Editor’s note: Chances are, you’ve noticed a growing number of unicyclists out on the trails. Think your singlespeed is simple? Try one gear AND one wheel. Dave Krack of Butler Wobble sent us this piece with some tips for trying it yourself. His advice: It’s not as hard as it looks!
One can be wonderful
About five years ago I removed the “bi” and became a cyclist. Since then I’ve enjoyed pedaling more than ever. My cycling obsession started more than three decades ago with three wheels. Two wheels followed closely on its tail. Then sometime in my early 30’s I figured out that one is a lot of fun. Since then I’ve persuaded others to give unicycling a go. What I’ve found is that it’s a lot more than circus music and parade fodder.
I’ve seen “mainstream” articles on unicycling before, but instead of presenting it as a skill most bicyclists could master they tend to emphasize how hard it is or how crazy the riders are. Personal experience and a few charismatic converts have taught me that the potential pool of unicyclists is a lot bigger than you might think.
If it is so hard, how do so many people get hooked? My answers are: 1.) It’s fun. 2.) It’s challenging, but with practice almost anyone can do it (If you can ride a bike, you can ride a unicycle!) 3.) Relatively speaking, it’s reasonably cheap and not very equipment intensive. A good starter unicycle can be purchased for less than $100. Yeah, you can spend well over $1000 on one, but the real sweet spot is in the $300-$700 range for something that can take some serious abuse. We’ve found most people to be comfortable on a 20-inch wheel at first. 4.) It’s a great way to strength the core while avoiding the weight room. And 5.) It’s fun.
I’ve read several articles on teaching people how to ride and I’ve written a couple of my own step by step tutorials, but experience has taught me to keep instructions in the vein of the rigid singlespeed: simple.
As far as equipment goes, use your head. Helmets are good as are kneepads and/ or shinguards. I personally know one guy who broke a wrist, so some kind of wrist support might be a good idea, but rarely do beginners fall completely to the ground. You can accessorize beyond this if you want, but don’t be in a hurry to buy a whole lot of equipment. When learning with us we only insist on a helmet.
As far as a venue to learn at, a fairly long flat surface with a fence or wall to touch is key. A gym is ideal (use plastic pedals to protect the floor), but we’ve also had great success with tennis and basketball courts. A good friend’s shoulder works too, but it can be tough to find someone to commit to the time you’ll need to invest.
As far as time goes, I’ve heard it said it takes about 10 hours on average to learn, but we’ve had a lot of people riding across the room in 3 hours or less. Mountain bikers, climbers, and skateboarders have had the definitive advantage. It will probably take more than one session to let go of the wall for more than 10 feet at a time. Patience, young grasshopper.
Once you’ve got the gear, the place, and of course the unicycle, it’s time to roll. Set the seat height for a fairly good leg extension – too low impedes progress, and too high is uncomfortable at best. Take a guess based on your bike saddle height. Don’t stress over this, you can adjust later if need be.
Now for the big time: get on and ride. It’s that simple? Yeah right! Seriously, keep a few things in mind and you’ll do fine. 1.) Don’t get hurt when you lose control – let the unicycle fall where it may. 2.) You’ve got your best control when the pedals are parallel to the ground (3 and 9 o’clock). When they’re straight up and down it’s very difficult to control the unicycle. 3.) Don’t rush the process. This should be fun and hopefully addicting!
There are a lot of theories on how to first get on the unicycle. I’m going with keeping it simple. At each step use whichever side is most comfortable – you’ll figure it out pretty quickly. Put one hand on the wall or fence (don’t death grip it with both.) Start with one pedal all the way down (If you don’t do this then you’ll probably take the opposite pedal to the shin). Put the seat between your legs. Put the preferred foot on the bottom pedal and step up while putting the other foot on the top pedal. Get the pedals to the 3 and 9 o’clock positions. Balance for a bit.
Reread the last couple of paragraphs again. If you’ve fallen off, you can get on again – it will be easier this time. Now attempt to take a half pedal stroke and finish with the cranks parallel to the floor. From here on out it’s a matter of pedaling in ½ strokes and gradually letting go of the wall more and more.
Some last things to keep in mind: relax, sit up, and lean a bit forward. It’s much more pleasant to step off the front than fall off the back. Only hold on with one hand. Measure your riding distance if it doesn’t dampen your spirits. Take your time and it will come.
Just think – soon you’ll have people whistling at you. Most likely it will be circus music, but at least they’ll be whistling!
Photo by Isaac McKeever.