By Rachel Tennenbaum
The cyclists making their way swiftly up the street seem perfectly ordinary at first. Something is off however, the angle of the athletes’ bodies, perhaps, or the way that they grasp each other’s arms at a stoplight. Move closer again and realization dawns – every rider is sitting atop a unicycle.
This is a scene is not uncommon in Santa Cruz, who, this weekend, will host the 12th annual California’s Mountain Unicycle Weekend.
What exactly is mountain unicycling, or, as enthusiasts call it- muni? It’s similar to mountain biking in the sense that it involves traversing over difficult terrain, but riders must do it balanced on one wheel.
While these rides may seem daunting, Nathan Hoover, one of weekend’s organizers, promised that it is none too difficult, with only about 10 to 20 hours of practice to get the basics down.
Corbin Dunn, another one of the weekend’s organizers, agreed. “I borrowed my girlfriend’s and had it for a week or so, and after a few nights of having it around I could cruise in small circles. It’s like a bike, once you learn it you never forget.”
The Bay Area was first introduced to mountain unicycling in 1997 by Santa Cruz’s Bruce Bundy. Bundy was biking in Alaska when he met George Peck, the “grandfather of mountain unicycling.” “When I met him [Peck] he was on the trail with no seat or seat post, really just a wheel and the pedals,” said Bundy. Before Bundy returned home, Peck gave him a video he had filmed in the hopes of spreading the joys mountain unicycling.
It was actually a friend who fell in love in love with the film. “He had so much fun with it that he said “Bruce, you’ve got to try this.’” Bundy then spent 8 hours in a Safeway parking lot learning how to ride, and once he got it down he took off and never looked back.
It is difficult for unicyclists to explain the allure of their sport. Sometimes it’s physical. “It is awesome exercise,” said Hoover, “far better than biking or anything else I know of.”
Dunn enjoys the difficulty involved. “I like the challenging aspect of it,” he explained. “There’s always something I don’t know how to do, and I’ll never really master the unicycle.”
Bundy took an almost spiritual approach: “It’s hard to describe without experiencing it. It’s not a high speed sport or thrill, but it’s kind of a control thrill,” he said. “There’s so much focus involve that you completely forget yourself. There’s something relaxing and exhilarating about that level of focus.”
Mountain unicycling led to greater single-wheeled adventures, including road unicycling, trials (where riders make their way over everyday obstacles, such as stairs) and travel cycling. Hoover, Bundy and their colleagues have traveled extensively all over the world on unicycle trips. Photographs on Bundy’s website detail a particularly exciting ride along the Great Wall of China, while a trip to Africa is currently in the works. The images are scintillating. “Can you image 19 cyclists on 36-inch wheels cruising into little villages in the highlands of Laos?” Hoover asked. “The response we got was staggering.”
This weekend is a chance to celebrate the local scene. While the festival will feature serious riding, the atmosphere is to be lighthearted. “I’m excited to have [travelers] come and ride on our trails,” said Dunn. “It’s also a big community and it’s great seeing everyone again.”
How can one become a unicyclist? “Buy a unicycle,” Hoover said.
Dunn offered a bit of hope to those out there. “It’s a lot of fun. Most people who try it get addicted, and end up getting eight unicycles in their garage.”
Check out www.unicycle.com/muni