Tearing up the mountains with a one-wheel wonder
Some bragged about how much they spent on a new knobby tire, while others tried to balance atop their equipment, attracting curious onlookers. The six members of what is a 250-strong club were waiting for a bus to the entrance of Mount Sanseong in southern Seoul. At that rugged destination, they planned to spend a recent winter afternoon riding their unicycles down steep mountain trails. As if just balancing on a unicycle isn’t tough enough, these guys like to cruise through the forest, leaping over boulders and creeks as they go.
They appeared clownlike in colorful spandex, but these unicyclists do not juggle. They are average office workers who just enjoy the thrill of the ride. But first they needed an empty bus ― they’d like to avoid hearing another complaint of “disturbing” other passengers.
“Even though a lot of people are checking us out right now and saying ‘that’s so cool,’ the bus driver might not let us all aboard,” said Lee Yong-nam, a unicyclist of 11 years. Once when traveling alone with his one-wheeled wonder, he was deterred from boarding a subway. The subway attendant quarreled with Mr. Lee, who finally pointed out that if folded bicycles can be taken on the train, unicycles ought to be permitted also. The wheel of his unicycle, after all, is smaller than that of a conventional bike. (Normally, a “muni” ― slang for a mountain unicycle ― has a 20-inch wheel and a 5-inch crank arm.) Mr. Lee won the argument and was allowed on the train, but only on the condition that he not “hop” inside the car.
“I was unicycling in a park, and a grandpa suddenly hollered at me, saying that I had scared him to death for suddenly passing by like a monster,” he said.
A unicycle can accelerate to up to 30 kilometers (19 miles) per hour, Mr. Lee said.
But even at zero speed, unicycles can be confounding to the uninitiated. On one occasion, Mr. Lee and his friends were examining their unicycles before setting out on a mountain ride. An elderly couple passing by thought that they had needlessly broken apart brand new bicycles. “Young people these days get enough food. They don’t know how to take care of stuff,” scolded the elderly couple.
Despite the bright afternoon sunshine, the wind was quite chilly when this reporter and the six daredevils reached the base of the mountain. Each rider put on an extra layer of fleece and strapped on body armor.
Ahn Jae-seon said he fell in love with unicycles when he saw one on a television show in 1989. A couple of celebrities on the show had been sent abroad to learn unicycling. Mr. Ahn called the broadcaster and asked if he could buy the device. But as a college student, he couldn’t afford the million won price. Fifteen years later, he bought his first unicycle for 300,000 won ($305) on the Internet.
Jo Hyeon-bin, 14, the only minor in the group, said his father introduced him to the sport. Securely fastening his helmet, he recounted that his father bought a unicycle to help his sister recover from a knee injury. But he learned to unicycle as well as they helped his sister get her balance.
Carrying their unicycles on their backs, the trudging began. On the way up, a few hikers stared at them in wonder. But there was no scolding this time. Just a few curious people who asked, “Are they the new circus in town?”
Mount Sanseong is more like a wooded hilltop than a rugged mountain. The club members said they chose a less dangerous location because today’s riders had varying skill levels.
The true daredevil was Kim Su-yeol, a public servant by weekday. On this ride, he was the “advisory technician,” whose job is to teach newcomers how to balance, and adjust their unicycles to get a natural-feeling “hop.”
His favorite place for unicycling is Mount Amsa in eastern Seoul because of its rocky hills, and Mount Kkachi in western Seoul for its steep slopes.
Mr. Kim said that once you get used to riding a unicycle ― which might take two weeks for fast learners but as long as a year for less athletic ones ― you should feel it become part of your body.
He was the only one that comfortable on his muni, it seemed. Other riders said they were having fun going down the mountainside, but admitted that they were not brave enough to go first. If someone else went first, then you knew it was safe.
Mr. Kim always forged ahead, sometimes down runs that looked like a dead-end to an ordinary person.
Studying a slope covered with leaves, he shook his head.
“It would have been better and safer if it was covered with snow,” he said. Snow prevents injuries from falls. “Then I could take everyone, but leaves are slippery, and rocks might be hidden beneath.”
Mr. Kim said his most thrilling ride ever was down a long staircase near the Namsan science center. It was a non-stop 100-step slope.
“You feel the ultimate fear near death,” he said. “You’ll never know how it feels unless you try it.”
For those who want something less extreme, you might want to join members every Sunday at Olympic Park in Bangi-dong, eastern Seoul. They practice on flat ground and share tips on what they learned during the week. For more information visit www.unicycle.or.kr.
by Lee Min-a