Friday, December 27, 2013

40 years of the unicycle

Christmas 1973 brought the family a real game changer, a 24" unicycle.  Ostensibly my sister Claudia's present, within a couple of months, both sisters and I had figured out how to wobble along on it unassisted. For me, though, it went on to define me.

I had always been a scrawny kid, underweight, undersize, underpowered, yet more agile than most, and more accustomed to play alone than on teams, thus it was only natural that I would master this quickly. This was metro Buffalo, NY, so of course it was snowy outside, meaning we learned in the house. Our house had a long narrow hallway, just perfect for holding one's balance by pressing against the wall. With some practice, the balance came, and before long, we were navigating across the living room, around the kitchen, and over to the front doorknob. Lather, rinse, repeat.

New Year's Eve 1973, I was atop the wheel at the stroke of midnight, a tradition I would continue for another 15 years or more, no matter where I was.

When the weather got better, I graduated to holding onto the mailbox at the edge of the street (a 55 mph country road, but with light traffic and good sight lines). Wobble 20 feet. Fall off, walk back, grab mailbox, remount. Then 30 feet. Then 40. Then 100. Then routinely far enough that I was spending more time walking back to the mailbox than riding, so I practiced getting on without it. This took a few days.

By mid-February, I was riding the half mile to a nearby school, where a hopscotch court and a large spiral were painted on the sidewalk. Over and over, I would traverse each, trying to hit every number or stay within the ever-tightening lines. One day, I had to manage a near-gale-force side wind to get there and back, but I did it. I was 15, and for the first time in my life, I could do something nobody else could, and do it well. The one-wheel world was mine.

Each time I tried something, I got a bit more attention:
* April: A bike hike for charity. It was shortened to 10 miles because it took place in a downpour, but I made it, among dozens of bicyclists. (Artist Tom Toles did some of the promo work for this, one of his first assignments in Buffalo. I recall the poster as having five large heads riding tiny bicycles.)
* Riding to school: I was the first kid picked up on my very long bus route. I found I could unk the four miles to school faster than the bus could travel 15 miles. End of day, I helped shelve books in the library, after which one of the school staff would ride me to the end of my street to save time. Even at 15, I was experimenting with multi-modal transportation!
* May 9, 1975 (+- a day or so): WKBW-TV reporters visit my school to interview the kid who unicycled to school. I got a full minute on the 11 p.m. news. I also got to hold the news camera and toodle around the parking lot for a minute with the camera pointed at the wheel. This was a big 16mm film camera which must have weighed 10 pounds, in today's dollars must have been worth $15,000, and the cameraman was scared to death that I would drop it. (I didn't.)
* About a week later, I zipped across the stage in the school's variety show to kill time and provide entertainment while sets were changed.

I went off to college and the wheel went with me. I unicycled everywhere, exploring the SUNY Geneseo campus and the town. For the first year, I was the only student with a unicycle.

The highlight my freshman year was the morning of January 28, 1977, a date that will live in infamy in Western New York: The Blizzard of '77! It was a Friday, and my MWF morning was a succession of back-to-back classes in mid-campus, followed by a return to my dorm for lunch. The trip over at 8:45 was fine, just a typical winter day. Class changes at 10 and 11 were not unusual. By 11:50, things were different. A solid gale with heavy snow was coming out of the west, and the only sidewalk was a north-south path between two wide open athletic fields. We called it The Tundra. That trip was amazing! The sidewalk was clear -- no accumulated snow -- but you couldn't see! Having long ago mastered riding in a side wind, all I needed to do was take note of where people's feet were. I made it across without touching anyone else, and in so doing, I think I was the only person in all of Western New York to be riding a unicycle during the height of the Blizzard of '77, arguably the worst snowstorm ever, anywhere. A week later, the area was designated a federal disaster area, the first time in history such a call had ever been made because of a snowstorm.

Further note: In over four years at Geneseo, riding all through each winter, not once did I touch another pedestrian. I might have startled a couple hundred, but I never caused an accident.

Sophomore year, I was riding across the north end of campus one day when suddenly I hear: "You! On the unicycle! Lemme try that!" I handed this sandy blond haired guy the wheel, who promptly jumps on the thing and takes off, riding backward. I had met my match, and his name was Richard Tollner. He and I rapidly became good friends. He also owned a giraffe, a six-foot tall unicycle with a chain-driven wheel. I think I only ever rode the thing five times, but each of those was memorable.

The most memorable occasion was around noontime on Saturday, October 25, 1980. I'd taken a ninth full-time semester to earn more credits, and two hours earlier that day, met a girl in the computer lab. We were taking a lunch break together in the College Union after working on our respective programming assignments, and hitting it off very well. Coming out of the Union snack bar, a rocking chair marathon was going on, and Tollner was the entertainment, on his giraffe. Seeing me, he calls me over, and with him on giraffe and me on his regular 24" wheel, we perform a pas de deux for the rockers. The girl, whose name was Sarah, did not know I rode a unicycle, and here she was, seeing two of us. He figured out immediately that we were a couple. "Whaddya mean, Strickland, not telling your girlfriend you rode a unicycle? How long have you known her?" "Oh, about two hours." "Two HOURS? You guys are perfect for each other!"

Four years later, Richard Tollner would cater our wedding. Of course, there are wedding pictures of me in a white tux with tails, riding the wheel.

Years went by, but every place I ever lived, every place I ever worked, the unicycle made an appearance. Parades, protests, Halloween costumes, company parties, picnics. Most of the time, I did not use it for routine transportation, but it did serve as a handy backup from time to time.

I've owned seven, still have five. The original 1973 Stelber is in really bad shape, more rust than metal, broken spokes, bearings worn beyond repair. Sarah can ride a little bit, as can both my kids, though none of them ever really took to it like I did. Last summer, I tried riding a 36" touring uni. It was difficult! It took me 20 tries to finally get on it. I think I would more like a 29" uni for touring with other bicyclists. I just can't make any speed on the 24".

I've never been particularly proficient. Tricks aren't my bag, but I can do a few things. I can ride with my right foot on the frame. I can ride backward a bit. I can track-stand within a three-foot square essentially forever. I enjoy playing target practice with anyone who will stand stock-still as I fly up to them. Sarah is particularly good at this. It's fun to work in a kiss at a standstill between periods of moving at a jogging pace.

I do ride it a lot. New Year's Day 2013, I rode it 16 miles in the snow as part of the annual Icycle Bicycle ride. November 30, I rode it four miles as part of the annual Menorah Parade, wearing a homemade menorah. I captured some of the ride on video!

But just as in my youth, I've never done too much socially with the wheel. I don't seek out other unicyclists, never gone to conventions, never sought fame. It's just something that's unusual, that I happen to be fairly good at, and that's good enough for me.

Will I be riding when I'm 95? I hope so. I see no reason to stop now.


  1. How I learned to ride the unicycle, get on TV, and impress at least one particular girl.