Falling in love with a unicycle

Prologue: Some say I have “a wheel off” (in German “ein Rad ab” means “a bit crazy”) and they are not so wrong. The whole thing began on December 24, 2006 in the morning. I had looked in the room of my daughter for a multiple plug socket for our Christmas tree candles and had stumbled upon a loosely veiled unicycle. I spotted the plug socket and quickly forgot about the unicycle. A few hours later that cycle lay under the tree and all other family members having grasped their gifts, I could not look past it any longer.

Having invested some time, strength and determination the profits are now growing dynamically. How about you?

Girls’ Day? You may as well forget it, if someone states: Unicycles are just meant for eight-year old girls. Men - particularly in or beyond the mid-life-crisis - would not have a chance. I am born in 1951, moderately sportive and it took approx. 4 weeks until I could ride freely for a few meters. There are courses being offered. That can be the correct way for you; however there is a do-it-yourself strategy as well, see below. Anyhow I would recommend some background information for the first steps and some tips & tricks regarding the further escalation. For me that was the book „Einradfahren, Basics und erste Tricks“ by Andreas Anders-Wilkens & Roger Mager (2nd edition 2007, Meyer & Meyer publishing house, Aachen), which is well-illustrated as well.

Security: Most middle age aspirants may be deterred by the fear of injury. This danger however is usually overrated. A unicycle will nearly always unload you right onto the feet. As a matter of fact there is practically nothing in the way, like steering wheels etc. And the skull is much less endangered than whilst ordinary cycling: the speed is clearly lower. Speed usually amounts to 5 - 10 km/h, faster than going, a little bit slower than running. In the whole five months up to now I never banged the head - and I quite frequently stood beside my cycle, I squatted, or – more rarely – covered the soil. I did not harm knees or elbows as well. However quite soon I bought half gloves protecting the palms. Additionally I carry a seal at the left wrist, where I had broken the os naviculare some years ago. For at least to and fro I am falling in the cycling direction and come to a rest on the palms; preferably with deeper lateral ripples or holes in the roadway, which resemble the circular arc of the wheel - then the wheel immediately sticks as forged in. A tip for the first phase: The lower legs are endangered to receive some bruises resulting from conflicts with the pedals, e.g. whilst ascending the unicycle. Therefore at least for the beginning I would recommend long trousers or somewhat longer, firmer socks like skiing socks.

As rule of thumb: You are capable of skiing? So you need to have no fear in respect of a unicycle as well.

Oh: Remember to tie up your shoes firmly. Once loose tying belts wound around a crank and then tightened immediately. Bad trap. Firm shoes are better than moccasins. A hint as to the sitting position: After a short time I adjusted the saddle in a position that high that I could move legs easily and in a smooth motion, and the legs did not have to bend too strongly. Anyway you should still reach the soil at least with tips of the toes and should be able to ascend easily (see below). I would make use of a rather high air pressure; particularly on uneven soils you would otherwise encounter heavy work in progress. Tire tread: At the beginning those tires with normal road profile are the best choice. With the first change (see below) I chose an of-road profile and it went very well. Breakdown danger: Particularly at the beginning the tires wear out very punctually: The specific load is with the unicycle very high, usually the tires quite quickly wear out at two places in the proximity of the pedals (maximum load lies between the horizontal and the vertical position of both pedals, or at approx. 45° measured from the horizontal position in driving direction). Therefore you can easily extend the utilization period of the unicycle’s tire by rotating of the (deflated) coat on the rim. And you may avoid what I succeeded in just after two months: plates.


1. Excursion: The mental and the physical yield

-       That is probably the real fancy thing about the unicycle: You may still plan and realize a learning progress directly examinable at an advanced age (examples: " This inclined garage exit I want to go past!" "Over this step I want to come!" "I want to roll down this steep forest lane down!" or: "I can master this long upward gradient!") You may not succeed today or tomorrow, but perhaps in a 10 day period. And a month later you are still knowing very well, what once had made you to sigh or groan out loud – and now definitely makes you proud.

At our age (50+) you sometimes do some things for the last time in lifetime already. So it may comfort you especially to encounter a perfectly new challenge, develop a strategy and master the problem. Whilst my first free-handled meters on unicycle I felt also suddenly reminded of something being  buried for a long time: Of the moment, when I as an approx. five-year-old boy for the first time managed to hold both feet on the footboard of my scooter and riding my first short serpentine. And then suddenly that pride, as if practically nothing in the world would ever question my competence and stir my peace of mind.

