Off-road 'municycling' gains popularity
Jul 8, 2013 at 1:00 PM
During a recent visit to Horns Hill Park, Wes Herbert negotiated the twists and turns, rocks and roots of a mountain-bike trail — on one wheel.
The 18-year-old usually rides his municycle alone — he knows of no other riders within a two-hour radius — but many people who see his off-road unicycle can't resist a quip.
"A lot of people ask, 'Hey, where's your other wheel?' I usually say something like 'I bought it at half-price.'?"
Mountain unicycles feature a squat, sturdy body and a thick, knobby tire (a la mountain bikes). Most have no gears, preventing riders from picking up excessive speed.
During his recent outing, Herbert gripped the front of his seat with his left hand and extended his right arm out for balance. He pedaled steadily downhill at a pace not much faster than walking speed.
"It's really safe," Herbert said. "I used to ride mountain bikes, and there's much less chance of getting hurt doing this."
His worst injury? A twisted ankle, he said. Although little-known in the Buckeye State, municycling has been around for at least 30 years, according to John Foss, a former president of the Unicycling Society of America.
The scarcity of riders here, said Foss, of Carmichael, Calif., is probably related to the terrain.
"Part of it may be that Ohio is flat," he said. "And it's certainly a niche within a niche sport."
Foss, 51, was a pioneer in municycling.
Growing up in southeastern Michigan, he got a unicycle at age 14. Because his street was unpaved, he was forced to learn off-road techniques just to go anywhere. By the mid-1980s, he was hooked.
The growth of the Internet boosted the sport during the 1990s, he said, as municyclists found one another and formed online communities. Today, participation worldwide is estimated in the tens of thousands.
Municyclists gather for "meet-up" weekends and annual national championships (this year, set for July 21 in Harmony, Pa.).
The sport has yielded subcategories, such as freestyle (akin to a skateboarding show featuring tricks) and trials (similar to an off-road obstacle course).
Part of its attraction is the sheer challenge.
Kris Holm began toying with municycling in the 1990s near his home in Vancouver, British Columbia. He now makes a living designing and selling Kris Holm Unicycles, plus parts and apparel.
"People always ask: 'Why? Why do you make it so hard on yourself?' " Holm said recently in a speech to the adventure group FEAT Canada.
"Think about it: Does a mountain biker want an engine on his bike? Did the snowboarder forget the other ski? It's a very human characteristic to place obstacles in our path, knowing that accomplishing hard things is worth it."
Wes Herbert was riding a two-wheeler by age 4 and a mountain bike by about 9.
"He's never been a ball-sport kid," said his mother, Kathy, of Newark. "We had him in every sport when he was little, and he just did not enjoy it."
West, a recent graduate of Mount Vernon High School (where his father, Shaun, lives), discovered municycling online, buying his first "muni" about three years ago for about $350.
"I like the extreme-sport aspect," he said. "I also like how much control you have, and it's a full-body workout."
At Horns Hill Park recently, Herbert — wearing a helmet, kneepads and gloves — focused on conquering short stretches of the trail. He pedaled repeatedly over obstacles until he avoided falling.
Municycling, Kathy Herbert said, is just one more hobby to which her son has gravitated.
"He loves it," she said. "He has a passion for it."