“THAT’S crazy,” a hiker says, watching a line of unicyclists make its way up a hill in Simi Valley. It’s midmorning on a recent Saturday, and after riding up an easy fire road, the cyclists spin down a steeper, narrower trail, dodging rocks and ruts and flying off ledges with only their balance to save them.
Looking like bronco riders, the cyclists grip the handle at the front of the unicycle’s seat with one hand, the other hand outstretched for balance, as they bounce along the rocky trail that switchbacks down the dusty hillside. Although these skilled riders can stay upright longer than a rodeo rider’s eight seconds and the falls are usually less bone-crunching, avoiding the occasional beavertail cactus is nonetheless important.
Mountain unicyclists -- they call their sport “MUni” -- are a rare and dedicated breed. Worldwide there are probably no more than 1,000 riders pedaling trails on one wheel and fewer than 40 in Southern California, according to Josh Schoolcraft, a unicyclist from Pasadena. Riding local mountain bike trails, they get the occasional “Awesome, dude” and a thumbs up from conventional mountain bikers.
Despite the sport’s difficulty, recent exposure on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet has begun to boost its popularity. Although unicycles strong enough to be ridden off-road have been expensive and hard to come by in recent years (early ones were custom-built), several manufacturers now offer complete unicycles designed for rough trails. Of course, mountain unicycles still aren’t likely to be on display at local bike shops; most are purchased online.
Costs have come down too. Early limited-production models cost $1,000 or more, but several manufacturers now offer mountain unicycles for about half that.
Unicycle pedals are connected directly to the wheel -- there are no gears -- so going uphill requires extra effort, and going downhill demands fast pedaling. Because many unicycles don’t have brakes, leg pressure alone is usually used to slow them. And because the unicycles don’t have shock absorbers like mountain bikes (the only cushioning is in the fat tires and seats), riders absorb bumps by standing on the pedals and using their legs as shock absorbers.
“You need to give yourself some space between your feet and butt,” says Eyal Aharoni, a MUni rider from Santa Barbara.
For some, the appeal of riding a unicycle is meeting a big challenge with an uncomplicated device. “You have to solve problems with this simple machinery,” Schoolcraft says. MUni riders have to pick a careful line around obstacles too big to roll over, and when riding off ledges they often have to stick a landing in tight spots to avoid a crash.
Schoolcraft began unicycling five years ago as a college student after his bicycle was stolen. “You can bring a unicycle to class with you -- you just throw it over your shoulder,” he says. Several months after learning to ride, he saw a video of MUni pioneer Kris Holm and decided to try riding off-road.
“It’s comparable to riding a bicycle uphill, but going downhill you’ve got a lot more work ahead of you,” he says. “You have to pedal and provide resistance for the trip down as well.”
As in two-wheeled mountain biking, there is a range of difficulty and risk in MUni. Experienced and aerobically fit riders can stay on their unicycles for an hour when riding cross-country on flat, smooth trails, Schoolcraft says. But riding steep, difficult trails is more anaerobic than aerobic. Riders go 100% for short bursts and then take breaks.
“To keep yourself in shape, you have to ride at least once a week,” Aharoni says. Riding a mountain unicycle is also good training for core strength. Abdominal and other muscles used to maintain balance get a workout when unicycling.
Just learning to stay upright on a unicycle takes patience.
Practicing an hour a day, the average person can learn to ride 50 feet on flat ground in two weeks to a month, Aharoni says. Learning to ride on rough terrain takes much longer. “It might take a few months to become comfortable on trails -- though, depending on your goals, it can be a lifelong learning process,” Aharoni says.
Rod Wylie, a 45-year-old schoolteacher from West Hills, has been riding a mountain unicycle for five years. Regular mountain biking had become boring and, after seeing an Internet photo of a mountain unicyclist, he decided he wanted to try the sport. The intense workouts and the mental challenge of finding his way down a difficult trail appeal to him, he says, though to avoid injury he skips drops of more than 3 feet.
Flying off a ledge on a unicycle is part of the fun for Morgan Cable, 24, a graduate student who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, developing tests for signs of extraterrestrial life. She began unicycling at the Caltech campus with her boyfriend, Schoolcraft. The only woman in a group of Southern California mountain unicyclists who meet every few weeks to ride together, Cable has had only one unpleasant encounter on her unicycle, she says -- with a cactus.
Although falls can cause serious injuries, such as broken vertebrae, MUni riders say their sport is less hazardous than conventional mountain biking, especially for those who ride flatter, smoother trails.
“Danger is determined by challenges you seek out,” Aharoni says.
“If you’re not really coordinated, don’t unicycle.”
But he points out that mountain unicyclists go more slowly than two-wheel mountain bikers (about jogging speed) and that when unicyclists lose their balance, they can bail out more easily than traditional mountain bikers because there are no handlebars in the way.
MUni riders who bail stay on their feet more often than they smack out of control into the ground.
“There’s a difference between a bail and crash,” Aharoni says. “Bails happen all the time. Actual crashes don’t happen that often.”
Like other sports, mountain unicycling has its own terminology. Bails are also called “UPDs” -- unplanned dismounts. Flying off face-forward is a " Superman,” and “tractoring” means barreling straight through a section of big rocks instead of navigating around or hopping over them.
Most mountain unicyclists wear helmets and big padded guards from ankles to knees. Gloves and wrist guards can help keep a bad fall from doing too much damage.
“There’s a consequence to falling,” says Schoolcraft, who advises practicing moves such as drops in the backyard before trying them on the trail, where falls might take a rider into a boulder or off a cliff.
If you’re crazy enough.