WWU student sets standard for unicycling
By FIONA COHEN
11 January 2003
Associated Press Newswires
Copyright 2003. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) - Dan Heaton takes his unicycle to the edge of a loading dock at Western Washington University, then backs up. He pedals forward, gaining speed until he bounces up, over the edge of a chain. He lands on the ground, turns around, hops up a set of stairs and onto a low cement wall, throwing his body into a spin before rolling back to the loading dock.
This is street unicycling, a sport that takes the technical challenges of a one-wheeled vehicle to curbs, rails, stairs and any obstacles handy.
It’s a sport the 20-year-old Huxley College junior helped invent, and he does it better than anybody in the world.
With Adam Ryzaar, a high school buddy from Bellevue, he started trying moves similar to skateboarding, jumping onto obstacles, grinding on rails, and polishing new tricks including a jump done while riding forward.
He popularized this style with a video, “Universe,” which included himself, Ryzaar and Vancouver, British Columbia mountain rider Kris Holm. The video, completed in 2000, adopted a format used in skateboarding, skiing and mountain biking, complete with punk tunes, locations ranging from Vancouver, British Columbia’s North Shore to the beach at Santa Cruz, Calif., crash footage and a run-in with police. He’s planning to shoot a second video in 2003.
Heaton’s innovations and the video pushed a shift in the sport of unicycling away from the domain of parades and jugglers, and toward something similar to skateboarding.
“People buy that video, see that stuff there, and they’re learning how to do it,” says John Foss, 40, a Sacramento Web designer and long-time practitioner of the related but distinct field of mountain unicycling.
FRONT OF THE PACK
Heaton got his first unicycle six years ago as a Christmas present. It took him three months to learn to ride it, but something kept his interest.
The middle of five boys, Heaton is athletic and enjoys baseball and the family sport, swimming. But growing up he was too small to excel, says his father, Bill Heaton, who lives in Bellevue and works for the Seattle-King County public health department. Even now Dan Heaton is slight, weighing 120 pounds on a 5-foot, 7-inch frame.
In unicycling, his stature didn’t matter, and his quickness and agility helped him master the skills.
While he loved testing the unicycle against street obstacles, he was interested in trying other aspects of the sport, such as mountain unicycling, and distance unicycling. In 1999 he was the first unicyclist to finish the 200-mile Seattle to Portland Classic, coming in at the back of the pack.
“I was still ahead of a couple of bikes, so it was kind of funny,” he says.
He followed that up by joining 34 other unicyclists for a 477-mile ride across Minnesota for Multiple Sclerosis.
But although he plays hard, his body has come out relatively unscathed, with little more than bruises and road rash. He hasn’t missed riding time because of injuries.
School pressures are another matter. Heaton says it’s hard to take time out from his environmental studies to practice, particularly when he doesn’t have anyone to practice with.
“It’s hard doing it without a partner,” says Heaton, who earns royalties from his video in the form of bikes and gear.
If he had someone to work with, he says, they could push each other, and challenge each other, and somehow the ideas would flow faster and the stamina would go more.
But it’s hard to know how seriously to take Heaton’s modesty. His father says he continually downplays or fails to mention his achievements, and his friends all describe him as “low-key.”
“He’s very quiet, and soft spoken when he does talk, he’s intelligent and articulate, and he’s just a wild rider,” says John Drummond, co-owner of Heaton’s sponsor, Unicycle.com.
FLOW ON ONE WHEEL
Although it involves wheels, unicycling is quite different from the more common skills of bicycling and skateboarding.
While bicyclists can coast and gain speed on a free wheel, a unicycle’s wheel only goes as fast as the pedals. Even when going downhill fast, every turn of the wheel must be pedaled. It’s a workout, and it makes it impossible to use gravity to help fly off a ramp. On a unicycle, every jump and every move come from muscle power.
Heaton strives for spontaneity in his riding, but working with a unicycle means some calculation. He can only jump if the pedals are aligned parallel to the ground, so before he takes to the air, he has to pick his take-off spot and back up.
“You want flow, which is not what a unicycle is designed to do,” he says.
While he may struggle to live up to his own visions, his skills are enviable, Foss says.
Heaton has proved a quick learner.
In 1998 he came to a California Mountain Unicycling weekend in Pasadena. He joined a group ride in 100-degree heat.
“He arrived in a T-shirt and shorts and nothing to drink,” Foss says.
At the insistence of older riders, he bought a drink (“It was this little green bottle of sports drink”) and rode down the hill. He led the group all the way down the 5,710-foot mountain.
In the end, one of the other riders had to be hospitalized for heatstroke. Heaton was fine.
Heaton hadn’t ridden on a trail before.
“He’s amazingly talented with apparently a not a whole lot of the practice time put in,” Foss says.
Heaton won the high jump and the long jump in the 2000 world unicycling championships in Beijing. He pedaled ahead of Holm to win the downhill in the 2002 world unicycling championships. (Unicycling world championships happen every two years.) In the 2002 world unicycle trials championships, he came in second, after Holm.
Heaton finds the idea of becoming world champion a little silly for what was a little race between friends.
There have been 11 world championships. They are typically small scale - the last one had about 600 participants from 19 countries - and include a large variety of things that can be done with unicycles, including track racing, hockey, and artistic routines. The categories Heaton competes in are not the most popular, and tend to have an intimate feel.
“You don’t go to compete. You’re there to get together with people. Nobody trains for this stuff.”
O.K., it’s not exactly the X-games. But among the hundreds of unicycling enthusiasts worldwide, Heaton’s innovations in street unicycling have added a new dimension to the sport. No one had thought of doing 360-degree turns in the air before Heaton came along, Foss says. Now there are imitators all over the country.
Meanwhile, Holm has become a cult figure among mountain bikers, with stomach-churning videos of rides on mountaintops, bridge guardrails, and rain-slicked balance beams. And the growth of the Internet has made it easier for those with an idiosyncratic taste for one-wheeled vehicles to find rides.
The result is a change not only in unicycling, but in unicycles themselves.
When Heaton filmed “Universe” the biggest challenge was keeping the unicycles holding together.
“Pretty much every day we were filming until we broke our equipment,” Heaton says.
The unicycles weren’t built for the kind of punishment they took on streets and trails. Pedals, axles, cranks and seat stems broke. Rims bent. A section of the video is devoted to the various ways to harm a unicycle.
The next video won’t have that problem, and not just because Heaton now rides a custom-made titanium unicycle.
Manufacturers are now making machines with tougher parts, and selling them on unicycle.com.
When Drummond and his wife, Amy, founded the site in 1999, they expected to sell a few unicycles, but not enough to make a living. Last year they sold more than 4,000. The vast majority were $75 beginner unicycles, but about 200 were bikes designed for more hard-core uses, complete with wide tires, strong, heat treated axles and cranks. They start at $230, and top out at $1,500 - bargain basement prices, when you compare them to bicycles.
“You can order them on the Web instead of having to know somebody who knows somebody,” Foss says.
“That’s a big change.”
Heaton often downplays his achievements, talking about his lack of practice, and the non-competitive nature of the sport, but he’s had a big impact, Holm says.
“He is a friendly, unassuming guy who’s a major pioneer and one of the very best in the world at mountain unicycling, and in street freestyle unicycling in particular.”