Mike Tierney is a typical Aspen adrenaline junkie who is always searching for a new way to get his kicks in the great outdoors. He thinks he’s found the perfect one.
And “one” is the key word.
Tierney rediscovered the joys of unicycling four years ago, and he’s steadily mastering the sport by cranking long climbs up roads like Independence Pass and even tackling steep, rocky paths through the mountains.
When Highway 82 reopens over Independence Pass this spring, Tierney will be a fixture on the route with the big 36-inch unicycle that he uses exclusively for road rides. The highly technical bicycles designed for road riding have a minimum of 18 gears, the lowest of which make it easier for riders to handle steep grades. But a unicycle has just one gear, and the rider can rarely, if ever, coast to give legs and lungs a break. Even on the downhill, a unicycle rider must keep pedaling and use the resistance on the downstroke to slow the speed.
“I try to relate it to biking but it’s really hard,” said Tierney, an Aspen Highlands ski patroller and solar energy consultant. “Is it five times harder, 10 times harder? I don’t know.”
Because a unicycle only has one gear and requires constant motion to avoid toppling over, Tierney has become sort of an aerobic animal. He knows his leg strength has also improved dramatically over the last four years.
But most important, the concentration required to accomplish a sustained climb on a steep paved road has brought him a new sense of calm.
“It puts you in a Zen state of awareness of the now more than anything I know,” he said. “This has opened up something I never could have imagined.”
Then again, it’s not always easy to stay in a Zen state of mind when passing cars are slowing down to check out the dude on the huge wheel with the tiny seat and pedals.
Tierney once tackled the paved road up Mt. Evans, a 14,264-foot peak near Evergreen. Cars that had passed him on the way up lined the shoulder at the approach to the summit. Passengers were outside their vehicles preparing to cheer the unicyclist to the top. Tierney got so excited that he pedaled too fast, lost his balance and fell ” yielding a collective groan from the audience.
“It was like the agony of defeat,” he said.
Tierney instantly popped to his feet, mounted his unicycle and assured the crowd he was capable of completing the route.
While that was an extreme case, his unique mode of locomotion always garners attention.
“It’s a total clown show,” he said. “They’ll stop their cars in the middle of the road to get that picture.”
While unicycles are often associated with the circus and parades, there’s also a very serious side to the sport. Mountain unicycling, called “MUni” by participants, is part of the same extreme sport craze that’s given rise to the ESPN television network’s summer and winter X Games.
It’s difficult to fathom, since most people would flounder just trying to ride a unicycle on pavement, but some unicyclists are now mastering narrow single-track trails and Jeep roads lined with rocks, ledges and other hazards.
Smuggler Mountain Road was one of the first MUni rides that Tierney tackled. “I can ride every inch of it,” he said. “I just have to stop and let my heart catch up.”
He has also ridden Government Trail, a challenging and popular upper-valley ride, and Mushroom, a busy midvalley route.
Tierney said he hasn’t mastered hopping yet ” getting his body and unicycle to bounce as one ” so he cannot clear the toughest ledges and rocky stretches on mountain trails. He’s also at a disadvantage because he has only one gear. Mountain bikes are extremely low-geared, which allows riders to keep moving while they negotiate tightly packed rocks, small ledges and downed tree trunks. But like any cyclist, Tierney improves every time he hits the trail.
For mountain unicycling, Tierney uses a 24-inch wheel with a fat tire known as a knobby. The smaller tire lets him go slower in tougher terrain. He uses the 36-inch wheel for chewing up distance on road rides, covering 9 feet with each pedal revolution.
Tierney was among 120 riders who participated in the fifth annual Moab MUni Festival in southern Utah during the last weekend of March. He won a first in his division in the uphill and second in the downhill, riding courses through the sandstone domes and heart-stopping dips of the famed Slickrock Trail.
Tierney said MUni riding is more like gymnastics, rock or ice climbing than bicycling. It’s more of a mental exercise. There’s intensity at a slow speed.
“It’s a true sport for the rider. There’s no posers or gearheads out there,” Tierney said, emphasizing the need for skill.
Unicycling is extremely difficult to pick up, which is why it isn’t more widespread. “You try and you try and you try, and you crash and you crash and you crash,” he said.
Now 44 years old, Tierney learned at the age of 10, when he and a friend challenged one another to try it while growing up in Tempe, Ariz. They joined a unicycling club in Phoenix, rode in several parades in summer 1969, then promptly forgot the sport.
Fast forward to 2000. Tierney’s wife, Annie, saw old pictures of him on a unicycle, kept it in the back of her mind, then scored a good deal on an antique unicycle at an Aspen garage sale. Mike saw the cycle, got hooked again and quickly picked up riding anew that summer.
He then started adding unicycles to his fleet. A starter costs less than $100. Good off-road and road cycles cost at least $500.
Mike’s renewed interest in unicycling inspired his son, Logan, 13, a seventh-grader at Aspen, and his daughter, Lily, 10, a fourth-grader, to take up the sport.
Logan’s passion is trials riding, the most extreme style, in which riders hop among objects and through obstacle courses. He can clear the 21 steps on the Silver Queen Gondola plaza going both up and down. At Moab he placed first in his division in the trials competition.
Lily was able to ride two summers ago after a lot of hard work. She’s riding from her home near Aspen Highlands to T-Lazy-7 and has a goal of riding the Slickrock Trail. She’s clearly inherited her dad’s sense of drama when it comes to riding a unicycle. “It’s fun and people get amazed and entertained by it,” Lily said.
Mike hopes to draw more people to the sport. By his count there are about 15 riders that get together in the Aspen area. He’s encouraging more people to join a unicycling club. Anyone interested can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If they stick with it through the tough learning curve, Mike promises they will regularly experience the elation of a child riding a bike for the first time without training wheels or parental help.
“Riding a unicycle is like that every day,” Mike said.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address email@example.com.
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