Backstory: Peak performance on one wheel

Shoulders upright, helmet secured, eyes on the target, Eugene Cathcart hikes the final steep steps of his ascent of Misery Ridge at the rock climbing mecca, Smith Rock State Park. But, as he reaches the top, the wiry college student doesn't emit the usual growl of victory, nor even pause for a daredevil view down at gnarly, 3,000-foot pinnacles of compressed volcanic ash.

Instead, he pulls the metal unicycle he's carried up the rock off his shoulder, smiles grandly, jumps on the contraption and begins to ... well ... hop. Yes, on a unicycle on the precipice of a rocky outcrop.

This is essential mountain unicycling – aka "MUni," yet another extreme sport taken to yet another extreme. The feat isn't the end (reaching the top) but the means (hopping along it and then pedaling down). The goal of the MUnicyclist, who tends to be a daredevil, a geek, or both, is to hoist oneself upright over the gearless single wheel, pedal and/or hop over complicated terrain (which can include not just mountains and ridges but park benches, tree stumps, and hand railings), and avoid getting hurt in the series of inevitable falls.

Though top speeds in unicycling reach only 3 m.p.h., helmet and lots of padding are required because of a basic tenet of physics: The slower the speed, the more difficult it is to maintain balance. Riding a unicycle is challenging. Riding one on ridges is impossible for anyone unwilling to clock in countless hours trying. And this is the draw, says Cathcart, who has been unicycling since he devoted a month in high school to falling down – before getting up – in the alley behind a bike shop.

Like many MUni enthusiasts, Cathcart was first a mountain biker – which meant he already had developed a high tolerance for the dangerous and difficult. But, Cathcart explains, "To even consider getting on a unicycle, you have to realize you're in for a challenge. It doesn't come across as looking very possible to most people.... Even as a unicyclist I don't think it's very easy to comprehend exactly how your body can figure out to stay balanced on top of this wheel."

***

In spite of the athletic prowess required, the unicycle is an easy butt of jokes. The realm of the unicycle is populated with images of clowns, tricks, and the bizarre. And to stay atop the precarious perch, the rider's body gyrates slightly from left to right; the faster a unicyclist moves and the more difficult the terrain, the more desperate the motions and the more often the rider eats dirt.

But since the late 1970s, a small number of athletes have begun tinkering with the design and use of the unicycle. And in the past few years alone, the construction of the unicycle-as-all-terrain-vehicle has evolved by leaps and bounds.

"The seats used to be so uncomfortable," says Cathcart, who has engineered his own all-terrain unicycles. "It was a major deterrent, even for me."

The new boom of interest in the sport clusters largely around biking enclaves such as Boulder, Colo., and Moab, Utah. (The annual Moab MUni Fest drew 15 participants in 2000, its first year – this year 169 gyrated through the course.)

The undisputed MUni heavyweight is Ian Holm – a Vancouver-based geomorphologist – whose single-tire business and movie ventures since the 1990s helped kick life into the image of the sport. The 2005 film "Into the Thunder Dragon," about his unicycle crossing of the Kingdom of Bhutan, romanticized this peculiar-looking struggle as sport. The facial expression of the Bhutanese – who'd never seen a unicycle – unanimously conveyed, "This man is crazy." But during the trip, many kids, and even a few older men, tried Mr. Holm's unicycle.

"For those who think riding a unicycle off-road makes little sense, my response is: There's no sport out there that actually makes sense!" says Holm, who manufactures and sells some of the most popular mountain unicycles on the market. "If that had to be true, there is no way that Tiger Woods could get paid to whack a ball into a hole with a stick."

So, indeed, a growing number of enthusiasts are willing to shell out $200-plus for a custom-made mountain unicycle that will guarantee not only thrills, but spills, too.

***

The arc of the sport's appeal can be traced in microcosm through Cathcart's growing following in Bend, Ore. Here he experiments with custom unicycles with his mechanic partner, Wade Beauchamp. During his first job in Bend, at a bakery in 2000, Cathcart delivered loaves of bread on his unicycle just to raise awareness. He also organized unicycle rides in Bend's quaint downtown.

Six years – and 100-plus unicycles built and sold – later, he estimates there are up to 100 unicylists in this town of 70,000. Enough, anyway, that the police recently upped enforcement against unicycling on sidewalks downtown.

It's hard to know whether the sport's coolness developed into a sidewalk hazard, or the enforcement itself created the coolness, but participants believe Cathcart has a lot to do with the aura of the sport in Bend.

"I was never the cool kid," Cathcart says, reflecting on his years as a unicyclist from the apex of Misery Ridge. "I'd skip class to go out biking with guys who were 10 years older than me. No one really tried to imitate me."

So it's a genuine surprise to the mild- mannered and ponytailed Cathcart – whose earnest geek vernacular is flavored with words like "gyroscopic" and "near-frictionless" – that he actually got the unicycle rolling here. His following includes recent college graduate Natty Seidenverg, who has been unicyling since she was 7. Naturally, they are dating.

"Eugene could convince the world to go on one wheel, and that's saying something," says Mr. Beauchamp, an avid mountain biker who finally gave in to Cathcart's urging and learned to ride a unicycle himself in 2000. "It's so unnatural – unicycling is like a joke on physics."

Add to that the simplicity of the machine. Cathcart didn't have much trouble figuring out how to build – and improve on – one. The unicycle's solid hub and lack of gears do make it a truly simple gadget with fewer than a dozen parts.

But riding a gearless cycle, where one rotation of the pedals results in one rotation of the wheel, is a different story. Unlike on a bike, there is no coasting; riding downhill can be just as strenuous as riding uphill.

As Cathcart makes his way back down Misery Ridge, several hikers can't help staring at the unicycle he's hoisted over his back. Where terrain is manageable, he hops on and speeds down the path; when his legs can't pedal fast enough, he brings them up and shifts his hip to the side, effectively performing a "controlled slide" and fall. When the path curves sharply he jumps off the cycle, kicking it away to avoid entanglement. To anyone else, he probably looks like a geeky, over-padded failure of an athlete, sliding and falling and scrambling after his wheel. But this is peak performance MUni.

"I went pretty far that time!" Cathcart says, triumphant.

So don't knock it until you've tried it, but definitely don't try it until you're ready to fall – again, and again, and again.

A slide show of photos from Cathcart's Misery Ridge ride can be viewed at http://www.csmonitor.com/ slideshows/2006/unicycle/index.html

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