Learning to Unicycle

My Childhood: Searching through family photos my mom discovered a picture of my brother Karl and me on our earliest days of unicycling, hanging onto the peach tree in our backyard.  Ten years old for him, twelve for me.  Deeper in the box were other pictures, one from my first year, sitting atop my dad's unicycle, him proudly holding me in place.

Dad Taught Me: My dad learned to unicycle in college.  For years his unicycle hung on a peg in the garage until I got curious and he started teaching me to ride.  A year later six of us from the neighborhood were pedaling all the local sidewalks.  Our favorite trip was a journey to the 7-11 store for bubblegum.  In college I rode to campus.  Later, as a campus pastor I commuted on one-wheel.  In all that time my longest ever ride was just five miles.  I've done long bicycle tours, but my first ever unicycle tour was pedaling over 9,000 miles through all 50 states in 2002.

Learn to Unicycle
They come in all ages, though admittedly many are younger than a dozen years.  They ask, "How can I learn?"

You can Google LEARN TO UNICYCLE and get exactly 101,000 websites.

For Anne and me, teaching some dozens of kids and a few adults: here's what we find works.

Rotate the unicycle wheel until one pedal is up and one is down. Put a foot on the pedal closest to the ground.

Have one person on each side of the new learner.  Help the unicyclist to sit on the unicycle. The unicyclist supports themself with their hands of the shoulders of the helpers.  Stay stationary.  You've got step one.

Now carefully, ever so gently, pedal forward just enough so that the two pedals are level with, parallel to the ground.  Then rock the pedals back and forth no more than an inch.  Your body is now starting to learn the balance of returning the wheel under your body whenever it gets off centered.

Okay, next make sure you're looking straight ahead.  "Look down, fall down."  When you're ready try just a single half-pedal until the rearmost pedal is now the forwardmost pedal.  Stop.  Congratulate yourself.  Rock the pedals back and forth again for awhile.  Try another half pedal.

Repeat until you're ready to start doing more and more pedals at a time.  If you're the learner, treat your helpers well, and hope they will assist you for 15 minutes a day for a couple of days or a couple of weeks until you learn.

Some folks take a month.  Don't worry.  Every day you practice, you get closer to riding, and I guarantee you the thrill of getting your first independent pedals will be worth it.

If you're a bit scared of letting go of your helpers and heading into the great wide independence of the path ahead of you, sometimes it helps to ask a helper to stand in front of you and you can ride to them, first just a foot, and then two feet, and so on until you're getting a couple of your first independent pedals in.

One magical day, you'll be riding.

The fastest I ever saw anyone learn?  5 hours.  A 12-year old named Emily.  I admit it.  I was jealous.  Don't worry, however long it takes, once you learn, you'll never forget.  Happy unicycling.  I'll look for you on the road.

One Wheel - Many Spokes: If you haven't already read the story I hope you'll order a copy and enjoy the experiences of hospitality that happened so often, the engagement with Native American life, and the journey of our family as my wife and kids supported the tour from Harvey, our ancient motor home.

Teaching Kids: Along with the touring, another real delight of unicycling includes teaching young people to ride.  We've created a couple of unicycling clubs these past years, one on Whidbey Island, and a second at Holden Village.  It always thrills when someone reaches that point of turning impossible balance into a first ride across a gym or a parking lot. 

Learn to Ride: Learning is different for every kid, perhaps a lesson that could transfer well to GLBT conversations.  On the unicycles, some hook in right away, others take their time developing a love for the one wheel, and a few never grab interest.  Some students become obsessive in their quest to learn, like I did when I learned as a kid. Others approach the balance puzzle more casually, like my own two kids did a few years back  As teachers, we try and stay engaged, while honoring the way that each person encounters the unicycle.

In 2004 I rode my second unicycle tour. 1700 miles down the West Coast from Vancouver, Canada, to Tijuana, Mexico.  I rode for 6 weeks to celebrate the publication of ONE WHEEL – MANY SPOKES, stopping in bookstores and churches all along the route. The ride felt short compared to the half-year spent going through the 50 states.  I reveled in each day, building new stories of encounters with land and people.  However you decide to do your unicycling, I hope you'll enjoy each pedal stroke.