Learning To Unicycle

Recent changes
Table of contents
Links to this page

This is a work in progress, and as people ask questions I will expand and enhance my descriptions so as to answer them. I will add images later, but first I need to find my unicycle saddle - it's gone missing!
Recently I was asked how one learns to ride a unicycle. This isn't the first time I've been asked, so I thought I'd put my instructions here.

First thing to know is that it isn't, in some sense, all that difficult. There are a few things you need to know, a few things you need to learn, and then it's deliberate practice that does it for you.

You need to learn a single, new reflex, and here's how.

Some people ask about what unicycle is easiest to ride. That's actually a different question than asking which is easiest to learn on.

I think it's easiest to learn on a 20" standard. You have power to correct the fore/aft balance, it's easy to step on and off, and it's not far off the ground.

However, it is easier to ride a giraffe. Getting on is more difficult, getting off is easy - anyone can manage that (although avoiding injury requires some practice) - and riding is actually slower.

But you really can't ride a giraffe until you can ride a standard, so that's what you learn on.

Step 1: Getting comfortable in mounting and dismounting

You really need to make all of that second nature. Do it 5 or ten times in a row, then take a break of at least 10 minutes, preferably 30 minutes or more, and then do it again. If you skimp on this, you will regret it.

Equally, though, don't over practise it. You need to be able to do it reasonably comfortably, but allow that you'll have a wobble one in five times or so. Not a problem, it just needs to be under control.

Step 2: Getting into the launch position.

OK, so you are comfortable getting on and off reliably with the wall or a pole to help. Make really sure you can do that 80% of the time without problems.

Now we need to get the pedals horizontal. Currently you have a lot of weight on the right foot, and the right pedal is at the bottom of its travel. The left, of course, is at the top.

We need to get them to the same level. Here's how we do that.

A quick word here about unicycle saddle height. When learning, with your foot at the bottom you want your knee to be slightly bent - you don't want a straight leg. Many people, especially cyclists, tend to have the saddle too high when learning. You can adjust the height more later, but with the leg bent you can apply rearwards force more easily. That's important.

Step 2a: Get the pedals level

Rest your left foot lightly on the left pedal, and try to ease it backwards. This requires:

You need to do this under control. Both feet require pressure on them as you do it, and it will feel unnatural.

Step 2b: Get control of the unicycle

This is an element of control that you will need to master, but you won't get complete control just like this.

Nevertheless, it is an important step in the learning process.

Once you have the pedals level with each other, rock back and forth very gently, never letting the pedals get more than 30 degrees above or below the horizontal. Feel the unicycle moving back and forth just a few inches each way.

Rock back and forth, just a little. Do it fluently, back, forward, back, forward, ticking like a clock.

Step 2c: Return to the mount position

So now you need to get back to the right-foot-down position. Under control, move the unicycle forward, getting your right foot to the bottom of its travel. Now you are back as per Step 1, and you can dismount.

As you rotate the wheel that quarter turn, it moves forward, and it can leave you behind. This is important to notice, to detect, and to control. If you let the wheel go forward without keeping up with it, you will step off backwards without control.

Remember that as we go to Step 3.

Step 3: The half turn

Now, before you get excited, this is a half turn of the wheel, not a half turn around a vertical axis. You're not riding yet, so that has some time to wait.

So what happens next. You are sitting under control, gently rocking the wheel back and forth about 4 or 5 inches (10 or 15 cm) in each direction. Now is the time to actually move forward by a substantial amount.

The problem is that if you simply pedal forward, the wheel goes forward, you stay where you are, and then you fall off. backwards. That's not really want you want. And yet you have to pedal forwards.

How do you stay on?

Here is the secret of learning to unicycle. It's a change of attitude, and change of perception, and change of the way you think about it. The secret is that you don't try to stay on the unicycle.

You try to keep the
unicycle underneath you.

The "stopping pedalling to catch up" only works if you're already travelling forward. If not, you have other problems, and other ways to solve it. Stay with me for now.
See, if you're falling off forward, you pedal faster to get the wheel underneath you. If you're falling off backwards, you stop pedalling so you catch up with the wheel again.

So here's what we're aiming for. You want to pedal forward one smooth half turn. Currently your feet are level, right foot forward. We want to get to feet level, left foot forward.

But you can't just pedal, you'll fall off backwards. So you need to let yourself start to fall forward first.

Technical stuff

A 20" wheel unicycle has a radius of 10", and a half-turn distance of about 30" to 32". You fall forward by 6", and while you pedal forward smoothly the wheel travels about 30", and you travel about 20". The wheel is now in front of you by about 6", so stop pedalling and you'll catch up with it, with zero residual speed.
Here's the timeline:

I'll bet you fell off. Or nearly fell off. The question is - why?

Fell off forwards

In this case either:
  • You waited too long to pedal
  • You pedalled too slowly
  • You got stuck halfway
    • (best bet)

Fell off backwards

In this case either:
  • You didn't fall far enough forwards
    • (best bet)
  • You pedalled too fast
  • You leaned forward, but didn't "fall"

Now here is actually the most important part of learning:

Analyse why you
fell off.

This is the "deliberate practice" part of the exercise. If you analyse each failure and work out why it happened, you'll be in a position to correct the problem, and not just flail away, trying the same incorrect thing over and over again.

Try it - see what happens.

Step 4: Going over to the other side.

So now you can:

From this position you now need to make another single, smooth, half-turn rotation, which brings you back to the "right foot forward" position, again with the pedals level.

As before, you need to let yourself fall forwards so that when you pedal, the wheel comes under you, then overtakes you, and then you catch up with it "on the other side".

The deliberation over the practice is so, so important. By thinking about what goes right, and what went wrong, you can start to nail how it should feel every time. Without that you just practise the same errors over and over again.

This is where a teacher would normally be helpful, to see what single thing to think about next time, and stop you from getting into a rut. Without someone watching, you need to do that for yourself.

Again, the really important part is to analyse this every single time. Even when it goes well, ask yourself how it was different from times when it didn't go well. And if it didn't go well, ask yourself which of the mistakes you made.

And now is the time to review your progress.

And now,

Repeat, revise, re-examine, review again.

You're nearly there.

Step 5: Moving on

(pending ...)



Links on this page

Site hosted by Colin and Rachel Wright:
  • Maths, Design, Juggling, Computing,
  • Embroidery, Proof-reading,
  • and other clever stuff.

Suggest a change ( <-- What does this mean?) / Send me email
Front Page / All pages by date / Site overview / Top of page

Universally Browser Friendly     Quotation from
Tim Berners-Lee
    Valid HTML 3.2!