There is an alternative to skateboards and ten-speeds, the unicycle. The fans of this mono-fied version of the familiar bicycle insist that less is more when it comes to wheels.
Morgan Granger has been riding unicycles around his Northwest neighborhood for eight years, since he was nine.
"They're safer than skateboards and more fun than bikes," he says. "Bikes tend to be straight transportation, with their own limits. I never get bored on a unicycle because there infinite variations on how you can ride it. Fancy turns, backwards. You can go slower, even stand still.
"It's great for short trips, like to the store. You don't have to lock up - just ride right in. I usually just leave my wheel at the cashier's counter."
All unicyclistas agree the most difficult thing to learn is the beginning, simply staying upright - "It's like learning to walk." Unlike a bike, you can fall in any direction, especially forward. It's more than just balancing, as on stilts; that wheel is always trying to skitter out from under you, it seems, and you've got to keep it going. Even standing still you're constantly going just a little bit back and forth.
The best way to show the unicycle that you genuinely mean to get on is to use a support on one side or both sides. If the Rock of Gibraltar is not available, understanding friends or fences are prefectly acceptable. Or leaning sticks or handlebar units, similar in effect to training wheels.
Eventually you'll discover a point of balance as well as several hundred ways to fall of with dignity. Then you're ready for a solo debut, just you and your wheel. You're now a free-pedaling spirit who can accept that ultimate compliment: "Hey look at that guy on the whatchamacallit!"
And they wouldn't even look twice when you were riding a bicycle.
Morgan Granger got started when his father bought a unicycle on an impulse at a sale. "He told a friend and me that the first one to ride it across the lawn would win a dollar," Morgan recalls, "and a dollar was a lot for me then, so I kept at it."
His father's suggestion of the lawn was fortuitous - softer to fall on than concrete - but Morgan and his unicycling friends now frequent tennis and basketball courts, especially when they switch from their standard 3' models to 6' and 10' giraffe models. Fences and hoops are convenient for getting aboard.
Unicycles were developed in the late 1860s as a vibration on the high-wheeled penny-farthering bicycle. More adventuresome riders of the time merely removed the smaller back wheel and tried their luck with one. The unicycle patent was granted to F. Meyers of New York City in 1869, who labeled them "one-wheeled velocipedes."
Unicycles grew up with several variations, most of them experimental. The "monocycle" was a rather ambitious version with wheels up to 8' in diameter that the rider operated from within. He literally crawled inside and operated hand cranks. Another model had a continuous track inside, complete with a tiny car for the rider - little like a hamster wheel with Sherman tank aspirations. Motorized versions are still being experimented with.
Morgan even plays basketball and juggles while unicycling, one eye (of course) on going professional.
Unicycling, along with other circus arts, is taught by Jim Moyer of the Oakview Elementary School in Fairfax. Around a hundred children participate, starting with the 3' unicycles and working progressively upward if they like. Lessons include basic skills and good safety habits, complete with "how-to-fall" drills onto crash pads. They have maintained a flawless safety record since their beginning in 1968. An exhibition group performs for clubs and civic functions.
"Circus arts naturally appeal to children while offering a unique alternative to regular team sports," says Moyer, who also teaches circus arts for the Fairfax County's recreation department. "There's not a great deal of pressure on them because they are more in competition with themselves, trying to master a certain activity on an individual level.Most of all, they enjoy it."
Unicycles are available in many area bicycle shops. They retail for about $60 and come in 20' and 24' wheel sizes, and are manufactured by such companies as Schwinn and Columbia. Last fall Schwinn begain production on a 6' model, which goes for about $100. Anything larger than that is usually home-or custom-made.
The Unicycle Society of America (U.S.A.) has 500 active members. A vast file of unicycling information is maintained by William JenacK, past president and organizer of the U.S.A., 67 Lion Lane, Westbury, N.Y. 11590. Excellent source material for technical and historic aspects is The Unicycle Book by jack Wiley (Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pa., 1973). Or write to Unicycling Society of America, c/o Joyce Jones, 20509 Negaunee, Redford, Mich. 48240.
BET YOU CAN'T RIDE JUST ONE
POWER MILL ROAD tour. Meet 8:30 a.m. behind Safeway, I-495, New Hampshire Avenue and Powder Mill Road, for a 33-mile trip run by American Youth Hostels. Cost is $1 for non-members. Call Jim Lehman, 434-7452, after 8 p.m.
BEACHCOMBING HIKE July 14 to 16, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Island. Equipment and food provided, except for sleeping bags, ground cloths, field glasses and bag lunch. Friday. Non-members, $44. Sign up by July 7, by calling American Youth Hostels, 462-5780.
HEY-BIKE (439-2453) is the number to call for a recorded announcement of area cycling news.
COUNTRY INN BIKE TOURS will be offered by Club Washington in spring and summer. Group leaders and sponsors are wanted for easy two-days trips. Call Cal Simmons at 836-2000.
CYCLING EQUIPMENT, guides and weekend trip information are available from American Youth Hostels, Inc., 1520 16th St. NW. Call 462-5780.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA. Fletcher's Boat House, 244-0461; Big Wheel Bikes, 337-0254.
ALEXANDRIA. The Bicycle Rack, 549-4900; Belle View Bicycle, 768-8400.
ARLINGTON. Park Department, 558-2428: at Barcroft and Bluemont Park.
FAIRFAX COUNTY. Burke Lake Park, 323-6600, weekends only until mid-June.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY. Swain's Lock, 299-9006; Georgetown Cycle, 530-9011.
ALEXANDRIA, Belle View Cycle, 768-8400; General Mopeds Corp., 836-0083.
ROCKVILLE. Rockville Moped, 279-7795.
BETHESDA. Georgetown Cycle, 530-0911.