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One-wheelin': The Twin Cities are a Mecca for urban unicyclists

You've heard the bikers' adage "Four wheels bad, two wheels good," adapted from a sheep's bleat in George Orwell's novel Animal Farm. Unicyclists sometimes reduce the math of that maxim to "Two wheels bad, one wheel good."

Most unicyclists aren't as exclusive or moralistic as the saying suggests; they also ride bicycles and even own cars. But there is something special about unicycling, according to local enthusiasts who say they find cruising or cavorting atop a single, whirring wheel to be an unmatched form of exercise, an irreducible thrill, and an unparalleled mode of commuting.

Their ranks may be tiny compared to the legions who last spring put Minneapolis on the map as the nation's best bike city, according to Bicycling magazine's reckoning. Yet the small but influential local unicycling community has also put the Twin Cities on the one-wheel world map.

Some are lone wolves who rack up thousands of miles in the saddles of their big wheels, crisscrossing the urban street grid and circumnavigating city lakes. Many are members of the Twin Cities Unicycle Club (TCUC) who gather for group rides or to teach each other tricks in snowbound gymnasiums.

Minnesota a Mecca

Consider that all 12 people who have mastered skills up to Level 10--unicycling's black belt--have come from the Twin Cities club, which offers rides, classes and practice sessions most days of the week. The national championships that the TCUC hosted last year were an occasion for one East Coast commenter to lament at Unicyclist.com, "Why does it seem like there are more unicycle riders and activities in Minnesota than anywhere else in the US?" In international circles, Minnesota is considered something of a unicycling Mecca.  

"Unicycling is still small enough that you can experience the worldwide culture," says Constance Cotter, who last month was elected TCUC president. "I can go anywhere in the world and stay on someone's couch, even though I've never met them. I don't know very many bicyclists [who can say that]."

Cotter (who says she doesn't own any two-wheeled contraptions) is also president of the Unicycle Society of America and executive vice president of the International Unicycle Federation (IUF). (The IUF's current president, Ryan Woessner, got his training from Cotter at the TCUC.)

A Family Affair

Perhaps more significantly, Cotter comes from a well-known unicycling clan based in Hutchinson, Minn., where her brother Andy, another unicycle overachiever, farms and hosts off-road unicycle events. Another relative, Joe Lind (whom Cotter calls a cousin-in-law), recently opened the Twin Cities' first storefront unicycle shop, Compulsion Cycle, in the West Seventh neighborhood of St. Paul.

Indeed, unicycling often spreads within families, across generations. Currently the TCUC boasts more than 100 enrolled families to fill a roster of more than 300 individual members. The club encourages people of different ages to mix and share skills, says Cotter: "Kids teach adults. Teens teach each other."

That was the case for Gus Dingemans, who started riding unicycles 12 years ago at age 48, alongside his son, Max, then 12. "We learned pretty much evenly," Dingemans says. Max now teaches unicycling at Circus Juventas in St. Paul, and the elder Dingemans, a bike mechanic-turned-bus driver and self-described tinkerer, crafts unicycles for sale at his home in Minneapolis' Prospect Park neighborhood.  He has built nearly 100 unicycles, but these days specializes in manufacturing handles that allow long-distance big-wheel riders to shift weight from their seats to their arms.

Big Wheel Keep On Turnin'

But the urge to ride on one wheel didn't come to Dan Hansen via bloodlines. The northeast Minneapolis resident says his compulsion came by way of a chance, high-speed encounter a decade ago.

"One day on my way to work I was just stepping off my stair onto the sidewalk and this young woman goes blasting by in front of my house on this enormous unicycle," Hansen recalls. "My jaw dropped. I had never seen anything like it."

Indeed, big-wheel unicycles had then been on the market only a short time. The Coker Tire Company of Chattanooga, Tenn., a manufacturer of specialty tires for classic-car collectors, introduced the first unicycle with a 36-inch wheel in 1998. Hansen called around town in search of a cycle with a single big wheel, but "Cokers" weren't yet in local stores. So he made do with an old 24-inch unicycle (dredged from the basement of the newly opened One on One Bicycle Studio [see the accompanying feature] in Minneapolis' Warehouse District) until he found a used Coker on eBay.

Now Hansen rides a 36-incher nearly every day, year-round. He says a unicycle performs better than a bicycle in most winter weather, providing a highly responsive ride with a more direct connection to the road. And it's simply the best workout experience available, in his view.

Hansen is also an early adopter of the latest innovation in one-wheeled transport: geared unicycles. Riders kick it up a notch with a foot-controlled gear changer, allowing previously unheard-of speeds approaching 30 miles per hour. "When I'm out on the trails, people [on bikes] don't typically pass me--unless they have Lycra," he says.

Hansen put the innovation to the test two years ago at Ride the Lobster, the world's first and so far only multi-day, staged unicycle race--like the Tour de France, but in Nova Scotia and on one wheel. (The half-dozen Minnesotans who participated in Ride the Lobster included Irene Genelin, the young woman who rode by Hansen's house that fateful day and who is now married to Andy Cotter.)

But Hansen figures he could count the number of regular big-wheel riders in Minneapolis and St. Paul on both of his (free) hands. "It seems to minimize the big-wheel unicycle movement to say there are so few, but really, nationally or internationally, it's getting to be a fairly big thing," he says. "It's been around for a really short time. Germany is the big country right now."

Nationally, Hansen looks west for a simpatico scene. "Portland, [Ore.], has a weird group called Unicycle Bastards. They're a rough bunch," he says admiringly of a group that specializes in sporadic off-road and off-color shenanigans, even if mostly on smaller wheels. "It's some of that rough bike culture but put on a unicycle. That kind of rough-and-tumble unicycle culture here would be really great. It doesn't exist."

Unicycling to Work

The 36-inch-unicycle revolution has opened up a new world of commuting to one-wheel riders. Gus Dingemans often commutes downtown to Metro Transit, a regular ride that helped him hit the 12,000-mile mark last summer. An inveterate record-keeper, he says he logged 101 commutes this year before retiring his unicycle for the winter.

Eagan resident Bob Clark followed plowed, suburban bike trails to keep up a year-round big-wheel commute for three years until his employer, Cray Inc., moved to downtown St. Paul, increasing his one-way trip from five to 12.5 miles.  He now relies on a bicycle to get to work but still takes his one-wheeler on occasion. "I like beating the heat/cold/snow/rain, especially on a unicycle," he says.

Hansen needs his pickup for work most days, but takes his unicycle out on the equivalent of a daily work-commute anyway. "I tell you, the greatest amenity of a city are these roadways that go everywhere," he says. "There's tar every place. You could think of it as a horrible drawback to city living--a concrete jungle. Or you can consider it a gigantic playground for vehicles like bicycles or unicycles. It's like, I can go any place I want."

The fat wheels on his 36-inch unicycle handle urban bumps and potholes with aplomb, and the lack of wide handlebars lets him maneuver through tight city spots that bicyclists shy away from.

"I feel like the city is basically a playground for unicycles and there are only a few of us who actually use it," Hansen says. "It's so incredible."

Chris Steller is the former Development Editor of The Line.

Photos, top to bottom:

Dan Hansen on his monster one-wheeler

Hansen's 36-inch unicycle can handle all the challenges of urban cycling.

Constance Cotter leads a unicycling class at Jenny Lind Elementary School in North Minneapolis.

Cotter's class getting the hang of one-wheeling

The Twin Cities Unicycle Club offers classes like Cotter's all year round.

All photos by Bill Kelley
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