-       In addition there is something almost meditative about the unicycle: Unicycle driving actually is controlled in the lower brain layers and even the backside contributes a lot more than the brain cortex. But nevertheless: You must sort of reset yourself before the start and whilst cycling and de, nearly programmed to the peace and – in a way of auto-programming – develop confidence in your skills. You may e.g. see a twig on the soil and in principle you may develop two attitudes (1) "terrible giant branch, I will never get past it!" Then you practically have lost and lie flat on the soil. (2) "I am in a good mood, what the heck could be scary about tiny twigs?" Then you evenly drive past or even across that twig. And you do not pay attention at anyone gaping at you. Thus you can imagine or wish yourself a short way into the future - and that’s a truly amazing experience. A similar experience is that you may imagine your own way forward, e.g. around stones or holes on the soil ahead. And at the same time you a steering this line in a nearly virtual manner. You get the feeling of changing your direction by sheer want, which perception probably is strongly promoted by the absence of the handle bar.

-       Further on a unicycle has, even if this may sound strangely, much more in common with running than with two-wheel cycling. As in the case of running the footprint (or wheel print) always pursues the point of gravity resp. pushes it ahead. Therefore unicycling makes for the feeling of continuous falling, positively expressed: of flowing or flying. After a certain time you can even trigger a kind of flow experience: You may share this dream - it is amazingly common, as I heard in the meantime: You start to run and after a short time you may raise the feet and slide further in same direction as if shutting off gravity by the force will. Exactly this dream, which was in former times was a frequent part of my night sleep, I felt intensively reminded of a short time ago: I cycled in the forest on an organically absorbing soil and fell into a dynamic equilibrium, seeing trees and shrubs passing homogeneously. Note: You may fall down on the nose one minute later. But up to then it was very edifying! A similar experience may be surfing - but in the midlands around Burscheid, which is part of the “Bergische Land”, there is only poor surfing

-       To whom all this sounds too sophisticated or mind-based - there are down-to-earth yields as well: In any case you will win additional balance (beg your pardon: physically and mentally). Apart from the sense of balance you also further reaction readiness and body co-ordination. You cannot probably accelerate the speed of nerves’ information forwarding – that may be physically fixed. But you may better "lubricate" the switches and prepare your basic data processing for arriving signals, thereby train it. Example: For us adults - and increasingly for our children as well - falling has become taboo. The unicycle teaches you to fall better. What a win, you say? More exactly: You may make better use of the milliseconds just before falling, thus avoiding imminent damage totally or even partly. So you may develop additional self-confidence and need not to withdraw from "risky" areas of life. So the gain is  time and cold-bloodedness as well. Note: Unicycle training is successfully used in the rehabilitation processes. And with me things do not fall so much from the hand any longer.

Furthermore: If you live in fear of a flabby backside, of Cellulites, of a painfully unstable backbone, of a too opulent body mass index or of the Alzheimer syndrome: Take the unicycle, regularly.

Now the beloved reader may ask, why – given all of these advantages – we were not born on a unicycle. Unfortunately I have no final explanation for this clearly surprising fact.

Initial investment: I tried to practice each day a little, in the evenings a half to one hour, on weekends also daily twice. It started in our cellar corridor. I at first mounted the unicycle with contact to both sides: A foot on a pedal in the lower dead center set, then the other foot onto the second pedal and placed my backside on the seat, then brought the cranks carefully into a horizontal position. Quite surprised you may notice: You can quite easily adjust that foreward / backward tilting motion by your thigh musculature and the pedals. Just with a fingertip at the wall you are positioned quite stably. Next I moved between the shelves, some meters back and forth. As a good training for the beginning this is recommended as well: To practice on a supermarket parking lot with a purchase car as a mobile support. I did not try it, but it sounds completely conclusively.

After a few days I moved on to a schoolyard in our neighbourhood. Note: Here age was a strategic advantage in comparison to my son: I did not have a reputation problem with rolling on the soil again and again, which my son clearly had. On the schoolyard I “fingered” along the walls, constantly trying ride a meter freely. A long railing was particularly helpful: The horizontal pipe was in perfect grasp height and you could easily let the hand slide over it, having a firm grip if needed. Another favourable condition: The schoolyard had a slight downward gradient and this seems to be supportive for the basic attempts of free riding.

Then there a half-open hall with tiled soil - thus completely even, being another training environment very favorable at the beginning. Here I succeeded in my first "free" meters after approximately four weeks: I had handled along the wall which after 6 meters turned right-angled to the right. A freely standing perpendicular steel tube supports the roof about 3 meters off this corner. I firmly planned to reach this steel tube after passing the wall corner. It actually happened: Swaying like a drunkard and surely with frightening looks I rode approx. two pedal cycles freely! The next five attempts did not work at all, naturally. But simply do not give up! You’ll win - and you will constantly experience that on a unicycle - not always, but ever more frequently.

