Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Interview with a Unicyclist: Mike Richter

What made you start unicycling?

I grew up in Canaan, New Hampshire and I when I was 11 or 12 my mom bought me a unicycle. I never even asked for it—she just bought it for me. At the time, I’d never ridden one.

Then, when I was 12 years old I went to a summer camp called Circus Smirkus in Greensboro, Vermont. I learned how to do a lot of things there – unicycle and trapeze, stilts and trampoline. All the teachers were former professional circus performers, including some from Ringling Bros and Cirque du Soleil. I went to the camp for many years, and when I was 17 I had the opportunity to do their touring tent show. It included a 14- "city" tour of New England, and we performed 80 shows in one summer. It was a full traveling circus of 25 kid performers, 4 adult performers and a staff.

As I was touring with Circus Smirkus, a talent scout approached me from Ringling Bros who offered me a one-year contract. I knew I wasn’t headed directly to college, so I gladly accepted. It was probably one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make, but I’m glad I did. I mostly rode my unicycle on the slack wire as part of the preshow to the circus, and I also rode the giraffe unicycle (6 foot) in part of the show. I was part of Ringling Bros for three years before I resigned. I loved it but it was a lot of work – in the span of three years, I probably only had about three weeks off. We would perform about 500 shows per year.

How did you learn to unicycle?

I am entirely self-taught. We lived at the end of a gravel driveway and I tried to teach myself for weeks by using the basketball hoop as leverage. I couldn’t really get anywhere on the driveway, but as soon as I tried on the street – I took off. It was a lot easier to use on the pavement.

What do you like best about unicycling?

There are a lot of things I like about it- it definitely allows a different kind of freedom. I like the performance aspect of it; it’s always going to be a unique and eccentric skill, because in reality, it’s not practical. As a unicyclist, you’re always turning heads. In a poetic sense, I like it because you can never find the perfect balance, but you always have to try.

What do you like least about unicycling?

I get a lot of smart-ass comments when I’m practicing in the park, especially where I live in Harlem. Mostly people ask me, “Where is the other half of your bike?” Also, it’s a big workout – it’s tiring because it takes a lot of abdominal strength.

That was one of my questions. How do people generally react to you on the street?

If I’m just riding around, I may get some comments but generally people are excited. They are intrigued by the unicycle.

How many unicycles do you own?

I have four. I have a 20” that I perform with. Then I have an antique unicycle that was sort of an impulse buy. I found it in a bike shop in Huntsville, Alabama. I have a giraffe, which is a special 6-foot tall unicycle for performing, and then I have one unicycle without a tire so that I can use it to ride on the slack wire.

How do you get on the giraffe?

It’s kind of like a tall bike or a ladder– you basically put one foot on the tire, another on the petal and push up as you’re doing it. Then you try to get your foot on the other petal and start balancing.

Do you have a regular bicycle too? What kind?

I do—I have a BMX that I ride around with my roommate. We ride around the FDR and Central Park.

Is unicycling better exercise than regular riding?

I would say it’s a lot different. It’s not so much cardio because you can’t really go that far. To unicycle for a mile would be a pretty good trip. Although, I think someone did unicycle the Great Wall of China once. It’s a different form of exercise –lots of abdominal strength, legs, shoulders and core strengthening.

Do you ever mention this skill in job interviews or icebreaker games?

Not really, I mean it depends what kind of job I’m applying for. If you’re applying at a café, they don’t really care about your circus skills.

Tell me about a time when unicycling has particularly come in handy—when you were able to impress someone, for example.

I recently did a corporate video for Microsoft, which was sweet. They found out I could unicycle and they put that in one of their promotions. Obviously, unicycling has helped me throughout my years as a performer. It gives me one more skill to market myself with that the next person may not have.

Have you ever considered giving lessons for money?

Yes! I have two probable clients right now - a Dad and a son that want to learn how to unicycle. I imagine I could definitely teach more people – I mean parents teach kids how to ride a bike, but I don't think there are too many unicycle instructors around.

Do other cyclists look down on unicyclists?

Generally, when I’m unicycling along other cyclists, they give me a thumbs-up. I think most cyclists think unicycling is totally cool in a ridiculous way, and there is that performance element of it.

Is one wheel better than two?

Um.. (thinks about it for a second) Yes! Absolutely! One wheel puts a bigger grin on your face.

Have you ever commuted by unicycle?

No, not in NYC, most of my work is too far. When I worked at Ringling Bros, I always rode my unicycle around backstage, even from the dressing room to the pie car – it was faster than walking and it was also good practice.

There are a lot of awesome unicycle videos on YouTube. People are doing it for exercise, sport, and fun. There was a unicyclist in the Five Borough Bike Tour recently.

How many fellow unicyclists do you know in NYC?

I probably only know 4-5 unicyclists in the city, but I’m hoping to meet more. There are clubs – I think the biggest one meets near Grant’s Tomb once a month.

What advice would you give to a first-time unicyclist?

When you fall down, smile and get back up.