Student is one-wheeled wonder

By Garrett Pelican | 4/4/10 10:39pm

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Josh Sutton rides his unicycle around campus. He started the hobby five years ago.
by Garrett Pelican and Garrett Pelican / The Lanthorn

With spring comes warmer weather, with warmer weather comes more students biking to class and with more bicycle-mounted students zipping around campus comes an increased chance of pedestrians getting drilled by a two-wheeled serving of pain on their way to a morning lecture.

Even faced with the prospect of getting run down by Lance Armstrong and the peloton around every corner, students can take comfort in knowing there is one cyclist they need not fear.

Popularly known as the campus unicyclist, “the unicycle kid” or “the fastest thing on one wheel,” Josh Sutton is a unicycle expert with control rivaling or exceeding that of many cyclists, whose bikes also have handlebars.

The second-year junior and accounting major at Grand Valley State University admitted he has gained somewhat of a following thanks to his talent, one that he does not intend to give up any time soon.

“I’m sure it will lose its interest for me,” Sutton said. “But I’ll keep doing it while I still can and while I still have an audience.”

A self-described “showoff to a certain degree,” Sutton said he enjoys seeing the variety of reactions his hobby draws from observers, especially “their expressions.”

Some of the other responses his hobby has elicited are jokes, people wanting to try the unicycle — something he encourages — and a Facebook group called “I’ve seen the campus unicyclist!!!” with 476 members dedicated to him.

Currently enrolled in the Frederik Meijer Honors College, Sutton started his hobby more than five years ago during the summer before his freshman year of high school when he borrowed a neighbor’s unicycle. He spent the next two weeks learning how to ride, self-taught.

“You actually spend a lot of time not on the unicycle when you’re first learning,” he said of the process.

A firm believer in the idea of deliberate practice – extended and focused repetition of the same activity – Sutton persisted, and his efforts soon paid off.

“If you put enough time into anything, you can learn how to do it,” he explained.

Even so, it took Sutton years of practice to become the one-wheeled wonder he is now, capable of riding for 28 consecutive miles – a feat he accomplished during spring break. Despite his expertise, Sutton admitted he is still prone to the occasional mishap.

“I’ve biffed it at times,” he said. “It’s definitely infrequent, but it happens.”

In one instance, Sutton recalled, he fell off after deciding to race some friends from the Mark A. Murray living center to Kleiner Commons: unicycle versus car. Going too fast, he tumbled off the front of the unicycle’s seat and scraped his arms and legs on the pavement.

Falls such as this one are rarely a concern for Sutton, even when people are watching.

“If anyone wants to make a big deal out of me falling, all I have to say is, ‘Here, you try,’” he said.

Aside from the odd fall, Sutton also deals with what he called “unplanned dismounts,” in which his wheel hits a crack in the pavement or some other barely noticeable obstacle that causes him to come off the seat and stop, without actually falling over or crashing.

During one such dismount, Sutton landed hard enough on his right foot that he sustained a contusion, or bone bruise, in his leg and still managed to tough out the remaining 1.5 mile ride home.

The evident potential for injury with every ride has not stopped or slowed Sutton who averages about 9 mph but can reach a speed of 14 mph on the unicycle.

In contrast, when he finds himself navigating through a lot of people, Sutton slows his movement to a walking pace.

Another circumstance on campus in which he exercises caution is in crossing the Little Mac during times of high traffic.

“I generally avoid the bridge during rush hours,” he explained. When the bridge is relatively clear, however, Sutton said he has no problem riding over it, even with his five-foot-tall unicycle, the style of which is aptly named a giraffe unicycle.

Still, he mainly rides the traditional one because it is more practical for getting around.

Just as most students do with bikes, Sutton locks up his unicycle to bike racks on campus before going to class. With his primary unicycle costing $200 and the giraffe style $120, Sutton said he continues to do so even though others insist the cycles won’t get stolen.

His mastery of the unicycle’s movements was immediately apparent as he demonstrated a variety of mounts and other skills he has learned since starting. At one point, the unicycle laid sideways on the pavement and in a matter of seconds he stepped onto one of the pedals, flicked the cycle up and sat on it – the kick mount – a trick he said is popular with those who have watched him.

“People really like the kick mount,” Sutton added.

The trick is just one in an arsenal that includes riding backward, hopping up stairs, 180 degree jumps, riding one-footed or no-footed – variations of a trick called “wheel walking” and the closest thing to “Look, mom, no hands” in a unicyclist’s dictionary – and idling, which is moving back and forth in place, a skill Sutton said is useful to stop, whether to talk or wait for traffic.

“My current work in progress is one-footed wheel walking,” he remarked.

Some of Sutton’s tricks might appear impossible to an observer, which prompted his response, “You’d be surprised what’s possible.”

gpelican@lanthorn.com

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