Art: Ludmilla Nunell
Laila McKenzie is an athlete. Twenty-five years old, lean and muscular with her hair in a ponytail, wearing kaleidoscopic activewear and chic pink Nikes, she looks the part. Like a photoshopped fit person, cut out from a gym pamphlet and sticky-taped onto reality. However, Laila is the least conventional cyclist I have ever met, and not just because she lacks the padded pants, speed dealer sunnies, and irrepressible animosity towards motorists. “Unicycling isn’t just a circus skill anymore,” she says, giving the rainbow pedals of her unicycle a spin. “It’s an actual sport.”
I’m at Montview Park in Hornsby Heights, in Sydney’s northern suburbs, where Laila’s unicycle club, North Shore Unicycling, meets up every Thursday night. The group is a “development squad” – a level in-between the Australian Unicycle Hockey League, and just collecting bruises in the backyard. Club nights seem to begin with independent riding, cut short by a Tim Tam break, followed by games involving Tim Tams, and ending with unicycle hockey (also featuring Tim Tams). For a gravitationally challenged punter used to cruising along on an even number of wheels, it’s a minefield. A little kid, an athletic prodigy who apparently bypassed the tricycle, pedals furiously on a miniature unicycle. An older man in Lycra short-shorts mounts his one-legged steed and cycles forth into the night. Two boys armed with hockey sticks chase a ball across the court, battling it out like aggressive flamingos.
Laila is, technically, “the best female unicycle hockey player and best female mountain unicycler in Australia”. Although, she adds, “it sounds a lot more impressive than it is,” because there are only about ten decent female Australian unicyclists. But still, she has competed at Unicon, the biannual unicycle world championships currently underway in San Sebastián, Spain – an athletic niche neglected by the media in favour of slightly better known events like the Rio Olympics.
What Unicon lacks in international media coverage, however, it makes up in its wide range of batshit events. There’s unicycle hockey and basketball, unicycle mountain biking, street (unicyclists take to skate parks), flatland (basically unicycle gymnastics), trials (unicycle parkour), long distance unicycling (including a full 42km marathon), track and field (everything from the 200m race to high jump), and my personal favourite: freestyle, or what the International Unicycle Federation’s website officially describes as “the artistic presentation of unicycling”, sometimes involving dance moves and a soundtrack. And, Laila grimaces, the events get “super competitive”. She is yet to witness a full-blown brawl, but “there is a lot of slagging on the sidelines…people who used to be friends being horrible to each other.” Laila founded North Shore Unicycling, in part, because she specifically wanted to create a unicycling space that wasn’t “so nasty and competitive”.
Indeed, the group is extremely supportive as I wobble along on my first ride, clawing at the fence, bulbous helmet strapped on tight, intent on inching towards the far-off land known to some as The Other End of the Basketball Court. A welcoming atmosphere results in a diverse turnout – one member unicycles to help manage his Parkinson’s disease, and ages range from six to sixty. Joey, at the ripe old age of 10, is disillusioned with all sports that do not involve unicycles. 15-year-old Reece’s unicycle journey began when his friend bought a unicycle from ALDI (a theory: unicycles are just the ALDI knock-off of the bicycle).
Laila, for her part, has been unicycling since Year 7, and by now she is sick of being compared to clowns (clowns shouldn’t take this the wrong way, she has “full appreciation for clowns”). She just wants to let the world know that “unicyclists can go down mountains and play hockey and do things other than juggle”.