Cyclist single-wheeledly tackles moutainous terrain

Like so many other Williams students, Robby Cuthbert ’11 truly takes advantage of the College’s rural setting – running, hiking and cross-country skiing on the surrounding trails as weather permits. But unlike the rest of us, Cuthbert is perhaps the only student who can add “mountain unicycling” to the list.

“I don’t know how you guys found about this,” was the Pittsfield native’s modest reaction to a request to be interviewed. “I don’t really ride it around campus that much, I mostly use it on the trails.” But Cuthbert seriously underestimated just how fascinating the rest of us find racing down a rocky slope on naught but one wheel.

Mountain unicycling is not to be confused with regular unicycling (a term I use relatively here). A normal unicycle may be fit for a bear to totter around a sawdust circus ring, but mountain unicycling is an adventure sport with a growing following. It has all the dangers and thrills of mountain biking, but with half the wheelage. Like their biking counterparts, mountain unicyclists ride down rough trails, jumping off and over things, presumably with some pretty significant wipeouts from time to time.

But Cuthbert’s unicycle is up to the task. While a more conventional model would consist of a thin wheel with delicate metal spokes, Cuthbert’s unicycle has a thick, four-inch tire with rugged grip. It’s truly an off-road vehicle, even if it’s not the most conventional one. “It’s good to keep the wheel deflated a little bit so you can bounce on it,” he said.

Yet even Cuthbert started with the basics. His parents gave him his first unicycle at age seven, which I’m fairly certain means they don’t get to complain about his love of the sport at present. In fact, Cuthbert’s parents fostered his passion for single-wheeled modes of transportation by sending him to circus camp.

“I started going to circus camp when I was eight,” he said. “Although I would like to say that I tried to avoid clowns while I was there. Most people think that just because I was at circus camp I was around clowns, but I actually really dislike them. I went for a few years and even became a camp counselor there. We’d just learn about to unicycle, walk on stilts and I even learned to juggle there.”

Though unicycling held his attention during his early years, Cuthbert soon mastered it and grew bored with it as he grew older, like an aluminum velveteen rabbit. Finally, six years ago, Cuthbert discovered mountain unicycling and a whole new world of extreme balancing sports opened up to him.

“There is a store that I work at over the summer and some of the guys would unicycle in the park behind the store. I had never heard of it before, but when they found out that I could unicycle, they told me I should try mountain unicycling. From then on, I’ve just kept it up,” Cuthbert said.

Cuthbert’s favorite local spot is the Taconic Crest, a trail made all the more impressive once you realize the mechanical challenges specific to unicycling. For starters, there’s the whole balance thing. On top of that, unicycles also have no gears, meaning the only way to get up a hill is through leg strength and sheer force of will. And while the descent might be easier on the quads, it may be less so on the psyche, as the unicycle has no breaks and the only way to slow down is to pedal backwards. “It’s like the rush of mountain biking, but you have to focus so much more on your path,” Cuthbert said.

Taking all this into account, I had to ask the obvious question: Had Cuthbert ever had any unicycling accidents? He answered that, yes, there had been one incident when he had been jumping off a six-foot ledge in the rain. “The unicycle shot out from under me, and I hit my head on a rock,” he shrugged as I shuddered. “It was fine,” he added.

While Cuthbert calls unicycling “totally weird in general,” he enjoys the exercise as an alternative to three-hour runs. “It’s more fun and a great workout,” he said. Considering all the difficulties of unicycling – rocks, balance, strength, etc. – Cuthbert simply explained that he also enjoys the added mental challenge.

I asked Cuthbert if he would recommend mountain unicycling to other Williams students, even those of us who don’t have circus camp experience in our background. While he admitted it wasn’t the easiest sport to get into, he did promise that it was “totally worth it” once you got the basics down. I can only hope that it’s a sport that starts gaining ground at Williams, one wheel at a time.