Kris Holm has covered more ground on one wheel than most cyclists will ever do on two. You could say that the Vancouver-based geoscientist is the apostle of unicycling.
Sparked by a chance encounter with a violin-playing, unicycling busker in Victoria’s Inner Harbour, Holm’s initial preteen infatuation with single-wheel riding has blossomed into a 26-year love affair that has seen him balance atop the Great Wall of China’s balustrades, boulder hop Andean volcanic cones, and navigate Himalayan trekking tracks just as readily as he cruises trails close to his home near Pacific Spirit Regional Park. That’s where the Georgia Straight recently met up with the 37-year-old and his four-legged companion, Loki.
As Holm rolled back and forth, he stopped and started at will without dismounting, proof of his assertion that compared to a standard bike, a mono-tire cycle is superior when exercising a dog, either on- or off-leash.
With dozens of appearances in videos and magazine features to his credit—such as the award-winning Into the Thunder Dragon documentary shot in Bhutan—Holm’s latest production (due in April) is a profusely illustrated instructional manual, The Essential Guide to Mountain and Trials Unicycling (Gradient Press, 174 pp, $19.95).
“Since writing an outline for an instructional DVD in 2004, it’s been a dream of mine to put out this book,” he explained. “One of my biggest motivations is to detail the breadth of the sport. It’s much bigger than any stereotypes. Uni is not so much a riding style of biking as it is a sport within the larger context of cycling itself that can include all manner of approaches: road, mountain, trials, performance, you name it.”
Unicycles first appeared in the late 19th century as hybrids of two-wheeled “penny-farthing” models whose pedals and crank were directly connected to the front axles. In the 1980s, Holm first saddled up on a uni at the dawn of the fat-tired mountain-bike era. An early adapter, he soon switched from road riding on his original Norco model to a mountain uni, or muni. “The big draw for me to mountain-biking uni came from my love of rock-climbing with its minimalist emphasis on doing more with less. Less equipment added to the enjoyment of the challenge I was trying to undertake.”
Holm pointed out that to think something is missing when someone compares a single-wheeled bike with a two-wheeler is like a motorcyclist looking at a mountain bike and wondering what happened to the engine.
While exploring the limits of his muni on North Shore trails, Holm caught the attention of Norco Factory Trials team manager Peter Stace-Smith. Invited to hit the road with internationally renowned riders such as Port Moody trials guru Ryan Leech, Holm competed in a sport where the challenge is for a rider to pass through and over a series of obstacles without touching a foot to the ground.
“It was more urban than mountain freeride for sure,” he reminisced, “but I always rode an off-road muni because it feels more secure.” No one had ever seen the likes of Holm’s hands-free “uni-que” style. His public appearances, coupled with off-road exploits recorded in videos and DVDs, spread the muni vibe among action-sports aficionados hard-wired to try something different. “I’ve travelled quite a bit,” he pointed out. “Unis are easy to bring along. They pack into a regular bag. I never pay airport fees. There’s nowhere I’d feel limited taking one.”
As to what is driving the sport’s swelling popularity, Holm singled out two factors: “It’s the personal thing of individuals getting inspired, plus there’s been a significant increase in popularity globally. With over $100,000 spent on research and development, unis have gone through similar transformations in the past decade to what mountain biking did in the 1990s.”
Over the past 11 years, Holm has branded his own product line that now includes six KHU (Kris Holm Unicycles) models of various tire and height sizes. “The need to build my own line evolved from simply having to have a good one I could trust for my expeditions. Now I distribute to 15 countries. Internet sales have sparked big changes that couldn’t have happened if I just marketed locally.”
Two Vancouver bike shops, Cambie Cycles and the Grin Cyclery, stock unicycles. When reached by phone at Grin Technologies Ltd.’s off-Main location, Anne-Sophie Rodet told the Straight that while the shop specializes in selling electric conversion kits for bikes and skateboards, it also carries six brands of unicycles. “It’s important for us to stock the whole line of KHU products. Around here, a lot of people are interested in aggressive riding on the North Shore. We’ve gone from selling a handful at the start to about 70 munis last year, but I can’t say if it’s because more people are interested or that there’s more publicity about this style of riding in general. Simply having a shop definitely helps promote the sport.”
Rodet said that with a little practise, anyone can learn to ride one. “I like uni commuting because I meet really interesting people. I got into it to be different but not crazy different. When I ride by, people always have a smile when they look at me.”
When asked for his assessment of a uni’s learning curve, Holm added: “Even though in the past I’ve had a fair amount of success communicating about the high end of my sport, my book’s beginner segment is huge. I’ve tried to include skills to inspire people to attempt at every level. It’s all about balance, tension, and poise.”
Holm took exception when queried about the assumption that two wheels are better than one. “The big take-home in doing cross-country riding on a muni is that it’s not how fast you go, because you do go slower: it’s that the average speed on any mountain bike is under 20 kilometres an hour. On the fifth stage of the 2010 B.C. Bike Race, a 43-kilometre leg, I finished third, becoming the first unicyclist to podium in a major mountain bike race. My time was faster than 200 others because of my average.”
Although two-wheeled mountain bikes hold an advantage on uphill climbs, Holm maintained that when racing on one wheel, he enjoys far greater ability to move around boulders and outcrops on downhill sections. “For a start, I’m in total control of one wheel. If I have an accident, I simply hop off rather than flying over the handlebars.”
In 2009, inspired by a mountaineering award given by the Alpine Club of Canada’s Jen Higgins Fund to promote outdoor pursuits, Holm created the Evolution of Balance Award. With an annual bursary of $1,700, the prize also includes a KHU muni and assorted gear, given in support of what the globetrotter described as “the coolest noncompetitive mountain unicycling adventures in remote parts of the world, such as the jungle crossing from the east to the west coast of Panama or following the Great Divide mountain bike route along the Continental Divide from Banff to Mexico”.
As to future adventures, the expectant father’s horizon is about to be baby sized. Is there a mono-tire version of a push bike? Watch this space.