All things one-wheeled will be celebrated this weekend at the New York City Unicycle Festival. But how do you ride a unicycle, exactly? Festival organizer Keith Nelson shares some tips on how to tackle the mono-wheeled machine.
“I think the first step, once you decided that you’re going to learn to ride a unicycle, is an acceptance that you may have multiple days and even week where you feel completely hopeless,” said Nelson.
With little exception — namely, kids — it takes about 30 hours for an adult to learn how to ride. “I had a good month of somewhat regular attempts before I could go 100 feet,” said Nelson.
There are two ways you can get on your unicycle — the first is by stepping on one pedal and letting the unicycle roll backyards under you so you can get up on the seat, then putting your other foot on its pedal and pushing forward. For those you don’t want to start out going backyards, you can free mount the unicycle by jumping on the seat and going forward in the first motion. To maintain your forward motion, Nelson recommends leaning against a fence or a wall so you can practice pedaling and going forward without fear of falling down.
“There’s a lot of times where a wall or a fence can become your best friend,” said Nelson.
Once you’ve gotten to the point where you can ride without assistance, that means you’re in pretty good shape, as riding a unicycle requires you to use most muscles in your body, particularly your core — your stomach muscles. “You’ll be pouring sweat, using every muscle in your body, as you find the balancing point,” said Nelson. “You’ve got 360 degrees at which to fall, and your core is constantly engaged in keeping your unicycle upright from any of those directions.” Helping in keeping your balance will be your arms, as many beginners will keep them outstretched while they ride, ultimately working up to having their arms crossed over their chest or behind their backs.
Riding in the city will at some point require you to turn, and that’s done by moving your waist in the direction you want to go. “You’re either doing sharp, quirky turns, or you learn to lean into turns to make them nice, smooth and graceful,” said Nelson. “At least with New York City riding, you definitely have to develop both skills.” Backpedaling will also make you go backyards, which is another skill to work your way up to.
You won’t reach nearly the same amount of speed on a unicycle as you do on a bike — Nelson averages 5-8 miles per hour — but some avid unicyclist have worked their way upwards of 20 miles per hour, and more. There are unicycles with gears for speed demons, and Nelson is one day considering a high-speed event for his unicycle festival. Of course, the faster you go, the quicker you have to step off the unicycle. Some unicycles have brakes, but the large majority don’t, and you slow down by pedaling slower.
About getting off the unicycle — Nelson recommends coming off the front of the unicycle so the wheel is behind you, grabbing the seat as you come off so the saddle doesn’t hit the ground. Others choose to do the opposite, but either way works.
A unicycle will run you between $120-$150, though you can get a reasonable starter one for under $100, said Nelson. The wheel should be between 20-24 inches for an adult, 12-16 inches for a kid, depending on height. At that height, you’re only a few inches from the ground when you’re seated on a unicycle.
“The height is not as traumatic as a lot of people build it up to be,” said Nelson. The website www.unicycles.com is a great resource for finding a unicycle, as most bike shops don’t carry them in store.