By MICHAEL OWEN
He’s a one-wheeled wonder.
Twenty-one-year-old James Spurling’s unique skill is earning him a reputation around the Welland campus: unicycling.
“It’s somewhat of an addiction. I can’t not ride,” asserts Spurling who began the unusual pursuit at the age of 19 in the summer of 2007. He discovered the unicycle while looking for a bicycle, decided to buy it and tried it out.
“I started practising right away,” recalls Spurling, who learned to mount in a day, and was riding down his street in a week.
It was then on to hops and jumps, and before long, his unicycle was his main mode of transportation in his hometown of Tottenham, Ont.
To the intrigue of many Niagara College students and staff, Spurling brought his talent with him when he moved to Welland for college last summer. He’s a first-year student in the Broadcasting — Radio, Television and Film (BRTF) program.
“There’s this guy on what I assumed was a bicycle,” recalls Zachary Reid, a first-year BRTF student, recounting his first sighting of Spurling here. “No. It was this massive singular wheel.”
Spurling and Reid later became classmates and friends.
“You’ve never had the oddest hour and a half of your life until you’ve followed a unicycle through the mud,” laughs Reid.
Circus theme music came to mind for James Field, another BRTF first-year student, at his first time seeing Spurling unicycling.
“I didn’t know he was serious about it,” said Field. “I thought it was just a gimmick. Now I think it’s pretty cool. It’s a lot faster than walking.”
Even those who know of Spurling’s special talent are usually impressed by his abilities.
“I thought it would just be someone riding back and forth, but he can do tricks,” said Jasmine Belleville, 19. “It was definitely cooler than I expected.”
Spurling says he finds most onlookers are good humoured or concerned for his well-being.
“Even the slightest UPD (unplanned dismount) and girls ask, ‘Are you okay?’” says Spurling.
He has five unicycles varying in wheel size from 19 to 36 inches for different uses such as downhill, off-road or tricking.
Soon after mastering the basic ride, he began searching for something more challenging.
“I wanted to do something big,” says Spurling, and then, in December 2007, he heard about Ride the Lobster through an online unicycle forum.
The 800-kilometre unicycle race around Nova Scotia hit the road for the first time from June 16 to June 20 last year with 105 racers in 35 three-person teams.
Spurling, determined to compete, began training in earnest by unicycling in a daily 20-km round trip to work.
“Sometimes it could be kind of scary, but I kept my wits about me and it really helped with training,” he asserted.
The race is based on the honour system. Rules require participants to attempt a circuit in their own town on two consecutive days, record their distance and time and submit them to the forum for rating.
In order to qualify participants had to achieve a rating of 125 on the first day and 150 on the second day.
Spurling rated 150 the first day with 76 km and 150 the second day with 82 km.
“It was definitely a full day’s work each day,” says Spurling.
Being in a race meant it was time for a better wheel. Wanting something lighter, Spurling went to onewheel.com to see what might be available.
There he found some information about a new prototype unicycle available for order, but not much about how it worked.
“They kept it secret for the longest time,” says Spurling, who ordered one before knowing exactly what it was. “I told him to reserve one for me and I’ll take it.” That might sound risky, but according to Spurling, it was well worth it.
“Eventually it got delivered and I was surprised how big it was because it’s a 36-inch wheel,” says Spurling. “You don’t see those anywhere.”
Standing over six feet tall, Spurling towers when atop his 36-inch wheeled unicycle, like a gentle giant.
The wheels are built just for unicycles. Each needs a custom $25 inner tube.
Spurling had a custom unicycle bag rush-order-made two days before leaving for the race.
Heading to Nova Scotia by train, there were stops in Toronto and Montreal before arriving in Halifax.
It was a 32-hour train ride, during which Spurling didn’t sleep much.
“Sitting down and sleeping doesn’t sit well with me,” he says.