Then I tried to transfer the whole to the schoolyard. I ascended with the hand at a tree, put the pedals in a horizontal position and easily repelled myself. After approx. 20 attempts I rode 2 meters, with approx.. 40 attempts 3 meters and with the 41st attempts 25 meters. My return of investment: 2 litres of Endorphin. Well-understood: Never rely on lessons just learned. It’s rather like the “Echternacher Springprozession”, which leads back a few step again and again, but nevertheless proceeds persistently and stout-heartet.

The next steps: I tried longer distances, e.g. a narrow small road between two fields dropping faintly (for connoisseurs of the beautiful village Dierath: the "Handerfeld"). There I first managed the distance between two lanterns, then three lanterns and so on and so on. Parallel I again and again practiced on the schoolyard the ascending without lateral support. You cannot be sure to constantly find fitting holding points anywhere and in addition free ascending is an outstanding training for the balance. In principal there are two different techniques: a "static" variant, called "balance ascent" as well, and a dynamic version, also designated as "pendulum ascent". I got used to the "balance"-technology in the following way:

(1) At first I put the cranks into a horizontal position and place the pedals flat as well. With me the left pedal points in my direction, the unicycle being held easily bent to me with the right hand before me, the saddle is placed already easily under the back.

(2) Now I place the left foot with very small load onto the left pedal producing a perceptible force equilibrium between the pressure on the pedal and the pressure with the resp. onto the back. The substantial load still rests on the stretched right leg, while the wheel does not move any centimeter.

(3) Then I shift weight off the right leg so that more or less at the same time a third of the load gets onto the left leg resting on the left pedal, a third moves with the back onto the saddle and the last third now quickly enters the right pedal still standing in front.

(4) For a moment the wheel still does not move one instant forward, it remains static. Instead the saddle moves in a slow circulation around the hub of the unicycle like going over a gentle hill.

(5) As soon as the unicycle is being bent a bit forward I load the right pedal lightly more than the left. The left pedal is not being relieved, otherwise you would press the right pedal forcefully downward, you would accelerate and would descend a second later. Instead you drive off carefully.

That’s easy to write, no question! But there is a relatively simple way of training: Go and try the described movements in direct proximity of a perpendicular bar or another firm grasp – at first just with the goal of getting onto the saddle, not in order to drive off. If you do the exercise 20 to 50 times, you may have learned the lesson. Note: I still cannot perform the "pendulum ascent" and therefore cannot describe that technique; it is however well explained in the book mentioned above.

Another hint: During the first whilst starting and driving weeks do not look down onto the soil directly before your unicycle or under it; otherwise your sense of balance would hardly have a chance. Check the possible riding way, have a quick look at the still vacant pedal and then direct the view look some meters before the wheel, increasingly into larger widths facilitating stabilization. Later on you may look wherever you want. You may even keep your eyes shut for several seconds and drive some ten meters without loosing equilibrium – quite as in the sleep. The backside will stay alert; it is obviously much more intelligent than we generally would allow.

After two months the unicycle regularly procured the breakfast rolls on the weekends, with backpack and partly with our dog, the dog not at the line however. At first I rode just small intervals interrupted by larger walking stretches for the recovery of the stressed thighs, then growing distances up to approx. 1000 m. Thighs: This musculature provides the equilibrium in driving direction and it was particularly stressed and nearly cramped at first. But – be it by better balance, be it by growing shift of weight off the pedals and into the saddle, be it by sustainable training of the musculature – with passing time the felt effort decreased and the free distances increased significantly.

I began cycling through the woods – unicycle is astonishingly adapted to varying surfaces and riding in the forest really is great fun – and tried stronger downward gradients or upward gradients. Downward gradients do not pose the problem you would expect. Again it’s only a question of exercise: The thighs have the job to take out energy continuously with each pedal cycle. You can ease the stress a bit by light zigzags, changing direction of the wheel a little bit with each pedal cycle (a sort of "flutter") whereby you extend the driven way artificially and decrease the downward gradient. Riding up may in the first phase be felt much more difficult than riding off the mountain. But again you can ease the load and effort by inserting a small reduction: the above described “flutter”.

