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Unicyclists Extol Virtues of Single Wheels

Published May 17, 2010

BY DOUG MCCLELLAN

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Kris Holm and seven companions spent four days cycling and camping along Moab’s White Rim Trail last month. The 103-mile trail through Canyonlands National Park makes for a beautiful ride, if not usually a newsworthy one. But this excursion was different: Holm and his companions all rode unicycles.

“It wasn’t the first time a unicyclist had ever ridden the White Rim Trail—one of the guys on the trip was the first a couple of years ago—but it was the first all-unicyclist group,” Holm said.

Holm is a champion unicyclist who created an eponymous, high-end unicycle brand for serious riders. Famous for jaw-dropping extreme stunts on one wheel, Holm today downplays the more radical stuff to demonstrate the unicycles can be a small but serious niche within the bicycle industry. They aren’t just toys for kids or circus clowns.

It’s a message that is taking root, if slowly. Industry officials estimate that specialty unicycle sales account for at least 20,000 units a year—not including the much bigger numbers of inexpensive models bought for children.

Unicycling “has so many parallels to the birth of mountain biking, except it’s happening right now,” Holm said.

Holm, whose company is based in Vancouver, said he has been fascinated by unicycles ever since, as a kid, he saw a street performer riding one while playing a violin. “I played the violin, and I thought it would be pretty cool to do that,” he said. For Holm, unicycling was initially a solitary activity. “I rode from 1986 to 1998 without even knowing that there was another rider out there.”

Today’s unicycle community isn’t so isolated. Events such as the annual U Games, which will take place this July in Berkeley, California, draw hundreds of unicyclists. The Moab MUni Fest (for “Mountain Unicycling”) grew from five riders in 2000 to 208 in 2009, although there are no plans to continue the event.

Quality Bicycle Products has carried unicycles for about three years, boosting their accessibility to retailers. QBP buys from Unicycle.com, the leading vendor of unicycle brands online and in retail stores.

A significant percentage of unicycles are sold online because relatively few retailers carry them, unicycle makers say. At Unicycle.com, the Internet still accounts for about 75 percent of sales, general manager Josh Torrana said.

Along with selling other brands, Unicycle.com created its Nimbus house brand, which provides options at the mid to high-end level.

At Torker, considered the biggest single unicycle brand, sales have remained steady. “They’re one of our best-kept secrets,” said Craig “Gork” Barrette, marketing manager for the Seattle Bike Supply-owned brand.

“Unicycle sales have weathered the storm well,” said Randy Danioth, vice president of purchasing for SBS.

SBS started selling unicycles in the mid-1990s under the Zephyr name. In 2001, SBS rebranded the line under the more marketable Torker name, starting with three chrome unicycle models, Barrette said. Torker has slowly expanded the line, and this year added the LX Pro model for riders who perform show tricks.

Torker offers five unicycle models starting from the entry-level CX, which continues to be its best seller. “A large percentage of unicyclists started on the CX,” Barrette said.

Barrette still remembers the guy who visited the Torker booth at Sea Otter a few years ago. He said he’d ridden all kinds of bikes, and wanted to learn to ride a unicycle because “it was the last frontier.”

Unicyclists can conquer a number of cycling frontiers, from navigating technical mountain bike trails to trials riding to commuting. “The hardest part of my business is not the competition, but the market—convincing people that they can do it,” Holm said.

Unicycles range from 20-inch trials models to 29ers and 36-inch models. Serious riders can equip their rides with internal hubs or touring bars for long-distance riding. As off-road unicycling becomes more popular, makers are beefing up frames and adding features. Unicycle.com soon will sell disc brakes designed for 36-inch wheels, which are increasingly popular for off-road riding. Caliper brakes don’t work as well with big wheels because the rims are more prone to flexing.

Unicycle advocates say sales will continue to grow. The sport has an undeniable, if quirky, appeal. “You can’t eat a bowl of cereal while you’re commuting on a bicycle,” Torrana said. “You can on a unicycle.”

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