All photos via Stacy Lee.
As I exit the subway station, there’s no mistaking which way I’m supposed to be headed: in front of me, a horde of kids pedalling single-wheeled contraptions are jolting back and forth as they try and balance themselves with their arms out. In any other city, a crowd of unicyclers would probably seem unusual, but this is Montreal, where the streets are constantly teeming with jugglers on stilts wearing jester hats, and where a good portion of the female population walks around dressed like circus lesbians. Even still, this a special occasion. I’ve come to Maisonneuve College to cover Unicon: the Unicycling World Championships. This is the 17th iteration of the biannual festival, and it’s the third time its been held in the province. Last year’s was held in Brixen, Italy.
Located in the east end of Montreal, the phallus-meets-UFO shaped Olympic Stadium serves as a backdrop to the college, and it’s a strange feeling knowing that, since its creation for the 1976 Summer Olympics, so many great athletes have walked in its shadow. At 14, gymnast Nadia Comăneci of Romania scored seven perfect 10.0s, and won three gold medals, and it was here that Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon Spinks, and Michael Spinks won gold in boxing. Now I’m here covering a sport that is considered by many, myself included, as a circus trick at best, and at worst, the corniest way to travel to your LARPing sesh. But Unicon means business, and every two years over 1,000 athletes from up to 35 countries gather to compete in 25 unicycle disciplines which include suicidal stuff like downhill unicycling and wheel walking (a race where athletes “walk” on the wheel of their unicycle).
Walking into College Maisonneuve feels like stepping into a parallel universe, one where unicycling is considered an actual sport and not just a sideshow. Guys are applying sports tape to protect their ankles, and girls in the corner are stretching and exchanging tips. I make my way to the gym, where it’s the unicycle basketball semifinal game between France and the United States. I can feel my nose burning and my eyes watering as I’m hit with the stench of sweat and sticky balls (the genital kind, not the sports kind). The players have covered the air vents with their sweaty jerseys, at once cooling them off, and amplifying and spreading the general stink.
When I think of unicyclists, I usually picture a bunch of skinny dangly dweebs with their tongues out, trying to focus on keeping their silly hats balanced on their head. However, all my preconceived notions were quickly shattered by the US basketball players’ good looks and toned muscles as they were practicing. Sure, some players were juggling and balancing pins on their face, but man, those asses.
Basketball unicyclers: committed to being multi-talented.
Given my limited knowledge of unicycle sports, I thought the game would last about 15 minutes and end with the losing team getting pied by the winning team. But I was surprised to see Mark Wilder, the US team captain and general heartthrob, gather his players to discuss a game plan with the seriousness of a military general. I could tell that these guys were not fucking around and were out to win this thing. U-S-A! U-S-A!
The game itself was a clusterfuck of elegance and one-wheeler pile ups. The players spun around with amazing posture and poise, avoiding contact until a member of the French team kept falling and fucking things up for everyone. They hopped in place, guarding the net while struggling to pick up the ball when it was simply too low to reach as if they were babies in highchairs trying to reach a fallen toy. Big, toned, sweaty, hunky babies. Naturally, as I’m neither a fan of sports or unicycles, I didn't really understand what was going on. I did note that the crowd (which was composed of about 20 people) really hated the referee and would trash talk him for making bad calls—I guess even with a sport as esoteric as unicycle basketball, some things are universal. Almost two hours after the game started, the US team came out the victor to the French team’s despair.
The unicycle basketball athletes in action.
My next stop was the paired freestyle qualifiers, which consists of two riders performing to music, with costumes and props—sort of a cross between figure skating and a circus show. Judges evaluate the three-minute routine based on synchronization, technical skills, and showmanship. Riders lose major points if their feet touch the ground—something that is referred to as a “dismount.”
While it all sounds very serious, as I made my way into the auditorium I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been transported to an audition for Fringe Disney on Ice; I was surrounded by sexy neandertals, cutesy sailors, a witch, two clowns, and a few princesses. Where I had been shocked and impressed by the bro-y vibe of the basketball players, the paired freestyle crowd looked much more like what I was expecting from Unicon: eager and awkward unicyclers. The stands were pretty empty, and last-minute judges had to be recruited a few minutes before the competition started. Not a huge draw, I guess.
First up were a couple from Germany, dressed as mummies with gold body paint; easily one of the greatest costumes of the bunch. Having had a chance to talk to them briefly before their performance, their enthusiasm was infectious, and I wanted them to do well. But as soon as they started their routine, I realized one of the fundamental differences between unicycling and figure skating. Where figure skating is all about grace and flowiness, unicycling is the opposite. Yes, the performers are wearing costumes, and yes they are executing very precise moves only a select few people are capable of, but there is next to nothing graceful about unicycling. Two people frantically pedalling a rubber wheel against a gym floor doesn’t quite have the same effect as seeing a couple breezily gliding over ice.
This German team had one of the best outfits of the day.
By far the least graceful move is what I later found out is called the “seat drag,” which consists of two performers cycling in perfect sync around the room and, when you least expect it, “BAM” they’ll just stand up and have their saddle fall onto the ground, creating a loud noise while they continue pedaling, dragging the seat behind them—this also happens to be one of the most popular moves.
The two girls up next were wearing colourful T-shirts and shorts over tights—by far the laziest costumes of the bunch. But what they lacked in flair they made up for with their use of props. Set to a comical tune, the girls launched onto their unicycles, sporting party hats and blowouts before pulling out balloons and blowing them up while cycling—which is as insane as it sounds. Even though their performance suffered from a few dismounts, the girls tried some pretty adventurous moves like wheel walking, an arabesque, and a front seat drag while holding hands. But what really won me over was something I had been waiting for all day: starting from opposite sides of the room, the girls cycled towards one another, with creampies in hand, until they were close enough to smash it into each others faces while falling off their unicycles as a finale. It was magical.
My favourite act were two German girls dressed as Fred and Wilma Flintstone with matching wheels. The theme song came on, and they started their bit by arriving in a cardboard car on foot, just like the Flintstones. The two hopped on their unicycles, and even though they used my least favourite move, the seat drag, the sparse crowd was laughing. I couldn’t help but laugh at how amazingly ridiculous everything was. It was at that moment I realized that to fully enjoy Unicon, you have to leave your pretentions at the door.
Fred and Wilma.
It’s easy to go into Unicon expecting to laugh at pimply freaks wobbling around on a single tire, and yes, some of it's awkward and pretty damn hilarious. But you know what isn’t easy? Riding a fucking unicycle! Unicycling as a competitive sport is still in its infancy and it’s hard to take seriously as a sport when you’re watching a couple dressed as ancient Egyptians hopping around on half a bike.
So while I still don’t believe unicycle basketball is a real sport, I definitely have a newfound respect for unicyclists (and their toned butts). After talking to the people at Unicon 17, I came to realize that unicycling is an incredibly lonely sport. For the most part, the unicycle communities in most towns are small if not nonexistent, and the act itself is a solitary one: it’s just you, one wheel, the road, and maybe a funny hat. That is until you come to Unicon where people from all over the world who share the same one-wheeled passion get to congregate, learn new tricks, play some games, have some laughs, win some medals, and party for a week. @smvoyer