Like a moped, inventor Dean Kamen’s Segway is only fun to ride until your friends see you.
Not quite the utopian symbol of economical urban transport, the self-balancing, upright two-wheeler became the target of pejorative mall-cop narratives and running gags; among the best is TV comedy Arrested Development’s relentless pairing of them with the blundering antics of dopey illusionist, George Oscar “Gob” Bluth II.
But maybe the joke was on us all along.
According to modern urban planners and futurists, we are now at the beginning of a movement called micromobility, which encompasses e-bikes and app-backed scooters to better-designed, more walkable cities, as well as plans to de-couple the car from modern civil engineering.
What many see as a linchpin in the movement is the aptly named champion of compact personal transport: the Onewheel.
With its presence becoming more frequent on the paved trails that trace the Tahoe Basin and its surrounding communities, the Onewheel symbolizes what micromobility is all about: It’s small, rechargeable, and innovative.
Riders stand as they might on a skateboard, feet placed on fore and aft platforms that frame a single, wide wheel. You need only to lean forward to trigger pressure sensors in the front deck that engage the Onewheel’s lithium-ion-powered motor.
The more you lean in into it, the faster you’ll glide along the asphalt, or the trail, depending on your courage. Onewheels accelerate smoothly, and are slowed by simply shifting weight to the rear.
Becoming comfortable with just how sensitive the machine is to weight adjustments takes some getting used to, but that’s what makes the Onewheel fun to ride, and it’s nimbler than its squat, utilitarian design might suggest. Heel and toe movements initiate buttery turns, providing the capability to slalom the Legacy Trail’s stroller trains and gangs of Strider-bikers — not that we recommend doing so!
Parent company Future Motion was founded by Canadian Kyle Doerksen, who graduated Stanford with a couple of engineering degrees and a whole lot of ideas — the most important of which was to discover a way to emulate the floaty, effortless feel of a snowboard in powder.
It took a little under a decade for Doerksen’s single-wheeled cruiser to get rolling, debuting on Kickstarter in 2014. Kathy and Allan Slocum of Incline Village spent much less time deciding to pick up a couple of Onewheels after a friend brought one to a group camping trip.
“We live near the East Shore Trail and regularly ride out to Sand Harbor,” Kathy said in an email. “We travel considerably in a Sprinter van and always bring our Onewheels to explore various small towns.”
While e-bikes continue to populate urban areas, they are typically much more expensive, heavier, bulkier and thus harder to transport than the backpack-sized Onewheel. This makes the latter ideal for frequent travelers like the Slocums, who own the smaller of two available models, the Pint.
The Slocums recently visited Bend, Oregon, and rode the city’s Riverwalk trail.
“We find we end up a lot on paved trails. The Legacy Trail is a fun one, but we find paved trails everywhere we go,” Kathy said. “We often use the AllTrails app to find new and interesting paved bike trails.”
Of course, like all Onewheel riders will admit, bumps and bruises are part of the learning curve.
“I took a fall on the first day I rode it and dinged up a hand and ankle, but nothing serious,” Slocum said. “My husband took a fall this spring but it was nothing significant and no injury. We always wear a helmet and often wear gloves or long sleeves.”
Slocum recommends newbies practice in empty parking lots, try some figure eights, and learn to use the companion app to set a riding style and monitor battery usage because, “We have had a few instances in which one of us had to walk back to the car.”
This has been a rather mild spring for Tahoe. With so much sun and little snow, the asphalt is dry and ready to ride on. As vaccinations are becoming commonplace, there’s a renewed urge to be out and active, and this is one more option.
It’s amazing to think that with so much American ingenuity dedicated to four-wheeled transport, maybe all we really ever needed was one.