Monday, August 12, 2013

So you want to learn to unicycle?

As many of you know my other passion outside of running is off-road unicycling. While I haven't ridden at all this year (Yikes!) I do plan on getting back to it very soon; been pursuing this fat-biking thing over the past several months but that's fodder for a future blog post...

Anyhow I do often get asked about how to start out learning to unicycle. What brand of unicycle should I buy? What wheel size? How do I learn? How long will it take? Etc...  So for those folks interested in learning I'm going to share my own experience in learning to ride and try to address the more common questions.

Why learn to unicycle?
As a runner I gravitated to learning to unicycle after a prolonged feeling of burnout. I wanted to try something new yet still stay active. I soon discovered unicycling (once I learned), complemented my running very well. Why? How?
  1. Unicycling puts you in a very similar body position as running; very upright and not hunched over like you'd be on a bike.
  2. The speed and leg turnover while unicycling is very much like running and is a great way to maintain your leg speed without the pounding of running.
  3. A unicycle is fixed gear meaning that there is no coasting, as long as your moving you're pedaling. Just like with running there is cruising!
  4. Unicycling is a highly cardiovascular activity, it takes a lot of work to crank along for miles and miles!
  5. Unicycling builds great core strength as you initiate turns from your core; you steer the unicycle with your core. To stay balanced and ride forward you must execute good upright posture with strengthens your core and lower back muscles.
  6. A runner is the perfect candidate to learn to unicycle because to be a dedicated runner takes a large measure of stubbornness and perseverance both qualities one needs to learn to ride!
Still interested in learning to ride a unicycle? Good. Read on!

Some simple unicycle physics.
First some simple unicycle physics that I hope will help engage your brain about how to think or as the case may be, not think about how to tame this one wheeled beast! The unicycle is essentially like an upside down pendulum. The pivot point is the wheel of the unicycle and the rest of you, including the unicycle frame are the swinging arm. An upside pendulum. So what that means is that to stay in equilibrium i.e. not fall you've got to keep the unicycle wheel under you (plus or minus some small margin of error). However, you've got to get a bit out of equilibrium in order to ride. To ride forward you have to lean slightly forward as if you're trying to fall forward; but slight! So to keep from falling off the front of the unicycle you counteract that forward falling by pedaling the unicycle wheel forward as this will bring the unicycle back underneath you. So riding forward is a constant battle of forces: the slightly leaning forward counteracted by pedaling to restore equilibrium. As you probably have guessed, to ride faster you've got to lean forward a bit more (and therefore pedal faster). I'm explaining this because one of the hardest things for learners to figure out is that it's not just the pedaling that drives you forward; that only drives your lower torso forward; but it's the forward lean AND pedaling. So the main goal to shoot for when learning to ride a unicycle is the ability to trust your body and "feel" this balance envelope. Sometimes it's your brain that gets in the way which is why I see you've got to "feel" it not "think" it. Once you get it you'll see what I mean!

What size unicycle do I need?
For kids I'd recommend a 20" for adults a 24". It really doesn't matter all too much, heck I learned on a 26" (though I don't recommend that!). My advice is to go by your inseam length and your overall height. In general the taller you are the bigger the wheel to go with (in general). I'd avoid going larger than a 26" to learn on however. The important thing to realize is that a little pedal power on a unicycle goes a long way and it actually takes a bit more skill and lighter touch for a taller person to control a smaller unicycle and vice versa.

What brand should I buy?
I'm not going to get into which brand is better, which is worse. However I will say that you're going to want to spend more than a $100 on a unicycle; at least the retail value. I know there may be some good deals out there but be careful because you'll get what you pay for! There's probably nothing more difficult than trying to learn to ride on a junk unicycle! Trust me on this! I know folks are leery of investing a lot of money in a unicycle that they may or may not learn to ride. Some brands that I'd recommend for learner unicycles include Nimbus, Torker, Sun and Club. Beware cheap no-name brands you might find on E-Bay. Also I'd advise against spending too much on a learner unicycle as it's going to take a serious beating! The saddle and pedals will receive the brunt of the abuse.

Where do I get a unicycle?
My strong recommendation is buy from I've bought a lot of unicycles and parts from these guys and have always been satisfied. Great selection of products, customer service and reasonable prices. There are other options of course but I'd start with just to see what products are available in the market place so you can make an informed decision if you decide to search else where.

What safety gear do I need?
I'd strongly recommend wearing a helmet, shin/calf guards and wrist protection. As you come off the unicycle it's quite possible (and likely) that the pedals can ram into your calves or shins. If you come off very unexpectedly you might not be able to land on your feet so the helmet and wrist guards are crucial!

