Local one-wheel rider Tyler James wins 2021 edition of ‘Race for the Rail’

Tyler James at the finish line of the 2021 edition of “Race for the Rail.”
Tyler James at the finish line of the 2021 edition of “Race for the Rail.”

(Pete Santos)

About a year ago, a friend loaned Tyler James his one-wheel electric board, and James went on a memorable, late-night ride on the beach.

From that moment, James, 24, a Del Mar resident, was hooked. He bought his own board, began training, and soon was competing in one-wheel board races.

That dedication paid off July 31 at Snowbasin Resort in Utah, when James won the 2021 edition of “Race for the Rail,” a competition between 12 of the best one-wheel riders in the country, netting a $10,000 prize, a trophy and bragging rights.

“I was shocked, but super thankful” to have won, said James, especially because the final heat of the race was a one-on-one contest with his close friend, Kyle Hanson of San Diego. “I just felt like I was riding the trail with my buddy back home.”

Tyler James celebrates his victory with a $10,000 prize and trophy.
Tyler James celebrates his victory with a $10,000 prize and trophy.
(Pete Santos)

A one-wheel is a motorized device that resembles a skateboard, but had a large wheel mounted in the center. A rider leans forward to accelerate and backward to brake. Turning is similar to the technique used for a skateboard, surfboard or snowboard, James said.

The devices are popular both among extreme sports enthusiasts, who use them to race and perform tricks, and people who seek a convenient, practical form of transportation, James said. The one-wheel is manufactured by Santa Cruz-based Future Motion Inc., which makes boards in two sizes.

The larger board, called the XR, retails for $1,799, can reach speeds of 19 mph and has a range of 12-18 miles, according to Future Motion’s website.

One-wheel rider Tyler James in action.
One-wheel rider Tyler James in action.
(Pete Santos)

For James, the sport is about going as fast as he can on rugged terrain, such as the dirt fire roads where the “Race for the Rail” took place. He often hits top speeds of 28 mph on a downhill course. Racers also must scan the terrain for the smoothest portion of the trail to avoid hazards that could lead to a spill.

A graduate of Torrey Pines High School, James has always had an aptitude for athletics, whether it was soccer and lacrosse as a teenager, surfing or snowboarding, said his father, Craig James, also a Del Mar resident.

“He’s a natural athlete. And he has this incredible competitive drive,” Craig James said. “He can beat people better than him because of his competitive drive.”

The elder James said his son overcame serious physical adversity to win the race, having torn his anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, and fractured bones in his hand shortly before the competition.

Now that the race is over, James said he plans to have surgery to repair his ACL this month. He expects to be sidelined from one-wheel riding for at least three months during his recuperation, at home with his dad, and then to gradually increase the intensity of his workouts, until he is back to full strength in about six months, he said.

James’ triumph in the race was even more unlikely because he failed to secure a spot in the final during qualifying races in Las Vegas and Arkansas. Instead, he qualified as a wild card in the race when he was voted in by his racing peers.

Now that he’s won this year’s race, James said he automatically qualifies for next year’s competition.

During his normal training regimen, James said he hooks up with other one-wheel riders for group rides several times a week, at such locations as downtown San Diego and Balboa Park, Lake Hodges and “pretty much anywhere with a solid trail.” As many as 50 to 100 riders participate, he said.

Once he is healed, he hopes to earn a living promoting and growing the sport of one-wheel riding, whether it’s continuing to compete in races or working for the company that makes the boards, said James.

He’s also completing his degree in strategic communications through the online program offered by Liberty University, a Christian college based in Lynchburg, Virginia.

James splits his time between his dad’s home in Del Mar and living in a fully-equipped van that can take him to surf spots in Mexico, his favorite snowboarding slopes, or the trails where he can ride his one-wheel.

“I like intense sports,” James said. The one-wheel, he said, is “another board added to my repertoire.”

He’s even hooked his dad on one-wheel riding.

“I have one, I’m 60, you have to be willing to take some bumps and bruises learning to ride these things,” Craig James said, adding that the enjoyment outweighs the occasional ache or pain.