Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story
A new spin: In unicycling, there's unity in individuality
North Bend Elementary School, in the shadow of Mount Si, seems an unlikely host for the International Unicycling Convention and World Championships, especially considering the last host, in Beijing, was the People's Republic of China.
That the event can roll from Tiananmen Square to school gymnasiums in the Snoqualmie Valley — with nary a bent spoke — tells quite a bit about the unicycling universe.
First, it's young and innocent. In an era of unseemly conduct in organized sports, unicycling remains refreshingly unpolluted by Olympic-caliber scandals such as blood doping, corrupt judging and million-dollar contracts.
No scholarships. One wheel. People pedaling purely for the joy and challenge.
Second, it's hard. Learning to balance on a unicycle usually takes 10 to 20 seat-hours and dozens of unintentional dismounts. Your center of gravity floats up to your ears, your torso unstacks from your legs and every movement creates an unpredictable and often violent counter-movement likely to catapult you to the ground. Ergo, the sport attracts characters who don't easily give up. The type who tend to see opportunity where others see obstacle. Curbs, for instance. Or taking on the headaches inherent in gathering 500 one-wheelers from around the world.
Third (perhaps because it's difficult, unglamorous and not lucrative), the field is small and friendly. Everybody who rides seriously knows practically everybody else. A startling percentage hold records in various categories for fastest, farthest or most fantastic.
The first unicyclist I ever ran into was bopping down Shelton's main street on a single red tire last summer and, naturally, stopped to chat. Turned out 15-year-old Jack Hughes was the national champ in the 150 meters uphill and 400 meters flat out.
To say Jack "stopped" is an ambulance-sized overstatement because while talking, he rolled forward and back and upside down; he pedaled with his hands and braided his legs into lotus; he spun, he bounced, he twisted and he hopped until he crashed into a plate-glass window. (Jack was out of the emergency room and back in the saddle within minutes of getting 12 stitches.)
Eight months later, I met Megan Kowalski, 17-year-old captain of North Bend's Panther Pride Demo Team, on one of those crazy teenage days when she was juggling prom preparations, an after-school job and Stand-up Pull Glide, a graceful balancing trick in which she takes both feet off the pedals, climbs onto the frame and floats across the floor while being pulled by a partner who's pedaling backward.
Megan's date for the upcoming prom was a bi-ped, not a unicyclist, but, she chatters, she did attend the homecoming dance with a guy who unicycles, and they both wore their Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star high tops under tux and gown, since that's the footwear favored by the one-wheel crowd.
Wanna see? She pulls out a formal photo.
Megan and Jack, who had a brief thing, are now just good unicycling buddies. Megan's unicycling partner in the four-minute artistic pairs routine is Jesse Berg (ranked a Skill Level 8 out of 10), who moved to Fox Island last year but commutes an hour back to North Bend once a week after school to practice with Panther Pride. Megan was formerly unicycling partners with Zach Vaughn, but after he hooked up with teammate Katy Lord over the summer the couple decided to be a unicycling unit, too.
That meant when Zach attempted to Evel Knievel his unicycle over a raft of students lying on the ground, Katy took the most dangerous position, at the end, because "I'm his girlfriend and it makes him more determined to go further so he doesn't land on me." Zach holds the world record (7 feet 6 inches) for unicycle long jumps. (Yes, you have to land, without falling, on the far side.) Even after their recent breaking up, Katy and Zach continue to perfect their routine to LFO's "Every Other Time." "Socially it's a little rough," Zach says, "but the routine is looking great."
"It's a tight bunch," Megan says.
So tight that unicycling superstars Irene Genelin and Andy and Connie Cotter (30-something brother and sister of the venerated Twin Cities Unicycling Club in Minnesota) flew to North Bend in March to teach unicycling workshops, no charge except airfare, just because they wanted to share their sport.
"It's not cutthroat," says coach Alan Tepper, the physical-education teacher who started the unicycling program at North Bend Elementary 20 years ago. "When you go to gymnastics or ice-skating competitions, there's a lot of ego. At unicycling events, anyone — even the best riders — will share their tips and ideas at the drop of the hat. All you have to do is go up and ask them."
Instead of the usual sport hierarchy, by skill level, unicycling has an egalitarian flair. (Would Tiger Woods join your neighborhood foursome on Beacon Hill's Jefferson Park public golf course?)
Kids on the Panther Pride team both idolize and hobnob with cult heroes including Dan Heaton, a student at Western Washington University in Bellingham, and Kris Holm, of Vancouver, B.C. In the video "Universe," Heaton and Holm leap from boulder to boulder, grind down banisters and ride along a skinny railing edging Santa Monica pier, a loooong way down to the water. This type of street-smart obstacle-course unicycling is called trials. Trials and mountain unicycling, known as "MUni" in one-wheel lingo, are the fastest growing genres in unicycling.
