One wheel many spokes

Any bicyclist along winding Bayview Road, or most any other biway on Whidbey Island, can relate to Lars Clausen’s feeling of vulnerability. But for Clausen, who is a unicyclist, cut the number of wheels and amount of security in half.

“You can’t get away from the world, you can’t turn up the radio or roll up a window and close it off,” he said. “There’s four directions for a unicyclist to turn and many more to fall.”

At the maximum speed of 11 mph, 40-something Clausen was vulnerable for a good part of 2002 when he unicycled across America to raise awareness for the Seward Peninsula Lutheran Ministry in Alaska and raise funds for its endowment.

But before Clausen pedaled cross-country, he trained and pedaled all over Whidbey Island. He is a Lutheran Minister who lives and works in Holden Village on Lake Chelan with with wife, Anne, and children Kai, 6, and KariAnna, 8. The family took a sabbatical in the summer of 2001 and came to live on Whidbey with friends and Greenbank residents Karl Olsen and Deb Lund.

At a New Year’s party in 2001 Clausen and his wife, Anne, were introduced to Amy and Robert Martin of Coupeville, acquaintances of Lund and Olsen. After no less than half an hour of conversation, Robert said “I am going to work tomorrow and asking for the next four months off. Lars needs someone to ride with.”

Without flinching, his wife gave a surprising “OK.”

“Carl and Deb gave him their endorsement so I figured he was a nice guy,” Martin said.

The duo’s first pedal stroke of many was taken April 22, 2002, in Tillamook, Ore. An East Coast turn around was made at Staten Island, N.Y., which marked 5,025 miles and 2,819,000 pedal strokes. The final stop was made Nov. 12, 2002, at the Santa Monica Pier in sunny California — 9,136 miles and 5,118,000 pedal strokes later.

The main support vehicle for the ride was a 1978 motorhome purchased for $5,000. Clausen’s children christened “Harvey the RV.” The vehicle was living quarters for the family and two pet huskies.

Amy Martin and the couple’s children, 5-year-old Nathaniel and 3-year-old Caroline, followed in a 1982 Volkswagon Westfalia that Olsen gave to them for free, and in which they placed a new engine.

Along the ride, grassy fields in parks became perfect catnap stops. A brushed off piece of pavement became a bench for a lunch break. “Interesting” snow storms and 90 mph winds were faced in Montana, but the theme of the ride was heat and humidity, according to Martin.

When the Clausens’ two huskies confronted a skunk one evening. The crew smelled another dimension of life.

“It was more than a smell,” Clausen said.

Between any inconveniences of the road were little miracles. One of these occurred only five houses away from Martin’s parents’ house in Montana, where Clausen’s unicycle was disabled with a broken bearing.

“It could have been anywhere but it was shear luck that it was there,” he said.

As the ride progressed, more friends, family and complete unknowns came out to ride with Clausen and Martin. At one point the caravan grew to 22 people in five different motorhomes.

Clausen earned Guiness Book World Records for the farthest distance unicycled in 24 hours (202.78 miles) and the longest distance unicycled (9,136 miles in 205 days). Along the way, he made presentations to churches about the Seward Peninsula Lutheran Ministry Endowment. It’s a cause Clausen is passionate about, since he formerly served as pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Nome, Alaska, for over three years.

“The endowment gives people the resources to make their own religious decisions and be consistent with their traditions,” he said.

From the ride, Clausen penned the book “One Wheel, Many Spokes: USA by Unicycle” in which he looks at the question of whether people can travel across America at the speed of hospitality.

In his travels it wasn’t uncommon to have people welcome the One Wheel crew into their towns, their stores, and even their homes.

“We’d be some pretty smelly guys when we arrived, but people would still tell us, ‘I have a swimming pool if you want to cool off,’ ” Martin said.

Before his ride, on Whidbey Island, Clausen did some needed training. He had never pedaled more than five miles in a unicycle trip prior to starting his preparations for his cross-country trek. On his Web site, Clausen jokes he was tempted to call his unicycle ride “An Antidote to Mid-Life Crisis: Damn the Corvettes, Full Wheel Ahead.”

He’s a lifelong bicyclist who at 10-years-old spotted an old orange unicycle hanging in the rafters of his family’s garage. It belonged to his father, who picked up unicycling while a member of his college campus fire department.

“It was just something they did to kill time at the station,” Clausen said.

Clausen grew up bicycling around Southern California and attended the Air Force Academy in Colorado for two years before graduating from U.C. Berkley. He was in Davis, Calif, in the final stages of studying to earn his PhD in engineering when his cross-country itch first hit 15 years ago. He was staring through a microscope for the hundredth time when he thought “This could be my life.”

Shortly after, he rode in the famed Davis Double Century 200-mile bike race and was on top of the world. His dream bike, a touring beauty, had been in the local shop for months, and his decision to ride cross country was placed on the luck chance that it would finally be on sale.

“It’d been $800 or so and so I said that if I went in the next day and found it on sale I’d buy it and ride across country.”

It was. He quit school and off he went on his first cross-country trek.

Fifteen years later, with a wife and two children in tow, he doubled his feat by not just riding across America, but also back again and able to claim riding in all 50 states.

“He could have written a book about tears and sweat, instead he wrote about the human interaction in all of this,” Martin said. “That’s what this ride was about.”

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