Searching for a one-wheeled challenge
July 31, 2015
Brian Picchietti likes to fly under the radar.
That’s tough for the veteran airline captain when he’s on his unicycle, careening down a single track trail near his Pinebrook home.
"Most people can’t believe it when they see me, it’s like an alien sitting," he jokes.
Downhill unicycling, a sport with few participants, is the latest challenge taken on by the athletic 57-year-old, who has risen to the pinnacle in several risky sports throughout his life. Just since he turned 40, he’s been the tae kwon do full-contact national champion, the Utah state champion downhill mountain biker and the 50+ U.S. national Gravity downhill champion. In 1993 he was the International Jet Ski Boating Association national champion.
Such impressive feats are practically pried out of this modest man in an interview.
"My wife says I should talk more about myself, but I’m always afraid people will think I’m lying when I tell them what I’ve done. I’m not the kind of guy who looks back on past accomplishments. I just say ‘OK, I’ve done that so now what,’ " he says.
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"Now what" has been a recurring theme for Picchietti, who grew up Deerfield, Illinois, near Chicago. At 8, he saw a unicycle advertised in a magazine and asked his mother for one.
"I practiced riding it in the basement. After about six months it clicked and I started riding it all over the neighborhood," he says.
Picchietti was a good student and a pole-vaulter on the track and field team in high school. After school, he became a rising star on the amateur motocross racing circuit. Over the next several years, he rose to the top tier of U.S. amateurs.
He was introduced to flying by a neighbor.
"He was always home and would come over to visit when I was washing my motorcycle," says Picchietti. "I asked him why he was home so much and he said he was an airline pilot. I thought that sounded pretty good. He took me flying in his small plane and I was hooked."
The fledgling flyer left his unicycle and motor sports behind while he attended St. Louis University, where he took a degree in aviation and a minor in meteorology. Now a veteran captain of 33 years with a major airline, he flies 747s internationally.
"I work a lot more than my old neighbor," he says, grinning.
Picchietti met his wife, Melva, in high school, but the two never dated until he was in college. They’ve been married 32 years and have two daughters, one who just earned her law degree and a 13-year-old who will attend eighth grade this year.
Avid skiers, the family bought a condo in Deer Valley in 2003. When their oldest daughter left home to attend the University of Utah, the rest of the family followed her.
"That didn’t make her happy," Picchietti chuckles.
Leaving motocross racing behind, Picchietti turned to downhill mountain biking.
"A friend of mine said it was just the same as motocross, but I quickly found out it wasn’t," he says. "It appealed to me because it was such a challenge. You can never get good enough. There’s some thrill-seeking involved. I call it ‘between heaven and hell’ because you’ve got to be fast enough to win, but not so fast that you crash. I’ve been hurt a lot and broken a lot of bones in my sports but I always healed up and got right back on."
After garnering a gaggle of awards over several years, he searched for a new, challenging sport in his mid-50s.
"I kept eyeing the trails around my house in Pinebrook and I said to myself, I wonder. … I thought, how hard could it be," he says.
Although he hadn’t been on one for more than 30 years, he decided downhill unicycling would be his new sport. Picchietti bought a unicycle last fall and gave it a shot.
"The first time I looked down the trail I thought, how can anybody do this. I kept practicing and pretty soon I bought a fat-tire unicycle with studded tires for the winter, which worked great on the snow packed trails. Now I can get through all the rock gardens and switchbacks, but it’s kind of tricky. You’ve got to weave and bob and bounce off stuff. If the switchbacks are really steep, I’ll just hop down them," he says.
The determined mono-wheeler says it’s a great new sport because it combines hiking and biking.
"Unicycles are not geared, so you really can’t climb the trails. I hike up with my ‘muni’ [mountain unicycle] and ride down."
Picchietti says so far he hasn’t run into anyone else trail riding on a unicycle.
"There’s a guy doing it over in Colorado and I hear there’s another guy around here, but I haven’t seen him."
For now, Picchietti pursues his new found sport solo. He says he’s waiting patiently for the addition of a downhill unicycling division, and the pursuit of another title.
Favorite activities: wake surfing, skiing, mountain biking, playing guitar
Favorite foods: Chinese, Mexican and Italian
Favorite music: blues and rock
Favorite reading: mostly technical manuals
Animal companions: Jackie, a 5-year-old standard poodle
Bucket list: "I am my bucket list."
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