The sound of one wheel slipping

Bill Spears and Adam Masters, unicyclers

To dream the improbable dream: Mountain unicyclists Bill Spears, left, and Adam Masters don’t care that their sport is weird. photos by Kent Priestley

Riding a unicycle can be a lonely endeavor. This is partly because of the extreme concentration it requires, but mostly because it’s hard to find anyone else who does it. The outlandish act of balancing on a single wheel thins out the crowd, and frankly, unless you’re a clown, acrobat or teenager, a device so peculiar simply lacks mass appeal.

The sport’s strangeness doesn’t bother Bill Spears. He’s been riding a unicycle for 40 years, usually alone. As a boy in Lexington, Ky., Spears got hooked one day after seeing a neighborhood unicyclist ride past his house. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” he recalls. “I nagged my parents until I got one for my 10th birthday.”

Since then, aside from a spell in the military, Spears’ single wheel has gone with him everywhere. These days he’s taking his unicycle to places many never thought possible.

Now a real estate agent living in West Asheville, Spears moved to Western North Carolina in 1987. At first, he operated a llama-trekking business and spent most of his spare time outside climbing, biking and backpacking. “I love the outdoors, so it seemed only natural to fit unicycling into what I was doing,” he says. Spears replaced his slick city tire with a Tioga Farmer John, the must-have mountain bike tire of the day, and hit the trails. “People thought I was crazy,” he recalls. “No one was doing it.”

Well, hardly anyone. The sport developed independently around the world in the 1980s, and the first mass-produced off-road unicycle, known as a “muni,” would not appear until 1994. Since then, a growing interest in trail riding has led to better, stronger unicycles. While the size of a road unicycle’s wheel can vary, most trail riders prefer a 26-inch knobby tire. Seats have a bit more padding, and the other components — pedals, seat posts and cranks — are sturdier than a road unicycle’s.

Since unicycles have a fixed, 1-to-1 gear ratio (unlike most bicycles, which have multiple gears), speeds are slow and riding is technical. Minor obstacles for a mountain bike, such as roots and logs, become several degrees more challenging on a single. But what really distinguishes a unicycle is the focus it requires.

“It’s one of those things that keeps you in the moment,” says Spears. “We’re so busy living in the past or future, but riding one wheel forces me — actually, gives me the luxury of living in the present.”

Spears hasn’t gone entirely off-road with his unicycling. He hopes to one day be become the first to person to cruise the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway on one wheel.

The go-to guys

Mountain unicycling may be budding, but its popularity is a relative thing, and the sport could wind up being little more than a passing fad. In Asheville you can probably count the number of off-road single-wheelers on one hand. So Spears was surprised when he bumped into Adam Masters at WestFest back in May. Masters, who is 26, not only pursues the sport on a daily basis, he had just completed a 5K race on his unicycle.

“Adam had a huge, knobby tire on a fancy new ride,” says Spears. “I had to try it.”

Masters and Spears live within blocks of each other, are both realtors and are both drawn to the curious sport. And while two riders may not qualify West Asheville as a unicycling nexus, both men were pleased to discover their shared passion.

Masters’ brother introduced him to mountain unicycling last December, and by January he was on the trail, riding several times a week, often at Bent Creek.

His dedication has paid off; his nimbleness and nerve on the trail suggest a rider with a decade of experience under his wheel rather than a mere eight months.

Mastering the sport is not easy. It may not take long to understand the mechanics of staying upright on a unicycle, but just try riding one. At first, balancing a small patch of wheel on a pavement or trail can seem like a desperate act. Masters figures it took him six hours over three weeks before he was mobile. The Web site suggests two to six weeks of regular practice in order to get the basics. And while his memory is short on specifics, Spears recalls a couple of months spent doing circles on a basement slab before he was brave enough to pedal his first unicycle in public.

“There’s a steep learning curve at the front end,” admits Masters. “You really have to want to do it.” Which is one reason the eccentric contraptions are still a rare sight.

Spears and Masters often ride together in town and on the trail. Both outgoing and friendly, the men have become willing spokesmen for the sport. Still, mountain unicycling may qualify as the loneliest extreme sport yet invented. Masters says he takes 90 percent of his rides by himself, and though the two are hoping the sport takes off, they say they would settle for just a few more riders in their midst.

[When he’s not busy teaching, changing diapers or pursuing more conventional sports, Jack Igelman burns up any patch of vacant asphalt he can find on his own unicycle. He lives in West Asheville.]

Going solo

Despite the sport’s relative obscurity, there’s a fair amount of gear available to help provide a satisfying — and safe — introduction to the world of mountain unicycling. Spills are a given, so a helmet, of course, is a must-have. Pads are recommended too, including shin protectors, elbow pads and wrist-guards.

Local unicycle dealers include Bike Ways in Hendersonville (692-0613) and Hearn’s Cycling and Fitness in Asheville (253-4800). The Web site has an array of ready-to-ride unicycles for sale, both on- and off-road, as well as safety gear. Local skate shops are another good source of pads.

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