Hell on One Wheel

Berkeley plays host to two huge unicycle and circus-themed events.

At 48, Jim Sowers plays a brutal basketball game, can ascend Mount Diablo’s 10.8 treacherous miles, and competes regularly in all sorts of sporting events — on a unicycle. Sowers is one of the Bay Area’s small but spirited group of competitive unicyclists, and he’s helping organize what’s sure to be this weekend’s most unusual East Bay event — the North American Unicycle Championships, also known as the U-Games, which will be held, for the most part, at Berkeley High School (1980 Allston Way, Berkeley) from July 10 through 18.

The Bay Area, as it turns out, is something of a superpower in many areas of competitive unicycling: Sowers lists among the event’s other organizers Ryan Woessner, the world’s best freestyle unicyclist eight times over; Beau Hoover, the reigning Mountain Unicycle world champ; and Corbin Dunn, who holds the title in the marathon. This weekend, along with over a hundred competitive unicyclists from all over North America, they’ll compete in just about everything humans can do on one wheel: track and road racing, basketball, freestyle, hockey, long and high jumps, and much more. The highlight, however, will be Saturday’s basketball game — which, if earlier games go as expected, should be a match-up between the top-ranked Puerto Rican team and Berkeley’s very own Revolution. Puerto Rico has essentially dominated the field since its team’s inception three decades ago, but Sowers and the rest of the Revolution have been practicing hard and have the potential to pull a dark-horse win over the reigning champs. “It’ll be a hell of a final,” Sowers said.

The U-Games coincide with the Berkeley Juggling and Unicycle Festival, which runs July 9 through 11, also at Berkeley High. According to Lance Thornton, who is organizing the festival and plays for the Revolution, that event is more oriented toward participation by people of all skill and experience levels. It focuses on the full range of circus arts, offering workshops in juggling, fire-spinning, and more. On Saturday, July 10, the festival’s showcase event, a live variety show, will feature such exotic-sounding art forms as hoop dance, fire dance, aerial arts, and object manipulation from several local and regional artists. Most events are free. UGames.CalUni.org or BerkeleyJuggling.org

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