A unicycling convention is coming to town this weekend, but don’t expect to bump into juggling clowns or circus bears wearing tutus.
Five-time world champion unicyclist Scott Wilton of Madison said the biggest misconception about the sport is that it belongs in the circus. The places he unicycles — on mountains, in the road, across skate parks and on stage — are anything but the big top.
Madison Unicyclists and the Madison Area Sports Commission will host the 2015 North American Unicycling Convention and Championships — otherwise known as the Unicycling Nationals — starting on Saturday. The weeklong event will feature long-distance road races, unicycle hockey and basketball, jumping competitions, trick riding and choreographed freestyle routines.
“It’s a sport in every way,” Wilton said. “The majority of what we’re doing is athletic.”
Katie Beilfuss, the event’s publicity director, said the unicycling community doesn’t include only quirky East Siders, though the Madison club originated with a few families in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood.
It all began when, at age 11, Wilton received a unicycle from his parents, who had hoped to keep him and his sister, Patricia, busy. After “a lot of trial and error,” he said, they taught themselves how to ride.
Eventually, they moved on to bigger wheels, and gave their little red starter cycle to a family friend, who passed it down to another local boy.
Pretty soon, a few Madison families had caught the unicycling bug, and started gathering in local gymnasiums to swap tips and practice tricks, with everyone chipping in five bucks to rent the space.
Now, the group of families has grown into an official nonprofit that teaches youngsters how to unicycle through after-school programs — which is where the little red unicycle resides today.
Families usually get involved from the bottom up, said Ariel Kaufman. Her son learned first, then taught his father.
“Kids like being better than their parents,” she said.
Wilton said it takes about 10 to 20 hours to learn how to ride.
“It’s just like learning to ride a bike, only you don’t remember” how long that took, he said. The trick to staying upright is a strong sense of balance; riders stay upright by using the pedals to keep their weight (more or less) directly above the wheel.
Patricia Wilton said there are constantly new world records to beat and new subsets of the sport to master, such as urban unicycling, which is similar to doing skateboard tricks. She said urban unicycling has exploded in popularity among thrill-seekers.
Scott Wilton holds world records in the 10K and marathon road races, and frequently reaches speeds of up to 30 mph in competitions.
That’s especially impressive because “there’s no coasting in unicycling,” Beilfuss noted. Downhill stretches don’t provide a rest.
The sport isn’t easy, Scott Wilton said. It’s frustrating, and because it’s so uncommon, learning new tricks is often lonely.
But 12-year-old Marin Cohan has already realized the challenge is part of the appeal.
“You keep going even though it’s hard,” she said. “You hit your shins so much they start to bleed, but you keep going.”