Thursday, June 18, 2015

Don: Learning to Unicycle

I've been trying to encourage Don to write some blog posts so everything is not just from my perspective. He finally took me up on it. The following are his adventures learning how to unicycle.

I don’t know what exactly prompted the desire to learn how to unicycle. I’m sure the seed of motivation has its roots in visiting Portland, Oregon, last summer. What could be more
No, Don is not unicycling in this picture
inspiring, watching unicycle polo or the world famous kilted flame spewing Darth Vader bagpiper (on a unicycle)? Either way, I had the thought in early January. (But I do remember it was not a New Year’s Eve resolution.) Lo and behold, a few days later, Jacquie pointed out Princeton Public Library was offering a new program – 65 Things @ 65 Witherspoon on January 10. The event was meant to help people start off the New Year by teaching how to do something new. Wouldn’t you know, unicycling was one of the skills. The three of us went. I was given a chance to practice unicycling with Kevin C. Carr in the library’s lobby. Kevin also let Ashley try and also spent time with her explaining how to juggle. I wasn’t off to the best start but I managed to do OK. Ashley definitely did better – as did a few of the other “students.”

Next came practicing at home. Fortunately a friend had an old unicycle in his garage he lent me. Ashley and I practiced in the basement almost every day for two months. We set up a line of items that we could lean on and practiced going from one end to the other. Eventually I felt the need for more room. As luck would have it, a friend at work had shown me a football field with a fence around it. It was part of his regular 4 mile jogging route. At lunchtime I brought the unicycle to the football field and leaned on the fence. 

On May 8 I could finally go about ½ the length of the football field without leaning on the fence. I thought I finally had it. I quickly learned that I wasn’t able to repeat that when I was away from the fence. It took a few more weeks of practice until I was finally confident enough to ride someplace else. 

On Friday, May 22, I was finally able to make it to the end of the street (1/4 mile) without leaning on anything. It took 3 attempts to make my way back; first leaning on the streetlight opposite the Mauer’s driveway, then relying on the light post at the bend, and finally used the street sign at corner of Dustin and Abby. (Got distracted by someone working in their yard at
the bend and at the corner I became worried about the mail truck.)

It’s funny. I initially assumed, as a regular cyclist, I would have an advantage. Turns out, unicycling is nothing like bicycling. This proved to be one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever undertaken. Progress came in the smallest of incremental baby steps. And each miniscule improvement provided just enough motivation to press on. Although by May 1st I was really tempted to quit. In my typical fashion, with each step, I over analyzed the situation and looked for multiple ways to make any sort of progress. The internet offers a plethora of ideas. One such suggestion was to use a cane to lean on. While in Columbus, Ohio, I purchased walking sticks and tried that. It might have been a good idea but it slowed me down too much to allow for the momentum needed for balance. At times I had flashback to learning how to swim. I think one of my hang ups was gaining enough confidence to ‘let go.’ It’s no small wonder that when I eventually did take flight, it was to the mantra of: “You can do it Dumbo!, You don’t need a magic feather. You can fly!” The taking flight
analogy is really the most apropos because progress was most forthcoming when I would repeat to myself: ‘Just keep flapping, just keep flapping.’ (There is an overabundance of upper body arm movement for me to maintain my balance.) It really does feel like I’m flapping my wings and when it began to click, there really was the sensation of flight.

What I found most interesting was the encouragement received from random strangers. Some people were really enthusiastic about me making an attempt. Two regular dog walkers at the park seemed to take delight in noting my progress. A few people I met were most curious about what prompted such an undertaking – but genuinely supportive. I only met one person that was downright dour on my ability.

What I found most surprising is how quickly I get tired on the unicycle. I think you would be surprised by how much time is spent coasting on a bike – downhill, going into a turn, when you get tired, or when you slow down a little to study something. That’s called “freewheeling” and is available because of the internal construction of the wheel’s hub. That is not an option on a unicycle. The pedals are linked directly to the hub; the pedals go around with each rotation of the wheel. Conversely, unlike the bicycle, pedaling backwards results in the wheel rolling in reverse.

At this point there is still a lot for me to learn. Beginning with the very basics, I currently struggle with turning left and I still need to learn how to “free mount.” (Get started without leaning on anything.) Once I master that I want to work on distance. My original goal was to ride through the park. At this point that is still a distant dream.


  1. That's awesome, makes me want to learn. No helmet though?

    1. He often wears a helmet. In the beginning, though, he was riding in parks and going about 2 feet at a time. Now that he rides with cars nearby and for about a half a mile at a time, he wears the helmet.