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One-wheeled wonders

Unicyclists explain how they tackle mountain bike trails in the Ashland Watershed
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Geoff Houghton of Ashland rides his unicycle on a bike trail in the Ashland Watershed.

ASHLAND — Geoff Houghton powers down a somewhat steep straightaway on the Ashland Watershed’s BTI Trail, then powers through a banked turn, pulling out and firing up a hill.

Pumping hard, Houghton shreds the hill then cascades down a series of rocky ledges on this Black Diamond trail officially rated as “very difficult,” but he never loses his center of gravity.

“This isn’t so technical, really,“ he says. ”Pretty simple.“

And that’s a good thing, considering Houghton is attacking a trail with one wheel short of a traditional bike.

Houghton is part of a decidedly small set of unicyclists bombing up and down some of the mountain biking trails that transect the Ashland Watershed. They tackle trails on contraptions that most traditional riders couldn’t get down a driveway.

But it’s all in the name of aerobic entertainment for Houghton. He’s been riding unicycles since the Carter Administration, rarely crashes and doesn’t bother carrying an insurance co-pay with him despite his sketchy confines.

“It’s fun, but it’s not scary-dangerous,” he says “This is just the way I travel on wheel.”

Their singularity of tread has more than turned the heads of even the trails’ most prolific and proficient two-wheelers.

“So impressive,” says Nathan “The Riddler” Riddle, a pro mountain biker and co-owner of The Handlebar bike shop and cafe in Ashland. “It’s mind-blowing, really.

“Having ridden a unicycle on flat ground, I can tell you it’s so hard,” Riddle says. “And consider a lot of people can’t do what they do on bikes.”

Count Houghton as one of those.

“I wouldn’t do that on a bike,” says Houghton, a naturopathic doctor in Ashland. “I haven’t been on a bike in 10 years, so this is the only way I’d consider coming down these trails.”

The trails in the Ashland Watershed draw more than 50,000 visitors annually, and the large network of trails are huge draws to those traversing them on various kinds of treads.

Some trails are set up strictly for hikers, while others are just for downhill or uphill cyclists to reduce crashes or other negative interactions.

While they weren’t crafted for unicycles, they drew the interest of Houghton as far back as 2008. Already a winner of national unicycle speed races, he bought a 36-inch wheel contraption with a wide tire that opened up some off-road riding.

“That opened up the watershed,” he says.

After tooling around dirt and gravel roads like the Ashland Loop Road for two years, be bought a 26-inch version, and that opened up the tougher inner trail system.

Now hardscrabble rides like the watershed’s famed Jabberwocky Trail are the backyard playgrounds for Houghton and unicyclist Yu Kuwabara.

Kuwabara grew up in Japan, where unicycles are as common in school playgrounds as basketballs and scooters in the United States.

“Basically, everybody my age in Japan knew how to ride unicycles,” he says. “It’s a kids’ toy, but you don’t see many adults riding them.”

Kawabara emigrated to the United States as a tween and gave up life on one wheel for the more common two-wheel version here.

But about 5 years ago some friends were dabbling with unicycles, and he spilled the beans about his past life of balance. They encouraged him to return to the one-wheeled world.

Mountain trails weren’t far behind.

“It’s not really that difficult,” he says. “You just really have to get going.”

Understanding the physics of unicycles is essential for riding, especially up and down mountains.

Going up, there are no gears so it’s a one-to-one ratio in pedal and tire rotation. Hitting banked turns are like doing those on conventional bikes, but the slower speeds mean for different leaning angles.

“I think it’s even more flowy than on a mountain bike,” Kawabara says.

And then there are the descents. Mountain bikers can stand, glide and use two brakes to keep on the trails. Unicyclists must pedal as fast as the tire is turning, essentially forcing their legs to match inertia — and without any brakes.

“You can’t go that fast, and there’s no handlebar,” Kawabara says. “So you don’t go over your handlebar. You just step off.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.