Justin Finkel: ‘A committed unicyclist’
You might have noticed him around campus. After all, it’s hard to forget such a unique sight. But for Finkel, unicycling is not about getting attention. Instead, it’s his sport, his hobby and his favorite pastime.
It all started when he was 12 years old and agreed to teach his friend to juggle in exchange for being taught to ride a unicycle. Lest you think Finkel hails from a circus company town, he is actually from Detroit, home to the Redford Township Unicycle Club, which has nurtured his development ever since he first learned.
“I just learned by riding up and down my driveway, holding onto the wall,” Finkel said. “It seemed like an impossible thing at first.”
But Finkel became proficient in unicycling by practicing just a few hours per week over a two-week span. Now, he regularly teaches new riders through his club.
“[Teaching] is kind of a collective effort—everyone helps everyone. You just grab a person’s hand and lead them around the gym,” Finkel said. “[How easy it is to learn] really depends on the person’s age, I think. It’s a lot easier for young kids to learn than it is for adults.”
He didn’t only teach, though; every Saturday, Finkel practiced activities with his club that ranged from formation riding to elaborate tricks to playing hockey. But this sport is not for the faint of heart. His hardest trick that he has mastered to date, called “walk the wheel,” involves putting his feet on the wheel instead of the peddles and walking the unicycle forward by spinning the wheel backward. While this sounds like quite the feat of balance and precision, Finkel was quick to say that he is by no means the most advanced unicyclist out there.
“I mean, there are people who have crazy, unbelievable, mad skills. It’s like BMX on unicycles…they totally blow my mind,” Finkel said.
Some of these “mad skills” include riding down stairs, hopping sideways over rails, or even high jumping and long jumping. These dedicated unicyclists gather each year for a national convention and competition in any one of the five U.S. cities that has its own unicycling club. Finkel, along with about 300 others, attended the national competition last year, which was hosted by his own club in Detroit. Events at the competition range from races, much like standard track events, to choreographed group routines performed to music.
At the 2013 competition, Finkel was introduced to mountain unicycling. Now, he calls it his favorite pastime.
“I just learned how to mountain unicycle…and I totally loved it. It’s the most fun kind of exercise in the world,” Finkel said. “It’s just a cool variant on hiking where you’re a lot more absorbed with the technicalities of the trail, keeping your balance in all different situations, going over all sorts of rocks and roots.”
Though the Danforth Campus is devoid of hiking trails, what he rides around campus is actually a 24-inch mountain unicycle. But some of his most important skills from mountain unicycling, like hopping, definitely help him avoid running into obstacles or other students, many of whom take immediate note of his unusual method of getting across campus.
“The first few days, I got a lot of looks. People were just kind of staring. It was kind of awkward but kind of fun at the same time. It’s not like I intend to make a show—it’s just a more efficient way of getting around campus. But it is kind of fun to have that sort of character distinction,” Finkel said.
This might leave you wondering if he ever breaks down and rides a two-wheeled bike. Admittedly, he would ride a bike if he had to go a long distance in a short time or if he wanted a workout. But he did add that there are unicycles that have 36-inch wheels, which allow the rider to travel at speeds closer to a two-wheeled bike. So he would choose that option because he is a self-proclaimed “committed unicyclist.” In fact, on a family trip, he discovered that he had forgotten how to ride a bike.
“The first year after I learned to unicycle…I had to ride a bike, and I was wobbling because I had forgotten how to ride a bicycle,” Finkel said.
Regular bikes aside, in the future, Finkel plans to train for the long-distance competitions. At the 2014 nationals, he hopes to ride in the marathon, though the farthest he’s ridden as of now is just 10 kilometers. But more than any one specific goal, he hopes simply to continue enjoying his favorite sport. That, and maybe find a way to use the skill in his future.
“My dream job would definitely involve commuting to work on a unicycle,” Finkel said.
P.S. For those of you who read this article and found yourselves longing to try unicycling, Finkel is happy to teach those who reach out to him, and he is also contemplating starting a club at Wash. U.