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Zen and the Art of Unicycle Maintenance

I’ve recently noticed people riding on unicycles.

A month ago I was driving in my car and had stopped at an intersection a few cars back from the stop line. A young woman in her early twenties was waiting at the intersection and had caught my eye. She had blonde, flowing curly hair, blue eyes, fair skin, and a lean, well-proportioned athletic build. She was holding a lamp-post and bopping about. Parked cars were obstructing my view of the lower half of her body, but her movements were unusual, a sustained ebbing, flowing, and undulating as she waited.

My carnal instincts had been seriously piqued. My gaze was trained on her, and I swooned with adoration.

As the light changed she pushed off the post and I saw her twist and turn as she weaved her unicycle through the crossing pedestrians, her arms flailing about like those of a fledgling spreading its wings, having jumped from the cliff for its maiden flight. Everyone smiled and was left with a look of contented amusement as she passed them by. She seemed exuberant, and left me smitten. I had a strong desire to make a detour to the nearest bike store.

Since then, I’ve started to take note of unicyclists. There are a shitload of these in my city.

I’ve learned riding a unicycle has a certain unavoidable ridiculous quality to it, evident even in an experienced rider. Sometimes you’ve got to swing back, or forward, or sideways, or quickly halt and change tack. None of these feats is easily executed without brakes. Or steering control. Or another wheel.

Everything below the arms of the rider swings in every opposite direction to stay on the bike, while control over the direction of the bike is tenuously maintained by pedaling, twisting the waist, and remaining upright. Only the head remains fixed, and is seriously undermined when bike and rider are in the midst of an ‘epic unicycle fail.’

The unicycle is constantly trying to defy the will of its rider. Sometimes it runs off on its own before the rider wants to. Other times it firmly stays put, like a horse refusing to leap over a hurdle. Both obstinacies result in the rider being ejected from the bike.

Especially on take-off, the unicycle rider looks like they’re trying to stave off the inevitability of falling on their ass after running through a pile of banana peels scattered about a ceramic tile floor. Or as though they’re roller-skating down a set of stairs. No matter what, the following caveat must be heeded: keep pedaling.

The key to successfully riding a unicycle requires a person to find their balance amidst a confluence of catastrophes.

This video captures everything you need to know about riding a unicycle. See if you can detect the Buddhist-oriented ideas about mindfulness and focus. The allusions to Beckett suggest this is a thinking man’s endeavour. Intellectual lightweights need not attempt.

You’ll also see this: it’s nearly impossible to ride a unicycle and look graceful, even for a pro. That’s kind of cool. Look graceful and effortless in achieving virtuosity? Fuck that. An undertaking of that nature takes gumption and a devil-may-care spirit. There’s a certain lack of ego involved in doing something so humbling, even in the mastery, which is alluring and had me so intrigued about the unicycle-riding woman.

As an unabashed nerd, it was encouraging to know there was one seriously beautiful nerd bopping through my town. If I could confirm she was a member of the “Mediaeval Re-enactment Society” I would have jumped out of my car and asked her to marry me. It would have been a nerd-style chick-flick happy ending to our lives, with Sheldon and Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory standing in for Mathew McConaghey and J-Lo as avatars of the cheesy montage.

This may be an unfair stereotype, but my hunch is most extremely attractive young women would shudder at the idea of doing anything that was so incredibly ridiculous in such a public fashion. It’d be like supermodels volunteering to have custard cream pies tossed into their faces and without hesitation, joyfully break-dancing their emaciated bodies down the catwalks of Milan, Paris, and New York. We need to be able to laugh at our human frailty, not push it further under the delusion of binge-and-purge induced, plastic surgery assisted perfection that the industry perpetuates.

Here’s why, when we come across a person riding a unicycle, we are all left with a smile: it connects us to the awe and wonder we experienced as children at the circus. Not the artsy-fartsy intellectually pretentious ‘circus’ of Cirque du Soleil, but the bombastic, overblown, animal-cruelty fueled circuses of the past. The latter is what fills the recesses of my ancient, slowly degenerating mind with fond memories.

I am reminded of clowns and midgets running with toy poodles; of men on stilts, and well-endowed, buxom women in skimpy sequin-covered, flesh-coloured bikinis riding elephants, horses, or lions. I see men sticking their heads in the mouths of lions and trapeze artists performing acrobatics at the apex of large auditoriums. Flame throwers, flame jugglers, flame swallowers, and rings of fire with daredevil motorcyclists passing through them as they make death-defying leaps over seventeen buses are projected in my mind.

And then there were the unicylists. They’d ride unicycles of all sizes, some eight feet high with wheels nineteen inches in diameter. Others were small, and straddled by midgets or monkeys with trainers. The spectacle was awesome then, and awesome still, at least in my child-like mind. The bikes were usually ridden by men in clown suits with over-sized feet and stupid hats, who would ride along a narrow up-sloping beam and, reaching the crescendo at a platform high off the ground, would start juggling seven bowling pins or do some magic tricks for the adoring crowd.

Sometimes there were unicycle clown soap-opera storylines. Bozo was in love with Itsy-Bitsy, and both were unicyclists, who shared the marginalized fate of being near the bottom of the carnie pecking order, barely above the moustache and beard-women, the Gimp, and eight-foot tall giants. But like most girls, she shunned her own kind for the bad-boy stunt-motorcycle men. It was very sad at first, but in the end, she fell for Bozo, and they lived happily ever after in unicycle-clown conjugal bliss.

The lie gave me false hope into my teen years and left me with extreme disappointment for having swallowed the propaganda. The girls didn’t end up with me and the other Bozos; they always chose Biff and Brock, the shit-for-brained, knuckle-dragging Adonises. But I still came away loving the unicycle, which had no part in fabricating the falsehood that planted the seeds of my adult disillusionment.

The unicycle is the harbinger of the silliness, the joy, and the freedom we possess in abundance as children. Seeing one ridden, and riding one itself, connects us to a facet of our lives that is quickly subsumed under the weight of ambition, of the wants and needs that attach to us like barnacles as we are socialized to become craven adults; that leave our adult lives so much deprived for the abandonment of our childhood innocence.

It reveals something moving about those who ride their unicycles to do their chores throughout town, to gleefully traverse a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, or to scurry along the strip of nightclubs on a Friday night. For a time at least, they’ve opted out of the rat-race, having achieved a balance amidst the chaos in which we are typically immersed. They’ve thrown off the veil of playful obscurity that once relegated them to the circus tent, and have come into our streets, imparting us with the grace of a smile that brings back the bliss of our childhood. We are all the better for it.

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