One wheel meets singletrack
Local unicyclists take their steeds off road

Local unicycler Eric Ringueberg works his way down a tricky descent in the Mountain Park last Friday afternoon. Ringueberg, who started unicycling at a young age, is among a small but growing contingency of off-road unicyclists who take to the trails on one wheel./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Amy Maestas

No, neither Stormy Colman nor Eric Ringueberg are members of a lost circus act tooling around Horse Gulch. If you see Ringueberg pedaling his way up the Telegraph Trail, there’s no need to point him in the direction of the big, round tent with elephant calls. If you see Colman knobbing around the Meadow Loop, do not ask him where his second wheel is. And, for god’s sake, do not treat them like a couple of juggling clowns.

It may seem that the two Durango residents are a bit insane, but they really are a couple of, er, well-balanced guys. Ringueberg and Colman are unicyclists who have mastered the difficult skill of riding their one-wheeled steeds on off-road trails – usually where only mountain bikes once dared go.

These guys are part of a growing sport – mountain unicycling (muni for short). Like other types of cycling, there are various disciplines among unicyclists. Extreme unicycling is taking off in popularity, too. This more intense discipline is about rock hopping, cliff jumping and trick showing. Ringueberg and Colman stick to the relatively mellow trail riding, essentially doing rides that most people ride on two fat tires.

No need for speed

The surge in mountain unicycling, Colman says, coincides partly with the rising popularity of extreme sports. People, particularly younger generations, have decided to crank the dial in sports difficulty. You see it in skateboarding, snowboarding and BMX biking – to name a few. The wilder the move, the greater the interest. Yet Colman says mountain unicycling is more like an adventure sport.

“It is more similar to rock-climbing than a high-velocity sport like parasailing,” he says. “Speed is not the focal point. It’s about being able to navigate technical terrain.”

It’s easiest if you look at it the way Ringueberg explains it: Muni riding is a cross between unicyling, BMX riding and downhill mountain biking.

Improvements in equipment are also a contributing factor, he adds. Just as mountain and road bikes have drastically advanced mechanically and materially, so too have unicycles. Ringueberg rides a cro-moly unicycle that is akin to a mountain bike. It is sturdy and rugged, equipped with an extra-fat rim and a 26-by-3-inch knobby tire. Like a downhill mountain bike, the pedals have pins for traction. Like a BMX bike, the axle/hub is beefy and splined, built specifically to withstand the blow of weight (as much as eight times the force encountered on a regular mountain bike). The crank arms are also on the longer side, giving a rider more torque.

“Five years ago, these designs and equipment weren’t available,” Ringueberg explains. “That’s the great thing about the bicycle industry – it’s easy to swap parts.”

‘Unfinished business’

Four years after taking up the sport, Colman is constantly working on his pedaling. Decades ago, he bought a unicycle but never learned to ride it. For his 50th birthday, Colman decided to finally do so.

“I saw it as unfinished business,” he says.

Colman bought an instructional video. He’d use the island in the middle of his kitchen to support himself, while watching the video for tips and techniques. He gradually let go of the island and began riding around his kitchen. Next he took to the pavement, riding the rolling streets of his then-neighborhood, Sky Ridge. He graduated to nearby trails, where he now regularly rides.

“At times (riding the trails) was discouraging. It’s exceptionally difficult, and there is a fairly steep learning curve,” he adds.

Ringueberg’s learning wasn’t nearly as unreasonable, mainly because he’s been riding unicycles since he was 9 years old. His father rode one and later began building them. Ringueberg latched onto the pursuit in 1970 after encouragement from his father to improve his balance. He picked up the sport easily, he recalls. By 1971, he had made enough progress to trade in his 20-inch unicycle for a 24-inch Schwinn, which he still has today.

All this time, Ringueberg, who once was a mountain and road racer, used his monowheel to cross-train for the various sports he indulged in. It was a useful tool that he thought was more of a diversion than a fascination. Until five years ago.

Stormy Colman makes his way around the Rim Trail on Tuesday morning. Decades ago, Colman bought a unicycle but never learned to ride it. For his 50th birthday, he decided to finally do so. “I saw it as unfinished business,” he said./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Ringueberg’s friends who live in Telluride called him and invited him to join their unicycle club ride. He obliged, particularly knowing how popular the sport is in the tiny mountain town. His first off-road ride was a mellow trail on the outskirts of town.

He was quickly captivated.

“I stepped up my efforts by upgrading my bike to go off road and started doing more challenging trails,” Ringueberg explains.

No grace

Outside Telluride, he did his first classifiable mountain unicycling on the Alien Run at Hart Canyon, outside Aztec. A natural at biking, progressing to doing a trail like Telegraph in Horse Gulch seemed logical for Ringueberg. Around Durango, he’s now known as the guy who “cleaned” Telegraph on one wheel – and kept going. For the record, the diffident Ringueberg explains, he did not ride the last pitch of steep terrain on Telegraph. Rather, he walked it. But he did keep on going down the backside of the gulch.

Still, his feat is remarkable.

“I’d love to get to the point of doing something like Telegraph,” says Colman.

Both riders face the same challenges – balance, quick reaction time and concentration. Some unicycles have brakes; otherwise, riders rely on strong legs for speed control. Riders also use tremendous leg power because unicycles are direct-drive bikes, meaning that riders must constantly pedal. Coasting is impossible.

Watching unicyclists on trails is like watching a cowboy on a tame bull – one arm outstretched and sometimes flailing wildly, grabbing at air or something with deep roots.

“It’s not graceful,” Ringueberg concedes.

But it is thrilling, he adds.

This year Colman set his unicycle on desert terrain, attending the third annual Moab Munifest. The festival draws a small crowd of muni enthusiasts who take to the world-famous Slickrock Trail, where danger lurks on steep and often bumpy descents. Though Colman rode only part of the trail’s practice loop, he accomplished more than he thought. He relished being around dozens of other muni riders, some ably maneuvering their unicycles around imposing obstacles or off breathtaking precipices.

The allure of that trail will direct attention to the growing sport, Colman says, even though he hopes to exert his effort on Durango-area trails. He says the local opportunities are enough work without traveling to Utah. Besides, he hopes to help build a stronger mountain unicycling base in Durango.

There is no lack of trails here, but there is a lack of riders, especially ones who ban together, says Ringueberg. Bill Manning, a unicyclist and executive director of Trails 2000, led an effort in May for one-wheeled riders to join the annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. A handful of unicyclists showed up. Manning made it as far as Durango Mountain Resort. A unicyclist from Aspen actually completed the tour, clocking six hours to Silverton.

Colman thinks more Durangoans will take to mountain unicycling as people realize its benefits as a cross-training sport. And as something that is as mentally challenging as it is physically.

“It’s like a wake-up for your brain – like learning a new language,” he says. “When I need a jolt to the brain, in a chemical sense, I ride my unicycle off road.” •