Aspen unicyclist tackles tough terrain
Pitkin County correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado ” Mike Tierney has grown accustomed to the stares. From passing drivers. From fellow cyclists. From mountain goats, even.
And who can blame them? Who wouldn’t ogle at Tierney, seemingly all muscle and grit, when he comes into focus on the shoulder of one of the state’s highest highways?
People are accustomed to seeing unicyclists at the circus, in parades, doing street theater.
They don’t know what to think of Tierney when they see him, in full cycling garb, pedaling his solitary 36-inch wheel up Independence Pass. Or Fremont Pass. Or Tennessee Pass.
Really, just name a pass in the state that goes over the Continental Divide. Excepting three or four, Tierney’s ridden all of them.
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“I tend to create my own traffic jams,” the 48-year-old Aspenite said of his rides, which have grown him a legion of fans among fellow cyclists ” one-wheeled and two-wheeled ” and just about anyone else who’s ever seen his act.
This is all to say that Mike Tierney is a bit of a freak. Not a circus freak, but certainly an Aspen one, another singular character in a town full of them.
To prove the point, consider Tierney’s most recent Saturday: Tierney planned to ride from the front door of his Aspen Highlands home to Breckenridge. On his unicycle, of course. Definitely drawing stares.
The 100-mile ride was an idea Tierney cooked up after completing last summer’s 78-mile Copper Triangle (Fremont, Tennessee and Vail passes in a single day) and knocking off a two-day, 100-mile ride up Arizona’s two tallest mountains this spring.
The Aspen-to-Breck ride ” if completed ” will be the longest ride Tierney has ever done on his uni, and, as far as he knows, the hardest century ride anyone has ever done on one wheel in a day.
Tierney only convinced his wife to drive the family car to Breckenridge to let him do the ride in exchange for taking the couple’s daughter and some friends to a concert Saturday night in Denver as a birthday present.
Yes, you read that right. After spending an estimated 14 hours in the saddle and climbing some 10,000 combined vertical feet, Tierney planned to get off his bike, jump in the car with a couple of teenage girls and drive to Fiddler’s Green to see bubblegum heartthrobs the Jonas Brothers.
Then Tierney planned to drive the whole crew back to a friend’s house in Breckenridge that night before getting some sleep.
“My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he admits. “I don’t know if she’d drive the car if we weren’t going to Denver for concert afterward. Really, she’s always supportive of everything I do, but with this ride, she thinks I’m crazy.”
A solitary road
To Tierney’s defense, his wife, Annie, can only blame herself for her husband’s bizarre hobby. She bought him a used unicycle eight years ago at a garage sale, and Tierney hasn’t stopped riding since.
He graduated to his current 36-inch wheel when 24-inch and 26-inch models couldn’t satisfy his hunger to go higher, farther, faster.
Tierney first learned to ride a unicycle at age 10, the result of a bet between him and a childhood friend during one summer vacation while growing up in Tempe, Ariz. The pair of friends got so good on their unis that they were riding in parades by the end of the summer. Tierney lost interest in single-wheel travel shortly thereafter, though, and gravitated toward other pursuits such as road biking and skiing.
The latter led him to Aspen 25 years ago, where he’s continued to work as a ski patroller at Highlands during the winters. He’s also the founder and president of Aspen Solar, a burgeoning business that keeps his days full.
Amidst all that, he finds time to be a husband and dad while redefining what is humanly possible on his unicycle.
On one wheel, he’s ridden the country’s highest paved road and its steepest; still, Tierney continues to find places he wants to ride.
He set a new unicycle record in 2005 at the Mount Washington Hill Climb in northern New Hampshire ” the famed 7.6-mile grunt up a seasonal road with an average gradient of 12 degrees, and as high as 18.
In August 2006, he was the first unicyclist to complete the Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb, a 28-mile slog up the aforementioned highest paved road in the U.S. that tops out more than 14,000 feet above sea level, and with more than 7,500 feet of vertical gain.
A mile from the summit of that ride, he meditated on a rock to find the strength to continue. It was there that he encountered a curious mountain goat.
Tierney said he finds energy from the mountains, and that his long rides provide him with the time to reflect, to plot, to plug into his deepest thoughts.
“I just love climbing on the unicycle and the places it takes you,” he said. “The high altitude, just the views, the terrain. Just being a ski patrolman for 25 years, I just think I have that in my blood. The high altitude, the mountain tops, the peaks.”
He certainly looks the part, with tranquil blue eyes that offset his tan, weathered skin and the almost-white blond hair that frames his face. He looks like a new-age mountain man, half Zen, half raw determination, and completely one-of-a kind.
“When I’m out there, I think about life in general,” Tierney said. “I think about my family. Not just my immediate family, but my parents who are deceased. Other events that are part of my life. It’s really a meditation for me. I really get into the Zen. Into the now. You really have to focus to be on the wheel like that.”
And for good reason. What Tierney’s doing is dangerous. Because he doesn’t have brakes on his bike, he never gets a break to rest. With every pedal stroke, he has to be mentally strong to remain safe.
He draws stares and smiles from curious passersby, but Tierney said he isn’t out on the road for the attention he always draws. He’s not a one-man sideshow.
“It’s definitely dangerous. You have to be very comfortable when traffic comes,” he said. “There’s a thing called a UPD ” an unplanned dismount. Those are the ones you have to worry about. You make it through the tough frost heaves or the holes in the road, then all of the sudden a little pebble gets in your way and you fall off. You have a brain fart and fall off. If there’s cars by, the unicycle doesn’t necessarily end up like a bike. It’s just gonna go where it wants to go. You’ve got to focus all the time.”
In a class of his own
As far as Tierney knows, no one has covered more vertical on a unicycle. Others have done 100-mile rides, possibly more distance, but no one has done the amount of climbing he has.
Nor likely ever will. He estimated that he’s done around 5,000 miles on his unicycle, but is unsure of how many feet he’s climbed.
When you’ve climbed some 50,000 feet since February alone, it’s easy to lose track of the numbers. All Tierney can say is that he doesn’t plan to stop climbing any time soon. While he’s still got it in him, he wants to complete as many of the world’s toughest climbs as possible.
After his century ride, he’s already planned his next epic climb: The 38-mile, 10,000-foot ride from sea level to the summit of Mt. Haleakala in Maui.
Past that, Tierney doesn’t know where the road might take him. Although he’s got some ideas.
“I’ve been watching the Tour de France, and just watching some of those climbs,” he said. Just seeing how steep some of those are, it gets me jonesin’.”