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THE OUTDOORS ALMANAC | THIS IS FUN?

Hop, flip, jump

Mountain unicycles -- munis, for short -- can go anywhere bikes go (and no annoying handlebars).

June 14, 2005|Hannah Nordhaus

As with all great social movements, the origins of mountain unicycling are unclear.

Many attribute the sport's beginnings to Alaska magistrate George Peck, who in the 1980s chronicled the challenges of technical one-wheeling in the seminal video "Rough-Terrain Unicycling." Former world unicycling champ John Foss and Vancouver superstar Kris Holm, meanwhile, were independently exploring off-road mountain unicycling. Since then, the outdoors thrill ride has exploded. The nation's preeminent mountain unicycling event, the Moab MUnifest, drew a whopping 162 participants in April. L.A. mountain unicyclists gather at a first roundup in Van Nuys at Lake Balboa in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

Mountain unicycles have 3-inch-wide knobby tires, a sturdy axle, heavy-duty cranks, padded seats and a brake mounted just beneath the saddle. In the early years, off-road unicyclists took blowtorches to bicycle forks and cranks. In 1997, the first commercially made mountain unicycle hit the market. Nowadays a high-end rig sells for around $500.

Munis can go anywhere mountain bikes can go (only slower), and some places they can't. Holm, the sport's most accomplished rider, has dropped 15-foot airs, threaded cliff edges and bridge railings, descended the south face of Mexico's Pico Orizaba and traversed Bhutan on a unicycle.

To negotiate obstacles, unicyclists pull upward on their seats and perch on their pedals, bouncing as if on a Hoppity-Hop. Without handlebars to entangle riders when they fall, wipeouts tend to be less dramatic. "Places where you might typically do an endo on a bike you can do on a unicycle with a series of hops and rolling moves," says Moab MUnifest founder Rolf Thompson. "I do a lot of stuff on a unicycle that I wouldn't do on a bike."

Because munis have only one fixed gear, the wheel can roll only as fast as legs can spin. "We can't coast down a hill, so we're never going to go over 15 mph," Foss says.

Who does this? "We get people who like things that are hard," he says. "A lot of overachievers, smart people, computer geeks."

Hannah Nordhaus

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Muni speak

How the one-wheel world communicates.

UPD: Unplanned dismount

Unintentional coasting: When feet fall off the pedals but the rider remains perched on the seat.

Unicycle bowling: Bikes come to a stop quickly after a wipeout; unicycles keep rolling and tumbling down the hill.

Dead spot: When the cranks are in vertical position, the unicyclist has no pedaling power.

Roll-out: The best way to disperse energy when catching big air is to land pedaling.

Calftracks: If the foot slips, studded muni pedals can leave bloody marks across the calf.

Shindentations: Where the pedal meets the shin.

-- Hannah Nordhaus

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