One-wheel wonders spin into Tahoe
Just because they ride on one wheel doesn’t make them circus freaks – even if some of them have been under the big top.
Mountain unicyclists are a relatively new breed of single-track enthusiasts who take to the hills and steep slopes, foregoing the usual two axles for one.
The fifth annual California/Nevada Mountain Unicycle Weekend takes place Sept. 22 to 24. The event returns to Tahoe after a three-year absence.
Events include an uphill race, a dual slalom race and a possible trial competition. Other possibilities are an endurance contest and perhaps unicycle bowling. But event organizers say it’s more of a get-together to have a blast than a competition. This coterie thrives on the concept of less is more; less equipment and weight, but a lot more work to go with a lot of fun.
Also known as MUni, the fledgling sport dates back to the 1980s when riders like John Foss first took one wheel to dirt. It has been in the past decade, however, that MUni has really taken off.
“I did stuff in the 1980s, but I didn’t think much of it,” said Foss, event organizer and president of the Unicycling Society of America. “I’ve been saying let’s go off-road since the mid 1990s.”
Foss, a 38-year-old Web developer living in Sacramento who has been unicycling for 21 years, has been organizing MUni events for the past seven years.
This is the first year that all three days will be at Tahoe. Friday starts with a jaunt on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, then moves to Northstar before ending with a ride on the Flume Trail. Riders are expected from around North America including Ontario, New Jersey, Georgia, Florida, Idaho, Washington and California. But MUni has gone international in the last few years, with events in Great Britain (where MUni got its name). France, New Zealand and even China, where the Unicycling World Championships were held Aug. 2 to 10 in Beijing. The championships included track racing, indoor freestyle (akin to ice skating and ballet) as well as basketball and hockey to name a few of the other disciplines.
While the current estimate of mountain unicyclists is around 2,000 people (with suspicions of numerous closet unicyclists), the number in the Tahoe area is one: Dr. Tim Schroeder. This mostly has to do with a lack of publicity for a sport that is far from easy and the modicum of mountain unicycle manufacturing.
“There is no actual manufacturer of mountain unicycles,” Foss said, although he said there are some people making custom cycles – about six or seven. Mostly, mountain unicyclists must adapt bike equipment, which, unfortunately, means more equipment failure and a considerable challenge to modify gear. Mountain unicyclists use a wide tire, around 26 inches, compared to most unicycles which are either 20 or 24 inches. Foss said that most unicycle forks aren’t wide enough to accommodate this bigger tire.
“Normal unicycles are not made to take this kind of pounding. They’re just for the straight and straight,” said Foss, who has done circus work with the National Circus Project arts and education programs.
A unicyclist’s kit includes the same gear as a mountain biker would have: a pump, patch kit, spare tubes, tire irons, water supply (generally Camelbacks instead of water bottles) and a helmet with the addition of wrist, knee and sometimes elbow guards.
There is little doubt that this is not a sport for the masses. Riding a unicycle is difficult enough as it is. But riding on dirt? The uphills are certainly the most difficult when what Foss calls the “balance envelope” narrows as the trail gets steeper. Steeper terrain means less traction and once bumps enter the equation, there is a higher level of difficulty. Also, there is no coasting for the mountain unicyclists. Ever.
“We have to pedal every inch. We can’t take our feet off,” Foss said. But clipless pedals haven’t really caught on for this group of one-wheelers. Even with the difficulty and high exertion levels, Foss contends that it’s safer than mountain biking.
“We don’t get tangled up and we travel at slower speeds,” said Foss. He mentioned that the most common mountain unicycling injuries are shin indentations (pedals to shins) and calf tracks (pedal scrapes on the back of the leg).
Foss said while anyone can attend this weekend, experienced unicyclists will enjoy themselves the most. For more information and costs for the event, visit http://www.unicycling.com
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