How to begin?
Just starting out don't even think about trying to "free-mount" the unicycle: mounting the unicycle without using a prop such as a wall, chair, buddy. What I recommend is a long flat wall that you can use to prop yourself up. To begin make sure the cranks are positioned at 12 and 6 o'clock with the the 6 o'clock pedal either on the left or right side depending on which leg you feel more comfortable with. You want the cranks to be vertical because as soon as you step on the lower pedal the wheel is going to move! With the cranks vertical the wheel shouldn't roll back or forward. The idea now is to just get into a sitting position on the unicycle, sitting in the saddle, leaning against a wall and just get comfortable with moving along the wall; turning the cranks and learning how the unicycle moves and behaves. It's at this stage you can figure out if the saddle is at the correct height. Just like with a bicycle saddle the saddle should be at such a height that while sitting and with your feet on the pedals your leg should be slightly bent when that side's crank is at the 6 o'clock position. Basically you need to make sure you aren't loosing pedal contact through the full pedaling rotation of the wheel and at the same time you don't want your legs completely bent all the time. To get the saddle height just right you may have to cut down the length of the seat post (what the saddle is attached to). This is very common; just make sure you don't cut off too much!

How do you learn?
After a few sessions of moving along a flat wall the next step, in my opinion, is what I call the "trial by fire". Find a large flat and empty parking lot and drive to it. The reason for having a large, flat area to work with is that eventually you're going to "get it" and be able to ride for that first time more than 20' or so and you don't want to be constrained by space when you finally learn to ride! Anyhow, mount the unicycle like you did using the wall but now use the trunk or back end of your vehicle. When you're ready attempt to ride off and away from your vehicle. You will fall off. But don't be discouraged. Make it a game; a challenge. See how many crank revolution you can get before you come off. Two? Three? Doesn't matter, the key is getting a sense of how the unicycle moves and you move with it. Just remember to always keep a slightly forward lean as this is how you drive the unicycle forward; you are only pedaling to keep the unicycle under you. I think this is the biggest thing to remember and learn to grasp for a newbie. I think the tendency is to try and pedal like mad to stay up when really it's the opposite approach that works. As you lean forward you are "falling" and to counteract that "fall" you pedal which brings the unicycle beneath you and thus you balance out the forward lean with the pedaling and away you go. Anyhow, just keep at it. You'll come off the unicycle A LOT but don't get discouraged, don't let it beat you! You can do this if you want it bad enough! Just go right back to your car, remount and try again.

How long will it take?
It took me about 3 weeks practicing about 30-40 minutes a day before I finally had my break through. I was using the "trial by fire" approach doing a little bit better each day (sometimes no improvement or even some set backs) when finally one day instead of coming off after 20 crank revolutions I just kept on going! That was one of the most amazing feelings in my life; probably akin to learning to ride a bicycle for the first time without training wheels but I've long since forgotten what that was like! Seriously it was incredible! I'd recommend your single training sessions not to exceed 30-40 minutes because after that you'll just get tired and more frustrated. Also try to quit while your ahead. If you're only 20 minutes in and broke your best riding distance mark; stop right then and there as your brain and body have learned from success. Trust me, don't go and try and duplicate the effort back-to-back as you could be very disappointed!  Seriously, baby steps! Keep in mind that it could very well take you a month or more to learn or perhaps you're a natural and will learn much quicker than I did. Just don't ever give up! If I can learn anybody can! I wish I had taken videos of my learning process as there were a lot of America's Funniest Home Videos moments. Trust me!

I've learned to ride, now what?
Hopefully you'll achieve that Eureka moment like I and many other thousands of others have. The first thing you'll discover after learning to ride is that you probably can't turn very well or still can't mount without using a prop (car trunk, wall, light pole, etc...). So learning to turn around within a reasonable short radius and free-mounting should be the next focus. Learning to turn in control and skillfully and learning to free-mount will give you independence to be able to ride anywhere and for longer distances than just around that empty parking lot.

As for me, I knew from day one that I wanted to learn to ride off-road; on trails. It's not as crazy as it sounds and here's why:
  1. By the time you've learned to ride a unicycle in a parking lot you've already acquired all the necessary bail out and falling skills you'll need. You know how to escape! 
  2. The average speeds of unicycling on the trail is far less than what you can do on a mountain bike; lower velocity is safer! Basically you'll never be riding faster than you can run.
  3. A unicycle has no handle bars to get tangled up in and your feet aren't clipped in so it's easy to escape. 
  4. The body position on a unicycle is just like running so when you do come off the unicycle most of the time you'll end up right on your feet.
Even still, it took well over a year of riding along side walks and bike paths and the occasional gravel road before I felt I had enough skill to begin learning to ride on trails. So when I finally ventured forth off-road it was seriously like learning to unicycle all over again! Very frustrating! Every tree root and rock had a way of dislodging me from my unicycle! However, over time I got better and better at it. My suggestion is to find a short but moderately technical downhill and keep trying to ride all the way down it. At first you may not make it very far but over time you'll figure out how to lightly ride over the rocks and roots; how to adjust the saddle height and tire pressure for optimum performance, etc... Eventually you'll make it down that hill without coming off. Once you can do that you're ready to take on riding the trails as you've learned all the skills you need. After that the sky's the limit. Given enough patience and time you can unicycle the same terrain and as far as anybody on a mountain bike can. I've ridden up to 50 miles on single track trails and a 100 miles on a paved bicycle path. Good luck!

Any other questions please feel free to contact me using the contact form below!