Given that Minneapolis consistently ranks among the tops in the U.S. for cycling-friendly cities, passing cyclists on my commute is more the norm than it is a novelty. But I couldn’t help from a little rubbernecking when I recently saw a man churning up a hill, in the dead of winter on a snow-packed path, on his unicycle.
I mentioned the encounter to a colleague (and fellow cyclist) of mine, to which he replied, “Oh yeah, that’s Dan,” as if I should’ve known. After some internet research and a few emails, I was meeting the infamous single-wheeler at his Mill City Museum office for a commute home and an interview.
There, in his cubicle, lay Dan Hansen’s trusty steed: a well-worn unicycle with duct tape on the saddle and a patina only achieved from untold miles of riding in all conditions. After some quick introductions we were on our way.
Standing along the curb outside of the Mill City Museum, Dan effortlessly mounted the Coker Big One (atop a 36-inch wheel) with a grace and familiarity that underscored his relationship with the machine.
Hansen led us on a route that had been vetted and improved during his tenure at the museum: across the Stone Arch Bridge and along side streets; avoiding heavy traffic, lights and stop signs as much as possible. To stop on a unicycle means to dismount. And although he stuck the few mounts I observed, Hansen explained his success rate is only around 90%. Thus, our commute was more of a finely choreographed dance with vehicles and pedestrians, working hard to remain in motion at all times.
Hansen has calves that would make a prized Holstein jealous. Short crank arms allow him to achieve higher speeds, but also means more work on hills. His cadence was impressive and his speed on level surfaces had me working hard to keep up on my geared bicycle.
After five miles on the road we stopped at a neighborhood coffee shop to chat.
Hansen sipped on iced tea while explaining the transition from bicycle to unicycle 15 years ago. After completing a Bachelor’s program combining art, biology and entomology, he began an entomology Graduate program at the University of Minnesota and picked up a 24-inch unicycle to cover the 3-mile commute. Since then he has built an impressive unicycling résumé, while rarely getting back on a bicycle.
“It’s not as nice to ride a bike, something about the floatiness,” said Hansen. On a unicycle “it feels like there is nothing under you. There is nothing in front of you. I wrapped my mind around being a spectacle and sometimes it’s fun but it’s much more about the freedom of movement.” He went on to explain he feels a certain kinship with runners, likening riding his Coker to running with a wheel beneath him.
One aspect that differentiates unicycling from traditional riding is evasive maneuvers and emergency stopping. Most unicycles don’t have brakes and without handlebars to stop your body’s momentum, the machine propels the rider forward. Dan refers to these as UPDs, or unplanned dismounts. If he’s going under 15 miles per hour and hits what he calls a “whoop-de-doo” he can usually run it out, avoiding a fall. Anything faster and he has to roll out the UPD and will “usually lose a little skin.”
Riding is a year-round activity for Dan, and he logs more than 5,000 miles annually; enough mileage to note the uneven wear on the inside of his tire from the crowning of city streets.
In 2008 he participated in “Ride the Lobster,” an 800 km international unicycle relay race in Nova Scotia. Despite horrible weather his team, the Surly Speed Goats, finished in the top 10 of a field that included competitors from Germany, New Zealand and Australia.
Gravel century races have really come into their own in the past few years, and Hansen has checked one of those off his one-wheeled bucket list as well. He completed the 107-mile Westside Dirty Benjamin on his unicycle. He also gave the storied Almanzo a go a few years back, but strong winds and grueling climbs led to him packing it in at mile 42. (He had previously completed the race on a bicycle.)
Hansen has also ridden across Minnesota in January and done some long-distance touring with his teenage son, who rides a bicycle and pulls their gear in a trailer. They are planning a ride to the East coast this summer, and he also hopes to participate in a trans-continental ride someday.
My short time with Dan changed my perception of unicycles. No longer will they be relegated solely to the realm of novelty for parades and bears in the Moscow circus. In fact, I can see the appeal of such a machine: simple and clean with no gears, no chain and only one contact point connecting its rider to the terra firma below.