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May 28th, 2014 PETE COTTELL | Bike Guide
 

Bike Guide 2014: The Unipiper

Behind the Darth Vader mask of Portland’s one-wheeled mascot.

bike_2014(unipiper)BRIAN KIDD - IMAGE: Natalie Behring
     
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It’s a statistical certainty that you know of the Unipiper. Regardless of how—small talk at a party or through Jimmy Kimmel—the guy riding around town on a unicycle, decked out in a kilt and a Darth Vader helmet while playing “The Imperial March” from Star Wars on a wheezing set of bagpipes has crept into your psyche.

I know what you’re thinking, Old Portlander with the “Weird Isn’t Working” sticker on your recumbent bike: This guy is a schmuck who’s just desperate to “be different.” Things were better when you moved here 20 years ago, when you could still cruise down Ankeny  Street without being overtaken by a rambunctious herd of mustachioed drunks on 20-foot abominations built from spot-welded Huffys.

And yet in a city where cycling sometimes doubles as performance art, Brian Kidd has fashioned himself into something of an unofficial mascot. He’s the weirdest of Portland’s weird cyclists: one wheel, a mask, a kilt, playing geek-friendly tunes on a weird instrument.

“The mentality of embracing anything that’s weird and unique has helped the Unipiper brand quite a bit,” says Kidd. “I’m glad people have gotten behind me in helping ‘Keep Portland Weird.’ With great power comes great responsibility.”

Kidd is a native of Richmond, Va., who earned a degree in marine biology from the University of Virginia. In college, he found a unicycle in the trash one day and taught himself how to ride it between classes. Around that same time he also learned to play bagpipes after responding to an ad by the local sheriff’s pipe band offering free lessons for those interested in joining the ensemble. He graduated in 2005 and took a job at North Carolina Aquariums in the Outer Banks. It wasn’t until a friend got drunk and dared him that he realized the hobbies he picked up in college were perfectly compatible. The touristy area was the perfect place for Kidd’s new persona.

“People started inviting me into their homes, giving me food and beer,” he says. “Twice someone’s rich uncle wanted to impress the kids, said ‘fuck it’ and tipped me a hundred-dollar bill.”

Kidd moved to Portland in 2007, sight unseen and without any job prospects. He performed at Portland State University’s farmers market until he landed a job with a geospatial data company that December. It wasn’t until March 2011 that his alter ego became an Internet sensation.

“I made a video as proof of the concept to show my friends and put it up on YouTube. I was in Vancouver, B.C., to play in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade when I watched the thing blow up to thousands of hits from my hotel room. It was on Jay Leno not too long after that, and I was totally blown away.” Kidd was later contacted by America’s Got Talent, but the producers pulled the plug when they couldn’t secure the rights to the Star Wars music or wardrobe that made his repertoire famous.

Kidd recently expanded his act to include fresh flourishes. He’s added Hobbit and Game of Thrones outfits and songs to his act, and plans on capitalizing on his popularity among tourists by offering scheduled routes on his Facebook page so people know when they can catch his act. He’s also begun riding an electric unicycle—a Solowheel—to work every day from his home near Mount Tabor to keep a presence on the east side’s daily commute. Predictably, Portland natives have gotten used to it. Not everyone is a fan. Take local comedian Shane Torres: “I saw that guy on Burnside the other day on my way to work. I don’t care if you’re playing a snare drum on a skateboard—it’s fucking obnoxious.”

Kidd is happy with the oddball persona he’s adopted, and figures it wouldn’t have worked anywhere other than Portland.

“One of my best friends from college is a fourth-generation doctor. He went to med school and had his entire life planned out for him, but he tells me he loves what I’m doing and would totally live my life if he only had the courage. You graduate with your life all structured and planned out, and I said, ‘Fuck it, I’ll move to Portland.’ I’m amazed that I was able to move here without a job and wind up on Jimmy Kimmel.”
 
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