"Trials is just basically finding cool lines out of everyday architecture." That's one of Holm's famous quotations, and Zach often repeats it. The concept has inspired Zach to view the world as fresh. Ledges became lips on which to balance the bottom of a pedal and slide. Stumps were perfect to pop up on. And what about concrete barriers dividing highways? he wondered. Wouldn't it be cool to ride atop that narrow ribbon, traffic whizzing by on either side? (Don't do it, Zach!)
Listen to Holm. He has more than the usual wisdom, having earned a master's degree in physical geography; unicycled down 18,000-foot El Pico de Orizaba volcano in Mexico and survived to age 28, intact. He says, "When you learn your limits, you learn to anticipate when you can fall or when you should back off stuff and not do it. That's one thing about the videos. They always show people succeeding. They never show the pro rider backing off, and we do. A lot."
WRECK BEACH, on the west side of the University of British Columbia campus, is populated by nude sunbathers and massive drift-logs that jut out of the sand at various heights and angles.
For years, Holm had seen the vertical logs but never considered leapfrogging onto them because they were impossibly high. Then, one day, while experimenting on picnic tables at the UBC campus, he accidentally hooked the bottom of his pedal on the bench and realized he could then hop his tire up and, from there, pedal-hop to the top of the table.
This technique opened up a new world, including the 7-foot logs at Wreck Beach.
"Because unicycling is so young, it's kinda like mountain biking in the '70s or climbing in the '50s," Holm says. "People right now are discovering the techniques that everyone will use and take for granted in the future."
It's likely unicycling got off the ground even before the invention of the bicycles we ride today, which have two wheels of the same size. Unicycles likely evolved in the late 1800s as a subspecies of the Pennyfarthing, a bicycle with a huge front wheel, tiny back wheel, high seat and handlebars. Pennyfarthings tended to pitch their riders forward, head first, handlebars eviscerating the stomach. Soon enough, someone figured out if you removed the handlebars and back wheel, you would fall cleanly, with less pain and more grace.
Unicycling enjoyed a slight surge in popularity before World War II, but not again until the free-spirit 1970s. Interest leveled off and declined in the corporate '80s and started to pick up again at the end of the '90s. Worldwide, unicycling is particularly big in Germany, China and Japan, home of the popular Miyata-brand unicycles, where the national lottery funds unicycling as part of the school curriculum. Quebec, Canada, Michigan and Puerto Rico have especially good basketball unicycling teams; England and Germany excel in unicycle hockey; the U.S. is strong in the extreme arenas of trials and mountain unicycling.
Weirdly, three of the biggest names in MUni all stumbled onto the sport at about the same time without knowing each other or anybody else who did what they were teaching themselves to do: Holm of B.C.; Heaton, who grew up in Bellevue; and George Peck, 60-something, who taught himself to navigate the sand, rocks and ice in Seward, Alaska.
No one is sure why MUni set roots in the Northwest, but then again, no one is surprised.
"Maybe it's a West Coast thing," Holm says. "Alternative sports develop where people are willing to try something and not care that nobody else is doing it. For me, it helped that Vancouver is a city where doing something that's different is viewed as cool and new, not as dorky and weird."
That isn't always the case in North Bend. There, unicycling is largely associated with the elementary school, where it evolved out of a circus-arts program started in the early 1980s by Tepper, a former East Coast coach for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation who introduced juggling, tumbling and unicycling to North Bend because he wanted to involve large numbers of children in fun, healthy activities.
"Sometimes you just go with the flow. By 1982, all of them only wanted to do unicycling. It was a kid-driven thing. I just went with their energy." These days, the gym closet holds 138 unicycles, including two 10-foot giraffes, 22 six-foot giraffes, several shorter (but still scary) ostrich unicycles, a yellow five-stack whose wheels line up vertically, and 33 wide-tire mountain and trials unicycles for outdoor tricks.
Unicycles differ from bicycles in that the pedals are directly attached to the hub, no gears or chain, so you can't coast. It's slow. Once around with the pedals equals one rotation of the wheel. Pi by pi, you roll forward. When you pedal backward, you're riding in reverse. Children love to go backward.
Yet grade-school grads who stick with unicycling through middle school often get teased: Kid stuff. Silly. Clown.
Megan recalls her first few weeks at Mount Si High, when her only other high-school teammate dropped unicycling to try out for cheerleading. "I was kinda mad at her. How dare you leave me behind?" She wrote in On One Wheel, a unicycling magazine. "I knew I couldn't quit just because she did. I had to follow my own path."
