As AC/DC played from a stereo in the Christian Life Center of Thomas Presbyterian Church parking lot in Eighty Four, Robert Griffin, gave instructions.
"Let's tighten up a little bit," the 54-year-old said, perched easily on one wheel, cycling at the back of the line.
"Pick up the pace. Pick up the pace," said his wife, Nancy Griffin, 51, resting off to the side and watching her fellow riders interlink arms as they practiced the "star formation" in preparation for their performance at the Canonsburg Fourth of July parade.
Where's your other wheel?
The Wonders Unicycle Club meets weekly to practice routines, tricks and technique at Thomas Presbyterian Church in Eighty-Four, Pa. Many of the members wiill compete at the 2013 Unicycle National Convention. (Video by Rebecca Droke; 7/7/2013)
Some laughed as they stumbled and fell, grabbing their unicycles before bracing to jump back in. Others high-fived as they weaved in and out of each other for figure eights, moving with the precision of trained dancers.
Members of The Wonders Unicycle Club -- one of three main unicycle clubs in the greater Pittsburgh area -- are mellow and noncompetitive. Watching them rehearse, the feeling is closer to that of friends hanging out after practice, working on specific skills, teaching and pushing each other, as opposed to disciplined drills.
Still, members of The Wonders are among about 300 unicyclists in America who will be competing July 21-27 in the North American Unicycling Competition and Conference, which will be held mainly on the Seneca Valley School District campus and around Moraine State Park, both in Butler County.
Marking the convention's 40th anniversary, this will be the first time it comes to Pennsylvania. Open to all skill levels, from novice to expert, it consists of 30 events throughout the week, such as a 10-kilometer race, basketball and trials, where riders navigate obstacles with their feet never touching the ground.
The competition will be hosted by Butler Wobble, a unicycle club based out of Butler County. Because several events require outdoor courses in Moraine State Park, permits had to be secured from the state. Certificates of liability insurance were provided to the townships and school districts to be used by the convention, said Dave Krack, 41, president of Butler Wobble.
Mr. Krack said he's looking forward to introducing people to aspects of the sport.
"It's not all about clowns and the circus," he said, adding that the popularity of unicycling is growing. The other club in the area is the Super Cyclers, based out of Canonsburg. The largest club in the country is the Twin Cities Unicycle Club in Minnesota with more than 200 unicyclists.
The fastest-growing demographic of unicyclists are adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s who pick up the sport as a means of exercise, not to compete or perform, Mr. Krack said. "They're just riding for fun."
Back at The Wonders practice, a few unicyclists rode forward and backward, at times removing their feet from the pedals, pushing the tire with their feet -- like all skilled athletes, they made it look easy.
With riders of all ages, some as young as 9 and as old as 67, the small group practices most Tuesday evenings throughout the year.
Founded more than nine years ago, The Wonders is run by the Griffins of North Strabane. They started when their son, then 9, wanted to learn. They found free lessons offered at Thomas Presbyterian Church. Both their sons picked it up. Soon, all four members of the family were hooked. The club was founded later that same year by Bill Hamilton, who taught the lessons. When he left, Mr. Griffin took over as The Wonders president.
While Mr. Griffin does not deny the sport's difficulty, he insists anyone can learn, calling it a "family-oriented" activity. The longest he's seen someone take to start riding was a 64-year-old who needed 20 hours to get down the basics. Determination is key, he said.
"It takes you being willing to accept the fact that you will not succeed when you first try," he said. "It's a guarantee you're going to fail."
Unlike bicycles, unicycles generally do not have gears or breaks. Riders must maintain their center of balance directly over the wheel. Otherwise, you fall. But when you do fall, you typically land on your feet, which helps to prevent major injuries. Still, the occasional scraped shin is unavoidable, Mr. Griffin said.
Although anyone can show up to practice, The Wonders requires annual dues, which help pay for insurance with the Unicycling Society of America. Insurance is necessary if members wish to perform in parades or shows or they want to compete.
Many members have been in the group since it began. Chris Augenstein and Cassie Allen joined The Wonders eight years ago when still in high school. They started dating. One year ago, on a cruise in the Caribbean, they performed a unicycle show for about 800 people. At the end of the show, Mr. Augenstein got down on one knee and proposed. Ms. Allen was still balancing on her unicycle. "I nearly fell off," she laughed.
"Unicycling has been through our relationship pretty steady," he said, smiling. "I figured I would encompass that for the engagement."
"We were celebrities the rest of the week," Ms. Allen added. The pair specializes in freestyle events in the couples category. While most duos typically perform tricks in competition, they prefer to dance, drawing inspiration from ballroom dancing. They plan on performing the first dance at their wedding on unicycles. At one point during practice, Mr. Augenstein, riding directly toward his fiancee, shouted "Ready, Cass?" Without glancing up from her conversation, she jumped into his arms. "They're definitely a unicycling couple," Ms. Griffin said.
Last year, the Griffins traveled to Italy for the 16th Unicycle Convention & World Championship. Mr. Griffin hopes unicycling in the U.S. will become more prevalent, as it is in Europe.
In the Christian Life Center, Aaron Mansfield, 22, of North Strabane rode a giraffe, a unicycle about 5 feet tall. Although he had not been to practice in five years, he was welcomed back as if he'd never left. "It becomes second nature," he said. "After a while, it's just like riding a bike."
Cole Medvid, 17, of Peters idled on his unicycle, mindlessly hopping up and down. Shy and humble, he's praised as the most talented rider of the group, despite starting only two years ago. He's quick to clarify that his skills are nothing compared to some who will compete at the national convention. A trials specialist, he does the "daredevil-type stunts," Ms. Griffin said. He demonstrated a new trick called a Maxwhip in which, while riding, he jumps off the bike and flips the unicycle in the air, attempting to then land back on the seat. He hasn't nailed it yet. So he'll keep practicing.
"It's not that hard," he said with a shrug. His modesty is not uncommon, according to Ms. Griffin.
"Unicyclists aren't the type who brag," she said, suggesting it could be the reason more people don't do it. "No one knows about us. It's kind of like we're hidden."
Mr. Griffin agreed, adding that he often rides in places off-limits to skateboards and bicycles. Even police would rather watch him instead of telling him to stop, he said. "It's just an odd thing. It's not like you're going to have 50 people running around causing problems on a unicycle," he said.
But it takes time to learn, which for many can be a deterrent.
"Guys in parades see us riding and they'll say to their girlfriends or wives, 'Oh, I can do that,' " he said. "So I always hop off my unicycle and hand them mine and say, 'Here, go ahead.'
"And it very quickly brings them back to the reality that they have no idea how to do this. It's not easy at all."mobilehome - lifestyle - sportsother
Jacob Axelrad: email@example.com or 412-263-1634. On Twitter: @jakeaxelrad. First Published July 7, 2013 4:00 AM