The engineer who built a massive cyclocross flyover in his backyard

by Matt de Neef


Here at CyclingTips we’re pretty fond of our VeloClub members. Not just because their support allows us to do what we do, but because they’re a clever, passionate and friendly bunch of fellow cyclists who have a lot to offer.

The VeloClub Slack community is brimming with interesting stories, informative takes on the latest tech, and plenty of great entertainment. Like the video posted by “Donut Endurance” — real name Russ — in which he demos the massive cyclocross flyover he built in his backyard.

With a rousing orchestral score that’s contrasted with Russ’ attempts to tame the beast of his own creation, the video (see below) is both laugh-out-loud funny and had me wanting to learn more about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of Russ’ project. So I reached out.

To understand the ‘why’ of Russ’ flyover, you need to go back almost a decade, to when he was building other CX obstacles to work on his technical skills.

“When I first got into cyclocross nine years ago I was living in the mountains in northern New Mexico,” he told me via email. “I still considered myself a triathlete at the time, so I had no bike handling skills whatsoever. I did have a rather large backyard where I couldn’t grow any grass since it was the desert. I made myself a little sandpit and some barriers to practice.”

Some time later, Russ’ first child was born, and he and his young family moved back to Oklahoma to be closer to family. Cycling took something of a back seat for a while.

“We moved into a small apartment and I had to sell my bikes to pay the medical bills for my child’s birth,” Russ explained.

In the years that followed, Russ and his family moved a few times for work, and eventually ended up in Fort Worth, Texas where they live today. Two years ago he started racing gravel, and a little while later, he eventually dove back into the cyclocross scene.

“I found out that my handling skills are better,” Russ said, “and I have way more power than I had [before kids], since I have spent the last nine years riding on the trainer when children were sleeping.”

Around the time Russ returned to cyclocross racing, his kids started asking if he could build them a fort in the backyard.

“My wife had shown them photos of the [theatre] sets I built her when we were back in high school,” Russ said. “They were basically the same structure, only they had stairs on both sides and were slightly smaller. The drama teacher found out I could build things pretty well and she knew it would be structurally sound because my girlfriend, who played a major role, as well as my best friend, who was the male lead, were going to be dancing and singing on it.

“It got me thinking of a way to build a fort that I could also play on.”

In designing his flyover fort, Russ drew further inspiration from the Seth’s Bike Hacks YouTube channel.

“My five-year-old gets super excited every time a show is posted!” Russ said. “Seth has built a full-on MTB park on his property. So, I combined my experience building structures like my flyover with some inspiration from Seth and made a few tweaks to come up with what is in my backyard today. Construction started in January and I keep tweaking it to suit our wants.”

So how hard was it for an engineer like Russ to pull the project together? Not easy. Beyond the challenge of actually designing and building the thing, he faced delays due to weather, he ran out of materials partway through (restocking wasn’t easy during the coronavirus lockdown), some of the lumber he had delivered wasn’t great quality, and worst of all, the local authorities got in the way.

“In the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Home Owners’ Associations (HOAs) rule everything,” Russ explained. “I had to submit an application of what I was proposing to build and my HOA have extremely strict requirements for anything done to your property. It could only be so tall, it had to match the color of my house, it would only be so wide, etc.

“It was originally rejected. But, I am a fire protection engineer, I have worked for fire marshals in the past, and now I write fire protection codes and standards. I know how to argue about requirements and the legality of the requirements. After a 14-page rebuttal [the design] was approved … kind of.”

He got timber delivered from Home Depot (it wouldn’t fit in his family’s Honda Civic) and then “just started building it when I had time and the weather was cooperative.” The total build time? “I think I have put in a total of 300 hours so far on the design and construction.”

As you can see from the video above, Russ’s flyover is a big structure that takes up a good chunk of his family’s backyard. Getting onto and off the ramp at one end is a little tight, given the proximity of the nearby fence. But Russ doesn’t mind.

“I actually haven’t been able to do a full lap of what I am calling the reverse loop, which starts by riding up the ramp with the tight corner,” he explained. “But, that is kind of the point. I built it to practice my handling skills.

“It is a little large for our backyard, but I was really tired of mowing all of that grass. I did have one design that was smaller, but if I was going through all the effort it was kind of a ‘go big or go home’ thing.”

And as per the original plan, he’s certainly not the only one using the structure.

“The kids are using it as well for picnics, climbing, tag, and other imagination play,” Russ said. “My kids are definitely the main users. My five-year-old loves putting a toy construction truck at the top of one of the ramps to see if it will make it safely to the bottom. Most of the time it has a horrible crash and that is what the five-year-old really wants.

“It is more for kids to play on than riding. The next major addition is a slide. I definitely will not be riding that.”

Besides CX handling practice and kid’s play, there’s another, more utilitarian purpose for the flyover fort.

“One of the other major reasons my wife agreed to let me build it was for some shade,” Russ said. “It really gets hot in the summer here and all we have for shade is the small tree at the end of the ramp. The flyover will hopefully bring down the temperature a little bit in our backyard.”

And there was another, more personal reason for the build too.

“I have always had trouble sitting still, and I have always needed a project,” he said. “The reason I ride is to help deal with my depression and anxiety due to my overactive imagination. If I’m not exhausted at the end of the day I can’t sleep.

“This was a great outlet. It just so happened I started it as COVID-19 hit. It is another way for me to hide away from everything for a few hours.

“But, it is completely for fun. If it weren’t fun for me to build it this would have been absolutely miserable due to all the things that went wrong during construction. It is also important to make sure you don’t have neighbors that will report you to the HOA. That is key. Thankfully my neighbors hate the HOA as much as I do.”

Russ says he’s “really happy” with how it’s all turned out and that if will be “perfect” as soon as he can get the tight turn dialled. To that end, he’s got another little project in the works.

“Right now I’m building a berm for the tight corner at the end of the northern ramp,” he said. “Since I’m an engineer I am always thinking of ways to make it better.”

Chapeau, Russ. Keep up the great work.

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