Circus Act or Extreme Sport? 

Some unicyclists aren't thrilled by their sport's reputation.

On a unicycle basketball court, eccentricity is standard. "I've always loved the weird stuff," said Berkeley Revolution team member Albert Kong. "Traditional sports didn't interest me at all." Feats like riding a motorcycle from San Francisco to Tierra del Fuego (Jim Sowers), learning parkour and archery solely because they're obscure (Kong), or simply juggling with a group once a week on the UC Berkeley campus (Lance Thornton) are par for the course in the unicycling world.

Unicycling's traditional ties with the circus, particularly juggling, further sequester it on the fringes of popular culture. Many of the Berkeley team's members came to unicycling through juggling, and some, like Frank Olivier, who has performed on Broadway and appeared on the Johnny Carson show, make circus-style entertainment a way of life. Ashley Foster, who plays unicycle basketball in Berkeley regularly, learned to ride at Wavy Gravy's Camp Winnarainbow circus camp.

But some contemporary unicyclists aren't thrilled about the connotation of unicycling as a party trick for oddballs. They'd prefer to establish a distinction between circus- and non-circus riding, and to push unicycling from the realm of novelty into the realm of sport. "Unicyclists are trying to get rid of association with the circus and clowns," said Marcus Hertlein, a founding member of the Berkeley squad. "It kind of makes fun of it and doesn't really show that there's athletic ability necessary for these sports."

Like Hertlein, Berkeley Revolution team member Sowers is more interested in the athletic side of unicycling. Last year he rode a unicycle 10.8 miles to the peak of Mount Diablo for the annual Mount Diablo Challenge. It took him an hour and 45 minutes — third place among the three unicyclists who tried (first place went to Berkeley team cofounder Tom Holub at 1:20), but well ahead of more than eighty bicyclists. "When people see how athletic we are, we get some embarrassed respect," he said.

Sure enough, the barriers between unicycling and serious sport are beginning to break down. In recent years, a number of professional unicyclists have earned sponsorships from companies such as Columbia Sports. Many of them specialize in mountain unicycling, which is perhaps easiest for nonunicyclists to embrace because it mirrors mountain biking.

Mountain unicycling pioneer John Foss says that Unicycle.com became the first outlet to sell unicycles online in 1999, and suddenly everyone with an Internet connection and a mailing address had access to the sport. An explosion of unicycle production and sales ensued, Foss said. The new market for different types of wheels, seats, axles, and other components allowed unicyclists to customize their rides and adapt them to different uses. Prices began to drop, too — today, standard cycles go for under $100, while top-of-the-line rigs run around $500.

At the same time, the growing popularity of online photo and video sharing led to the development of a virtual, international unicycle clinic. An innovator in a particular arena could broadcast the achievement and inspire viewers to follow along — and perhaps respond with their own innovation. Unicyclists who once felt isolated within smaller communities were now linked to a worldwide network. As a result, participation in sports like unicycle basketball has grown steadily over the last decade, and the expanding unicycle universe has led juggling and unicycling to diverge into distinct cultures.

While the tension between circus and sport may never be fully resolved, there's ample room for both in our niche-driven culture. "People take it to so many extremes," said Kong. "If you can do it on foot, you can do it on a unicycle." The fun part is wondering what will come next.

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