Riding Fast on One Wheel–Ignite Talk

Last month I gave a talk at Ignite Seattle on how to ride fast on one wheel – high-speed unicycling. I talked about why unicycles are inherently slow, and how to use big wheels and specialized gearing systems to make them faster than most people would expect.

And, I gave the first 40 seconds of the talk while riding a unicycle.

It was great fun giving the talk. I recommend that others share their geeky passions with the Ignite community. The format – twenty slides in exactly five minutes – forces you to tell a short but polished story and I think that this talk might be one of the best I have given.

I also recommend attending Ignite events. They are very cheap, and entertaining. With up to sixteen speakers in an evening you are bound to hear a few brilliant speakers. And, if somebody is terrible? It’s okay because they’ll be off the stage in five minutes.

And on that note, here’s my five minute talk. Enjoy:

Re-edited version of Ignite: Riding Faster on One Wheel

I didn’t like how the official video of my talk kept cutting away from the slides, so the version above is re-edited by my daughter. The slides are available here. Other ignite talks from that night are on this page – I particularly enjoyed the Geek Diet and Urinals.

For more thoughts on unicycling see the unicycle section of my blog.

The stories behind the slides

The first slide is me on a unicycle at the edge of the grand canyon. It’s not as dangerous as it looks, but after reading Death in Grand Canyon I suppose it wasn’t completely safe either.

The seventh slide is me riding at 17 miles per hour, supposedly demonstrating what can be done on a 36” unicycle. Truly observant people will notice that I’m actually riding my geared 29” unicycle, but I decided not to let the truth interfere with the story.

Slide eight is a couple of shots from 2005 when I rode the Seattle to Portland Bike Classic – 204 miles in two days on a 36” unicycle. This remains the most challenging physical activity that I have ever done. I’ve written about the experience here.

Slide nine is from a unicycle race in Nova Scotia. A total of thirty-five three-person teams from around the world raced from one end of Nova Scotia to the other over five days in an event called Ride the Lobster. The picture is from day three which was reserved for a time trial and a criterium. Ride the Lobster was an epic event. It was a chance to ride with the fastest and friendliest unicyclists in the world.

The single chain unicycle design shown on slides twelve and thirteen is known as a Penguin Giraffe unicycle. I put a brief video of it up on youtube which you can see here:

Penguin Giraffe

The bloody victim on slide eighteen is not me, although I have had similar injuries. The picture was taken August 2012 during a twenty-one-mile group ride down the Iron Horse trail, from Hyak, WA in the Snoqualmie pass. The rider pictured had borrowed somebody’s geared unicycle and wanted to see how fast he could go on the dirt trail.

Slide nineteen is also from the Seattle to Portland ride in 2005. I did 120 miles the first day. I tried again in 2008 on my geared 29” but I hadn’t trained as much and had some mechanical problems, so I pushed myself to do 121 miles the first day and spent the next day at the pool. 20.6 mph is from the dual chain drive unicycle and I plan to beat that once I get better knee pads.

Slide twenty is from the same Iron Horse trail ride as slide eighteen. The unicycles happened to be all the colors of the rainbow and they just needed a bit of artful rearranging.

How do I learn to unicycle?

There are various online guides on how to learn to ride a unicycle, but I’ll repeat a few basic ideas on what I think is the best way to learn.

You need to get a unicycle. You can always borrow one, but make sure it fits because a seat that is a bit too high or too low will make learning orders of magnitude harder. You can go to your local bike store or to http://www.unicycle.com. Start with a 20” unicycle and don’t spend too much. A cheap one will be fine, and it’s going to get dropped a lot anyway.

The next step is to learn to balance forwards/backwards. This is the part of unicycling that is most unlike riding a bike. Luckily this skill can be learned safely and in isolation. During this phase you are going to use supports to stop you from falling sideways. You can do this in a doorway, between a couple of long tables, or between a couple of patient people. You need a hard (not carpeted or grassy) surface so that the wheel rolls and turns smoothly. Be aware that when you fall the unicycle will go flying, so don’t have any fragile items or dentable walls nearby.

To get on the unicycle you put the seat between your legs, put one foot on the bottom pedal (if you put your foot on the top pedal first you’ll learn why that is a bad idea), then put all your weight on that bottom pedal and sort of hop up to vertical while putting the other foot on the top pedal. Ideally you should have both hands on the walls/tables/people at this point, but you may briefly need one hand on the seat. Doing this smooth hop up takes a bit of practice to avoid having the unicycle twist around, but in a few minutes you’ll be expert.

With luck you are now precariously upright. You might want to practice dismounting. Remember to take your top foot off first and try to fall forwards or backwards. You can encourage this by rolling the wheel a bit forwards or backwards so that you naturally dismount behind or in front of it.

Your goal is to keep the wheel underneath you – balanced. If you are tipping to the left or right then use your arms to straighten yourself. This should be easy. If you are tipping forwards or backwards then do not use your arms to correct this. Stopping the wheel from going too far in front or behind is the job of your legs. This is particularly odd when the wheel gets in front of you since you then have to pedal backwards, which is not a normal motion for non-unicyclists.

That’s it. Practice this a lot. You want to be able to smoothly ride forward and then backwards, preferably one or two revolutions, and you want it to be easy. If your legs are getting tired that either means you aren’t putting enough weight on the seat, or it means that the wheel is too far in front or behind and you are having to work hard to hold it in place. When you are perfectly balanced – moving or stationary – you should feel relaxed.

When you’ve perfected this stage – don’t hurry or the next stage will be harder or impossible – then you’re ready to try riding. There are two basic techniques:

Flinging – hold on to something for support, make sure you have lots of room, and push off forwards. You now know how to balance front/back so when you start falling it should be left/right. Swivel your hips to turn into the fall, fall anyway, rinse, repeat, and you’ll gradually ride farther. If you’re falling front/back then return to the previous step.

Cruising – get a patient pair of friends and use them as your movable tables. Start riding along using them to stop you from falling left/right. If you find yourself falling front/back then return to the previous step. You should only need a light hand on their shoulders and after some practice you should be able to do a lighter touch, or only use one hand, or let go for increasingly long fractions of a second.

And then you’re riding, and all you have to do is ride more smoothly, ride faster, ride farther, ride backwards, free-mount, ride one footed, ride off-road

Have fun!

This post was discussed by real unicyclists on the unicyclist.com forums.

About brucedawson

I'm a programmer, working for Google, focusing on optimization and reliability. Nothing's more fun than making code run 10x faster. Unless it's eliminating large numbers of bugs. I also unicycle. And play (ice) hockey. And juggle.
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6 Responses to Riding Fast on One Wheel–Ignite Talk

  1. Sarkie says:

    Brilliant!

    I always like reading real life stuff in the middle of coding post. Loved the video and the fact you also juggle!

    Aside: The link to the slides is wrong, its either Ignite.zip for the pictures or .pdf instead of .zip.

  2. Pingback: Riding Faster on One Wheel: Geared Unicycles | Random ASCII

  3. Pingback: Geared Unicycle Engineering Challenges | Random ASCII

  4. Killian says:

    Bruce, I’m on Unicyclist.com (Killian) and am planning to build a Penguin.

    Just curious if you had any more info about Abram Clark’s design. I’m mostly curious about how he cut the frame to drop the bottom bracket, and what size of chainring he has. I’m shooting for extreme, so I want to try and fit a 50-54 tooth, but don’t know if I’ll have the clearance with the frame.

    Also, do you know what type of bottom bracket it has? Or what the original frame was?

    I’ll also send you a message through the forum, though I’m not sure if you get on there anymore.

    Thanks!

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