Worse, because of complications with the luggage car in Toronto, Spurling almost wasn’t allowed to take the unicycle with him. Train personnel insisted bicycles weren’t allowed as carry on luggage.
“I told them a unicycle isn’t really a bicycle. It’s circus equipment.”
During a stop in Montreal he met another unicyclist, Vincent.
Together the two managed to find a ride from Halifax to Yarmouth, N.S., the race’s starting point, but not in time for the lobster dinner or group photo.
“It’s a huge group shot of everyone … but us,” Spurling says jokingly.
The five-day race was mainly a baton-style relay in which the baton was passed on every five kilometres, broken on day three with time trials.
Originally, they went just to have fun and test themselves, but after Spurling’s team made 18th on the first day, they decided they could be more competitive and set a goal of being in 20th place or higher. However, they still made time to see the sights.
“Unless you were really focusing on the road ahead of you, you could see everything: the ocean, hills and fields,” says Spurling.
He used the 36-inch unicycle for the entire race determined to go as fast as possible and found many other racers had “pretty much the same unicycle.”
In the 21-km trial Spurling placed 47th out of 105 and in the six-km trial he placed 18th out of 105, claiming speeds between 25 km/h and 30 km/h.
“I pushed myself harder than ever ,and some parts were pretty scary in terms of speed,” he recalls.
As the second-youngest team, they managed to finish in 21st place and earn the most injuries award.
Teammates Nick and Eric were both 17 and Spurling was 20.
But the road to glory wasn’t always pretty or easy. Nick had the bad luck of falling down a gravel road on the first day.
Spurling and Eric crashed into each other another day. Spurling encountered a loose crankshaft another day, and in the second to last race the team encountered a tire blowout.
“Those things are loud. Gunshot,” says Spurling emphatically.
Despite all of the complications, “It was fantastic. My team did quite well. I would definitely do it again,” adding he’d prefer to have a geared hub next time.
As if unicycling and racing aren’t impressive enough, Spurling can also perform an array of tricks including wheel walking, uni-spins, uni-wraps, hops, jumps and slides.
Wheel walking involves moving the unicycle by walking the wheel while sitting on the seat. With uni-spins, the rider hops off the unicycle as it spins 180, 360 or even more degrees. Uni-wraps occur when the rider wraps his foot around the seat while riding.
Ever ambitious, Spurling still wants to learn how to coast, glide, crank flip and spin 540 degrees.
Although he has injured himself, Spurling maintains that most injuries are “flukes” and not the result of performing tricks.
So far he has sprained his left ankle (twice), sprained his right ankle, dislocated his shoulder, popped his knee out, and jammed his toe, but none of these injuries stop him from doing what he loves.
“Unicycling has become a passion for me,” says Spurling, who’s planning to ride from Niagara Falls to Montreal. Although he’s still hammering out the details, Spurling hopes to make the 700-km ride this summer by covering between 80 km to 100 km a day for about two weeks.
That would require him to cycle the same distance each day as he did on the second day of qualifying, which remains his personal best for one day.
If all goes well he’ll also be video blogging, so fans can keep up to date with his progress.
Even while planning for the future, Spurling will be delving into the past to create a documentary on the unicycle’s history and evolution for a third-year film class.
Knowing of other unicyclists here and in the area, Spurling hopes to start a unicycling and teaching club soon.
“I’m confident in [having] at least a few members,” says Spurling, since you don’t have to be a unicyclist. For information visit http://niagaraunicycleclub.com. For more information on ride the lobster visit http://www.ridethelobster.com.
Any words of advice from a pro to the novice?
“If you’re going to learn, be persistent. If you fall off, then get back on because it’s definitely worth the time and effort,” advises Spurling. “Keep practising. No one rides right away.”
Perched atop his 36-inch wheeled unicycle, sporting his sunglasses and leather trench coat, Spurling is the epitomy of confidence. No circus theme music here.
Keep on rollin’, one-wheeled wonder.