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People fall in love. They fall in love with other people, with their pets, with the city they live in (or the city they don’t live in), with books, entertainers, crystals, artichokes, and, ranking near the top of that list are their hobbies. Or, to put the honorable and useful word hobby on the shelf and select another from the soggy bag of vernacular mush, people love their passions.

And, like love, passion calls to you at any time, in any place. One’s heart pounds at the sound of a Yamaha 5.3-liter four-stroke outboard engine. Funny, no one else in your life seems to care. The next-door neighbor counts the days until the next time he jumps out of an airplane. The woman down the street collects matchboxes. Her son spends five hours a day in front of his computer playing Thrill Kill. Those people are nothing like your V-8 outboard motor comrades. Those people are crazy.

Which brings us to mountain unicycling.

Some people love to climb on a unicycle, find it especially gratifying since unicycles have no brakes or gears, and then unicycle down mountain trails, dropping off embankments, cruising forest lowlands, crossing wide streams on fallen trees, bouncing boulder to boulder on top of mountain bluffs. Those people are crazy.

To see if you agree, one of the nation’s oldest unicycle meets is happening this weekend, March 28 through March 30, in the not-too-distant city of Moab, Utah. Introducing, dear reader, the 2008 Moab Mountain Unicycling Festival (moabmunifest.com).

I have the festival’s organizer, Rolf Thompson, on the phone. “I see this is the ninth year of your festival. How did it start?”

“Well, I started it,” Thompson says. “I figured out that riding on unicycles with big fat tires was fun. Mountain biking got big as soon as they put big tires on bikes and went off-trail. It took a lot longer for unicycles. Ten, twelve years ago there wasn’t equipment that could hold big fat tires on unicycles, so we made it ourselves.”

Thompson, 51, is an electrical engineer, lives with wife and six kids in the Salt Lake City metroplex bog.

“I was going down to Moab anyway, riding my bike. One time I took the unicycle and had a lot of fun. I got on the Internet and started telling people about it and invited them to come. That’s how [the Moab festival] started.”

I say, “You were a pioneer.”

“Yeah, that was right in the beginning. I came across a group of guys centered in the Silicon Valley — San Francisco, Santa Cruz area. They were pushing it. They were getting into ruggedized, mountain-type unicycles. They were welding frames that had forks fat enough to accommodate big tires. They were researching which companies might be able to make stronger hubs, stronger cranks. We break cranks like crazy coming off high drops.”

“What year was this?”

“Nineteen ninety-nine. A lot of the features that are in unicycles now were developed by those core guys and a lot of those people come to Moab fest. One year, I counted ten of those guys. This guy had done work on the hubs, that guy had done work on handles, this guy had done work on the seat.”

Sounds like a good time. “When I was watching unicycle videos I was struck by a couple things. First, this must be hard on the testicles. Is it as bad as it looks?”

Thompson laughs loud. “It’s not a problem. People have been nailed, but that can happen on a bike, that can happen on anything else.”

“And I was surprised how slow the ride is.”

“We’re not going all that fast, and it’s not as dangerous because of that. It’s not like you’re going to be splayed out going down a hill at 23 mph.”

I say, “There’s a unicycle meet in San Diego in October. And there’s a 100-mile race in Northern California. Is there a circuit to mountain unicycling?”

“Not so much a circuit, but different people in different cities are trying to organize things. You can pretty much count on California having a MUni [mountain unicycling] weekend every year. San Diego is talking about having road-type rides. On 36-inch wheels. You can go fast on those.”

Make it so. “Have you ever gotten to a spot, other riders are making a jump, and you say to yourself, ‘That’s too crazy for me’?”

“Oh, yeah. I watched Kris Holm, he’s probably the most famous unicyclist, go down through two major sets of buttes,” Thompson laughs. “Huge drops. The whole thing was 40 feet downhill.”

“Is there an urban equivalent?”

“The younger generation would rather go to a skate park, go to the university, or ride around town.”

Time to go. “Any advice for San Diegans thinking about making the trip?”

Thompson says, “Be prepared to be amazed.”

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jmr1944 March 31, 2008 @ 8:50 p.m.

As the guy said in Bridge Over the River Kwai: madness, madness.


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