Philosophy professor Dr. Robert O’Connor boasts a collection of six unicycles, two of which are tailored for plummeting down a mountain at full speed. Some he built himself from pieces of other unicycles. One of them is named the “Divvy,” after the electric city bikes found all around the city of Chicago, and is hand-painted light blue. His prized blue Kris Holm Nimbus 27 plus was a Christmas present from his four children when he turned sixty.
“It’s not like riding a bike where you feel fast and you feel like you’re almost flying,” O’Connor said of the sport. “Mountain unicycling is fighting your way down the trail.”
O’Connor rides with a community of about a dozen active mountain unicyclers in Chicagoland. They regularly get together on the weekends at Palos Hills, a trail system about 20 miles southeast of Wheaton. Most of the unicyclists are young men looking for an adrenaline rush out in nature.
“I’m just the old guy hanging out,” O’Connor said. “I like to ride and watch them ride because these guys are extraordinary athletes.”
O’Connor, who joined Wheaton’s faculty in 1989, has been a unicycler since childhood. But he started mountain unicycling regularly when his daughter became sick with neuroblastoma in 2002.
“Because you have to focus so much, it turned out to be a really good way to take my mind off of current problems and to lose myself for a bit,” he said. “You have focus and concentration while unicycling because every obstacle you hit throws you off balance. You have to anticipate and adjust to the bumps and so forth.”
O’Connor, who teaches courses in logic and contemporary metaphysics, among others, said he finds philosophical value in mountain unicycling as well.
“I found this zen-like quality strangely peaceful,” he said. “It also entails a good bit of rest time, sitting or standing in the middle of the forest. I continue to draw strength from these moments of savoring the beauty of God in creation. Along with the frenetic challenge of mountain unicycling, I’ve come to love this kind of mindful immersion in nature.”
O’Connor began learning how to mountain unicycle at HoneyRock, Wheaton’s campus in the North Woods of Wisconsin, because of the forgiving nature of the trails there. He has also unicycled with a few Wheaton students over the years.O’Connor’s eldest daughter, Anna O’Connor ‘07, M.A ‘11, died at the age of 26 after a ten-year battle with cancer. After the tragedy, O’Connor stuck with mountain unicycling, even going as far as Moab, Utah, a “mountain biking Mecca,” after hearing about the trip on YouTube.
At this weekend’s biking meetup with about 50 to 60 mountain unicyclists from all around the world, O’Connor rode behind a world-renowned unicycler who fell on the trail. This, he said, enforced his philosophy that to be a unicycler means you are constantly falling.
“Nobody thinks anything of falling, and we all have the most unpretentious response to it,” he said. “I was thinking ‘This is so cool because I could do that. I could fall, I do that.’”
Most mountain unicycling competitions have a couple hundred people, but mountain unicycling is only one category in an array of unicycling specialties. There are track, dance and agility contests as well as circus tricks.
At the 2015 unicycling nationals, O’Connor placed fourth in the over-30 age category for mountain unicycling and he is hoping to attend the unicycling world competition, UNICON 21, in Bemidji, Minn. during the summer of 2024.
“The challenge which I enjoy the most is finding the line on a trail that I can’t really ride successfully without falling, and working on it to sort of accomplish something,” O’Connor said. “It’s very rewarding.”