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The Unicycle: A Unique History
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
A long-time favorite of the circus clown, the crazy contraption known as the unicycle has been around for over 100 years. From its early beginnings under the big top, to present-day muni (mountain unicycling) competitions, today the original unicycle has been modified and improved for all sorts of different riding styles. In the following we’ll take a look at just how the unicycle came about, how to ride a unicycle, and some of the modern mutations the unicycle has undergone in the past thirty years.
To find the roots of the unicycle, we must first reach back further to the roots of its cousin, the bicycle. The first bicycle was invented in France by a man by the name of Comte de Gaye around the year 1790. It consisted of a simple wooden frame with two wheels attached to it, no pedals for gaining speed, and no handlebars for steering. Moving it required using the feet as one would on a scooter (or as the Flinstones moved their car) and it could only move in one direction.
Seventy-something years later Brit James Starley took that idea and evolved it into the penny farthing (aka the “ordinary”), a bicycle consisting of one giant wheel with one miniature wheel behind it, named after the two English coins of the penny and the farthing. In all senses, the penny farthing became the world’s first real functioning bicycle.
The penny farthing was created for speed, since a wheel large in diameter could cover more ground. Unfortunately this increased speed came at the price of a decrease in balance. The back wheel’s sole purpose was to maintain this balance and unfortunately hitting a bump in the road or stopping too quickly often caused the back wheel to come off the ground, leaving the rider to balance on just one wheel. Seeing as the riders were situated very high up (since the front wheel was so big), occasionally these riders would be bucked off the contraption altogether and sent flying forward landing head first. This is believed to be where the term “breakneck speed” originated. Poor brakes on the penny farthing were also a contributing factor to disaster.
It wasn’t long before some people realized they really didn’t need that back wheel of the penny farthing. First the back wheel was removed, then the handles too…and pretty soon the unicycle was born. The fact that early unicycles possessed one large wheel similar in size to the large wheel of the penny farthing further reinforces the idea that the unicycle was most likely a direct descendant of this accident-prone relative.
Unicycles comprise of a seat attached to a frame atop one single wheel, no handlebars, and no hand-brakes. As opposed to a regular bicycle, which uses gears and chains to turn the wheels, on a unicycle the pedals connect directly to the axle, making the wheel move directly. This is actually a more efficient use of energy, since the pedaling power goes straight into the rotation of the wheel and not secondarily as through a belt or a chain. On a unicycle, the axle is a fixed part of a special hub which is also affixed to the pedals, allowing for the movement of the pedals to cause a direct rotation of the wheel, an engineering feat known as direct drive.
Unicycles gained popularity in the circus, mainly by clowns who would juggle while riding them, or acrobatic performers who rode them across the tight rope. Unicycles did not see widespread use among the general public until the 1980s, when new unicycle variations created an entirely new generation of riders. Seatless, giraffe, and freestyle unicycles revolutionized unicycling, expanding it into a myriad of riding styles and competitive events. Engineers once again began toying with the size of the unicycle wheel, as wheel size has a direct correlation with speed (the larger the wheel, the faster the unicycle).
- Seatless unicycle – Also known as the “ultimate wheel,” this unicycle has no frame or seat, simply a wheel with two foot places directly affixed to it.
- Giraffe unicycle – Also known as a “tall unicycle,” this unicycle possesses a seat that is so high up that it is one of the few unicycles that actually requires a chain. Without a chain the legs wouldn’t be able to reach the pedals, so the chain is required to connect the pedals, which are placed just below the seat and high above the wheel, with the axle way down below. These unicycles average anywhere from 5 feet to 10 feet, but have been known to go higher. Contrary to common perception, these unicycles are actually safer than normal lower unicycles since they allow a falling rider adequate time to prepare for impact before hitting the ground (so they can most likely land on their feet).
- Freestyle unicycle – These unicycles possess smaller wheels 16 to 20 inches in diameter, with a high-pressure tire, flat crown, slightly higher seat post, and narrow saddle. They are built to handle the brunt of complex jumps and tricks, similar to those performed by BMX riders in the X Games.
- Touring unicycle – These ones typically possess a wheel 26 to 36 inches in diameter, built for long rides averaging 5 or more miles. The larger wheel allows more distance to be covered with less pedaling (more ground is covered with each rotation of the wheel, requiring less rotation of the pedals, and thus less exertion by the rider).
- Trials unicycle – These unicycles average wheels 16 to 20 inch in diameter, with fat knobby tires that are built to withstand the impacts of an obstacle course. Just as its name says, these unicycles are usually solely used for trials competitions.
- Muni (mountain unicycle) – Also known as “rough terrain,” these off-roading unicycles are similar to trials unicycles except with fatter tires so they can ride over big obstacles like rocks. They are built to go wherever mountain bikes go. They possess thicker seats for more cushion, as well as brakes for steep descents.
- Geared unicycles – As with giraffe unicycles, these too also possess chains in addition to a gearing system, allowing the wheel to spin faster than the pedal cadence. They are used mainly for distance riding.
- Multi-wheeled unicycle – As the name states, these ones possess multiple wheels stacked on top of each other (also called known as “stacks unicycles”). The wheels are connected either through direct contact or chains. This variation is mainly used for its bizarre appearance, in carnivals, circuses, and other arenas.
- Kangaroo unicycle – In this modification the pedals are not offset as a traditional unicycle; rather they are in line. This means the rider must utilize a hopping motion to propel the unicycle (looks similar to a kangaroo hopping).
- Freewheeling unicycle – This version coasts without pedaling (just like a normal bike would). For that reason, these are usually built with brakes.
- Self-balancing unicycle – This computer-controlled, motor-driven, high-tech innovation balances itself, similar to a Segway.
