More than 1,000 people pedaled their way through the Portland, Ore., Tour de Cure last year. Only of them, however, did the whole thing on a single wheel.
Sixteen-year-old Michael Smith of Vancouver, Wash., completed a 27-mile course on his unicycle, balancing his life as a high school student and a person with type 1 diabetes with the ride most folks take on two wheels.
A distance tour wasn’t his initial idea. When Michael picked up his first unicycle six months before last July’s Portland Tour, he says it was entirely out of curiosity and a desire to learn how to balance on a single wheel. But he rode the unicycle literally into the ground, and when the time came to replace it, Michael decided to go with a distance-touring unicycle. Shortly after that, he spotted a flyer for the local Tour de Cure, the American Diabetes Association’s cycling fund-raiser, at his endocrinologist’s office. His plan to ride in the Tour began to come together.
After checking with his local ADA office to make sure he could even bring a unicycle to the tour (it was a first in Portland, but a welcome first), Michael began training for the marathon-plus distance he’d be covering. The distance unicycle is larger than other rides, so it took a bit of getting used to. For example, it requires a running start (and considerable youthful agility) to hop up above the 36-inch wheel. “It’s harder than riding a bike, but once you actually learn how to do it . . . it’s a piece of cake,” Michael says. “Your body just naturally corrects for the balance. It’s awesome exercise.”
As Michael started riding progressively longer distances, local ADA staffers found that his rides were more than just good exercise: They also brought good publicity to the Tour de Cure. Kristine Bockmier, associate director of the Association’s Portland office, says several local news outlets covered Michael and the Tour before and during the event. And on the ride, Michael garnered plenty of attention, too. “Michael completed the 27-mile route, and the other riders were very impressed,” Bockmier says. “Kids and adults alike loved it and could not believe that he could do it.” Michael was so popular that he’ll very likely be featured at the Tour de Cure booth during February’s American Diabetes Association EXPO®, Bockmier adds.
Meantime, Michael continues to train for the 2012 Tour. He’d like to ride either the 47- or 62-mile course this year. His neighborhood rides earn him some odd looks, but Michael says that’s part of the fun. “I like people’s reactions to me,” he says. “Just the looks on their faces, like total shock or like, ‘That guy’s crazy.’ My mom just gave me a thumbs-up; I think [my parents] are pretty proud of me.”