Life on One Wheel: Tips for Unicycling

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By Jamie Morningstar — As a proud mom, I’ll tell you that my son Ben has always been a quick study on a bicycle.

Take, for example, a chilly April morning nine years ago when a five-year-old Ben announced that he was ready to shed the training wheels. Knowing it’s a sin to squelch any child’s bicycle-related ambitions, I immediately acquiesced, grabbed a socket wrench, and removed the training wheels. It was a little chilly out, so I told Ben I was running in to get a sweater and would come right back out to help him get started.

I got a warmer layer and walked back outside to find Ben was zipping around the driveway shouting, “I am the Master of Awesomeness!” He had mastered life on two wheels in the time it took me to grab a sweater.

Fast forward a few years to last summer when Ben’s stated ambition for the summer was to learn to cycle really, really well without hands. By the end of the summer he has perfected riding around our entire block while patting his head and rubbing his tummy. And a germ of an idea sprouted in my head – Ben clearly needed a unicycle for Christmas.

Ben’s first afternoon on his unicycle. Photo by Jamie Morningstar

I have a policy about gift-giving: all truly great presents are risky. I mean, where’s the thrill if you get somebody exactly what they asked for? A perfect gift often involves choosing a present they would have never thought of, but now can’t imagine life without. Of course, a gift like that that could fall totally flat on its face; or could be simply brilliant.

And so Ben found a unicycle under the tree Christmas morning.

He refused to watch the YouTube videos we had pre-scouted. Reading a how-to guide was out of the question. Ben just wanted to get out and ride.

By the end of Christmas Day he could ride 2 pedal rotations before falling.

By the middle of January he could ride from one end of his grandmother’s kitchen to the other (Grammy has tile floors and a far more generous outlook on unicycling in the house than Mom and Dad).

After 5 months of practice Ben was getting pretty darn good on the unicycle. He insisted on bringing the unicycle on a camping trip to Southern Utah, May 2015. Photo by Jamie Morningstar

And by May, the boy was unstoppable. The unicycle was his constant companion. It carried him to the grocery store on allowance day to purchase the week’s allotment of candy. He rode it to school, brought it to church youth group. He was always riding.

Ben practiced long and hard to be ready for the Orem Summerfest Children’s Parade, 6 months after receiving his unicycle for Christmas.
Photo by Jamie Morningstar

Ben’s Tips for Learning to Ride:

There are great videos out there to learn. Watch a bunch of stuff on YouTube.

Start with a 20” wheel, even if you’re taller than I am. It’s a lot easier to learn with a smaller wheel. Eventually if you want to go longer distances you’re going to want a 24” or bigger, but start small.

Don’t get the cheapest unicycle out there. The cheapest ones go for about $60 but I started with a Club. If you spend a little bit more, the whole unicycle feels more stable, even now after years of use. With Club the seat is more comfortable that the ones on really cheap unicycles, and the seat has a handle in front, which is pretty nice.

Learn to fall forward. Starting unicycling is really just falling practice. With accidental falling, you fall forward a lot more often than you fall backwards. Plus it’s easier to catch yourself safely if you fall forward. So before you even worry about learning to ride, learn to fall forward. You’ll feel a lot less scared when you start riding if you’ve practiced getting off quickly and safely.

Beyond Beginning

A kid’s interests usually change faster than Utah weather, but Ben’s love for unicycling is steadfast. He’s been riding consistently now for almost three years. Ben’s unicycle is still his primary mode of transportation and he’s added curb hopping and other small tricks to the repertoire.

Last Christmas Ben decided it was time to up the ante and get a giraffe. “Giraffe” unicycles are tall unicycles with a saddle on a long seat post and a chain connecting pedals to the wheel rather than the usual direct-drive arrangement on most unicycles. But a normal giraffe still wasn’t cool enough for Ben. He requested a unique arrangement – a triple-decker unicycle.

Ben shows off his increasing unicycle confidence on his Tricycle. Photo by Jamie Morningstar

Ben’s “tricycle” has three 16-inch wheels stacked on top of each other. Pedaling the first wheel forward drives the second backward, which drives the third wheel (and the whole unicycle) forward. It’s quite the contraption, and always earns Ben the admiration of passers by. As he puts it, “I ride my tricycle when I want to show off more than usual.”

Ben says, “The most frequently asked question is what it’s called. I don’t have a preference – the website says it’s a 3 Wheeler, which seems kind of lame. I’ve heard it been called a tricycle or and a tri-unicycle. One of my favorite names for it was when I had it painted in patriotic colors for a parade – we called it a “Red, White, and Blunicycle”.

He goes on to say that the next most common question he gets is, “How do you get on that thing?” He explains the process like this: “You want to stick your dominant leg on the bottom wheel so it doesn’t roll and you have a place to step. Hold on to something tall with your dominant hand and pull up. With the pedal at 6 o’clock, put your non-dominant foot on the pedal, get your butt on the seat, and then swing your other foot over on to the other pedal.”

Once he got proficient, Ben rode his unicycle everywhere, including a trip to the pumpkin patch to pick up Halloween jack-o-lanterns, October 2015. Photo by Jamie Morningstar

Mounting his giraffe unicycle solo is as complicated as it sounds, and it took Ben several months to be able to mount and dismount confidently on his own. But the admiration and attention he gets when riding it more than make up for the steep learning curve.

It’s been a blast seeing the unicycle become a part of Ben’s identity. He’s invested countless hours into riding, practicing tricks, and building his confidence on one wheel. Seeing a kid work hard and persevere through learning a really tough skill is such a fulfilling experience. I’m so glad that Ben has discovered a passion for unicycling. Now I’m just hoping we can find some college unicycling scholarships out there!

 

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