The wide variety and availability of the modern unicycle has spawned an array of unicycle-related sports and competitions. Street unicycling utilizes fixed urban props, such as handrails, stairs, and fences, to complete complex tricks and maneuvers. Unicycle basketball puts a twist on the classic game with players riding unicycles while competing, with the rule that the ball must remain dribbled while riding. Unicycle hockey has even become popular in recent years.
Worldwide unicycling has taken a specific foothold in Japan, where unicycling was made a mandatory PE course for elementary and middle school students about 20 years ago. Finding the benefits of unicycling in building balance and core strength, the Japanese Chancellor added it to the sports curriculum of Japan’s schools. Today this decision has resulted in millions of Japanese adults knowing how to unicycle.
UNICON, the International Unicycling Convention, is put on by the International Unicyling Federation twice a year. Started in 1984, the event allows unicyclists from around the globe to meet and compete in several unicycling event categories like artistic, track race, marathon, muni, trials, basketball, and hockey.
Unicycles present many benefits over traditional bicycles. Firstly, unicycles are smaller, meaning they fit into more places than a traditional bike would. Secondly, unicycles generally require less upkeep than a normal bike due to their lack of extra parts such as chains, handles, and gears. This also means that unicycles are cheaper to buy and maintain than regular bikes. Lastly, unicycles are usually safer than bicycles, skates, and skateboards because they cannot go as fast as those items.
On a bicycle, a person’s body weight is split between the two wheels by being situated in the middle of the connecting frame. On a unicycle however, a person’s body weight is held directly over the wheel. This poses many balancing challenges for beginning unicyclists.
The first and most difficult part about unicycling is mounting. To begin novice riders should use a wall, a chair, or another person to aid in mounting the unicycle. Since unicycles only possess one wheel, they can only remain upright when they are in motion. The seat of a standard unicycle should come up to about waist height before mounting.
When speaking of the wheel position on a unicycle, we’ll be referencing the pedals as hands on a clock. The safety position is when the pedals are at 3 and 9 o’clock, since at this point a person’s weight is evenly distributed, allowing the most control and balance of the unicycle. The dead spot is when the pedals are at 6 and 12 o’clock, since at this point a person’s weight is mostly on the 6 pedal, allowing easy loss of balance and resulting in potential falls.
Unicycles must be mounted in the dead spot, with the rider stepping on the down pedal. Mounting in any other wheel position could cause the unicycle to take off or the other pedal to rotate up and smash into the legs. Once mounted however, pedals should be taken into the safety position as quick as possible. After much practice one will finally be able to free mount the unicycle without any accidents, free mount meaning to get on board without the aid of another person or object.
Using a spotter can make learning to ride a unicycle much easier. A spotter is a person who can offer light support as a rider tries to learn the balancing of unicycle riding. Spotters should stand to one side even with the shoulder and follow along as the rider moves, holding one hand out flat and palm up for the rider to put their hand on top of. It also helps if the rider has a wall on the other side of them within arms length for further support. If a spotter is unavailable, two chairs or a narrow hallway can work too, allowing the rider to focus on forward and backward balancing without worrying about side-to-side falls. Use of ski poles or walking sticks during training is highly discouraged, since one wrong fall can cause a serious impalement injury.
Unlike a bicycle, where one has to balance between left and right, balancing on a unicycle can prove far more difficult since one has to balance in all four directions: left, right, front, and back. To do this the rider must maintain their weight on the seat and not on the pedals, and try to keep the wheel directly beneath their center of mass. This is not an easy task, but there are some tips one can follow to get a handle on this skill:
- Keep your posture straight and tall and aligned with the seat, almost as if the seat pole is going directly into your back.
- When moving its important to lean slightly forward and maintain pedaling. Momentum makes staying atop a unicycle easier.
- Keep your eyes focused ahead and not downwards, as moving down can cause you to shift your body weight. Picking a point on a wall or object in the distance can help you maintain level eye contact.
- Wear safety gear such as helmets, shin guards, wrist guards, elbow pads, and knee pads. For beginners, falling is inevitable and the only way to learn. When falling, its important to try not to resist the fall and stay on the unicycle, as that can prevent worse injury. Simply fall and think how to land safest.
The equilibrium of a unicycle is set between two points slightly in front and behind the seat. The goal of the rider is to try to remain between these two points. In reality, the only way to do this is to purposely initiate a fall and correct it at the last second. That’s why learning to ride a unicycle is actually the art of learning to fall. In order to keep their momentum, change direction, or slow down, unicycle riders must actually allow themselves to fall a certain way and correct it very quickly. This is all due to the fact that the horizontal distance between the rider’s center of gravity and the contact point (where the wheel touches the ground) determines acceleration in each direction. So a rider in motion can shift their center of gravity in front of the wheel’s contact point to accelerate, behind it to decelerate, or directly above it to maintain a constant speed.
When a rider is very far off balance, it may be impossible to move their center of gravity to the other side of the wheel to prevent a fall. In this case, the only way to move the wheel back under their center of gravity is through pedaling. Falling forwards may mean a rider didn’t pedal hard enough, whereas falling backwards means they pedaled too fast.
There are several tricks one can learn once basic riding is mastered. Idling involves not moving at all, keeping the unicycle stationary with balance by rocking back and forth on the pedals. Turning constitutes a rider looking the direction they want to go and shifting their entire body weight in that direction. An easy way to do this is put the arm of the direction you want to turn behind you and your other in front of your chest (so for a right turn, put the right arm behind and left in front). Other tricks include backwards riding, jumps, and spinning.
It’s apparent that unicycling is not just for the circus anymore. Today even many celebrities such as Coldplay’s Chris Martin, actress Leslie Mann, and comedian Adam Carolla are skilled unicyclers! Isn’t it time you joined the fun?