By Mark MacKenzie.
8 December 2002
Independent On Sunday
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You’ve heard of extreme ironing. Well, it’s about time you got to grips with mountain unicycling. Mark MacKenzie catches up with Kris Holm, the
For a journalist, directing readers to an internet website to demonstrate an unfamiliar sport because you are unable to do it justice in words is an admission of failure. However, if you do happen to be near a computer, I strongly recommend you download the video clip at the following address: www.unicycle.uk.com/shop/thunderdragon.htm. The minute-long footage highlights the extraordinary talents of Kris Holm, 29, a Canadian whose claim to sporting greatness is that he is the world’s leading practitioner of the sport of mountain unicycling. I admit, until I’d seen Holm in action the concept of mountain unicycling or “muni” (pronounced mewni) seemed ridiculous. Clowns, after all, ride unicycles, which puts it on a par with the custard pie, the collapsing jalopy and size-26 shoes.
But through a keen sense of adventure, Holm has turned what was once a circus gimmick into a hair-raising form of downhill biking, thrilling to watch, requiring extreme levels of fitness and technique. It’s a sport that he has taken to such dramatic locations as the mountain passes of Bhutan and the volcanic peaks of Mexico.
“Despite what people think,” says the Vancouver student, “I’ve no experience of conventional mountain biking.” Holm has lived by the “one wheel good, two wheels bad” mantra since he got his first unicycle on his 12th birthday. “It took me about a day to master the basics and staying upright was pretty much a leap of faith. Once I’d cycled to the end of my driveway, I moved on to riding across the ditch in my back yard, then to riding along logs. As I had no outside influences, I had no idea of the limitations of riding a unicycle.”
Locating muni’s precise origins is difficult, which is surprising considering that the navigation of treacherous mountain trails on a single wheel is practised by only a handful of enthusiasts worldwide. Holm credits the invention of the sport to a fellow Canadian, George Peck, the designer of the world’s first custom mountain unicycle - one with a titanium axle - in the early 1990s. “Because the type of riding I do is very demanding on the bike, the equipment needs to be strong,” explains Holm. “Unlike a conventional bike, a unicycle’s fixed gear means the wheel takes much more punishment than the frame and all the pressure is on the axle.”
Holm insists that riding on one wheel is safer than riding a conventional bike. “The speed is no faster than you can run and if you fall off, you just fall on to your feet, rather than handlebars.”
This argument looks less convincing if those feet happen to land inches from the edge of a cliff. Filming a unicycling video two years ago, Holm found himself pedalling along the edge of Canada’s Stawamus Chief, at 600 metres, the second highest granite monolith in the world.
“Cycling the Chief looked outrageous,” Holm says “but wasn’t that hard technically; it’s more a test of nerve than ability. The challenge wasn’t the cycling but concentrating with that huge drop in my peripheral vision. I’ve been in a number of situations where if I screw up, it’ll be the last time I do. I know I have the technique, the trick is to apply that technique in a bubble.”
Holm refers to this as his “focus issue”. “In life you have to concentrate on a million different things at once but when I’m riding, everything else disappears. I love a sport where I absolutely have to concentrate on one thing and if I don’t, I’m not going to make it.”
Such Zen-like calm was precisely what was required one sunny day last year when Holm tested his “focus” by cycling along the handrail of the Burrard Street bridge in downtown Vancouver. Riding 120 feet above the water on a rail six-inches wide, Holm’s three-inch wide tyre meant he had little room for error. “Before I got up there I looked at what could go wrong but when I rode, the only thing I thought about was getting to the other side.”
Cycling a handrail may seem more David Blaine than Jason Queally; but when Holm sets his pedals at the top of the various mountains which give muni its name what follows is revolutionary.
Holm undertook a descent last year of the Mexican volcano El Pico de Orizaba, at 5,666m the third highest peak in North America. Setting off from the summit at 4.30am to beat the mid-morning clouds which encircle the mountain top, Holm and fellow muni daredevil Nathan Hoover began a four-hour epic ride to a base camp at 4,545 metres.
“As the terrain was slippery, I was descending through a combination of rolling and sliding which meant I didn’t have much control. It’s easy to do something wrong that can throw you off, and normally you don’t last more than 30 metres,” Holm explains. “On rough ground, I hardly sit on the seat at all, although it looks like I do. Because the bike has a fixed gear, braking is about resistance in the legs but this is difficult when the pedals aren’t level. My bike has a handle on the front of the seat which stops the seat shooting out from under me - it also houses the lever for a rim brake attached to the wheel. If you brake too much you’ll fall, so you have to constantly judge the `friction limit’. In this case, everything went right and I had the ride of my life; 300 metres down the side of the mountain with my legs pumping furiously.”
Holm explains that, although leg strength is important in muni, the difference between the ultimate muni ride and a mouthful of dirt is good core strength in the abdominals and lower back. “Eventually, you get to the point where the bike becomes your lower half, just this thing underneath your feet and reactions become automatic.” Holm completed a unicycle descent last month of the the Guatemalan volcano Tajumulco, the highest mountain in Central America and a 4,220m monster he describes as “lots of fun”.
All of which brings us back to that video clip, a series of high-speed out-takes from Holm’s latest adventure, a 12-day unicycling trek across the ancient Rodang Pass in Bhutan he made with Hoover earlier this year. “Nobody has ever written a guide book on unicycling and so you never know what you’re going to get,” Holm says. "Bhutan is a country that didn’t get the wheel until the mid-20th century, it just wasn’t part of the culture. If something needed to be transported it went on the back of a yak.
“The ride along the main pass, the Rodang La, was physically demanding as it’s about 3,000 vertical metres from the the valley floor to the pass summit and the trails are steep. Some sections were too steep to ride up so we had to hike. We had packs designed for snowboards and just clipped our unicycles to them. To cover this sort of terrain on a conventional mountain bike you’d need a 35-40lb machine compared to a 15lb unicycle. It was quite satisfying because, in terms of design, the unicycle came into its own.”
“On the descent side of the pass, there were over 1,000m of stairs cut into the mountains,” Holm says. This terrain was made more complicated by daily thunder storms. Making life more difficult still were the demands of filming for Into the Thunder Dragon. Bhutan is known as Land of the Thunder Dragon, a reference to the prominence of dragons in Bhutanese mythology and a fact not lost on Holm. “Riding a route travelled by traders and religious figures for over 1,000 years - The Rodang pass lies on the Silk Road - was amazing,” he says, "and learning about Bhutanese culture through unicycling is fairly unique.
“The local children were incredible; we’d ride through a village and the whole school would turn out to see this incredible new toy. Outside the major cities, you don’t even see conventional bikes because the terrain is so difficult. I got asked numerous times if this was something everybody did back home…” To purchase Kris Holm’s `Into the Thunder Dragon’ visit www.unicycle.uk.com. Video £19.95, DVD £24.95. Next week: Britain’s greatest living mountaineer, Sir Chris Bonington.