Let's get one thing straight right up front. George Steele rides a Municycle, not a unicycle.
The seemingly innocuous semantic slight may not make much difference to those outside the loose fringe of one-wheel pedal pushers, but the 17-year-old from Denver will be the first to tell you that the "M" in "Muni" is magnified exponentially at 14,000 feet. His father, Andy, will be the second.
That capital consonant stands for "Mountain." And as far as anyone knows for certain, the father-son Steele team is the first to take fat- tire mountain unicycles to Colorado's rarified summit. George Steele's recently accomplished attempt to Muni ride 14 peaks above 14,000 feet included 14,433-foot Mount Elbert, highest in Colorado.
"I just like the idea of being at altitude," the high school senior said this past weekend prior to pedaling the final two peaks of his summer-long odyssey. "And it's fun to see other people's reactions. You get reactions ranging from people who think you're mentally ill to people who think it's awesome to people who worry about you or get angry because they think they're going to have to carry you back down the mountain. You get everything. It just depends."
With a unicycling resume that reaches back to third grade, the young Steele long ago developed the balance necessary to master almost any terrain. His trails skills allow him to hop the knobby-tire machine from rocks to logs, landing with the poise of a gymnast. And his drive to be "different" led him on the unprecedented mission up and down the majority of his home state's 18 peaks above 14,000 feet that are not designated wilderness areas — meaning bikes, and unicycles, are allowed.
"It was probably the most athletically challenging thing I've ever done in my life," he said after completing the mission Sunday on Pikes Peak. "The main goal was just to prove it can be done. So many people haven't even heard of mountain unicycling, or if they have, they think it's just on dirt paths around the city. It doesn't make sense to a lot of people, so by doing it you're sort of proving to the world that it can be done and it is being done."
Even among Colorado's small core community of mountain uni- cyclists (most of whom the Steeles know by name), the mission was a tough sell. Spoken invitations and the website set up to document the effort (www.14fourteeners.blogspot.com
) failed to rally even one other rider willing to arise before 4 a.m. for the lengthy hikes carrying the 20-pound Munis to mountain summits where the Steeles required a minimum of three wheel revolutions of themselves before claiming success.
From there, they would attempt to ride as much of the descending trail as physically possible. Bear in mind that the fixed-gear unicycles, whether designed for mountains or not, have neither brakes nor suspension.
"Every stretch is technically possible, but physically you just can't maintain it," said Andy Steele, a 49- year-old doctor at Denver Health who joined his son in riding almost every mountain.
"I feel like I'm to the point where if I really want to I can do all the technical stuff. But it comes down to how much energy you have at 14,000 feet and the fear factor," George Steele said. "Most of the time you are just jumping back and forth between rocks until you can get a wheel revolution. But at 14,000 feet, you can only do that for a short time. Trying to jump up and down and ride a unicycle at that altitude, I can go maybe 20 yards before my lungs give out."
Certain peaks — Handies and Mount Bross, for example — offered up plenty of quality riding on the descents, however. The Steeles were able to ride more than 90 percent down some mountains.
The final three-day push up and down Mount Antero, Mount Elbert and Pikes Peak last weekend proved to be all the duo could handle, though, and then some.
"I am beat up and beat down," Andy said after his five-hour ride on Pikes Peak. "The mountain beat me. I had to walk the last half mile."
His son, who Wednesday will board a jet to the country of Jordan for his final year of high school, was feeling more upbeat than beat up, though. While he admits he would think twice before attempting such a feat again, he considers the completion of all 14 peaks a steppingstone to bigger and better Muni moments.
"It was totally worth the effort," George Steele said. "This has been my first big mountain unicycle challenge. I'd like to do Mount Whitney in California (the tallest peak in the Lower 48), for sure. Later on I'm hoping to top 14,000 feet and start getting into maybe the Andes or the Himalayas, somewhere I can push it even higher and do more technical stuff.
"Right now (Canadian) Kris Holm is the main guy in mountain unicycling. But when he grows older, then I'll hopefully be the guy that everybody knows."