At Easter 2007 I then took the unicycle to the mountains. In Maurach at the Achensee in Austria the snow was quite poor already and one afternoon I carried the unicycle – which is light weight – up the Rofan, the skiing mountain nearby. And then I rode down the largest part of the skiing slope – probably the first descent using this technology. This may sound very freak, but it really works and is absolute fun. I took the picture above on that descent; the setting sun drawing the shade on a slope. But for taking that picture I had to pass that site three times. Mark my slogan for unicyclists: “Not always, but ever more frequently!”

2. Excursion: Lifelong unfolding

Maybe you here and there came upon the key phrase “LLL” or “life long learning” and you guessed that sounded quite like “life sentence” or maximum penalty. I would completely endorse that interpretation. Unfortunately life long learning is much too frequently learning of new versions of old lessons: E.g. studying the fourth new Windows Office Suite in your life to stay competitive. In these cases life long learning is just a consequence of market processes. It then does not amplify our competence significantly, but just restore it and lets you stay passive (these things are often marketed with catchwords like “modern”, “consumer-adjusted” etc.). Therefore it is little fun for many of us to just follow the figurative carrot which will be always be swinging a few meters ahead.

Much more attractive to me is the goal to lifelong extended competence, lifelong participation and the ability to co-determine. Head and bodies have a practically never-ending potential of talents. They can unfold magnificently still in the hundredth year of age, see Buster Martin of the “Zimmers”. From my point of view talents are not to be found among us (some people tend to call individual humans "talents"), but inside every one of us. Any individual is a connoisseur, artist and artisan. This is exactly the direction the original Christian language points at: Each of us is obliged to use the gifts given by God for the best use of the community – talents originally being a unit of weight, then a unit of value.

Everyone knows from own experience: Our ability to solve a not completely trivial problem varies substantially over days and months: Things that appear completely easy today may pose an insurmountable problem the day after, and in reverse. You often are surprised by the fact, that another one catches the clue faster than you – or slower than expected. You certainly know the phenomenon of people growing with their tasks or duties. It’s my firm and still unrefuted conviction that the efficiency of any individual varies significantly more than there are scientifically measurable differences between the abilities of individuals. Briefly: We differ - in ours highs and lows - much more than we differ from our fellow men. There may be genetically specified exceptions in far highest and lowest part of the human gift spectrum. But even these men we usually do not know or recognize. Note: an investigation in Berlin to the IQ of unemployed young immigrants recently revealed a completely unexpected number of extraordinary IQ’s, statistically no way less than in the "normal population".

Humans outside of these very narrow extremes, thus nearly all of us, can learn everything with the suitable basic conditions and we can carry out everything. The evolution – or whoever else – has us simply spoken endowed us with a tremendous reserve. Second note here: The game of chess is generally estimated as a most challenging test of intelligence. And here current research says: The top rank of chess players it is not enabled by exciting mental authority or a specific innate talent, but by highly motivated, systematic preparation and continuous training, see Philip E. Ross, The Expert Mind, Scientific American, August 2006. Please excuse me, if I should have scratched any illusion of intellectual possessions. But does this not relay very much encouragement: Nobody may ever prove that you cannot learn anything in the range of human competences. Just try it! A unicycle is a very good motivator with the prospect of lifelong profit.

I still have to learn – and fortunately may learn –a lot. Up to next Christmas I have planned: oscillating (repeatedly riding a short way to and fro), riding backwards, getting down unharmed two or three stairway steps. If it will work I will note it here. If I can inspire someone, it would make me happy.

June 3, 2007

Dr. jur. Karl Ulrich Voss, Kuckenberg 34, D 51399 Burscheid

2007: Christmas past, account due.

Thus, I somewhat succeeded in oscillating, backing up and also in unicycling downstairs. But it definitely took some time – oscillating as long as till December – and everything cries for further torment and improvement.

Another few hints out of experience, and to be well understood: I learned it the way annotated underneath. That must by no means correspond to the general requirements of German or galactic unicycle pedagogy. It goes without guarantee and without liability for any psychic, physic or collateral damage:

·        To back up the unicycle clearly has more perfidies than cycling forward. We perfectly know that from our car (in Germany sometimes called: heilix Blechle = holy sheeting). Just to warn you: progress may be backwards much slower than in the forward direction. And suddenly that progress may develop in a shockingly dynamic way. To make it very clear: After some painful experience – although I didn’t break a thing – I’m as a matter of precaution handling the unicycle just and only with seals around both wrists.

