from Norway: Wheel Envy

The sight of 10 road-weary but cheerful unicyclists whizzing down the road would make people take pause in almost any city. For the onlookers in these small northern Norwegian villages, it’s a bizarre and thrilling event. So why are these determined folks riding over, around, and through Norway’s mountains and fjords, nearly 600 miles to the Arctic Circle? A mere month before the U.S. unicycling championships, which are coincidentally being held back home in the Twin Cities?

I posed this question to Andy Cotter of Hutchinson, Minnesota, the ringleader and organizer of the “Norwegian Unicycle Tour” (NUT) when I caught up with the group in Bodø, a fishing village located at a latitude of 67° 17’ North, well inside the Arctic Circle. “We selected Norway for the incredible scenery, and once we decided that we wanted to see the midnight sun, the Arctic Circle was the obvious choice.” Cotter is an enviably lean and muscular 34-year-old with a youthful presence. He is a database manager at General Mills by day, and a tireless unicyclist in just about every other waking moment. The scars on his knotted legs support Cotter’s claim that he’s been one-wheeling for 18 years. He also has countless national and world titles to his name in individual, pairs, and team competitions.

In Bodø, the riders were in good spirits, despite being sunburned, exhausted, and in a semi-stupor after traveling 63 miles (their longest ride) on an unusually warm, cloudless day. After unpacking and cleaning up, the riders limped en masse to a nearby Italian restaurant, where they tried to replace the approximately 5,000 calories they burn daily.

The unicycles used for distance riding are not the same ones you see in parades and competitions. The wheels and cranks are much larger and thus faster. Beyond those details, the touring unis are custom-designed by each rider with such options as speedometer computers, “drag brakes,” small handlebars, bike bells, and even small rear racks for carrying tools and food.

One of the newbies is 18-year-old Irene Genelin of New Brighton. When I asked what inspired her to join the tour, Genelin’s first answer was, “Because the Norwegian men are sexy!” When her interviewer noted that he is, in fact, Norwegian by heritage, she switched the subject. “I liked the sound of unicycling through the mountains of Norway.”
The group has endured rain, hills, sleep deprivation, panicky sprints to waiting ferries, reindeer-skin beds, and repetitive stress injuries to knees and calves. They’ve traversed mountains, navigated long, sporadically lit tunnels, and shared dreadfully narrow roads with huge cargo trucks, whose high-speed wake vortex can blow the riders off the pavement, into a surprise tour of the ditch.

In addition to the obvious bragging rights of having participated in the NUT, the unicyclists have benefited from the extraordinary curiosity and friendliness of the Norwegians. They have been warmly welcomed into far-flung homes by the side of the road when running low on water and in need of a bathroom. They’ve had townspeople rush to their aid when their support vehicle broke down. And they’ve even had some pro bono welding repairs made to their unicycles at truck stops. All of this may be a way to secretly prepare for the Tour de France of unicycling. The North American Unicycling Championships take place in Minneapolis from July 29 through August 5. On the other hand, it may just be a way to meet good-looking Norwegians.—Leif Pettersen

Leif Pettersen