Unicycling is, like juggling, a physical skill with hardly any practical application at all, apart from making people shout 'Look at that!'. Like juggling, it isn't easy (some would say if it was there wouldn't be any point doing it), but also like juggling anyone can do it. If you can ride a bicycle, you can ride a unicycle. All it takes is a few pointers, so that you know what you should be trying to do, and lots of practice.
Unicycling has remained, until relatively recently, an obscure skill, limited to trick cyclists and circus performers. However, as society has become more affluent, the relative cost of the equipment has come down, and as people look for ever more obscure ways to enjoy and test themselves, unicycling has, like juggling, become a small industry.
There was a French device called a Pedocaetre, which had only one wheel and was made around 1853; but, this was for two riders sitting either side of a massive wheel, and was hand-driven. An Englishman named Hobby built a large, but more conventional looking, unicycle around 1870.
However, the most important precursor to the unicycle was undoubtedly the penny-farthing, or 'ordinary bicycle'. This familiar contraption placed the rider high up, pushing pedals attached directly to a front wheel sometimes nearly two metres in diameter. Fatal accidents were common, as the slightest jolt of the front wheel would stop it, lift the small back wheel and send the rider over the handlebars. A few enterprising individuals tried doing this on purpose, and found they could continue riding for some distance with only the front wheel on the ground. It was only a short leap from there to cutting the back wheel off altogether, and the first common unicycles were born.
Types of Unicycle
To most people, a unicycle is a bike with one wheel. To the interested consumer, however, there is much more to it than that. There is quite a range of unicycles available, depending on what you want to do.
The Beginner's Unicycle
This basic unicycle is the type familiar to most people. It should have a nice, comfortable saddle - preferably one protected by some sort of grab handle. The handle will spend a lot of time hitting the pavement during the learning process, so any protection is good. Most beginner's wheels have approximately a 20-inch diameter. With a properly adjusted saddle, the rider should be able to sit so that the legs are still slightly bent when flat on a fully depressed pedal.
The Sports Unicycle
If you are a competitive type, you may wish to enter a unicycle race. For this, you may wish to invest in a special racing unicycle. These feature much larger wheels, more like a racing bike, which allows the rider to attain much greater speeds that are possible on unicycles with a smaller wheel diameter. This variety of unicycle is not recommended for learning or just puttering about on.
The Comical Unicycle
At the other end of the scale, there are unicycles available with very small diameter wheels indeed. One freely available model has a wheel about six inches (150mm) in diameter. The main point of these is the sheer comical effect of the tiny movements required to pedal one, and the panic-stricken speed with which the rider has to move. It is possible to ride one without moving the legs at all, and pedal entirely by flapping your feet. These unicycles are purely for entertainment, and even by the standards of the other models mentioned here are impractical as a method of getting from A to B.
The Mountain Unicycle
If you like to get off the beaten track, there are mountain unicycles (also called 'munis') which feature big, grippy tyres and larger, more easily grabbed saddles. Muni covers riding off-road or on uneven terrain, like grass, dirt, rock, snow, etc - not specifically on mountains! The activity is not for the faint-hearted and requires a great deal of strength and concentration. Because a unicycle is direct drive it is impossible to coast. That means you are always pedalling, uphill and downhill, which equates to a thorough workout for any muni rider.
The Giraffe Unicycle
If you like to show off, you'll probably want to at least try out a giraffe unicycle. This is simply a very tall unicycle, usually featuring one or more chains to drive the wheel. Giraffe unicycles start at about five feet tall, and go up to just over a hundred feet. Anything over six feet, however, is likely to be beyond the needs of anyone but a professional.
How to Ride a Unicycle
Before you Start
So you've bought a beginner's unicycle and are itching to have a go. First, you need a good location. It's perfectly possible to learn to unicycle on the road outside your house, as this Researcher did. However, if you don't want a crowd of kids watching your every move or if you live on a busy road, find somewhere quieter. The perfect venue is an indoor sports hall. This combines the virtues of no dependence on weather, a smooth, obstacle free floor, and plenty of other stuff you can do nearby for when you get frustrated - which you will. You should also dress appropriately - jeans, trainers and a t-shirt are fine, but tuck your shirt in and try the sort of footwear which covers your ankles - they're going to take a bit of a hammering. If you're paranoid, or very clumsy, by all means tog up in full protective gear - helmet, elbow and knee pads, gloves, wrist protectors, etc. However, unlike skateboarding, you will probably find that more than 99% of your falls will be straight onto your feet, so such excesses are really likely to be unnecessary.
