On August 30, as many as 800 bikers and runners, myself included, will stumble their way to the summit of Mount Mansfield in the second annual Race to the Top of Vermont, a grueling 4.3-mile climb of 2500 feet with grades of 10 percent on a dirt road. Whether you’re on two wheels or two feet, it’s one of the toughest road races in the state.
On one wheel, it’s almost unthinkable — except for a trio of unicyclists who finished the inaugural Race to the Top of Vermont last summer. “It felt a little silly, since we were as slow as the walkers,” says Bill Merrylees, 52, of East Montpelier. “But I was doing it not to blow past anyone; it was a nice social experience.”
Merrylees, who finished in just under 90 minutes (the winning unicyclist was Geoff Elder of Williston in an hour and seven minutes) says that, despite “killer” moments in the hot sun on loose gravel, the crowds that cheered on him and pal Mark Premo, 41, made it worth every pedal.
For his part, Premo says that the novelty of unicycling up Vermont’s highest peak helped keep him in the saddle. “I wanted to be one of the first unicyclists to race up Mount Mansfield,” says Premo, a UPS employee from Winooski who taught himself to unicycle in his kitchen three years ago.
In 2006, Premo was also one of the first to one-wheel it up the Appalachian Gap in the Allen Clark Hill Climb, which sends bikers — and now a handful of unicyclists — up 6.2 miles and 1600 feet every fall.
As the one-wheelers get in shape for this year’s climb, Seven Days looked for more insight into the allure of this precarious, quad-breaking variant of bike racing. We spoke with Geoff Beyer, the Montpelier parks director, who spends his spare time on his unicycle running errands, going to meetings — and training for uphill racing. Though he’s not sure whether he’ll attempt the Race to the Top of Vermont this year, Beyer’s raced the App Gap and lived to tell the tale, and he says that, for him, unicycling is a way of life.
Seven Days: How did you get into unicycling? Geoff Beyer: I have three brothers, and my father introduced us to a number of things that were off the beaten track — adventurous things like rope swings and tightrope wires. [When I was in high school in New Jersey,] we saw a unicycle in the circus one day, and my brothers and I were like, “Ah, we gotta do that!” So we bought one and got imprints all over our basement hallway — we’d ride while holding ourselves up; you go back and forth and hold on more and more lightly. I started when I was 15, but it took a while. By 16, I was all over the place; I even rode it to work, three miles each way, over rocks and down steps. It was fun just to figure out where we could go on the unicycle.
SD: What was it like that first time when you really got it? GB: Exciting and frustrating and humbling all at the same time. In a way, I had met a match. I had met something that couldn’t be done rapidly; it was going to take some time to practice. Unicycling has a steep learning curve. If you don’t get it, there are significant consequences. It’s really hard to get that first 5 to 10 feet to get that gratification. It takes someone with patience and/or determination — usually both ... But it’s very rewarding. You learn balance and you learn how to fall well, and those skills really help you with other sports, so it’s a real gift to give yourself.
It’s really hard to imagine it, but if you see it and you feel it and you get the rhythm, and see how they’re sitting — I’ve seen people who are struggling, struggling, and 10 minutes of riding alongside holding hands, and all of a sudden they get it. It’s just that little extra support; it’s the timing, it’s the faith, it’s knowing it actually is possible, so riding with others helps. It helps to have determination — it takes someone who has this almost unbelievable self-confidence; you don’t know that it’s hard.
After you get 10 feet, it just starts going fast. The difference between 2 feet and 10 feet is huge, but 10 feet and 100 feet is not so big. It’s fun to get it. No handlebars, doing things that not many other people can do — there was something gratifying about that for me.
SD: What is the race over the App Gap like? GB: The race is up; it’s really a breathtaking thing. It’s really a personal boost to do something that feels like an effort to walk or bike up. The view’s almost always peak fall colors.
SD: Do you get funny looks? GB: [At] the App Gap race, we get great hoots and hollers from the bikers who know how hard it is to do in many gears, much less one gear. We get a lot of interesting looks. One of my friends was part of a car accident because somebody was doing a double take and drove off the road. But nobody got hurt.
SD: Are you using different muscles than in biking? GB: It’s a lot of quads; you can put toe clips in, but people often get hurt. On a bicycle, you can use your arms and your back and your whole body, but on a unicycle, you’re dependent on your quads; it’s almost a one-muscle deal.