ROBERTS, Wis. -- Thumping sounds reverberated through a western Wisconsin gym on a recent Thursday night, as unicycle seats regularly slipped from under their riders and hit the floor.
The two dozen riders were mostly children taking part in a practice and instruction session at St. Croix Central Elementary School, where unicyclists of all ages come out each week to work on their skills.
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A few beginning riders worked their way across the gym while holding hands with more seasoned veterans of the single-wheelers such as Paulette Anderson, who has been teaching unicycling through St. Croix Central Community Education for more than three years.
"It might take them three or four classes, but when they get it, it's like a light bulb coming on," Anderson, director of the community education program, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/UduE7k).
She acknowledges that unicycling is unique -- weird, even. "I'm passionate about unicycling and teaching those kids," she said. "I think it's something unique to learn."
Unicycling has a relatively large presence in the Twin Cities area thanks to the Twin Cities Unicycle Club, which recently awarded Anderson the 2012 Mentor of the Year award for her efforts working with budding unicyclists.
Started in 1976, the club now has around 300 members, making it one of the largest in country. That's due to classes like Anderson's that help grow interest for the activity locally, said club member-at-large Scott Wilton.
"The sheer number of people we teach to ride has a lot to do with why our club is so big," Wilton said.
TCUC members can often be spotted wheeling through area parades each year and helping put on a number of classes like Anderson's. Some of the more skilled members travel nationally and internationally to compete in a variety of unicycle sports.
This summer, Wilton took first place in a marathon and 10-kilometer race at Unicon 16, an international unicycle convention and championship held in Italy. His winning marathon time was just under 1 hour and 35 minutes -- an average of nearly 17 mph, which he reached with the help of a large-wheeled, two-gear unicycle.
Other unicycles are made specifically for different subsets of the sport -- from mountain unicycling to BMX-like trick unicycling.
"Unicycling as a whole, and especially TCUC, creates a really cool community of people," said Wilton, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. "It's really unique for me to be able to get out once or twice a week and interact with people who aren't college students."
Wilton, a math major and Madison, Wis., native who started unicycling at age 11, said he uses a unicycle to get to class in Minneapolis every day, even in the snow.
"It's a really fun mode of transportation," he said. "It keeps things exciting."
You can also spot 64-year-old Gary Feyen using a unicycle for everyday transportation. The Crystal, Minn., resident said he uses it to get to church, the library and the grocery store, if he's just picking up a few items.
Feyen said he draws looks when riding a unicycle, and he enjoys the attention.
"That's part of the fun," he said. "Most people smile. It's like seeing a clown or something -- you're brightening someone's life."
Feyen started unicycling at age 54 -- proof older people can learn to unicycle, too, he said.
He added that in addition to being fun, there is a health component to unicycling, which he found can be practiced as an aerobic activity. Wearing a heart monitor, Feyen learned riding a unicycle could bring his heart rate up to 140 beats per minute -- higher than when he rides a bike, he said.
"My chiropractor thinks it's really helped my core muscles, too," he said.
Feyen rode a taller version of the unicycle -- called a "giraffe" -- through the St. Croix Central Elementary School gym Dec. 13. He towered over the other riders, a number of whom were practicing to climb up through an official Unicycling Society of America leveling system, which sets increasingly difficult challenges as riders advance.
Among those practicing the challenges was 10-year-old Haley Beukema, of Hammond, Wis., who was unicycling with her twin brother, Garrett.
A level 2 rider, Haley was trying to master a trick that involved riding the unicycle with her abdomen on the seat -- a necessary step to reach level 3.
"You don't have the balance of your arms, and your body weight is spread to different parts," she said while making an attempt.
The twins said they have been unicycling for one or two years and started because of Anderson's encouragement.
"It's fun to do stuff that not a lot of other people can do," Haley said. "At first it was hard, but once you get to learn it, it's easier."
"It's really fun to get to learn the different tricks," Garrett added, calling unicycling "awesome."
The Unicycling Society of America leveling system extends to level 10, but only 13 people in the world have advanced that far officially, said Wilton, who sits on the board of directors for the organization. All 13 were part of TCUC when they reached level 10, he added.
Still working on reaching the first level Dec. 13 was Carleigh Roettger, 12, and her brother Grant, 9, who both had been riding for about three months.
"When we first walked in and saw all the people riding, it looked easy," said Grant, adding it proved to more of a challenge than they expected.
"I have a whole new appreciation for clowns," his sister said.
Still, after some practice, they were starting to get the hang of it.
"One minute I was falling within a foot," Carleigh said, "and the next I was riding across the gym."
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com