Diary of a Reluctant Unicyclist
by Andy Dickson

photo (c) Gerard Brown

Monday, 23 August
Dear Diary,
If I had a motto it would be: "See a unicyclist -- push him off and throw his juggling balls into the bushes." I'm sure they're very nice people, some of them, it's just a gut reaction. Beetroot makes me retch; unicyclists make me fascist. Unfortunately the Editor rang today and asked me to learn to ride one. He thinks it will be "funny". He also said "good for the magazine" but I think he just means funny.

As circus skills go I prefer plate spinning. Something to do with the use of ordinary household items tocreate a gravity-defying spectacle. Plus it has always struck me as a metaphor for life -- running from crisis to crisis. Well, mine anyway. This is not Cycling & Plate Spinning Today, though...

Unicycling is contrived. It hasn't developed for any other reason than because some clown wanted to be a bit more wacky than some other clown. Never liked 'wacky'. "Look, I'm a wacky unicyclist I am," they seem to be saying in lieu of a personality.

Plus, unlike other physical skills which when mastered look cool, even an experienced unicyclist looks dorky. So, not useful and not cool; what is the point?

"OK, who's going to teach me then?" I ask.

"Circus Space; tomorrow; a bloke called Ian."

Oh joy.

Tuesday, 24 August
Dear Diary,
Arrive late hoping Ian is ill and that all the unicycles have punctures. He isn't and they don't. Thankfully he also isn't wearing baggy, satin, multi-coloured trousers, a 'Save the Whale' T-shirt or a jester's hat. During our introductory chat, however, he absentmindedly removes four balls from his pocket and fondles them.

He is in the process of teaching juggling to a dozen or so people who don't look like they need tuition. All around, perfectly normal looking people are tossing all manner of clubs, balls and rings in the air and to each other. I am the only person trying to balance on one wheel.

Juggling looks cool. Most people can't even throw five things in the air, much less catch them. Everyone looks calm and focused and not dorky.

Ian says I should try and sit directly over the axle as if there is a plumb-line going straight through my backbone and head. I ask if I should sit heavily in the saddle and he says yes, both heavily and lightly. "Very Zen," I say. "But mind your balls," he says and he doesn't mean juggling. I ask if you develop the ability to suck them into your abdomen as sumos reputedly do (not meaning juggling, either). He suggests either a jock-strap or taping them to your leg.

Getting into the saddle proves far more difficult than imagined. Whenever I try to lift my second foot to the peddle the bike squirts out from under me like a lemon pip. Me as lemon.

Make some progress holding Ian's shoulder in a death grip. The bike keeps squirting forwards. I lean forwards more and it squirts backwards. And every now and again it swivels and we bear down on a juggler or a wall. After ten minutes of this Ian says "good" and wanders off to his jugglers. I am alone; the only unicyclist (well, person on a unicycle -- there's a difference) in a corner of a vast converted warehouse full of jugglers. I feel vulnerable. A pox on the Editor and his magazine.

Spend the next 45 minutes with my tongue out, brow furrowed, gurning. Fortunate that I'm learning to unicycle, really.

"Pedal faster and lean forwards," says a small woman in her thirties who has been catching hoops behind her back. More advice follows. Wipe dribble from chin and unfold gurned face. As she speaks, it slowly dawns on me that they can probably all do it, the bastards. Don't really take much of what she says in as my head aches. Collapse gently in corner.

Cycle home. I love both my bicycle's wheels.

Tuesday, 31 August
Dear Diary,
Photographer and girlfriend come to class to get pictures. Haven't practised at all -- haven't got a unicycle. Pashley, one of the few unicycle manufactures, say there is a worldwide shortage of saddles. Railtrack would be proud of that one.

Am wearing tighter underpants than last week and have marginally more success getting started without crushing my gonads, but I am no better than the week before. This is going to take a long time. Consider quitting. Mightily cheesed off with repeatedly falling off for the camera and making photographer laugh. Then Reg, a 58 year-old local government officer, drops his clubs and grabs my arm. We make a few weaving passes across the room scattering jugglers like nine pins.

Not very much to my surprise, he's a dab hand. He reiterates the posture and leaning tips Ian told me from the first session whilst rocking back and forth and spinning round in a circle. He also tells me about a kite yachting festival he's going to soon. Then he goes back to his clubs. I like the idea of local government officers who juggle and unicycle. And kite yacht. Ordinary people doing mad things.

