Unicyclists Go Where Bicyclists Fear to Tread - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Unicyclists Go Where Bicyclists Fear to Tread

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because a one-wheeled ride to L.A. was the first thing our unicycling tour guide did after a motorcycle accident. By way of therapy. Textbook definition: badass.

We’re never sure what drives that distinctly American tendency to take the easy and comfortable — a stroll, for example — slather it with all manner of difficulty, slap “extreme” on it, and muscle it up by both quantifying and qualifying it to death. But when it comes to unicycles? We’re not minding nearly as much as we should.

“My name is Eugene, and I am a unicyclist.”

“Hi Eugene!”

An occult affliction often bundled with juggling, stilts and other would-be “social” activities, unicycling’s difficulty meant it was usually populated by a self-selected, exclusive club of monomaniacs. But the sport has moved away from novelty status and into the big leagues: literally so, as there are now unicycling leagues. Yup, mountain unicycling (think mountain biking, but on one wheel), distance unicycling and unicycle races, sometimes with bicycles but never against bicycles. Scot Cooper, 53-year-old resident of Capitola, Calif., is one of the sport’s biggest boosters: With his beach drawl, he’ll spin you a litany of tales of derring-do from the time he’s clocked in all three styles.

There’s now mountain unicycling, distance unicycling and unicycle races, sometimes with bicycles but never against bicycles.

“I got my first one when I was 10, in 1970, back in Mississippi. Tried it. Thought it was too hard. Put it away. Then dragged it out a few years later to start riding again,” Cooper recalls. Now he’s at the core of a unicycle subculture thriving just south of Silicon Valley.

”Well, we did the 24 Hours of Adrenalin [sic] ride back in 2002,” says Cooper of a ride that, like it says, goes for 24 hours. Yes: all in a row.

The riders worship at the altar of recreation, bomb down hills and are completely OK with the likelihood that this sport will never catch on.

”And we’ve ridden from San Francisco to Los Angeles three times for the Arthritis Foundation.” Which, for all of you non-Californians, is about 500 miles over an eight-day tour. “We’d go from Saturday to Saturday, breakfast to dinner,” Cooper says, chuckling at something that does not seem chuckle-worthy at all. ”The longest and hardest stretch was a 5,000-foot climb over 65 miles from Big Sur to San Simeon.” A climb that’d be tough if you were just walking it. Which you wouldn’t be. Because why bother walking when you can unicycle?


Cooper is part of a loose collective of some 20 riders who meet for Sunday rides called “Rob’s Ride,” after Rob Bowman, a unicycle stud who leads riders on a 20-mile circuit that starts at sea level and makes its way up into the Santa Cruz hills for what would be a challenging mountain bike ride.

You’ll find them on tricked-out unicycles, sporting seats with handles in the front; big, knobby tires; and absolutely, despite the inadvisability of this, no helmets. The riders worship at the altar of recreation, bomb down hills and are completely OK with the likelihood that this sport will never catch on.

”California has the largest number of people riding off-road,” Cooper says. “But [unicycling is] represented everywhere. France, Germany, Spain.” There are conventions, federations, and contests for cross-country, off-road, road distance and a whole panoply of offshoot styles. Moreover, there’s the whole secret-club factor — former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, Hall of Famer and 49’er Steve Young, Peter Tosh and racing great Lewis Hamilton are all riders. Maybe the unicyclists’ urge to go deeper makes sense.

”My heart still belongs to the bicycle,” said former road racer and velodrome fanatic David Brooks, whom we corralled in Brooklyn. “But the balance and sort of clumsy grace, if you could call it that, of the unicycle helps my balance, builds a cool kind of leg strength and is an adrenaline rush besides.”

And here we were just doing it because we’re attention whores. 


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