Weekend Warm-Up: Unizaba

Kris Holm has a wacky pastime. He invented municycling, which is unicycling mountains. He’s not a clown or a historian dating back to the penny-farthing era. Holm is just an unconventional 49-year-old Canadian man who has found a unique way of enjoying the outdoors.

It all started shortly before his 12th birthday. He watched a street performer ride a unicycle and decided he’d like to try it. When he received his first unicycle in 1985, it was natural for him to ride single track with it. While other kids his age played He Man, Holm was mastering inverse pendulum control theory.

Contrary to widespread clownism (yes, that’s a real thing), unicycling is an intellectual sport. It combines math and physics to use a nonholonomic system to stay upright. For steering, the wheel needs to stay beneath its centre of mass. That’s inverse pendulum control theory. Unicyclists subconsciously notice that they are falling, then correct themselves.

Holm especially appreciates these aspects of the sport. Every minor movement requires focus, skill, calculation, and accuracy. A second wheel isn’t there to correct disruptions.

Photo: Kris Holm


Unicycling volcanoes

A combination of unicycle trial riding and municycling has taken Holm all over the world. He attempted a unicycle descent of Licancabur (a 5,950m volcano in Bolivia), rode trade routes across Bhutan, and the uneven pave stones of China’s Great Wall. Inevitably, his next challenge was tackling high altitude.

El Pico De Orizaba (5,636m) is Mexico’s tallest volcano and North America’s third-highest peak. As you might guess, its glaciated, rugged slopes have never been unicycled. And that’s only half the challenge. Holm first had to haul his gear to the top of the volcano.

For over 30 years, Holm custom-built his own unicycles. He began out of necessity. It was impossible to find a unicycle that could withstand North Shore Vancouver’s famously difficult trails. That first custom bike was a 26″ unicycle with splined BMX cranks and brakes. It cost about $2,500 and had a heavy steel frame.

“A good offroad unicycle typically has a high volume mountain bike tire, strong 24″ to 29″ wheelset, splined cranks, disc brakes, and it might even have a front handle and gears,” he says.

Since then, he’s refined his models to lessen the physical burden. For El Pico De Orizaba, he used a seven-kilo alloy-framed custom model.

Beginning at midnight, Holm hiked with his unicycle in a backpack, reaching the summit at dawn. He was layered up with clothing to combat the bitter cold. He was unaccustomed to the altitude and needed a lot of concentration to stay balanced.

On the descent, some sections reminded him of downhill ski racing. Rocky obstacles darted out in all directions and required quick thinking. When his longest-ever section of “controlled falling” came into play, Holm was in his element.

Crazy speeds

Traveling at the fastest speeds he’d ever clocked on a unicycle, Holm described it as his “craziest fastest ride ever”.

To my unicycle-virgin eyes, this seems like one heck of a challenge: Staying relatively upright while hurling downhill at unstoppable speeds on uneven, volcanic rock. Yet Holm says the very reason he enjoys unicycling is its simplicity.

“It’s the simplest form of transportation possible,” he says.

I’m not so sure. Walking, I think, is the simplest form of transportation. But in the words of the world’s most extreme one-wheel practitioner, unicycling is “fun no matter where you are.”