As runners, inline skaters and people on bicycles whizzed by, Brian Frebe got ready to float.
Take a walk down to St. Petersburg’s Vinoy Park on any Thursday evening. You’re likely to find a group of about 40 people getting ready to take off on Onewheels, futuristic electronic skateboards that only have one wheel.
One of those enthusiastic adventurers will be Frebe, 36 and leader of the St. Pete Float Fleet, a group he created to not ride, but “float” through St. Petersburg. Frebe says a company in California came up with the term “floating” for riding the one-wheeled boards and it really fits.
Frebe’s group features a mix of different electronic gadgets that people ride, but most were on a Onewheel.
Onewheel is a California-based brand that was founded in 2014, but in the past year Onewheels have become more prevalent in St. Petersburg. Frebe started his group in June 2020. Before that, there were other riders in St. Petersburg and even other squads in the area, like the Tampa Float Krewe, but the St. Pete Float Fleet has made the Onewheel phenomenon more noticeable. People as old as 55 and as young as 18-year-old Erick Hagan come nearly every week. Even parents with young children sometimes tag along.
Frebe, a welder by trade, said the diversity of people makes his group unique, from age range to occupations.
”I’ve met everybody from glass blowers to more welders all the way to doctors to chemists, there’s just everybody,” Frebe said. “There’s people in high places and there’s people in low places.”
Onewheels were around before COVID-19 struck, but Frebe has seen a jump in users since the start of the pandemic. It’s something Hagan used to pass time during the lockdown.
“When all the lockdown started I was so glad that I had that because it was my entertainment for a long time, still is,” he said.
Physician assistant Ryan Currier purchased a Onewheel in June after researching them. He went on a recent Thursday night float.
“I just became addicted to riding it,” Currier said. “And then I just met somebody riding around and they pointed me to the Facebook group.”
Hagan thinks Onewheels have become a lifestyle for some.
“I feel like they’re expensive enough to where if you get one and then you get the accessories for it, you’re pretty invested in it,” Hagan said. He said it is a niche hobby that connects people.
Fifteen-year-old Noah Bild of Palm Harbor floats, although he’s not a new rider. He has been doing it for two years and has even garnered a sponsorship from Lemonade Float Co. Bild cruises with the St. Pete Float Fleet on occasion, but he missed the group’s June 10 meet to compete in a race in North Carolina’s Fire Mountains.
“I just think it’s something that really helps everyone get out of their house, helps a lot with getting new friends and connecting to the community you’re in,” Bild said. “It’s something everyone gets happy about, passes the stoke along. It’s just something fun and new.”
Where to get one
The least expensive Onewheel goes for $950 on the company’s website, but those looking for a faster ride with longer battery life can buy the premium one for $1,799.
Companies like SUPrents and FriendsWithA offer rental options. A three-day rental on SUPrents costs $199, and a daylong rental on FriendsWithA costs between $40 and $100.
A number of local shops, such as Clearwater’s Surf-Wheels N Drones and St. Petersburg’s Elite Watersports and Barney’s Motorcycle and Marine, also sell Onewheels, with Elite Watersports offering rental options, too.
How to float
Riding a Onewheel feels like a combination of riding an old-school skateboard and a hovercraft.
When first stepping onto the Onewheel, the user must allow it to calibrate to their body. For a new rider, that process can create an uneasy feeling while attempting to balance. First-time riders must start with their back foot on the back panel of the board and gingerly lean forward. While they lean, they press their other foot onto the front panel until they feel the electric engine start.
Once the engine kicks on, it’s the make-or-break moment to reach a balance point. To stay upright on the board, it helps to lean forward to start moving.
Beware of bumps and cracks on the path ahead, because even though the thick, all-terrain wheel helps, gathering enough speed is essential to continuing to cruise when the road gets uneven. Turning and maneuvering the board gets much easier with more practice, and riders need to remember to loosen up in their feet while still staying in control of the board to get more comfortable on the Onewheel.
Those looking to float can find Frebe and his fleet at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays at Vinoy Park in the parking lot by the dog park and softball field.