Unicycling may catch on in carbon-conscious world

By Billy Baker
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2009

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For unicyclists, there are two types of people in this world. Those who are really impressed with them when they ride by, and those who go to great lengths to ignore them because they think they’re trying to show off. Most people seem to fall into the latter group.

And then there’s the constant joke, which is kind of funny and mostly annoying but is interesting because everyone who utters it thinks they came up with it on the spot.

“Where’s the other wheel?’’

Unicycling comes with baggage. It’s fun, unicyclists say, and that’s the primary reason they do it. And it is certainly a novelty that attracts attention whether riders want it or not. But there’s something else going on, a weird logic inside that inverted pendulum that, they say, gives one-wheeled transport a real practicality in urban commuting.

In a carbon-conscious culture that’s looking for new ways to get from A to B, is it time to reconsider the unicycle? It’s not as crazy as you think.

“The reason it hasn’t exploded is there’s more than a bit of a learning curve,’’ said Alex O’Brien-Feldman, a Somerville resident who has been riding a unicycle just about everywhere for more than 20 years. “Some people think it’s just for showing off, but in fact unicycling is a very convenient form of urban transportation.

If riders are traveling less than 2 miles, he said, going by unicycle is faster than by bicycle.

“You have to unlock the bicycle, stow the lock, and then relock it somewhere else, which takes a few minutes,’’ said O’Brien-Feldman, who makes a living performing (sans unicycle) as Alex the Jester. “With a unicycle, you just jump on and go, and you can take it with you into a store, on the subway, almost anywhere. Or you can just leave it outside unlocked, and no one is going to take it.’’

He’s now got his two boys, ages 9 and 6, on unicycles, and they ride to and from school together almost every day.

Depending on the person, it can take anywhere from two to six weeks of steady practice to be able to ride in a straight line, and a few more weeks to do turns. But once riders are proficient, a typical unicycle is twice as fast as walking. With a larger 36-inch wheel, it can be more than four times as fast.

In terms of speed of commute, it’s on par with Rollerblades and skateboards. Unicyclists point out that Rollerblades require you to take your shoes on and off, and skateboards aren’t good at going uphill (riding a unicycle up a hill is similar to riding a bike in a low gear). And unicyclists can get away with riding on the sidewalk - pedestrians instinctively part the way, they say - and thus avoid the dangers of the road.

But the fact remains that these nuances are tough to explain when you’re riding past someone who is yelling: “Where’s the other wheel?’’

“I’ve actually started riding mine less because the stigma is starting to outweigh the convenience,’’ said Daniel Whitlow, a senior at MIT who says he is tired of being known as “the unicycle guy’’ on campus.

Sophie Wharton, a junior at Harvard University who recently did a 100-mile charity ride with her father through Montreal, made the conscious decision to leave her unicycle at home during her first semester of college “so I wouldn’t be the unicycle girl from the start.’’

“People at Harvard are very image-conscious,’’ said Isaac Shivvers, a senior at the school who said he only rides his unicycle on campus if it’s raining, because his hands are free to hold an umbrella. “No one is proudly weird at Harvard.’’

But being proudly weird is part of the ride when you’re gliding down the street on one wheel.

“The problem is that cars don’t know whether to treat you like a bicycle or like a pedestrian,’’ said Arthur Lewbel, an economics professor at Boston College who has been unicycling since the early ’70s. “What they should do is treat you like a jogger, because that’s about the speed at which you’re moving.’’

“They either give you a wide berth, or they lean out the window and throw things at you, even if they’re just words,’’ said Nic Price, a 30-year-old neuroscientist who rides his unicycle from his Cambridge apartment to his office at Harvard Medical School.

“The problem is that by the time I’ve come up with a great comeback,’’ Price said, “they’re a mile down the road.’’