Jess Riegel makes documentary about Unicycle World Championships
What do an ex-Secretary of Defense and an ex-Monkee have in common? No, they both didn’t work alongside Ronald Reagan. But Donald Rumsfeld and Mike Nesmith could both ride a unicycle.
For those of you fascinated with the single-wheeled sensation, local enthusiast Jess Riegel has made a documentary about “Unicon,” the biennial unicycling world championships.
“It was in Brixen, Italy, a beautiful ski resort town,” Riegel said. “It was paradise for Munis (mountain unicyclists). You’d take a chair lift to the top and the races went uphill and downhill.”
Riegel went into this Unicon with the goal of capturing the essence of each discipline, which can include anything from artistic freestyle, track racing and cross country downhill to basketball and hockey games.
“I wanted to paint a portrait of the whole sport,” said Riegel, who earned a degree in painting from UC Santa Barbara. “I’m riding my 36-inch through this beautiful old city … it was such a multi-cultural experience. I interviewed riders from all over the world.”
The 36-inch he refers to is his cross-country unicycle, about as large a diameter wheel as you will find. But it’s just right for his forays onto the Folsom Lake trails and the Clementine Loop.
“I saw a mountain unicycling video online and it absolutely blew me away,” Riegel said. “I was inspired. I started riding every day and I got connected with other riders in the area.”
You might say his lean toward “extreme” unicycling fits his personality.
“When I first decided I would learn to ride, I wanted to start that day!” he said.
He called around, Auburn Bike Works had a unicycle for sale, so he went and got it. That was 2002.
“I was addicted. I rode every day.”
And when he first heard about Unicon?
“I just plunged into it, I was fully immersed.”
Plunges, immersions and addictions. What next? Burning Man?
“This has got to be the most well loved 36-inch I have ever seen,” Riegel said of his “Frankenstein” (a piece from here, a part from there). “I rode it on the beach in Santa Barbara, I took it to Burning Man three times. It’s probably still dusty from the last trip.”
The Unicon in Brixen was the fourth he has attended. His first was in Tokyo in 2004, with Zack Baldwin (2004 World Unicycle Trails Champ) and Granite Bay unicycle enthusiast John Hooten.
“Jess was one my wife’s patients at Kaiser,” Hooten said. “She had a picture of me on a unicycle in her examination room and Jess asked ‘Is that (off-road pioneer) Kris Holm?’ and she said ‘No but he wishes he was.’”
Hooten, who actually met Holm at Unicon 2000 in Beijing, learned to ride when he was a student at Temple University.
“I was coaching rowing and I was looking for ways to distract myself from over thinking,” Hooten said. “I learned to do a couple of coin tricks, then juggling. A friend suggested I try the unicycle.”
But it wasn’t until their move to Granite Bay in 1990 that it all fell into place. When signing their children up for school, a kid on a unicycle rode through the playground, followed soon after by another.
“My wife said ‘I guess we moved to the right place.’”
Turns out the Eureka 4H club had quite a unicycle contingent. Once Hooten’s youngest son joined, John became the defacto teacher.
“Then I had to figure out a way to teach people how to ride,” Hooten said.
He did, and he figures he’s taught close to 200 kids since then. Once he became Scoutmaster of Troop 121 in 1996, and most of the 4H members were Boy Scouts, they began riding as a unit in the Auburn Light Parade, the Roseville Christmas Parade and a few more every year.
Though not a Scout, Riegel would practice with Hooten’s troop. He also had an obstacle course set up in his parent’s yard.
“At first, it was all about the tricks,” he said. “Now it’s about covering miles, using it as transportation, getting around. I take it to the post office all of the time.”
Both Riegel and Hooten said it’s mostly positive reactions they get from people when they are out riding. If they had a nickel for every time someone yelled “You lost a wheel,” they’d fly to the next Unicon first class. As it is, Riegel will continue marketing his DVD, which can be found at three bike shops in Auburn.
His advice to anyone considering taking up the unicycle?
“There’s a steep learning curve,” he said. “The only way to learn is to try it over and over and over. Each time you get an inch farther. Those ever-so-small advances, we have to use those to propel us to keep going. The next thing you know you’re riding around the block.”
Or on the trail. Or in a parade. Or better yet, on the streets of Montreal, site of the next Unicon.
“For me, it’s about getting a little exercise and being fully engaged. Being completely present in what I am doing,” Riegel said. “At age 17 I had no fear. At 25, I just don’t want to hurt myself.”