It's an old story: Mike Carroll, 22, moved to Pittsburgh five years ago to attend the University of Pittsburgh. He now has a degree in communications and is looking for a "real job" doing design for advertising. In the meantime, he's taken a job as a waiter and joined the circus: The Zany Umbrella Circus. And, if you keep your eyes peeled, you might see him zipping around town on a most precarious-looking contraption.
How did you start riding a unicycle?
When I was a freshman at Pitt, I joined the juggling club -- the University Campus Fools -- where I met Ben Sota [of Zany Umbrella Circus]. Ben said, "You should try to learn to unicycle." It was just one of those "why not?" things. It was slow going at first. In May of 2002, I started riding down curbs and figured if I could go down a curb, I could go down other things. When I didn't kill myself, I made my friends try it as well.
Is there a name for your style?
Mountain unicycling is called "Muni," or off-road unicycling. Anything mountain-bikers or BMX riders can do, you can do on a unicycle: ramps, handrail grinds, 13-foot drops! People are going out and doing 12-stair handrails and riding the hardest mountain-bike trails in the world. Mountain-bikers like it because it improves their balance. People who ride road bikes have been doing distance on unicycles. They use a skinny tire and a huge 36-inch wheel and will go out and ride 15 mph for 100 miles. I guess I'm an "urban trials" rider. I mix getting up, over, and around obstacles with jumping down a big flight of stairs. I do tricks within the setting of an urban landscape.
So could Pittsburgh become a hotbed of unicycling?
It's a surprisingly good place to ride ... the landscape sets up cool spaces with hills, lots of railings and architectural details, cool retaining walls that other cities don't have. One of my favorite places to ride is that big fountain near PNC Park. It's right on the river and when it fills up with water there are all these challenges: navigating between the blocks and trying to get from one point to another without getting wet.
How would you characterize the "unicycle type" of person?
People who are just a little more open to exploring the world and themselves. You have to have a little bit of curiosity, something that drives you away from the status quo.
You recently returned from Europe ...
I had some credits to finish up at Pitt and decided to take them in Europe. I lived in Geneva, Switzerland, and found out that there was a unicycle club there, and a couple of the best riders in the world. I contacted Julian Mooney, who is a legend -- he's the only person in the world who can stand up on top of his seat and ride without touching the pedals! He's got the most amazing sense of balance. I got invited to the Coupe de France, the French national championships. I hopped into an old Peugeot 106 with three other guys and went to Cannes for that. There were about 500 other riders there from all over the world. I didn't do very well in the trials competition, but I did well in the high jump. I cleared 75 cm [29.5 inches] over a bar from a standstill and tied for second place. In practice I cleared 85 cm, which is a personal best.
Can't you get really injured doing this?
I split my shin open. I've sprained an ankle falling from a 6-foot "giraffe." I've had nine stitches in my right leg and numerous large cuts on my shins. We use metal pedals for traction, so if you fall off and they hit your leg, they can cut you pretty badly. I wear shin-guards now.
What do your parents think of your circus career?
They think it's great. My dad might want me to get a corporate job because he's worried about me financially, but my mom knows I'm young and still have time for that 30 years of the corporate grind.
If you were to wait tables on your unicycle this summer, you could really rake it in ...
There's a crazy restaurant in Thailand where the waiters are on unicycles. They do something with a chicken being thrown and the guy who catches it serves it to your table.
What goals are you setting your sights on?
There are some tricks that I'd like to get -- being able to stand on the frame and ride without touching the pedals, to have more control and do something extraordinary. Some people think that just riding a unicycle itself is extraordinary, but I want to take it to the next step.