Biggest problem seems to be finding the balance point. Don't lean and the wheel runs away from you; lean and don't pedal fast enough and it zips backwards; lean and pedal fast and, for a few seconds, you are a worryingly loose cannon. Definition of a unicyclist?

Tuesday, 7 September
Dear Diary,
Finally get practice unicycle but can't make session. Don't practice.

Wednesday, 8 September
Dear Diary,
Err... didn't do any practice again. Editor rings. I explain. He says OK, we'll move the deadline back a month to give me time to learn. Result!

Monday, 4 October
Dear Diary,
Shit. Forgot to learn to unicycle. Ring mag office, no extension on deadline. Get out unicycle and fall off 27 times in back garden. Almost rip clothes line down. Trash herbaceous border. Manage about ten feet in straightish line. Neighbours worried.

Thursday, 7 October
Dear Diary,
Practised every day this week for at least 30 minutes. Can now go forwards for more than half a dozen pedal revs. Feel confident enough to go back to Circus Space class.

Friday, 8 October
Dear Diary,
Show off newly-learnt skills at Circus Space. Unicycle across the room and fall onto crash mat. No standing ovation from the jugglers, though. Grab Ian, insist he watches me. He manages to look pleasantly impressed, then gestures to a foreign-looking gentleman standing in the shadows. His name is Sven and he's from Zippo's Circus. He's at Circus Space looking for talent. They go into a huddle. Ian says Sven needs some stooges for a clown bit in a show. Stooges don't have to be very good, just competent; am I interested? Does the Pope wear a pointy hat? One minute mono-wheeled muppet, next selling up buying caravan and joining circus. Do a couple more passes across the gym. Don't care if I have to wear clown's outfit, I am a unicycling Samurai -- seventh dan.

Wake up with three year-old bouncing on chest shouting; "Fall off the funny bike again Daddy."

Monday, 11 October (deadline)
Dear Diary,
Call office, confess failure, offer head on plate. Not good enough, they need words as well. "But I can't bloody do it you vicious bastards," I sob.

"I don't care," says Gestapo Editor Fuhrer, "make it up."

So I did.

The term 'in at the deep end' [the heading of the article as it appeared in Cycling Today] implies sinking or swimming. I clearly swum like a man with lead boots. Unicycling is difficult. Regular (as in daily) practice is needed, ideally with a partner as dedicated as you. Hen's teeth are more common than the latter. Even then it will probably take weeks.

In an effort to find out more I checked the web. Perhaps unsurprisingly there was a sea of sites devoted to the pastime and its various permutations.

Unicycling hockey and basketball are mentioned as are off-road unicycling, unicycle gladiators and jousting. If, like me, you feel the need to bellow the question "In God's name why?" then there is the frequently asked questions site. Answers to that one apparently include: it's fun and it's good exercise. Other FAQs include: How did it begin? (Probably derived from penny farthing endos.) How do you learn and how long does it take? (See above.) Is it dangerous? What different types are there? Which end is the front? Where can I find a club? Where's the other wheel?

Tallest: 31.01m (101ft 9in) high
Ridden by some nutter, namely Steve McPeak, over a distance of 114.6m (376ft) in Las Vegas, October 1980. Proving some scrap of sanity, he was wearing a safety wire attached to a crane. Possibly blowing the sanity idea out of the window, Steve McPeak once rode a 32ft high unicycle from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Smallest: 20cm (8in) low
Again in Las Vegas, this time a Swede called Peter Rosendahl rode the stunning distance of 3.6m (12ft) on 25 March 1994. Must beg the question why? There must be something in the water in Vegas...

Largest: 66-inch diameter wheel
'Large Marge' was the largest unicycle ever made and was the pride and joy of Dave Moore, Michael Leebolt and Steve Gordon. All 'crazy' Californian guys, Steve had the first ride on 17 October 1986.

Fastest: 23mph
Floyd Beattie was timed over 200m at an International Human Powered Vehicle Association meeting in Indianapolis in 1988.

100m: 12.11 secs (29.72kph)
Set on 1 July 1990 by Peter Rosendahl, a man with an obvious Guinness Book of Records fixation.

100 miles: 6hr, 44min, 21.84secs Takayuki Koike of Kanagawa, Japan on 9 August 1987.

Silliest: 74.75km (46.7 miles)
BACKWARDS in a time of 9 hours, 25 minutes on 19 May 1990 in Las Vegas... Peter Rosendahl again.


© Andy Dickson
Cycling Today, January 2000