Circus Una’s Thrilling Motorcycle High Wire Act

October 5, 2011
Bryan Harley
Bryan Harley
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Our resident road warrior has earned his stripes covering the rally circuit, from riding the Black Hills of Sturgis to cruising Main Street in Daytona Beach. Whether it's chopped, bobbed, or bored, metric to 'Merican, he rides 'em all.

The Buffalo Chip is like a three-ring circus for bikers. Their newest entertainment wrinkle is this high-wire act that rides out over the crowd.
Circus Una flies high above the crowd of the Legendary Buffalo Chip Campground last year during a performance of their death-defying motorcycle thrill show.

They put their lives on the line several times a day for days on end, one perched proudly in the saddle of a Suzuki 250 suspended 50 feet above the ground on a thin metal wire, the other dangling precariously below her on a trapeze bar as she executes aerial acrobatics with power and grace. The crowd below cranes their necks with anxious appreciation as the girls of Circus Una perform their death-defying act on the high wire above with their skill, bravado and modest safety tethers the only thing between them and the hard ground below. Red-headed Sara revs the bike like a pro as it darts up the line while Una flies above the crowd with fairy-like grace. Sara then begins shifting her body side-to-side as Una spins and twists below, hanging at times by a knee or one foot. The crowd favorite, though, is the grand finale when the duo spins 360-degrees, the motorcycle completely upside down, Una’s feet straight up in the air above. The crowd erupts with appreciation and another performance by Circus Una is in the books.
We caught up with the daredevil duo at the Bikes, Blues & BBQ (BBB) motorcycle rally this past weekend. We first saw Circus Una performing over the amphitheater of the Legendary Buffalo Chip Campground last year where they thrilled Sturgis crowds in town to see the likes of Bob Dylan and Kid Rock perform. At BBB, Circus Una was the featured attraction at the Washington County Fairgrounds, the official campground of the rally and site of events like the lawn mower pulls and BBQ cooking competitions. Una Mimnagh, the trapeze artist, and Sara Young, the rider, were kind enough to talk about their motorcycle high wire act in between shows Saturday.

Motorcycle USA: How did you get started with the act?
Una: I have been with the circus my whole adult life, about 20 years. I do all sorts of aerial acts. About eight years ago, I got involved with an already established motorcycle high wire act. I was hired as the girl on the trapeze in that act. I worked there for one summer and I loved the act so much I set my mind on getting one made myself, so it took the winter to get it made, but I did it.

I knew I could do it myself and I had other ideas on how to display this act, how to promote it and sell it. I knew I wanted an all-girl act, I wanted a female rider, and that’s what I’ve been doing. The last four years Sara and I have been touring motorcycle rallies and we’re really finding our niche here in the biker community.

Sara rides the motorcycles on a high wire while Una performs aerial acrobatics in the Circus Una Motorcycle Thrill Show.
Sara (left) rides the motorcycle on a high wire while Una (right) performs aerial acrobatics in the Circus Una Motorcycle Thrill Show.

(A little research revealed Una began as a rigger, light tech and CDL truck driver for the Big Apple Circus in NYC before studying aerial arts at the Circus Space in England. She is skilled in many classical aerial disciplines, including Corde Liss, Lyra, Trapeze, and Spanish Web.)
And you, how’d you get started?
Sara: Accidentally. My whole family, they’re all riders. My mom rides, my brother rides, everyone I know rides. I came across Una’s Myspace page, back when we checked Myspace (laughs), and I sent her an email and asked her if she was posting a show schedule because I’d love to go see the show. Her response was asking me how bad I wanted to go see the show because she needed a rider.

Una: Her Myspace picture was on a Suzuki, which is the bike we ride in the show. We both ended up being from the same state (Pennsylvania), too.

What was it like the first time you did the act?
Una: Like I said before, I have been doing aerial acts for years and years and years. Height is not the problem, my own body is not the problem. The difference with doing a trapeze act on the bike is that the whole thing is vibrating, it’s attached to a moving object, so you have to be very careful where you put your hands. You’re high in the air, so there’s always a lot of wind, there’s oil and gas sometimes coming down off the bike on you and you’re working in tandem with the rider using signals. We have our system of signals that we say to each other during the act so nobody goes before the other person is ready or somebody knows when the other is done. I wanted this act to present a full trapeze act. Some other acts out there kind of let the bike do the talking. They just are really displaying a machine. I wanted to display a full trapeze act and this flying machine, this strange, crazy-looking thing. And that’s what we do. Every show, we’re giving it.

Sara: Actually, I didn’t think about it too much. I agreed to give it a go. And when I met her the first day to practice, it was about a week before we went on the road. I showed up one day, and I just did it, so I showed up the second day and went upside down and then we went on the road. There really wasn’t much thought process because I only had a couple of days before we were actually leaving to go do a show. There really was no choice, there was no thought.

The girls of Cirus Una perform 50 feet off the ground.
Circus Una performs their aerial acrobatics 50 feet above the ground to an appreciative Bikes, Blues & BBQ crowd.

Una: That would be something to research. Most people who own these acts are circus families, they’ve been at it for hundreds of years, the Knox family and the Winns, and they’re around it since they’re small and they’re trained little by little. But not us. We’re not a circus family and we had an idea and a dream. Sara is unique in all the world in the fact that she just got up there. Not only had she never done it before but she had never seen it.

Do you know the history of the act?
I don’t. I mean, I’m sure as long as there have been high wires and motorcycles people have tried to put the two together. Traditionally, there are hundreds of years of bicycles on tight wires. Those tight wires are true tight wires, they’re level. It’d be very hard to pedal uphill on a wire. Motorcycles work on the incline wire because they’re motorized and you can drive it up and then put it in neutral to roll it back.

What keeps the motorcycle on the wire?
They are the original rims on the motorcycle, right? The tire is removed and cut and then the rubber of the tire is bolted back on the rim. So the bike is riding on the wire. The trapeze is attached to the frame of the bike and hangs below it so it acts like the ballast of a sail boat where the weight is lower than the center of gravity. But it has to have a rider on the trapeze or the bike would tip over. That’s why it’s tied right now. If I were to untie it, it’d tip over. So what keeps it on is the weight on the bottom and it rides up the wire, it’s not magnets or pulleys. There’s no cable guides or chutes, it’s riding.

Have you ever fallen off?
No, we’ve never had an accident.

Do you ride motorcycles on the street?
Sara comes from a family of motorcyclists, so the answer is an obvious “Yes.” Una doesn’t ride. “I’m a circus girl,” she says.  

Where can people catch your act next?

The Circus Una Thrill Show puts it all on the line to entertain the crowd.
Circus Una Motorcycle Thrill Show puts it all on the line to entertain the crowd.

We’re finishing up a very long tour at Snyder, Texas, at the White Buffalo Run (Oct. 7-9). And that’s it. We’ve been on the road since May, we started in Myrtle Beach and we had a really long summer and a really great season. We’re making a niche. The first couple of years I bought advertisements and maybe it did me a little bit of good but what’s working is work. I got this gig because somebody saw us at the Buffalo Chip. So word gets around.

Una and Sara have plans to expand the act. “I wanna ride it upside down, that’s kind of where I want this to go. I want to get more girls involved, have a longer show, it has all kinds of potential. We love coming to rallies because this is where the people are.”

Lovely and talented, the ladies of Circus Una put it all on the line for your entertainment. If you’re headed to the White Buffalo Run this weekend, be sure to catch their act. If not, check the Circus Una website periodically as the performers begin to fill in their schedule for next year.