A ‘wheelie’ fun event: NYC Unicycle Festival spins its way from City Hall to Coney Island

Man on unicycle riding on Brooklyn Bridge
Unicyclists are off to Coney Island for the 14th New York City Unicycle Festival.
Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Who needs two wheels when one is all you need for a good time?

The New York City Unicycle Festival returned this Labor Day weekend for the 14th consecutive year with four days of one-wheel madness throughout Gotham.

Part of the festival was an over 13-mile-long, 3-hour trek from Manhattan to Coney Island, Brooklyn, on Friday, Sept. 1. About 15 unicyclists gathered at City Hall Park before rolling across the Brooklyn Bridge through downtown Brooklyn to Prospect Park and then gliding down Ocean Parkway to Brooklyn’s famous beach and amusement park.

The festival had kicked off on Aug. 31 with a ride from Battery Park to Central Park. The third installment of the event was a Saturday afternoon filled with activities like mountain unicycle, unicycle lessons, and unicycle basketball at Seven Gables Playground and Cunningham Park, Queens, on Sept. 2. The event ends Sunday with a “casual day of rolling” at the Grants Tomb in Manhattan on Sept. 3.

The popular one-wheeled event is produced by the Brooklyn-based Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, and this year’s festival was made possible, in part, through the support of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and New York State Council on the Arts.

Keith Nelson, co-founder of Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, said the idea of the festival was born 15 years ago when he shared his New Year’s resolution in a New York Times story, envisioning safer and better unicycle lanes in the city. Governors Island staff contacted Nelson and asked if he was interested in producing a unicycle festival. At the same time, Nelson was on a mission to cross New York City’s bridges with his one-wheeler.

“So [the festival] pretty much grew out of Governors Island reaching out and then our mission to ride bridges,” Nelson said. “So it instantly became two days on Governors Island, and, at that point, just one day of the Brooklyn unicycle ride, which is what we’re doing today. So [the festival] always included at least one long-distance ride and then a day or two of learning to ride.”

Unicyclists gather in City Hall Park before their ride to Coney Island, Brooklyn. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
Unicyclists are off to Coney Island.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann.
Unicyclists are off to Coney Island.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann.

Friday’s fun ride ended at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs with a free beer, hot dogs, and tickets to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park.

“So it’s like a one wheel to the Wonder Wheel kind of idea,” Nelson said.

Leif Hosking and Dee Smyth from Syndey, Australia, were in town for a regatta and changed their flight plans just for the festival, which they found out about via Facebook.

“We thought we can’t miss that. So we came three days early to be able to do this,” Hosking said.

Hosking got into unicycling about 20 years ago after he saw a video of Canadian Kris Holm, famous for riding a unicycle in off-road conditions, and thought, “That’s nuts. I want to do it.”

His partner Dee Smyth, who stuck to a Citi Bike for the ride, said the event was a great way to connect with the “locals.”

“Rather than just doing all the touristy stuff, we get to play with you guys and meet you,” Smyth said. “It makes it really wonderful.”

Leif Hosking and Dee Smyth from Sydney, Australia, changed their flight plans to join the ride. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
Unicyclists are off to Coney Island.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann.

Hosking borrowed the unicycle from a “bloke” named Jimmy, who works in Battery Park.

“I was getting on Facebook groups because I couldn’t travel with the unicycle, and said, ‘Please, please, please, somebody lent me a unicycle,” Hosking explained. “And this bloke lends me a new unicycle he’s ridden twice.”

Jack Warnick, 63, journeyed from Baltimore to participate in the four-day festival.

Warnick has been “one-wheeling” for 50 years and was confident everyone could learn to ride a unicycle within an hour if they put their mind to it.

“Don’t stop. Don’t get discouraged after 20, 30, 40 minutes,” Warnich said. “If you commit to it, within an hour, you should have it.”

While riding a regular bicycle requires balancing from side to side, on a unicycle, riders balance from front to back, Warnich, who owns five unicycles, explained.

The worst injury Warnich sustained riding a one-wheeler was two broken ribs during a vacation in Italy.

“In the Dolomites in January, on the ice and snow on the cobblestone, a car came up behind me in a very narrow alley,” Warnich said. “And I kind of panicked a little bit, but I couldn’t get off left or right, and the wheel went off from underneath me.”

Unicyclists gather in City Hall Park before their ride to Coney Island, Brooklyn. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Unicycling is a family affair for Peggy and Patrick Heinz from Long Island.

Peggy Heinz, 64, learned to ride a unicycle when she was 10, and later taught her son. She joked she got into unicycling “because of my family of six, my father could only afford one wheel.”

Heinz owns 1- unicycles and rides on the boardwalk of Jones Beach. She brings a unicycle with her when she travels.

“My unicycles usually go everywhere I go,” Heinz said. “I always have one in the car.”

Luigi Acquati from Philadelphia has been riding for about seven years. It was the third time he had participated in the festival.

“It’s good exercise, and also people get excited to see it,” Acqueti said. “It’s a really nice way to get over, you know, being sad and being able to be like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go out and get some good exercise and people will cheer me on for it.’ And that’s really powerful.”