Local outdoor enthusiast rides unicycle 2,000 miles for charity

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Camping equipment business owner Gen Shimizu spent 88 days this summer riding his mountain unicycle—which he learned to ride in Japan at age 10—through the Rocky Mountains to raise money for charity. Photo: Elli Williams Camping equipment business owner Gen Shimizu spent 88 days this summer riding his mountain unicycle—which he learned to ride in Japan at age 10—through the Rocky Mountains to raise money for charity. Photo: Elli Williams

Charlottesville resident Gen Shimizu spent three months of his life braving the elements and wildlife of the Rocky Mountains—on a unicycle. After hiking the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail on his own, he decided to tackle more than 2,000 miles this summer on one wheel. In the name of doing something unheard of for a good cause, he rode his mountain unicycle from Canada to Mexico, and raised over $10,000 for the Polaris Project, an organization that combats human trafficking.

The trip took Shimizu along the Great Divide Mountain Bike route from Banff, Alberta, to the Mexican border. He crossed into Mexico 88 days after beginning his journey, and raised $10,600 along the way.

As the founder and owner of YAMA Mountain Gear, a local company that makes lightweight camping equipment, Shimizu has always thrived on outdoor adventures. He’d been on numerous solo backpacking trips, and last fall he began planning what was originally a mountain biking excursion. But as the trip approached, he decided to up the ante and turn it into an unconventional cross-country fundraiser.

“I wanted to distinguish the ride from others,” he said. “So I decided to get rid of one of the wheels.”

Pedaling up and down steep inclines was especially challenging because a unicycle, unlike a mountain bike, has fixed gears—so no downshifting.

“Whatever the wheel does, you have to do,” Shirizu said.

Much of the trail was along dirt roads, and he said riding his unicycle alongside traffic was a completely different experience from that on two wheels.

“There’s always been that battle between motorists and bicyclists,” he said. “But when people see a guy on a unicycle, they smile and wave. Sometimes they’d even pull over to take a picture with me.”

Aside from the pure joy he got from being outdoors for three months straight, Shirizu’s favorite aspect of the trip was the people he met along the way. Similar to through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, the route was full of mountain bikers who became his motivators and companions. He said his happiest moments from the trip were those spent sitting next to a fire with strangers turned friends after a long day of traveling.

Toughest for him to endure on the trip was the weather, and all the unexpected obstacles nature threw in his way. He spent three days off the trail, grateful to have found a small New Mexico town where he waited out a monsoon, only to discover afterward that much of the area’s soil turns into a thick, sticky, peanut butter-like sludge when wet.

“Normally I would try to ride through it,” he said. But occasionally he was forced to accept temporary defeat and stay in a hotel to wait out the unpredictable weather.

With nearly 3,000 miles now under his belt, Shirizu has retired the mountain unicycle for the time being. He said he wants to stay put for a little while, but he hopes people will continue to benefit from his journey. The money he raised went toward outreach about modern-day slavery through the Polaris Project, and he said he wants his trip to be the motivation others may need to get out and do their own thing.

“I hope to inspire others to follow their dreams too, no matter how weird they might be,” he said.

  • wheelie

    That machine is soooo difficult to ride. Amazing.

    • One wheel

      The unicycle does appear to be a difficult ride but this guy has some handlebar contraption to aid him from the looks of the picture. Does the unicycle rider’s community make fun of him as if it were riding a bike with training wheels?.

      • 36erdude

        No. The bars are there to help with the aches and pains accompanied with long rides. The handles can also help to make quick maneuvering possible. They are definitely not a cheat by any means, just a different experience.

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