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Unicyclist drives interest in challenging mode of transport

September 21, 2017

ALTOONA, Wis. (AP) — Ron Barribeau has gotten pretty used to people yelling to him as they drive past.

“Pop a wheelie!” or “I like your ride!” they holler out of their windows.

Just recently a woman told him, “That’s a nice set of wheel!” He hadn’t heard that one before.

Ron, a unicyclist, gets plenty of face time with the public on his two-mile haul to and from his downtown Eau Claire home to Woodman’s Food Market, where he works as an assistant produce clerk, the Leader-Telegram reported .

A one-way trip to work takes the 21-year-old Fall Creek native about 20 minutes — a time helped by the larger-than-average 36-inch tire on his Nimbus Nightfox unicycle that allows him to cover more ground in less time.

That’s beneficial for Ron, who uses his wheel as a primary mode of transportation.

With one foot already on the pedal and the bike setting at an angle underneath him, Ron kicks off the ground with his other foot. He hops up onto the seat, which begins to rotate forward around the wheel.

He pushes hard on the pedals to move the wheel, giving him enough momentum to straighten up the seat and avoid a fall.

He can stop immediately by stepping a foot off the pedal and rolling the wheel out from under him.

“You just have one more axis of balance that you have to worry about,” Ron explained in the parking lot of Woodman’s. “You’re worried about falling to the front or back, and you’re worried about falling to the sides.”

Ron isn’t worried, though. He makes it look easy.

Unicycle enthusiasts need that flavor of confidence to conquer the challenge, said Erik’s Bike Shop assistant store manager Richard Venn.

“It’s not something you see a lot of, and it takes a lot of skill,” he said. “There’s a lot of balance required and core strength and a level of confidence that people aren’t going to have off the bat.”

Ron knows that all too well, as a few good falls almost turned him off to riding the Nimbus after trying to master it in his youth.

“Finally this summer I’m like, ‘screw it,’ ” he said. “I wanted to start riding long distance, so I taught myself to.”

Venn, who commutes 14 miles round-trip to work, noted the novelty of unicycling but prefers a bicycle for its quickness and ease of use.

“There’s a lot of fun to be had with (unicycling), but it’s not the most economical of choices for transportation,” he jested.

Others seem to agree.

Although Erik’s shop always keep two unicycles in its store, they don’t need to be replaced too often. Venn said from January 2011 through Wednesday, the store sold a total of 26 unicycles.

At Eau Claire Bike & Sport, owner Terry Hintz said he keeps four unicycles in stock at a time. Purchases tend to ebb and flow, with excitement generated among friend groups.

“You buy one for a 12-year-old son, and within the next two weeks I’ll sell two or three,” he said.

Hintz, a unicyclist himself and owner of a 6-foot-tall wheel, said 20-inch unicycles are the most popular and are best for stunts because they’re smaller and easier to maneuver.

While Hintz said learning to ride a unicycle is not easily forgotten, it’s in Ron’s favor that few know how to ride it, since the prospects of it being stolen are much less likely.

“No one’s just going to hop on it and ride away,” Ron said. “Stolen unicycle statistics are way lower than stolen bicycle statistics.”

Ron has only met one stranger in the area who said she too dabbled in unicycling. But he has company in his brother, Trevor Barribeau, who shares interest in the hobby.

The duo participated in numerous parades when they were younger, often showing up in mime costumes dressed as a Brewers and Twins players and interacting with the crowd.

Trevor claims he’s not as “high level” as Ron in terms of mastering tricks, such as hopping up stairs, and said his normal routes tend to be less than a mile.

“It’s pretty tiring,” Trevor, 19, said of the sport. “You can’t coast at all on it.”

The brothers picked up a taste for the hobby after finding their sister’s unicycle, which their dad bought for her, sitting unused. Trevor said she didn’t enjoy it at all. With encouragement from their dad, the brothers taught themselves to ride by clinging to fences at a nearby tennis court in Fall Creek.

“I started cutting corners by a foot or two, then three feet, then four feet. I got really good at taking left turns,” Ron said with a smile.

He does occasionally get parents and youth asking about his hobby, and he plans to start a unicycling club next summer focused on beginner training.

A startup fee would pay for a beginner unicycle that Ron would buy for club members.

He plans to advertise the club either on Facebook or through business cards that he’ll hand out whenever he’s stopped by passersby.

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Information from: Leader-Telegram, http://www.leadertelegram.com/

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