Hans Van Koppen has heard just about every unicycle one-liner one could think of. As a member of the Santa Barbara Mountain Unicycle Club, it’s inevitable that a passer-by — or several — will fire a “where’s your other wheel?” as he and his group of unicyclists trek up trails with the intention of riding down the other side.
But most of the hikers who pass by are genuinely interested in the curious sport. And with good reason. Mountain unicycling, or MUni, though still steeped in relative obscurity, is gaining national attention, and the Santa Barbara-based club is something of a hidden jewel. The group meets every Sunday to ride one of the local trails, and many hikers have crossed paths with them as they descend, girded in helmets and protective pads.
In addition to the predictable quips during the weekend ritual, the group nearly always causes a scene at some point during the ride as hikers stop to watch the members hop from rock to rock, drop off of high outcroppings onto trails below or balance on ledges that line the pathway. Instead of zooming down these steep trails, MUni cyclists make their way slowly down the hills, over rocks and roots, with controlled movements filled with technique. Balance is key on a unicycle, and even more so on a mountain trail filled with potential hazards.
Van Koppen is 54, and seems to have no trouble keeping up with fellow MUni riders half his age.
“You do have to ride within your limits,” he cautioned, but then encouraged anyone to try the sport. “Nobody should underestimate themselves.”
Although most of the reactions the group gets are positive, some are a bit hesitant, said Eyal Aharoni, a UCSB doctoral student in psychology who helped start the group with Van Koppen.
“In Santa Barbara, trail use is a sensitive issue, and so when they see us, a lot of times, they’re concerned that we’re going to zoom down the trail like a two-wheeled bike would,” he said.
Not so, he said, and the group usually progresses downhill at about hiking or jogging speed.
“It’s usually a good conversation starter,” he said. “We meet a lot of great people on the trails that way.”
“When you’re out there riding, you’re totally focused. It’s the most fun I can think of while getting great exercise,” said Van Koppen, a flower grower by trade. He and Aharoni have been riding together for the past five years.
The creation of mountain unicycling is credited to George Peck, a Seward, Alaska, magistrate known as “the Wheel of Justice,” who produced a video explaining how to use a unicycle on off-road terrain. The video made its way into the hands of mountain bikers and classically trained unicyclists, Aharoni said, which propelled the sport toward where it is today. Because most MUni riders are involved in online communities and forums and are a gauge for who’s out there, Aharoni estimates there are about 1,000 people nationwide involved in the sport. The Moab MUni Fest in Utah and the California Mountain Unicycle Weekend attract some of the largest numbers, he said.
To an outsider, seeing a mountain unicycle for the first time is akin to imagining a unicycle on steroids. A robust frame holds a wide, thickly treaded tire and the cushioned seat with a handle for a grip, should the rider choose to do drops or hops on the cycle. Helmets, gloves and pads for a rider’s legs and elbows are also a must.
Even with all of that padding, the question practically begs to be asked: What about the injuries?
“Injuries are really rare, actually, because the unicycle doesn’t have a big frame to get caught up in,” Aharoni said. “If you’re you going to crash, it’s usually pretty easy to hop off onto your feet.”
There are exceptions, however, but the group knows when it’s about to take a risk. Every once in a while, someone will sprain an ankle or the like.
“It hasn’t happened so much to our local group, but like any sport, it does happen now and then,” Aharoni said.
Jess Riegel, who rides frequently with the group, said the worst injury he’s suffered was an ankle sprain, and thinks that MUni is generally safer than similar sports like mountain biking. The UCSB senior, who is studying painting and illustration at the College of Creative Studies, called the club’s weekend escape to the mountains “a kind of religion.”
“Hanging out with the guys in the MUni group is something I look forward to just as much as the actual riding,” Riegel said. Getting an effective workout is just a bonus to the whole experience.
Aharoni admits the sport has contributed to some wear and tear on his knees, and like other riders, doesn’t see the sport as an opportunity for heavy competition.
“Instead of trying to be the best, I’m just occupying a little niche for myself to have something fun to do on the weekends with my friends,” he said.
The eclectic following of the MUni clan is one of the major draws for Aharoni.
“For me, it’s not just about the sport, but the community,” he said. The club is always open to new members, he said, and he encouraged would-be MUni riders to contact the club via its Web site. Click here for more information on the Santa Barbara Mountain Unicycle Club.
Aharoni, Riegel and Van Koppen share a similar past when they talk about how they discovered mountain unicycling. All three took up street unicycling on a whim, and soon realized the MUni community via the connective powers of the Internet.
Aharoni started taking the unicycle off-road on his own. “At that time I thought ‘I must be the only person in the world doing this’,” he said. A high school friend introduced him to the MUni community. “From there, my eyes lit up, because I really saw how much you can do,” he said.
Riegel noted he’s seen many people put one foot on a unicycle and proclaim that they could never learn, but he said he feels the likelihood of success is dependent on the person’s level of determination. Although the learning curve is “extremely steep,” according to Riegel, and he said it may take four to 10 hours of practice before riders see improvement, they should keep at it.
“Enjoy the process, and let the tiny advancements drive you,” he said.