Unicycle club members lift each other’s spirits

When most people want to bring balance into their lives, they work less, relax more, maybe visit a therapist to get to the root of why things are off-kilter.

Gabe Cressy, 30, rides a unicycle.

Yes, he knows it’s an odd hobby. But it forces him to hold his chin up, keep both feet moving and balance, balance, balance. The lessons transfer well to real life.

Riding a unicycle is the very definition of a solo activity, since there’s only one wheel and a single seat. But Cressy isn’t the loner type. After teaching himself how to ride within a week’s time, he yearned to meet other well-balanced people. So Cressy created the Meetup group, Unicycle Las Vegas (meetup.com/UnicycleLasVegas), about six months ago. Their motto is: "Not two tired to pedal!"

Nineteen members have signed up, all of varying skills, backgrounds and interest levels. They’re looking for more people to ride in the July 3 Summerlin Patriotic Parade.

The group hasn’t found the right spot to meet, yet. They need some space to fall. Or practice bouncing and pedaling backward.

On a recent Tuesday, five of the group’s members met in the parking lot of Sunset Park. They showed off their skills, taught each other their tricks and bonded over a tire with a seat.

"We’re pretty new. So far, we’re just getting to know each other," Cressy said.

Though he has been riding for only a few months, Cressy displays a solid grasp of the fundamentals of unicycling. He rode in circles. Bounced in place. Free-mounted and idled. Pedaling backward has been an elusive ability, though.

"That’s a tough nut to crack," Cressy noted. "They say it’s as easy as going forward but I don’t think that’s true."

Cressy, a bartender, was born and raised in Las Vegas. He said he likes challenges. After attending a music festival in California last year, where he saw people show off unusual talents, "I was inspired to learn a new skill," Cressy said. "It’s like the best thing that’s happened to me in a while."

One reason is the exercise. Once you can correctly ride a unicycle, it will give you the workout of your life, he said. Core muscles and leg muscles all work to stabilize you in the seat or saddle. And you get an aerobic workout from pedaling.

"It’s great exercise. My wife says I’m better looking now," said Michael Prado, 33.

Prado learned to ride as a kid but wasn’t enthusiastic about it. He thought about picking it up again for a few years, but it wasn’t until he saw unicyclists at the Burning Man event in 2008 that he finally followed through with the idea.

"I’ve been waiting for years for someone to start a group," he said, professing to be too shy to start one himself.

Prado found the Meetup group through Sam de Gonia, 46, who bought a unicycle Prado sold on craigslist. He is the most experienced rider out during this recent Tuesday Meetup, having learned to ride when de Gonia was 14.

He was inspired by the opening credits of the television show "Welcome Back, Kotter," which showed someone riding a unicycle and carrying a tennis racket. But de Gonia really knew he had to ride after seeing unicyclists playing basketball during a Harlem Globetrotters game.

A few days before the Meetup, de Gonia recruited the group’s least-experienced rider, Stephen Metaxas, 18. He’s still learning and can pedal only a few feet before gravity pulls him off the seat. But Metaxas, 18, has been bitten by the uni-bug.

"It feels like flying," Metaxas said as he tried to mount his unicycle by leaning against his car. It will be a while before he can free-mount, or just roll himself up on the seat from a standing position.

People might think that their bicycle skills will transfer to the unicycle. But the first rule of the unicycle is to forget everything you know about riding a bicycle. And don’t look down.

A bicycle requires leg power.

"The unicycle is all leg control," de Gonia said. "While one is pedaling the other is balancing. You’re not putting all your force into it to pedal."

It’s instinctual for beginning riders to look at the ground, but that motion carries you forward, causing you to speed up or fall on your face. It’s not for the faint of heart.

And unicycling isn’t for wallflowers, either. If you ride, expect to be the center of attention.

"It can be an uncomfortable experience because everyone’s going to look at you," said Michael Simms, 50. He learned to ride 10 years ago just for something to do.

As the Meetup members tooled around the parking lot, they drew stares and comments. When they decided to ride around the lake, they drew an audience.

One kid watched them pass and said, "I didn’t know normal people could do that."

Cressy likes to ride long distances and during a recent six-mile trip around the neighborhood, he came upon a medical emergency. Police officers and a paramedic unit surrounded a woman who was in distress. Cressy watched them and they, in turn, watched him.

"I saw all eight heads turn and look at me and they started applauding," Cressy said. "It was weird."

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.

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