by Dakota Kim
One Wheel Circus
Fourteen guys with hockey sticks are pushing a puck around an empty lot on a moonlit Friday night. It might be a scene just like any other except all 14 guys are on unicycles.
“The skill level is getting to where what we do looks like real hockey,” Jason Kahn, a member of the Hell on Wheel unicycle group, said. “It started out as a way to just do something on the unicycle, and it’s become a real event every Friday.”
Bizarre a sight as they might be at first, the unicycles are coming! With a unicycle festival being organized for this September, unicycle sports gaining new devotees, and clubs forming across the country, unicycling is experiencing a renaissance from its previous heyday of the 50s to the 80s.
No reliable source exists as to where the unicycle was invented, or by whom. A popular theory posits that the pennyfarthing of the late 19th century, a bike with a giant front wheel and tiny back wheel, would often lean forward to the point where the back wheel was off the ground. People started taking the little back wheel off. Et voila! A unicycle.
The unicycle has long been a family member of the circus. Though it may have played the funny-looking little sibling to the shining star of the trapeze, everyone from the early to mid-20th century Valla Bertini Troupe to the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus has had unicyclists. An especially notable group was the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey’s slam-dunking King Charles Troupe, known as “The Harlem Globetrotters on Unicycles.” Whether riding across a highwire or juggling circles around each other, unicyclists often unexpectedly steal the show.
Michael Richter is one such unicyclist, who received a unicycle as a present when he was 12 and never stopped until he reached the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus as a unicycling clown. Whether leading parades on a 6-foot-tall giraffe unicycle or riding on a highwire, Richter makes it look easy, when in reality, many years of practice have gone into it.
The passion for rolling on one wheel just for fun is particularly vivid in New York. This is a perfect amusement park of a city to unicycle across, under, over and inside of, with all of its public spaces and structures. Half-pipe? Check. Hockey arena? Check. Mountain trails in the outer boroughs? They’re all over that.
Mountain unicycling is one of Kahn’s favorites. Kahn, a responsible 8th grade science teacher by day, morphs into a wild unicycler by night, roving around mountain trails and hockey fields.
“You’re using the unicycle as a pogo stick, trying to weave up the trail sideways and hop up onto logs,” Kahn said. “Going downhill, you just kind of let the unicycle run but not too fast or you’ll lose control.”
Riding on a 24-inch-high model with a 3-inch-wide tire with low inflation for better traction and less bounce, mountain unicyclers sometimes even have brakes.
Unicycling seems to have an addictive quality. Once riders get it, they don’t seem to want to stop.
“I’ve been totally obsessed for about a year and a half,” said Keith Nelson, co-founder of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. “I had 2 unicycles hanging on the wall for ages and once I started couldn’t stop.”
There is a strong aspect of community for unicyclers, with regular meetings at Grant’s Tomb on the Upper West Side.
“I came for the novelty, in that it’s odd and I find that attractive, but I stayed for the people,” Kahn said. “As a community, it’s very social and non-competitive, not serious and very chill.”
There are steps to mastering this sport, ten skill levels that take you from a 50 meter ride and graceful dismount at Level 1 to being able to do ten types of mounts and riding backward one footed in a figure eight at Level 10.
Kyle Petersen, who performs as a unicyclist at the Brooklyn Cyclones games, started at age 12 and can do tricks from levels five, six and seven.
“I’ve got a pretty decently strong wheel walk, a one-footed wheel walk, I can jump rope, and I can do a lot of tricks that are combinations, such as wheel walking while juggling,” Petersen said. “Pirouettes are what I’m getting into right now, but the problem is I get very dizzy.”
Kahn is working on his hopping, trying to get over large obstacles on the trail while mountain unicycling. “I tend to ride over things better than I hop over them,” Kahn said. “With hopping, you got to jump, land and stand still, then hop again. More than three hops and you lose your center of balance.”
As for distance rider Nelson and trick rider Richter, synchronized pairs figure unicycling is a goal. While it might never become an Olympic sport, the process has been “similar to pairs ice skating or a circus bike,” Nelson said.
“When you have two or more unicycles, you get to do tricks together such as grabbing hands and spinning in a pinwheel, or if we held onto each other in a certain way, we can stand totally still without rocking back and forth, and someone could sit on our shoulders or do some acrobatics off of us,” Richter said. “It more than doubles the amount of tricks we can do. It’s a cross between dance and partner acrobatics.”
There are so many more types of unicycles than imaginable. From ultimate wheels with no seat post, to impossible wheels with two platforms so that you jump on and balance, to giraffe unicycles that are 6 feet high, there are so many more ways to unicycle than there used to be, indicating a rising level of interest.
“The numbers of people are going to go up,” Petersen said. “People have a lot of preconceived notions about what they can and cannot do. Once you see people doing it, you think you can.”
Distance riding is becoming a new challenge, as long amounts of riding can be painful and exhausting on the core and the crotch alike.
Nelson and Robert Hickman, a sculptor and art professor at Hunter College, have decided on a new challenge to try to unicycle all the bridges in New York.
“We thought that would be 70 or 80 bridges, a one year project,” Nelson said.
There are 2,078 bridges in New York City.
“This includes Department of Transporation and MTA bridges and ones that span roadways as well as water,” Nelson said. “We are going to start crossing skybridges as well, which are bridges that connect buildings.”
It all depends on what you call a bridge, but if that includes anything that goes over a road, railway, body of water or even a footpath, the project will take much more than a year.
“It’s fun because it’s like collecting,” Hickman said. “Every bridge is unique and we take a lot of notes, video and photographs, which we blog about at http://unicyclenycbridgetour.blogspot.com/.”
“We’re even going to ride across some of the skybridges at Hunter College, and involve my students in a public art project,” Hickman said. “In a way, a unicycle is a moving public sculpture, a roving public art project.”
As part of the quest, the group recently rode in the 5 Boro Bike Tour, which is the only legal way to cross the Verrazano Bridge. The group has also gotten big cheers from the Hasidic community in South Williamsburg, where public opinion of bikers has been less than positive.
“It’s a very disarming vehicle. Bikes and cars yell at each other, but the unicycle charms everybody,” Hickman said. “The Hasidic community is pro-unicycle, and we want to try to get some of them riding unicycles if we can.”
Hickman sees the potential for community outreach and public art through the unicycle.
“I’d like to reach out to the communities we ride through, such as Flushing, where hundreds of guys came out in front of shops to cheer us on,” Hickman said. “I can see us doing youth programs, teaching kids to ride.”
So how do you find your very own unicycle and join in? There are many manufacturers and types, depending on your goals. According to Nelson, Nimbus offers reasonably priced unicycles in many wheel sizes, Semcycles are great unicyclist-designed freestylers, and Koxx makes good trial, stunt and mountain unicycles. According to Petersen, Dube Juggling may be one of the only brick and mortar shops in Manhattan where you can just walk in and buy a unicycle.
In an age of increasingly complicated machinery, the unicycle is a simple machine that inspires cult-like fervor for perhaps the same reasons as fixies.
“The unicycle is basically a completely stripped down bike, no frills,” Petersen said. “This machine basically does whatever you tell it to. If the wheel goes a little faster, you have to shift your weight a little forward a little faster. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. On a bike, I think the bike is doing all the work, and it’s boring. The unicycle is really kind of very zen, and because you’re concentrating so hard, it’s very relaxing and very peaceful.”
For more information on unicycling, please visit these sites.
- New York Unicycle Festival
- USA Unicycle Society of America
- Uni Magazine
- Dube Juggling