Catching up with the Norwegian Unicycle Tour

[From my travelogue archives, the re-mastered account of my visit with questionably sane long distance unicyclists touring Norway's Arctic Circle region in June 2003.]

Stupefied disbelief mixed with moderate alarm. That’s typically how people reacted when I explained my race to the Arctic Circle to intercept a group of audacious lunatics – several of them good friends of mine – happily facing precarious weather conditions, mountains, fjords, reindeer skin beds and the unforgiving expenses required of traveling in Norway, all for the pleasure of unicycling 578 miles north from Trondheim into the Arctic Circle.

Let me quickly address the questions that have likely just popped into your head.

Yes, I said “unicycling.”

Yes, some people ride unicycles long distances for pleasure.

No, I am not kidding.

As I’ve declared previously, unicyclists are a special group of people. Serious unicycling is both physically demanding and unexpectedly dangerous, factors that, over time, seemingly result in a reduced capacity to feel fear and/or acknowledge anything less than agonizing pain. Mark my words, when the zombie horde sweeps across the land, massacring every human in sight, the unicyclists will be the last ones standing.

If you want to know how long someone has been unicycling and their level of devotion to the discipline, all you have to do is examine their bare legs. Substantial scar tissue between the knees and ankles from bone-jarring wipeouts, pedal lacerations and tire burns are an ongoing fact of life for serious unicyclists. Like the rings of a tree, you simply need to count the scars and permanent shin dimples to estimate a unicyclist’s longevity and skill in the sport.

Is it really a sport? Yes, unicycling is a sport. The unicycling community has annual and semi-annual nail-biting national and world championships respectively. Much like figure skating, routines are timed and judged for technical difficulty as well as artistic merit. A serious competitor can expect to practice roughly six days a week for a minimum of three hours a day to have a realistic shot at a title and that’s assuming one already has the proficiency that is only attainable through years of the aforementioned training schedule in the first place. Accordingly a skilled and dedicated unicyclist has all the muscle tone and conditioning of a serious athlete. The only thing that separates competitive unicyclists from mainstream athletes is that there are few if any lucrative endorsement deals to be had.

A rapidly growing sub-set of unicycling is the distance touring enthusiasts, which brings us back to this Norway insanity.

I caught up with the Norwegian Unicycle Tour (NUT) group in Bodø, a swollen fishing town of 42,000, located at a latitude of 67° 17’ north, well inside the Arctic Circle. The riders were in good spirits on their first of two nights in town, despite being sun burnt, exhausted and in a semi-stupor after traveling 63 miles (their longest day of the tour) on an unusually warm, cloudless day in the Arctic Circle. After unpacking and cleaning up, I joined the riders as they limped en masse to a nearby Italian restaurant where they tried to replace the approximately 5,000 calories that they burn daily, while recounting the sights and notable events of the day’s ride.

I’m told a barely plausible story about how one of the NUT riders fell asleep on her unicycle, drifted off the road and crashed into the ditch. The theme in most of the stories, however, is of course the violent double-takes and ensuing thrilled shouts from locals when 10 road-weary but cheerful unicyclists spontaneously appeared and whizzed through their towns.

I asked Andy Cotter of Hutchinson, Minnesota – the ringleader and organizer of the tour– what the heck he was thinking, or possibly inhaling, when he hatched the NUT idea. “We selected Norway for the incredible scenery and once we decided that we wanted to see the midnight sun, the Arctic Circle was the obvious choice.” Cotter, 35, is an enviably lean and muscular man with a youthful presence. He’s an HR database manager by day and a tireless unicyclist for just about every other waking moment. Cotter’s knotted legs are a veritable memoir of his 19 years on unicycles, including abundant national and world titles in individual, pairs and team competitions.

John Stone of New York City was already a grizzled distance unicycling veteran before the NUT. In addition to participating in the 2001 European Unicycle Tour, from Cologne to Barcelona (Over 1,100 miles in 19 days. Talk about chafing…) he once ill-advisedly rode a standard, unmodified unicycle 85 miles in a single day. “That was harder than any other long distance ride in my life,” he intoned. “By the end and for the next day, the pain was so intense I had to be bedridden with ice-packs on my knees.”

Unlike the other NUT participants, Stone does not spend a vast amount of his free time in a gym honing his technical skills on the unicycle. He is content with the challenges of distance riding and the social virtues of unicycling. “I have met many wonderful people who ride, especially those on the long-distance tours,” he explains. “[They have been] experiences that I liken to a miraculous and happy blending of summer camp and college.” Stone has aspirations of riding across the U.S. some day.

The unicycles used for distance riding are not the same ones you see in parades and in competition. The wheels and cranks are much larger and the tires have tread that is better suited for the road. Beyond those details, the road unis are custom designed by each rider with such options as speedometer computers, “drag brakes,” (without them, going downhill on a unicycle would be suicidal), modified handle bars, bike bells and even small rear racks for carrying tools and food.

In addition to the obvious bragging rights of having participated in the NUT, the unicyclists benefited from the extraordinary curiosity and friendliness of the Norwegians as they made their way through all variety of small towns and villages. They were warmly welcomed into far-flung homes by the side of the road when running low on water and in need of a bathroom, had half a dozen townspeople rush to their aid when their support vehicle broke down and even had quick pro bono welding repairs made to one of their unicycles at a truck stop.

Though stories of the apparent danger of falling asleep on one’s unicycle and rolling off a cliff and/or sharing the narrow, winding roads with cargo trucks whose high-speed wake vortexes threatened to blow them into the ditch were admittedly unsettling, I was nonetheless wretchedly jealous of the NUT adventure. Norway is one of the most speechlessly picturesque places in the world and the riders had the unremitting pleasure of viewing that awe-inspiring scenery as well as wildlife sightings that included moose, reindeer, fox and innumerable species of birds.

Though it wouldn’t be unicycling if some manner of lavish suffering weren’t involved. Rain, sleep deprivation, panicky sprints to waiting ferries and knee and achilles repetitive stress injuries aside, there were those sadistic Norwegian mountains. Imagine for a minute the state of your screaming quadriceps after powering up even a mild incline while balancing on a masochistic one-wheeled, fixed-gear contraption. No need for sympathy, they don’t want it, just imagine.

If you would like more information on unicycling, visit the Unicycling Society of America web page at www.unicycling.org.

All photos courtesy of the Norwegian Unicycle Tour