While the number of people who ride a unicycle is very small, the range of activities performed on them is not. One of the most popular of recent years is Trials Unicycling.
Bike trials is an established form of cycling, where riders attempt to navigate an obstacle course without putting a foot down. Unicycle trials is very much the same thing, only on one wheel instead of two. While the heights, distances and speeds of unicycle trials cannot compare to two wheeled cycles, the skills required are no less impressive.
The first unicycle trials event is reputed to have taken place in October 1998, during an annual MUni Weekend in California. The challenge was to traverse a rocky beach down to a lake, wet the tyre, then ride back up. Time penalties were given for dabbing, with the winner being the rider completing the course in the quickest time. The winner of that race was Kris Holm, now the most well known unicyclist in the world.
Since then trials unicycling has grown quickly, likely due to the parallels with bike trials and skateboarding; trials unicycling is just the same but with fewer wheels. Unicycles can be made to do many of the tricks bikes can do, with the added novelty of an uncommon skill. Events in the same style as bike trials events are now more common, with established rules, purpose-built obstacles and dedicated riders. Unicycling films appear every now and then; the set-piece for trials riding is "UNiVERsE - Extreme Unicycling". Bike porn for unicyclists, it features Kris Holm, Dan Heaton and Adam Ryznar jumping up, dropping down and generally inspiring other riders to injure themselves in more and more imaginative ways.
Many manoeuvres in trials unicycling involve using the unicycle like a pogo stick, jumping rather than rolling around, standing on the pedals rather than sitting on the seat. Smaller objects can be jumped on from a simple standing jump; larger objects can be assailed by using a pre-hop before, to add extra bounce into the jump.
Extra height can be achieved through converting forward motion into upward motion, in a rolling hop. Terrifying to learn, rolling hops involve riding at speed towards an object, then using weight on the rising back pedal to propel the rider upwards onto the object.
Objects too high to jump straight onto can be climbed in two stages, using a technique called the Pedal Grab. Rather than jump onto the object landing on the wheel, the rider jumps to land on the edge of the object with the pedal, then using that raised position to make the final jump to the top, or "go to rubber". This method can make jumping onto obstacles more than a foot higher than normal possible.
As well as jumping upwards, jumping sideways, or gapping, is a useful skill. Distances of up to 7 feet can be attained by leaning the unicycle in the direction of the jump and exploding sideways into the jump.
What goes up must come down, and dropping is where the unicycle takes the most abuse. While two-wheeled cycles have leverage of the frame and possibly suspension to absorb the shock of the landing, unicycles have to bear the weight directly on the cranks and axle. Landing with the seat held in front of the rider enables the rider to drop lower,lessening the shock; as does immediately rolling out of the drop, converting as much vertical movement to horizontal movement, and lessening the moment on the cranks.
The forces involved in performing drops on a unicycle are a large factor in the design of trials unicycles. While the essential shape of a unicycle is retained (admittedly there's not much scope for alterations!), the components are built for much greater strength.
Tyres are wide, and inflated to low pressures, to absorb some of the shock dropping, and also provide a bit of bounce for jumping. Hubs and cranks are immensely strong, to cope with the massive forces acting directly through them when landing. Pedals have pins to ensure the feet do not slip, and to grip onto an object in a pedal grab. Seats are kept low, so as to avoid potentially painful incidents, and often have a handle on the front to offer better control of the unicycle.
Trials unicycling is addictive... when all you have is a trials unicycle, everything is an obstacle. Every bench, wall and step becomes a challenge; all those obscure concrete structures from when grey was in fashion suddenly have a whole new purpose. Teenagers will pick up their skateboards and watch; hell, everybody watches, because they've not seen it before. Great fun.
- First trials event - John Foss, http://www.unicycling.com.
- UNiVERsE, by Dan Heaton and Adam Ryznar, is available on VHS from http://www.unicycle.com and is well worth a watch.
- Many helpful people on rec.sport.unicycling and not a small amount of personal experience.