By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — More than 50 unicyclists from around the country pedaled over the Brooklyn Bridge Friday afternoon to kick off the first annual New York City Unicycle Festival.
The youngest was Caleb Hickman, 10, a Williamsburg resident whose father taught him to ride a unicycle six months ago.
“It’s fun,” Caleb said in between a few practice spins before the ride. “First of all, it takes more skill [than a bicycle]. Also, with bicycles you have to stay in bike lanes, but unicycles can go anywhere — even on the sidewalk.”
Caleb planned to ride only as far as the Brooklyn side of the bridge on Friday, but at least a dozen other unicyclists aimed to pedal all the way to Coney Island, a 13-mile trek.
Friday’s ride launched a weekend filled with one-wheel events. On Saturday, unicyclists will take over Governors Island with demonstrations, relays, basketball, hockey and plenty of opportunities for novices to give the unicycle a try. The festival will travel up to Grant’s Tomb on Sunday for more hands-on programs.
The crowd of unicyclists that gathered on a plaza near City Hall Friday afternoon attracted dozens of curious onlookers, which was exactly what festival director Keith Nelson had in mind.
Nelson, 40, co-founder of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus in Brooklyn, said unicycles are growing in popularity and he wanted to draw more attention to the diverse group of people who ride them.
The riders in their teens and early 20s mostly sported small, neon unicycles and did tricks while waiting for the ride to start. Meanwhile, middle-aged unicyclists wearing helmets pedaled in wide circles on larger, steadier wheels designed for distance.
Sean Sotelo, 20, from New Jersey, said he likes riding his hot-pink unicycle in skate parks for the attention he gets.
“This is different,” Sotelo said. “No one else really does it. When I ride, it turns heads.”
Joseph Neigh, 28, from the Washington, DC area, said it’s time for people to stop thinking of the unicycle as a circus act.
“We do it for ourselves,” said Neigh, who created a 20-minute documentary film on unicycling that will debut on Governors Island Saturday. “We do it for fun."
Some of the onlookers Friday were inspired to take a spin themselves, but they quickly found that staying upright was not as easy as it looked.
“It’s very hard,” said Shahiyd Somakah, 19, after wobbling off a borrowed unicycle. “I can’t even fathom how you keep your balance long enough to ride it.”
Balance is the toughest part, agreed Nelson. He said children are often faster learners than grown-ups, and anyone who wants to master the unicycle has to be ready to take a few spills.
“It’s days and days of feeling hopeless before it really starts kicking in,” Nelson said. “But with time, I think just about anyone can learn how.”
The NYC Unicycle Festival will be held on Governors Island Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and at Grant’s Tomb, West 122nd Street at Riverside Drive, Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.