A few tips on learning to ride a unicycle.
The ACTURS practise sessions
Beginners are welcome to attend our practise sessions, where we have spare club unicycles and usually enough people on hand to help you learn/practise.
Before you start
Learning to ride a unicycle is just like learning to ride a bicycle again. However, most of us learnt to ride a bike when we were kids and hence had more time on our hands, more patience, more determination, and our brains had a much better capacity for learning new things.
It will take quite a bit of practise to learn to ride a unicycle, as your brain needs to figure out what it needs to tell your body to do in order to keep you balanced. While trying to learn, try to think back to when you were learning to ride a bike — were you able to get on and ride a bike the first few times you tried?
Now, as far as injuries go, it really isn’t as bad as a lot of people seem to think it is. More often than not, the wheel will roll out from underneath you, and you will simply drop down on to your feet (I’ve landed on my feet after coming off a 36″ unicycle doing about 20-24km/hr, and even usually land on my feet doing mountain unicycling — although admittedly the odds are less in both of these situations!). While you are learning, the chances of landing on your feet are somewhat higher, as you will generally be going at a reasonably slow pace, and you’re not riding down/up a steep rocky hill!
However, one situation where learners are more prone to not land on their feet, is if they reach out to grab something when they lose their balance (which is hard not to do!). If you manage to grab hold of something while falling off, this can often spin you around and cause you to land sitting down or on your hands and knees. If you think that you are likely to do this, you may want to wear a bike helmet (in case you spin around and hit your head on the railings that you were using for support) and possibly also knee guards.
Also, some unicycles (although generally not learner ones!) have metal pins in the pedals in order to help your shoes grip them. A common mishap during learning, is for one foot to come off the pedal, but for the other foot to remain on. This will cause the wheel to move and the pedals to spin around, often resulting in the rider (well, attempted rider in this case!) being hit in the shin or back of the leg with a pedal. If you are using a unicycle with metal pins in the pedals, be warned — those pins will generally draw blood! You can get leg armour which covers both the front and the backs of the legs.
Contrary to popular belief, being a unicyclist does not mean that you also have to learn to juggle and run off and join a circus. Unicycling is a sport with many disciplines, with championships held at both a national and international level.
Obtain access to a unicycle
You will obviously need access to a unicycle. You will need to pick a unicycle suitable for your size. Most adults will want to learn on a unicycle with a 24″ or 20″ wheel. Children may need a smaller wheel.
The ACT Unicycle Riders Society have a few club unicycles which can be borrowed during our training sessions. This will allow people to start out without having to purchase their own unicycle. It also allows people to find a unicycle of an appropriate size.
Find somewhere to practise
The next step is to find somewhere to practise. You may, or may not, want to find somewhere quiet, as unicycling tends to attract a number of (more often than not, stupid) comments and laughter.
When you are starting out, footbridges are your friend! Try and find a footbridge that is a reasonable length, flat, and with a handrail that is convenient for you to hold on to while sitting on the unicycle. Watch out though, as some handrails have small gaps in them and/or other potentially sharp edges which may be harmless to a pedestrian casually holding them, but can hurt if grabbed by an off-balance unicyclist urgently seeking some support!
Attempt to mount the unicycle
This is where things start to get a little tricky! Place the unicycle with the wheel straight out in front of you, and the seat in between your legs as if you are sitting on it and leaning forward. You should have one of the pedals just slightly behind (i.e. closer to yourself) the bottom position, so that as you put weight on it, it will push the wheel backward and underneath you.
Now, hold on to the railing, or other solid object (however, it is not advisable to use poles or other vertical objects, as it is quite easy to end up spinning around them and falling off!). It is often a good idea to hold on with both hands/arms when you first start. Gradually, as you improve, you will find yourself being able to mount by holding on with only one hand/arm, and eventually (in my case, much later!) you can mount without holding on to anything (free mount).
Next, place a foot on the lower pedal and, using your arms, pull yourself up as you place weight on to the pedal. This should cause the unicycle wheel to move back and underneath you.
This may take a few goes in order to figure out where the pedal needs to be placed such that the unicycle ends up underneath you when the pedal is at the bottom. Note, however, that stopping with the pedals vertical is generally not a good thing. This is called the ‘dead zone’, as the pedals being in this position makes it very difficult to push with either foot to make the unicycle move! This isn’t too much of an issue, however, while you are holding on to a railing.
Eventually, you will want to position the pedals, before mounting, such that the wheel goes underneath you and slightly behind you, as you step up on to the seat. This should leave the pedals in such a position that you can push with one of your feet to move the wheel (usually slightly farther back with your opposite foot so that you can apply more pressure to the mounting foot to go forward. This is known as a ‘rollback mount’). I wouldn’t attempt this initially though!
Find your balance!
Yes, I know — this is easier said than done! You should be able to find a position where the unicycle is sitting underneath you with the pedals in the vertical position, and you are not having to lean on your supporting railing too much in any particular direction.
While holding on to your supporting railing, try rocking the pedals back and forth a bit to get a feel for the unicycle, and what happens to your balance as the wheel moves!