One Wheel Is Enough
West Lebanon Unicyclist Keeps His Balance
While teaching unicycle lessons for the Lebanon recreation department, David Kano, of West Lebanon, a former software designer, has been riding a unicycle since childhood and taught lessons through the Lebanon parks and recreation this summer. Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »
David Kano's Unitrainer is equipped with a buzzer to alert the rider when he or she is relying to heavily on the handlebars for suppert. Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »
West Lebanon — Unicyclist David Kano has been spending more time exploring his spiritual side. Having joined several meditation groups, the West Lebanon computer programmer has also self-published a series of poems conveying his experiences of self discovery.
While those practices help him feel grounded, on the unicycle Kano feels like he’s gliding across the earth. It’s something the Lincoln, Mass., native has enjoyed since he was about 8 years old, when his father, Cyrus, built him a unicycle out of tricycle.
While many of the other children in his neighborhood were riding bicycles, Kano enjoyed riding hands free, minus the bulkiness of a bike frame. While he stopped short of correlating it directly with his spirituality, the 56-year-old loves the sensation of being on one wheel.
“Riding a unicycle is a meditative kind of thing,” he said. “I wouldn’t relate it to my spirituality, except to say that everything I do now is affected by my meditation.
“But it’s definitely something I enjoy.”
Not that it’s easy. Kano can still recall the difficulty of teaching himself to ride as a youth.
“I learned in the basement. It took me hours and hours before I could go with nothing to hold onto,” Kano said from Seminary Hill Elementary School, where earlier this summer he provided lessons in a program offered by the Lebanon Department of Recreation and Parks. “I went between two tables, so I had something to grab hold of on both sides. I remember how awesome it was when I was finally able to go two rotations of the wheel on my own.”
Never intrigued by the tricks and stunts conducted on unicycles by circus performers, Kano has always used his vehicle mainly for transportation. The best part about unicycle riding, for Kano, is that it’s faster than walking and less cumbersome than a bicycle.
A student at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, Kano used his mono-wheeled unit to get around campus. Professors, he said, didn’t mind when he brought it into the classroom.
After moving back to Massachusetts, he rode it to the train station and brought it aboard for trips to Boston.
“It’s a nice feeling to be on the sidewalk, being above the pavement and moving a lot faster,” Kano said. “Most of the unicycles I’ve ridden, I could get up to about 10 miles per hour. It’s usually not too hard to maneuver around people, and a lot of people get a kick out of it.
“When you first start riding, it’s like you’re falling all the time and you’re just trying to keep your balance. After it becomes natural, it’s a pretty remarkable feeling.”
When it comes to front-to-back motions, one of the most difficult aspects of unicycle riding is to refrain from standing upright on the pedals.
“Intuitively, you want to stand because it allows you to use your legs more, and that’s where all your strength is coming from when you’re up on it,” he added. “But it’s not like riding a bike. You really want to keep your weight in the seat. Otherwise, it’s hard to relax your body.”
Preventing a fall while turning left or right on a unicycle is also counter-intuitive. Most people stretch their arms out to brace themselves for the fall, which perpetuates momentum in the wrong direction.
“That’s how you break your wrists,” Kano said. “If you’re falling to the right, you want to articulate your arms — and to some degree, your hips and waist — to the left.
“That’s how you get the curve of the wheel to go back in the direction you want it to. It’s the same idea as roller blade or roller skate. You lean toward the direction you want to go.”
Kano has invented a number of mechanisms to assist unicycle riders. The first, meant to help with steering, stationed a rider on plywood with two smaller wheels in front of the main wheel and a caster wheel in the rear.
“It was sort of like training wheels,” Kano said. “It allowed you to perform the rotations and counter-rotations you needed to make sharp turns.”
Kano later began focusing on development of the “unitrainer,” a triangular frame with bike-style handlebars that attaches to the unicycle. Intended to help riders master their front-to-back sense of balance, a rubber stopper prevents riders from falling forward. When falling backward, riders can use the mechanism’s handlebars to correct themselves. A vibrator alarm, stationed in a tin container in the middle of the bars, alerts riders when they’ve gone too far — backward or forward.
Kano had planned to market the unitrainer, applying for a full patent only to discover that a California unicyclist had already registered a similar device just a month before Kano submitted his paperwork.
Despite that disappointment, Kano plans to keep riding and tinkering. His lessons offered through the Lebanon recreation department drew several eager aspiring unicyclists, and he may offer them again next year.
At the very least, he’ll keep riding around the Upper Valley, if only to help brighten the days of the kids he meets on the street.
“I love children. They’re usually excited when they see me,” Kano said. “Their parents will say, ‘Look at the unicycle,’ or, if they’ve never heard of a unicycle, they say, ‘Look, it’s a one-wheeled biker.’ The kids always smile, which is probably the best part about riding a unicycle.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3306.