If you think unicycling is just a one-wheeled circus act for clowns, think again.
A unicycle can do almost anything a bicycle can do. That includes quick trips around town, traversing miles of open road and even pedaling down Raccoon Mountain. But why would anyone trade two wheels- two safe, handle-barred, efficient wheels-for one?
Whatever it is about this derivative of the penny-farthing of the 1800s, the unicycle has an emerging fan base here in Chattanooga. And local boys Matthew Gant, Brookes Bacon and Nathan Stoltzfus are three riders with the brawn, balance and bruises to prove it.
-The longest jump on a unicycle was 9 ft. 8 in. by Austrian David Weichenberger during the event Vienna Recordia, in Vienna, Austria, in 2006.
-Brit Sam Wakeling traveled 105.57 miles on a unicycle without his feet touching the ground in September 2007.
-Benjamin Guiraud, aka Yoggi, a Frenchman, climbed 670 stairs on a unicycle without his feet or any part of his body touching the ground, in 22 minutes and 32 seconds, at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, in November 2006.
-New Zealander Ken Looi travelled 18.63 miles on a unicycle in a 1-hour period at Victoria Park Oval, New South Wales, Australia, in August 2009.
Gant, a TVA engineer, started unicycling after prodding from his brother-in-law, performing unicyclist Super Tall Paul. His interest quickly developed, even if his skills didn't, and he began looking for others interested in the sport. "I put out a Facebook post, because I was dying to share this with someone, anyone, and I asked if anyone knew someone that unicycled," says Gant. "I was motivated and psyched and wanted someone to ride with."
That was in March of 2013.
"My wife saw the post and showed it to me," Bacon says. "We ended up working at the same place and knowing each other through church, too. And so we just started getting together and riding."
Though a unicycle only has one wheel, it's not a lonely sport. Gant and Bacon connected over their interest in the one-wheeled machine and have embarked on the task of bringing unicycling front and center as Chattanooga's newest sport.
For Gant, that was learning the fundamentals-mounting, balancing, idling, steering, stopping. He would try, and try again. He says it took him more than 20 hours to learn to ride. That's not uncommon for someone learning how to balance and maneuver the unicycle, but Gant is also president of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, a role that demands patience and strength. He's already wired to problem-solve.
"It's hard! I couldn't believe how hard it was," remembers Gant. "I Googled over and over, and it took me about a week to ride. There's definitely a learning curve." But instead of giving up when he fell flat on his face, he got back on the unicycle after each fall. "I was brave or crazy or something," Gant laughs. "I rode a few blocks and I fell six times. Next, I'd fall three times and I'd get a little better every time I tried."
Road unicycles aren't the small, trick unicycles you see at the circus. These are 36-inch wheels of madness-and it all started right here in the Scenic City. The Coker, as they call it, is a larger, thicker tire-designed to be more comfortable for longer and smoother rides.
If the name sounds familiar, that's because the original 36-inch tire is a product of Chattanooga's own Coker Tire Company. For years, the 36-inch wheel was exclusively made by Coker, making the name so ingrained to the sport that riding on one of any brand is still referred to as "Cokering."
Made as a callback to the penny-farthing, the Coker was first manufactured in 1998 as the natural progression of the 36-inch bicycle, the Monster Cruiser.
"It's just so cool to have that here, as a part of Chattanooga," Gant says. "That's just one more reason Chattanooga is the perfect community for unicyclists."
While Gant was getting better each ride, Bacon was already ahead of the curve. "I unicycled a bit as a kid. I had one in junior high and it was cool," says Bacon, also a TVA engineer originally from Spring City. "Some time ago, my parents were cleaning out their garage and found my unicycle, so I picked it up again." That second experience with his childhood unicycle hooked him. "I actually ended up breaking it. I obviously weigh more now. So I tried to do some fixing up to it, but I ended up upgrading to a heavy-duty uni."
Bacon was unicycling around town for fun, after work and on the weekends. Until he met Gant, he rode solo. Once they teamed up, the two began testing their one-wheeled limits, moving off road and taking on some of the mountain trails normally ridden by the bicyclists. And as they pushed their limits, they began to attract others to the sport, like Chattanooga transplant Nathan Stoltzfus.
The three meet to ride, on trails or in town. While they are all at different skill levels-Gant's still learning, Bacon's experienced and Stoltzfus is really good-they each have something to offer. "[Gant's] such a quick learner, and he's really catching on," Bacon says. "Nathan is so good, he challenges me to push myself harder and try new things."
Thrill seekers like these three are the reason mUni-or off-road, mountain unicycling-exists and is expanding. "Unicycling has changed so much, it's going way extreme and growing all over," Gant says. He cites Kris Holm, the Tony Hawk of the unicycling world, as the maniac behind the movement. Holm is credited with taking the unicycle off road. "He brought mountain unicycling into the mainstream," Gant says. "I look at YouTube videos of him and I'm just amazed. Watch his stuff. You'll see."
It truly is awe-inspiring. Holm is able to master mountain biking trails, stopping on a dime, jumping from ledges and hopping down steep embankments like it's nothing. He now designs a line of unis specifically tailored for off-road riding and is helping to create a new outdoor sports culture much like Gary Fischer is often credited for in the early days of mountain biking.
It doesn't take a lot to realize that mUni is different, and inherently more difficult and taxing than mountain biking.
Often, Bacon, Gant and Stoltzfus falter and fall, but with hands free, it's easier to catch yourself, they say. "Unlike a bike, there's not another wheel to absorb any shock," Bacon laughs. "Every little bump, every little root, every little pebble- you feel it. But it's still a blast."
As if mUni wasn't enough, Gant and Bacon are pedaling their unicycles for speed and distance, not just tricks. "We're hoping to get up to 10 miles an hour, and honestly I think we'll end up doing 12 or 13," Bacon says.
Bacon recently went to Virginia to meet up with other unicyclists to ride mountain trails.
"It's completely amazing to see that many like-minded, slightly crazy unicyclists," Bacon says. "From Pennsylvania to Georgia, people of all walks of life-college kids, medical professionals, the whole spectra-they came together to ride. It really pushed us to get others to get their unicycles out and ride again."
Ultimately, Bacon and Gant would like to develop that type of community here. They are looking to entice other unicyclists to visit the area, as well as inviting locals to join their one-wheeled journey. Unicycling is something that Gant and Bacon believe more people would embrace if they abandoned their fears and just tried. So they are reaching out to others who unicycle in their spare time, have in the past or are interested in picking it up now.
"The big thing for me is that it's a de-stresser, I relax when I am on a unicycle," Bacon says. "I'm moving so slow and I can enjoy everything around me, and I see things from a different point of view." It even teaches important life lessons. "Perseverance, seriously. It goes hand in hand with everything-work, life, this really teaches you that," Bacon says.
For Gant, the challenge keeps him hungry. Every time he rides, he learns, and the more he learns the more he has to ride. But alongside the challenges, Gant enjoys the reactions he gets from others. "I always get a smile out of people as I ride by, or a chuckle. People are curious," Gant says.
It's true. As Gant and Brooks ride around downtown one July afternoon, everyone they meet asks them about their transportation.
"How do you even get on that thing," a man asks. Bacon is able to run and mount the bike to continue riding. It's impressive.
But Gant stationary mounts the bike to the amazement of the family beside him, and even though he's wobbling, he smiles.
"Like this," he says.