Unicycling: One, and far from done
Competitors, including Bill Merrylees (second from left), are pictured at the Ride the Lobster race in 2008.
By LINDA FREEMAN
A unicycle is exactly what the name implies: a non-motorized, one-wheeled, single-track cycle. A saddle rests on top of a seatpost that drops to the center of the wheel and a pedal attached at the end of each crank arm turns the wheel to make it go forward, backward or, if the rider is in balance and able to finesse the pressure fore and aft just right, a unicyclist can actually stand in one place.
There was a time when the image of the unicycle was inextricably linked with clowns. Times have changed. Today unicycles come with variously sized wheels and tires, are ridden by children as well as adults, and provide a powerful venue for fitness as well as cycling training. Unis have mainstreamed in the cycling culture. Hands-free riding provides advantages for commuters as well as competitors. Riders are athletes, not just quirky.
According to Wikipedia, “Recent developments in the strength and durability of bicycle (and consequently unicycle) parts have given rise to many riding styles such as trials unicycling and mountain unicycling. Unicycling has therefore developed from primarily an entertainment activity to a competitive sport and recreational pursuit.”
Locally, unicycles can be seen in summer parades and winter races such as the recent Frozen Onion trail race sponsored by Onion River Sports and held at Millstone Trails in which not one, but three, unicyclists competed, maneuvering through wet snow and difficult conditions.
As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, Bill Merrylees now of East Montpelier, was introduced to a unicycle when he was in eighth grade.
“I just wanted to do that,” Merrylees said. He saved his paper route money and soon joined about 20 teens in his school who rode unicycles. It was not a one-shot (or one-wheeled) wonder. Merrylees rode all through high school and into college where his unicycle proved to be “better than walking a dog to meet people.” Besides, the dorm hallways were good for practicing.
Merrylees traveled to Vermont to guide summer bike tours.
“My unicycle just sat in the garage,” he said. “Then there was marriage and kids and during preschool everything was about the kids. The uni didn’t get touched.”
About 10 years ago Merylees dusted off his unicycle and rode in the Montpelier Independence Day Parade where he met two others on unis and they began to ride together.
Unicycling events are easier to find now than ever. Merrylees competes in the Montpelier Cliff Street hill climb – a grueling race leading straight up from downtown to Hubbard Park that is difficult to walk, much less ride. Why a unicycle? “Hill climbing is attractive to unis. No one gets to coast so we are all in the same universe,” Merrylees said.
With his good friend and fellow unicyclist, Mark Premo of Winooski, Merrylees has climbed White Face Mountain in New York and, in 2008, joined an all-unicycle event, “Ride the Lobster,” in which teams of three riders pedaled over 500 miles in five days. Seventeen countries were represented by 37 teams in this unique, one-time only, point-to-point event. As with two-wheeled cycles, unis compete in time trials, crits (criterium), off-road and touring. They draft, ride in packs and practice bike-handling skills – without the handling part.
Ben and Eliza Merrylees grew up with active, accomplished athletes as parent/role models. Now 18 and 15 years of age respectively, each excels in his or her chosen sport(s). They began to ride in kindergarden. In fact, Merrylees offers clinics, usually 10 weeks long, to school kids and has introduced over (50 students this year alone) hundreds to the sport so far.
“So much is about the desire to do this,” Merrylees said. “Willingness to hang in there when it gets hard is determinate. It takes 10 hours to get the balance. If kids don’t have the patience, they won’t learn. It’s trial and error with a lot of error.”
A hallway is a great place to start. For a new rider, a wall, a smooth, flat surface, and a helper, are ideal. “The unicycle is inherently unstable,” Merrylees said. “At first it feels impossible. Six weeks later most exclaim ‘I just did the impossible.’ It’s about practice, it’s about repetition and it’s about not giving up.”
Skills begin with balance.
“Balance is instinct,” Merrylees said. One uses upper-body motion to recover balance and turns by turning the torso or, in a sharp turn, pivoting the hips. It’s important to look out on an eye level as your uni will most often go where you look. “You can’t think it,” Merrylees said, “you have to let your instincts take over.”
For adults as well as kids, unicycling is a confidence-builder. The sense of success carries over into other areas of life. As Merrylees said, “It’s super-satisfying.”
While kids aren’t as afraid of falling as their adult counterparts, a growing number of adults are signing up. Adults take longer to learn. Malcolm Gladwell famously stated that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve a new skill. The typical adult takes three times longer than kids. The process, however, is the same.
“It’s a fringe sport and kind of silly,” Merrylees said, “but the fitness gains are significant. You become a stronger cyclist, your pedal stroke improves and your legs become aware of the 360 degrees around the stroke. You work your core muscles big-time too.”
Now that you’re aware of them, keep your eyes open for unicyclists in Vermont. The North American Uni Nationals are held yearly – on a track. You’ll see kids on smaller wheels, adults on larger wheels, hill climbers and tours on even bigger wheels. There’s freestyle, or tricks, with music in parades, basketball and floor hockey in gyms, and suits headed to work with messenger bags slung over their backs riding in downtown traffic.
Perhaps, however, the bottom line comes from Merrylees: “Uni is the most fun you can have on a wheel. It’s social and playful.”
Is unicycling on your bucket list? If so, you are probably not alone.