riders, like those reading this blog, support the event by registering for and participating in the race. I know I'll be out there next year. Will you join me?