Longtime unicyclist gets new club on a roll
By Skye Hibbard-Swanson
For the CDT
Blake Ketchum doesn’t mind a challenge.
“My younger brother and I were always very competitive,” the 39-year-old soil scientist and State College resident said. “He learned how to ride a bike at about the same time, and so I had to one-up him with something.”
That something, she decided, was teaching herself to unicycle.
But there was a small problem.
“My dad had just bought me a bicycle, and he wasn’t about to buy me a new toy,” Ketchum said. So, "he took a welding torch, cut the fork off my tricycle and replaced the handlebars with a makeshift seat – a two-by-four and a pipe flange. That was my first unicycle. It had a 12-inch wheel and a hard, rubber tire, and it was so funny looking.
"He said, ‘If you can ride that, I’ll buy you a unicycle.’ "
Of course, Ketchum promptly did, and she has been unicycling for 32 years.
Now Ketchum, who moved to the area in August to do post-doctoral work, has set her sights on a new challenge: starting a unicycling club in State College.
“After I finished graduate school, I decided I needed to take life less seriously for a little while,” she said. “I wanted to do something that was really just for fun. I saw the beat-up, old unicycle in my basement and I got it out again, and I knew right away that this was what I needed to do.”
Enough people have expressed an interest in trying it, Ketchum said, “that I decided to actually try to start a club that was very beginner-friendly.”
And thus, the Wobbling Lions – the name comes from a “wobble,” the term for a group of unicyclists – formed. The group meets from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday evenings in Orchard Park, off of Blue Course Drive in State College.
There are no fees to participate, and all ages and experience levels are welcome. Ketchum has a collection of unicycles that people can use until they purchase their own.
“I’ve been the only unicyclist on campus that I’ve known about for a while now, so it’s good to hear that other folks around here are also doing it,” said club member Matt Bachmann, 29.
He speculated that unicycling draws people in because “it’s an uncommon sort of skill, and a great conversation starter – kind of like carrying a puppy.”
Ketchum frequently unicycles with her 7-year-old son, Bear. “It’s something that children pick up about the same speed as adults, so if you’re looking for a unique activity to do with your kids, it’s a great thing,” she said.
Bear says he would recommend unicycling to other kids. “It’s fun – and easy.”
But it’s not always easy. Ketchum admits that unicycling is much harder than learning to ride a traditional bike.
“It takes about two weeks for an average adult. If you’ve got exceptional balance, sometimes less than a week,” she said.
The physically demanding aspects of unicycling make it good exercise, though.
“You can’t coast. You’re always pedaling. You have to be moving your arms a lot too, and there’s no brakes. Even stopping takes energy out of you. It’s a good core workout, because you’re always moving … everything,” said 19-year-old Kevin O’Brien, who has attended some of the club meetings.
In addition to wristguards and a helmet, a good attitude is essential for learning to unicycle. “You have to be stubborn and courageous. You have to want to do it. And you have to have a sense of humor, maybe more so than a bike, because you’re doing something that many people find absolutely ridiculous,” said Ketchum, whose other hobbies include fencing and woodworking.
In fact, she said, “it still seems like something that’s impossible to do, and every time I get up on the unicycle, I feel like a bigger person.”
At times, Ketchum literally becomes a bigger person. On this particular night, she demonstrated the “giraffe,” a type of unicycle that is more than 5 feet high.
However, Ketchum is primarily a distance unicyclist. In August, she will ride almost 250 miles across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with the Missing Wheels 2006 tour to benefit children with special needs at Marquette General Hospital.
Ted Kistler, 41, decided to take up the hobby again after he witnessed Ketchum’s distance unicycling in action.
“We were going on a mountain-bike ride, and she had a unicycle that she intended to take along the same ride. We all thought she was crazy,” he said.
Now, Kistler said, “I would like to do what I saw her do. I would love to take it into the mountains.”
Ketchum explains that the seeming impossibility of the sport is what attracts her. “I like doing things that are a challenge physically. There’s always something I can’t do on the unicycle.”
Indeed, unicycling poses a unique challenge, especially in terms of the onlookers’ reactions.
"One of the first questions people ask is, ‘Where’s your other wheel?’ " Ketchum said. “Then the second question I get asked is, ‘Can you juggle?’ And I can.”
Bachmann’s heard his share of unicycle quips. “There’s a standard litany of one-liners that you get from folks who see you ride by.”
“Nobody gets it, really. Everyone always makes fun of it. They don’t realize that nothing they say hasn’t been heard before. They always say the same things, you know, ‘Where’s the rest of your bike?’ or some people will hum the circus theme,” O’Brien said, breaking into an impromptu rendition. “I’ve heard all of it.”