A way to exercise: Going along the wall, one time in one direction with the left hand supporting at the wall, returning after a U-turn with the right hand supporting (avoid unilateralism!). Try that way at least for a week (however not 24 hours a day!). Then try once and again to separate briefly from the wall, riding consciously and with stressed bending of the hip a wiggly or sinuous line. That’s because backwards even more than in the forward direction you rely on easy deviations from the (just ideally) straight line for stabilization. I’ll describe an example, where you are going backwards with your left hand supporting at the wall: (1) As soon as your right foot with its heel is in front of your vehicle (looking into driving direction) you push yourself a little bit away from the wall. (2) Make the unicycle do an easy shearing or yawing movement around the vertical axle, leading just a bit away from the wall. (3) After a half pedal cycle the other pedal points in driving direction and then you turn the unicycle consciously again towards the wall, and so on, and so on. Practice this slight change of directions for some time; it may and even should work somewhat jerkily here and then. You’ll gratefully make use of this special motion sequence when exercising the “oscillating” (see below). An underground with smooth, but dry surface is a very apt condition, e.g. a tile soil or fine cement.

If you then dare to do the first free meters, again pay maximum attention to a surface as flat as possible. To back up is clearly more unstable in the first phase of exercise than the forward version of unicycling. Even a small obstacle or a minimum edge or unevenness may leave you very ungallantly placed on the os coccygis or tail bone. Later on consciously practice turning the head sideward and/or even something beyond the side. There is always something behind you.

·        Unicycling downstairs is a matter of patience and of fairly protective clothing again. However, cycling downstairs is somewhat easier than doing it backwards. Practicing works best in increasing stages, e.g. at curbs, with small differences in height to begin with. Note: The stairs on the video just have comparably flat steps. It may take some more time for me to do DIN (or SAE) steps.

·        Oscillating, first some words to the basics: In my case the left foot rests with the main load in the bottom dead centre (BDC) of the crank way. This foot – or the associated crank – is the pendulum. The right foot at the same time pushes the right pedal alternating to and fro, against the counterweight of the left foot. Thus: Oscillating is not changing load on an equal footing, with the horizontal pedal position as an average value. The oscillation is working rather with a vertical pedal position. You are moving constantly like in a flat gutter.

The position between two door jambs is often recommended as a preparing exercise. According to my experience this is too narrow. I needed ample place, in order to be able to evade with the body in threatening drop direction. With me this sequential adjustment usually takes place during the backward motion by means of bending the hip and slightly turning the unicycle. Actual learning progress came only with plentiful reaching space (horizontally stretched arms scarcely in contact to one or other side), then with one-sided optional grip to a vertical bar, finally after free ascending. A floor with a smooth surface is very helpful again (see above).

Another general advice, which I actually should have addressed earlier: The most important interface between you and the unicycle is not that between back and saddle. It is the contact of shoe and pedal. However those shoes most of the time do not stand firmly on the pedals; they move. The alternating load and the shearing or yawing movement of the unicycle sometimes make the shoes move outward away – particularly with steep upward or downward gradients. Suddenly you just rely on a square centimetre, where according to the current situation you would prefer a square meter.

So keep trying over and over again to position the shoes on the pedals according to your will and need. You may make clever use of the shearing movements and press the feet toward the fork of the unicycle. In addition, you may slightly raise and then adjust the feet whilst the unloaded phase of the pedal cycle. Invest some training here. You may have already noticed that missing control of a pedal may suddenly terminate some beautiful travelling episode. In the same breath: Have a break, if you are a few kilometres on the way. At some unexpected point the ability to react on critical situations rapidly expires - and the chance for a next Pavlovian dent (physically/psychologically) grows just as fast. Right after 50 meters afoot you feel ready to take on anything again.

Sometimes your back front is very grateful for some cooling and relaxation as well. Oh, from painful experience, which kept me and my unicycle some days apart: If you plan to do some kilometres on a unicycle (in my case: approx.. 14), apply some ointment as a precaution. You’ll be in a luckier mood afterwards.

Otherwise it ran quite smoothly. I predated our breakfast rolls more and more in the beautiful mountain village Witzhelden (6 km distant, with some beautiful upward and downward gradients in between). In autumn I unicycled an Italian downhill skiing slope, i.e. the Kronplatz near by Bruneck down to Oberolang, approx. 1,200 elevator meters in most beautiful weather.

And my unicycling strategy for 2008?

Unicycling + juggling would be nice; the so-called freeze (standing still, balancing just by movements of the upper torso) for at least 10 seconds; the same for 5 seconds with closed eyes; 180 degree turn while maintaining the original driving direction. Perhaps going up the steep gradients between Altenberg and Blecher or between Unterburg and Burg an der Wupper. Wait and see.

1. January 2008

Dr. jur. Karl Ulrich Voss, Kuckenberg 34, 51399 Burscheid