The First Ride
Start by a wall, and have a friend standing by. Hold the unicycle in front of you by the saddle. Decide which is your 'good' foot, and have that pedal pointing back towards you at about 45 degrees. Tuck the saddle between your legs, and place your foot on the pedal. Now put one hand on the wall, and the other on your friend's shoulder. When you're ready, put your weight on your good foot. The unicycle will shoot back between you legs and go vertical as your weight comes onto the pedal. However, don't panic. Raise your other foot onto the free pedal and push that pedal back until the crank is horizontal. Relax, and take a few deep breaths. This is your starting position. To dismount, or if you're going to fall off, simply step to the ground - it's not far. If possible, grab the saddle to prevent damage to your unicycle and other people.
Unicycling is like walking. It consists of leaning forward to the point where you begin to fall, then correcting that fall. The only difference here is that you correct by pedalling instead of stepping. Many beginners make the mistake of pedalling first. All that happens then is that the unicycle comes out from under you, and you fall back. Learning just how much you lean forward is almost all there is to learning to unicycle.
Lean forward, slightly, then a little more. Once you feel yourself starting to topple, and not before, start to pedal. Don't race, but don't be timid either. Once you start pedalling, don't stop. You may get a half or a full revolution out of the pedals before you come off. If so, congratulations! If not, just try again. You will get there. As you improve, you will need only the wall to lean on. Eventually, you'll be riding along the wall and away from it, further and further. This may all take several weeks of practice, although this Researcher has seen a complete novice ride 30 metres within one hour's concentrated practice of first seeing a unicycle! Then you'll realise you can't carry the wall around with you. You need to learn to free mount.
The Free Mount
The free mount is simply a method of getting on a unicycle without leaning on anything else. You have to learn to free mount!
Hold the unicycle out in front of you. Grip the saddle between your thighs, and hold the front. Place your good foot on the pedal and put your weight on it. Now, as the unicycle passes underneath you, raise your other foot gracefully over the rising pedal. As the crank passes the vertical, slap it with the sole of your foot and push it back until the cranks are horizontal. Now, without any hesitation at all, let go of the saddle, lean forward and ride away. This takes some practice, but it is extremely satisfying and quite impressive to watch.
Other Things to Do
Once you can get on, ride around and get off, the next targets are riding backwards, hovering, and negotiating obstacles.
Riding backwards is just the same as riding forwards, you just need to learn the whole balance thing again.
Hovering, or idling, consists of riding on the spot by pedalling forwards for one half a turn, backwards for one half a turn, and repeating. It's vital to be able to do this well if you intend juggling on your unicycle. It's also useful to be able to do it while you wait for the lights to change.
Negotiating obstacles, such as kerbs, is a neat trick which opens up the joys of unicycling in less controlled environments such as off road. It calls for skill and timing, as most obstacles are best negotiated with a perfectly timed lunge and push of the pedals or a sort of bunny hop.
One of the great secrets of unicycling is that a five foot unicycle is much easier to ride than a normal one. This is simply because it takes so very much longer to fall off one that you have much more time available to correct errors. Of course, all this assumes you can get on the thing in the first place...
If you can find enough like-minded people, unicycles make great mounts for a game of hockey, basketball or polo. Jousting with shields and heavily padded lances is also extremely funny, to do and to watch.
Unicycling Too easy? Then try these...
For those people for whom removing the handlebars, front wheel, chain and most of the frame from a normal bike isn't making life difficult enough, there exist a couple of even more impractical alternatives - the ultimate wheel and the BC wheel.
The Ultimate Wheel
The ultimate wheel is a unicycle stripped down even further - no frame, no forks, no saddle, just the wheel and the cranks. This thing can be ridden, but if you're going to try, do make sure you're wearing some sturdy trousers and preferably some shinpads turned inwards, as the wheel rests alternately against the inner shins as it turns.
The BC Wheel
This is the absolute minimalist form of transport. It's named after the comic strip in which a character got about on a stone version. It consists simply of a wheel with an axle on a bearing. This allows the user to stand on the axle as the wheel turns. The only way to use one is to set it rolling in a straight line, then leap on, landing with both feet on the axle at once. You don't really 'ride' a BC wheel - you just kind of go with the flow and try to fall off later rather than sooner.
As you might expect, people have ridden incredible distances on unicycles to get into the record books. A man worthy of mention is the American unicyclist Steve McPeak, who rode a unicycle the length of Route 66 in the USA, a distance of over a thousand miles. This is all the more extraordinary because the unicycle he used was about ten metres tall - the height of the highest Olympic diving board. He also holds the record for the tallest unicycle ever ridden, at over 31 metres (although he did wear a safety harness for that ride).
There are two excellent books available for anyone interested in investigating unicycling further.
There is the short, but fun and informative, How to Ride Your Unicycle by Charlie Dancey (who has also authored several books on juggling). There is also the more staid, but comprehensive, Unicycling from Beginner to Expert by Sebastian Hoher. Both of these books explain basic and more advanced techniques - such as the kick-up mount, where the rider approaches a unicycle which is lying on the ground and mounts it without using their hands, and free mounting giraffe unicycles, among other delights. Both are recommended.
Also, check out Unicycling.org for more info.