About 9 years ago a video was sent to me that blew me out of the water. It was the Kris Holm Freeride Unicycle video found here. I had never seen anything like it before and was determined to learn how to Mountain Unicycle (Muni) even if it killed me. As I started the long slow process of learning to Unicycle I found that it was actually a lot harder than it looked, and frankly it looked pretty hard to begin with.
I started out on a $120 29er trainer Unicycle which I bought from unicycle.com which was basically a piece of crap. I wouldn’t recommend learning on a 29er as the bigger the wheel is the harder it is to learn on than a 26″ or 24″. At 6′ 10″ the 29er felt like a good fit and after countless hours of trial and error I was finally able to ride for almost any distance without stopping and go over grass, small roots and tiny bumps without falling. I invested in a trail Municycle and after much deliberation settled on the Nimbus 26″ with a 3″ Duro tire. It was awesome that this ride shipped to me with a $80 drilled out Kris Holm rim which was not even listed in the description. This Municycle was my first real ‘fat-tire’ as I had never ridden on a 3″ knobby tire before and I quickly fell in love with it.
I quickly learned the tire pressure was crucial and that the ride improved tremendously with 12 psi or lower. Because all your weight was on one tire instead of two you couldn’t safely go down much lower because you would risk pinch flats. I got my Nimbus with a 400cm seatpost for my 42″ inseam and a Kris Holm seat which is a $25 add on that I have never regretted. With Muni it’s all about the tire and the seat , I mean what else is there really? The bearclaw pedals were replaced with plastic ones that were much more forgiving on the shins.
When I first started trail-riding I spent more time falling off the Muni than actually riding it. The only safety gear I opted for was a helmet and wrist guards for rollerblading. I would say that the wrist guards are the most important safety item as when you do a faceplant everything happens so fast that it is easy to end up breaking your wrists as you try to catch yourself.
As time went on I got pretty good, the trick was finding the right trail to ride. Blue 6 in Shindagin (also known as creek trail) was a perfect trail. In meandered along a creek with a slight downhill incline without too many logs to hop over or hills to climb. When on a one wheel going up and down hills is pretty tough, especially going down steep hills. You have only your legs to slow you and you must push your back leg down to slow the pedal rotation which is an incredibly awkward and draining exercise. Typically I would ride up the road on the Muni then head down creek trail back to my car. I did this for about 3 years several times a week until my knees started to give out and I was inconstant pain.
One of the hardest parts of Muni is the dismount which you quickly learn to do. The trick is to try to hold off ditching the Municycle until the absolute last second. Most of the time you’re doing damage control and just trying to stay upright. I found that waving my arms around like a lunatic to try to maintain my center of balance on the Muni was critical to staying upright through the hard stuff. Speed is your friend and with enough speed you can pretty much plow through anything, not enough speed and you will come to a halt and have to dismount.
For a proper dismount your best bet is to ditch the Muni and jump of trying to land like a cat on your feet. Sometimes if you’re going fast you can still run it out, other times there is no possible way to run it out so you just have to roll with it. The most important thing to do is not to look at the trees, look at where you want to go.
Although I loved Municycling in the end I had to give it up, my knees just couldn’t take the abuse. After 3 years of practice I felt that I had come a long way and from time to time I still hop on my Unicycles and ride around town. They are nice for riding on sidewalks and around pedestrians since you are going so slow no one seems to mind. I found I could get away with riding my Uni in places that bicycles would never be welcome on. I also got a lot of positive attention from people and even people who would come up to me and try to give me money because they would mistake me for Hilby the Skinny German Juggling Boy (our local street performer). It was pretty awesome.
The Future of Unicycling – Perilous Personal Transportation
Unicycling was incredibly difficult but there is a new rage sweeping China and will almost certainly be sweeping the US in the not to distant future. Self-balancing Electric Uni Cycles (EUC) are all the rage in china and there is no shortage of them on Alibaba and Aliexpress. Youtube is filled with videos of you people doing tricks and going faster than they probably should like this one here which is quite inspiring to watch. Several US based companies have also hopped on board with the biggest one being solowheel.com which is promising an 8lb unit called the orbit in the not too distant future. These units are looked down upon by most EUCers because of their very low speed limits of 16km\hr (about 10mph). The best resource I can find for electric unicycles is www.electricunicycle.org which has links to all the other resources you would want. The fastest EUC That is currently in production is the Gotway Msuper 18 with a claimed top speed of 43kph. The Msuper 18 can be had for around $1500 shipped to the US. There are 3 different units one built for speed (43km/h and 25 degree grades) and one built for power (30km/h and 35 degree grades) and one in between (35km\h and 30 degree grades). One thing that most EUC owners seem to agree on is that more power is better and not to waste your time with anything less than 500W.
The biggest problem with all the EUC on the market right now is the way the BMS handles low battery conditions and the circuit boards handle overheating\power overloads. Most Chinese units give a quick warning (if you’re lucky) then the power will simply cut out leaving the rider flying like superman into the pavement. This creates huge risks for the rider and everyone around them. Since many of the Chinese units speak to the rider in Chinese, most Americans won’t even know what their unit is saying to them. Until the safety of these units is better figured out, it is unlikely that they will hit the mainstream in lawsuit happy America.
How Can I Trail-ride With These?
I’ve been looking at a lot of these units as possible single-track trail-riding conversions. With a removal of the plastic casing and the mounting of a large ‘fat’ tire that is 3-4 inches in width these self balancing unicycles could be really fun trail machines. The biggest problems that I see are the weight (the Msuper 18 is 55lbs) and finding the right tire to mount on the smaller rims. As you get less than 20 inches your rubber selection decreases dramatically. You would also have to build out padding from the sides of the unit so your legs didn’t hit the wheel as it was spinning. Also increasing the diameter of the wheel may mess up the controller, it will likely think that the speed the unit is moving is much slower than the unit is actually moving. Also the unit would not put as much power into the wheel as it should when you lean because it thinks that the power it puts into the wheel is going to move the wheel much more than it actually will move the wheel.
I think the Solowheel Orbit is the best wheel a fat tire conversion. It is rated for the most power of any wheel I’ve seen (1600W) and it is the lightest I’ve seen (8lbs). It looks like the plastic case is easily cut away and if the rim is standard you should be able to mount a regular bat bike tube and tire on it, although I would be hard pressed to spend the $2600 just to destroy it and maybe have it work. You could overcome the tiny battery by having a cord run into a backpack mounted battery.
Riding on one wheel is just plain fun, I feel like my years on a unicycle improved my balance for every sport I practice. People would show up at my local trails with their $5000+ mountain bike and I would ride by on my $350 unicycle and they would just sit there with their jaw hanging open. Riding on one wheel is a unique expression of individuality and more than that it’s just plain cool. As a life-long fun hog I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort to have more fun than everyone else, and having a unicycle has helped me to do that.