Coach Tepper: "Y'know, I find unicyclists to be more independent, more secure with themselves. They don't necessarily need or want to follow what the group is doing. It's not your everyday sport."
When you first watch unicyclists pedal, they look goofy: heads bobbling up and down, gorilla arms grabbing air, the inevitable fall accompanied by a startling thump as the nose of the seat hits ground.
After a couple hours, though, your aesthetic changes. Unicycling seems graceful and unencumbered and bicycling seems overweight and clunky. Even the best bicyclists always look like what they are: humans manipulating machines. But a talented unicyclist can appear to be one with her wheel, a human sprouted from hub, centaur-like, the fall just part of the ride.
Katy: "I can't stand riding a bike anymore."
Megan: "Me, too. I stopped riding my bicycle for a while. It was so sturdy, it was boring. It was like a box."
AT THE MOMENT, Megan, Zach, Katy and Nik Caffroy are gathered around a 6-foot yellow ladder in the corner of the gym, watching as Nik and Zach, by turns, launch themselves off increasingly higher steps, unicycle in hand. The trick is to get your sneakers on the pedals and center the unicycle between your legs (in mid-air) so you can absorb the brunt of the impact with your feet — and not other body parts. It takes vast amounts of daring (both boys tremble at the top of the ladder), concentration, split-second calculation, balance and the counter-weight of your teammates holding the back of the stepladder so it doesn't tip over when you jump off. It seems like Nik and Zach could easily injure an ankle, or worse, but neither does, and Nik even lands the trick from the top step.
Watching them fool around with their unicycles ("Hey, wouldn't it be cool . . . let's try") is reminiscent of the old days of after-school dares, before the generation when every heartbeat became programmed into soccer practice, debate team and structured drills that elbow out room for invention.
In the North Bend gym, Coach Tepper plays the music and gives some encouragement, but mostly he lets the unicyclists experiment with what's essentially an experimental sport.
The Web is filled with feats unicyclists have successfully completed: unicycle jousting (on Microsoft's Redmond campus, 1989); bungee jumping; riding 100 miles in 6 hours 44 minutes without once dismounting (Takayuki Koike of Kanagawa, Japan, in 1987).
There are also lists of tricks unicyclists should not attempt, based on other unicyclists' experience (photo documentation included): Riding down sand dunes; trying to stop a car with a unicycle on snow; coasting with no feet on the frame; coasting in a headstand on a tall giraffe unicycle; riding atop a swing-set; unicycle parasailing; unicycle scuba-diving (doesn't float, lack of traction); riding between parapets on China's Great Wall; hanging from a cliff; riding on a Velodrome (too steep for unicycles); taking the escalator; riding on glare ice; riding one-handed on a trampoline.
Four years ago, Katy's dad was surfing the Internet and discovered the national one-wheel scene on the Unicycling Society of America Web site about the same time Tepper got a letter from U.S.A.'s organizers.
Tepper: "We said: Hey, let's give it a try. We went down to (the North American competition and convention in California) and the learning curve went through the ceiling." The team had an artistic routine, but no sparkly costumes like the other competitors. No matter; they competed anyway, in T-shirts and shorts, accidentally turning their backs to the judges. They rocked, they fell, they laughed, they had a great time.
"They kept lifting their chins off the floor, saying: I want to try that! They'd ask how to do XYZ and someone would come over and say: 'C'mon, I'll show you.' "
Hey, why not host the North American competition in North Bend so more kids could join in? The next year, they did.
Hey, wouldn't it be cool to have the best unicyclists in the world come to North Bend?
They will. In a couple weeks. From Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Japan, China, Denmark, the Philippines.
Unicycle basketball, unicycle hockey, unicycle track-and-field, unicycle artistic routines, MUni, and hundreds of unicyclists in the grand parade at Seafair. The largest gathering of unicyclists in American history.
Unicycling is a fringe sport that's growing, if not fast (unicycles are not about speed!), then fittingly, in fits and starts and quirky whirls. Kris Holm makes a modest living unicycling in extreme videos and endorsing and designing unicycle equipment, but aside from circus-style entertainers, he's about the only one. No one seems in a hurry for the sport to achieve professional, or even amateur, status.
"You got sports like luge and curling that are major because they are in the Olympics," says John Foss, president of the North American and International Unicycling Federations. "Unicycling — there's no glamour, no money, you can't get your picture on a Wheaties Box."
That's fine with Heaton. "When money is involved," he says, "sometimes it changes the nature of the friendliness of the people. Since there's no money in it, everybody's really friendly. There's something to be said about not getting big. While I'd like it to get bigger, the trick is doing it right."
For now, the one-wheel crowd seems a long way from that tipping point, content to idle forward and back, upside-down, in balance.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter.