After pedalling around sans pants in the World Naked Bike Ride earlier this month, I thought I had already done the scariest thing I could do on a bike.
I was wrong.
When I was a teen, I saw someone riding down the street on a unicycle. I was in awe of his balance, his coordination, and the fact that he had both hands free to eat an ice cream cone and talk on a cell phone at the same time.
But because I’m a klutz at the best of times, my parents never let me try. I can still hear my dad telling me that I’d end up knocking out all my teeth if — or rather, when — I fell. Years later, I’m still drooling over unicycles in the windows of bike shops so, after some hemming and hawing, I finally sent an e-mail to a longtime unicyclist and asked him to teach me.
Ottawa’s Carl Roth has not only been riding unicycles for years, he’s the founder and organizer of the recent Ottawa Unicycle Invasion, an event that’s growing every year.
For Roth, the love of unis started in 1994, when he went out intending to buy a bike for his son, but came home with a unicycle for himself.
It was a steep learning curve. He tried teaching himself in his basement, using walls and ski poles before heading outside to use the clothesline to hold himself up.
He fell down repeatedly, but was determined to learn.
“Finally, I just went outside the garage and launched myself down the driveway,” said the computer consultant.
Within weeks, he was pedaling like a pro. Since then, he’s taught dozens of people, including his sons, to ride. “There’s nobody I haven’t been able to teach within four hours,” he said as we walk to Nanaimo Park.
I stick the seat between my legs and put one foot on a pedal. I hop on, putting my other foot on the other pedal. Roth holds the back of the seat for balance and sticks his arm in front, so I can hang on for dear life.
It’s harder than it looks, and it already looks hard.
Five seconds later, the whole unicycle shoots out from under me.
“The hardest part is the first 20 minutes,” Roth assured me. “At first, you have no frame of reference. With a bike, you can only fall left or right. But with a unicycle, you can fall in every direction.”
Great. I try, and try again. Each attempt ends with me falling. I quickly learn that the trick to keeping your balance is to keep pedaling — once you stop, you’re toast.
Pretty soon, I’m relying less on his arm to steady me and staying on the unicycle longer.
“When I ride by, people smile,” Roth said. “People think it’s neat.
“It’s kind of a frivolous thing. There’s no real purpose to it. And it’s something that other people can’t do.”