By KAITLYN NICHOLAS/Montana State News
The overhead fluorescent lights illuminate the brown floor of the indoor tennis court. A group of four guys cheer on their friend as he serenely pedals a six-foot tall unicycle. His arms extend above the ground as the wheel follows the boundary lines of the court.
The extraordinarily tall unicycle is called a Giraffe and is one of the six new unicycles that Montana State University’s student club, Unicycling For Change, purchased during the 2013 to 2014 academic year.
The guys are friendly and eager to help beginners, like myself, learn to ride. Bracing my back against the wall, I push my foot down on the pedal and use the backward momentum to propel myself onto the seat of the unicycle, setting both feet on the pedals.
“Lean forward,” said club member Ian Ross, “you should feel like you’re falling forward the whole time.”
After about ten minutes my knees are scraped and small bruises are forming along my shins. Pushing myself off the wall, I manage two pedal rotations forward before falling sideways, the unicycle traveling a few feet in front of me before toppling over, its wheel spinning above the ground.
Eric Vann, the club president, looks down at me. “It’s tough,” he smiles, “but worth it.”
Across the court, Dakota Blaese, one of the club founders, tries one of the newer ultra light unicycles. He jumps between the tennis court lines with control that comes from hours of practice.
Vann and Blaese formed the club during their freshman year in February 2012. The club has grown to include 12 members who are committed to regular practice and raising interest in unicycling on campus.
Initially, the club struggled to gain momentum due to a lack of practice space and funding to supply unicycles to newcomers. However, their advisor, Paul Rugheimer helped them contact the campus fitness center. The fitness center agreed to allow them to practice in the tennis courts during the winter months when ice and snow make unicycling almost impossible.
Rugheimer, a unicyclist himself, also assisted the team in gaining financial support. ASMSU gave the club funds to purchase six unicycles so new members could learn without having to invest in a personal unicycle. Since gaining the unicycles, the interest in the club has grown to include over 30 people regularly wanting updates on unicycling activities.
Now that it’s gained the space and equipment, the team wants to work toward giving back to nonprofits in the community.
“The idea is we want to get sponsored for riding a certain amount of distance,” said Blaese. “If we can get people to commit to the club we could try a fundraiser at the end of the semester.”
“If we find a cause that really excites us, we definitely want to try to help it out,” Vann said, “there’s a lot of potential to do something during the fall especially.”
Vann described the club as “unique” due to the fact that unicycling is an unusual sport and one in which people can spontaneously join without prior experience. At one Friday night practice, two students passing by asked to try and were greeted with enthusiasm from members. Within 20 minutes both were making progress.
Though learning to unicycle can be difficult, Blaese said there’s a “very steep learning curve,” referring to the fact that once newcomers figure out how to keep their balance, they can excel quickly in the sport of unicycling.
Learning to unicycle simply requires a unicycle and a wall. “I literally crawled my way along the wall until I learned,” said Ross. Using the wall, or a friend’s arm, an aspiring unicyclist can learn to coordinate the motion of pedaling with a sense of balance. Eventually, a unicyclist can simply push back the pedals, position themselves on the seat and ride with barely a second thought.
The reasons the members began unicycling varied in nature. For some it was to add a new level of complexity to their athletic life, “I guess I rode my bike without hands and I thought unicycling was the natural next step,” said Vann.
For another it was to stave off boredom. “I was grounded during high school, I needed something to take my mind off it,” Ross said.
Some members simply saw no reason not to give it a try. “My grandma gave me a unicycle,” said Blaese. “I did it for grandma.”
Regardless of their reasoning, the three became unicycling enthusiasts and met in college. They formed the club and taught their roommates how to unicycle in order to gain more members.
As their club continues to grow they hope to gain more experienced members so the club can play games, such as tennis, basketball and hockey, all while riding on unicycles.
Ross said that once a unicyclist learns how to keep their balance there are three types of unicycling skill sets they can develop: flat land, which involves tricks on flat ground; street trials riding, in which unicyclists jump off of the ground and obstacles; an, finally, mountain riding, where daring individuals can take their unicycles to wilderness trails and try off-road unicycling.
Those interested in joining the club can become members simply by going to practice twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6 p.m., and showing interest in unicycling.
For Blaese, there’s no reason that someone wouldn’t want to join the club. “We’re just a bunch of cool people,” he said.
– Edited by Scott Phelan