2 Current status
When living on Le Plateau in Montreal, I used to use my unicycles instead of the bus, to travel from home to work and back. But since we moved further in the east, the distance became too great when I work downtown, and too small when I work from home ☺. Coming to realize I do not use unicycles anymore in practice, I gave all three of them to different friends (Pier-Luc got the 20″, Félixe got the 24″, and Felix got the mUni).
3 How it started
In my life, I've been on and off on sports. Not so long ago, after several years of inactivity, I felt a bit like escaping my keyboards (computer and organ) at least once in a while, before I fully turn into a fat mollusk. Not really that I'm fat, my friends rather tease me, saying I'm more bones than flesh, but yet, I know I once was thinner and, surely, in better physical shape. I needed some exercise to get away from this damned computer screen, but also knew I would have not been able to give into an activity which is not enjoyable. An example of non-pleasure: working on a stationary cycle in front of a wall ☺.
Which activity should I choose? I went to the university sport centre continuously after it was built, even for many years after graduation, and enjoyed a lot of different activities there (squash has been my favourite). However, after a few surprise strikes from their union, which spoiled many hours of travelling (I was living quite far at the time), and also after some degradation of their level of services, I chose to not renew my membership. I did not feel like restarting the cycle of reservations and travels. I wanted something easier to manage.
The idea of unicycling came to me: a good outside activity which calls for many body muscles, without being extreme. The equipment, with a minimum of organisation, is always available; there is no reservation to make, no special place to go, no required synchronisation with team mates. Moreover, I suspected a constant and interesting challenge, some kind of nice and pleasurable game even for the mind. In fact, when I was younger, in college, I was spending hours in equilibrium on two legs of my chair, secured by the wall behind me, in the last row of the class of course. Maybe something was remotely left in me from this old habit?
4 Initial learning
So, as a Christmas gift to myself, I bought an unicycle in 2002-12, and started to practice in my bedroom, with the bed to my left, a chest of drawers to my right, and the door behind me. My plan was to move forward for the length of the room. It took a few weeks, practising between one and two hours a day, before I began to see some chance of success. Believe me, two hours spent at falling on the floor or some piece of furniture, every few seconds, is quite a long time! People living with me thought that my real goal was to destroy the house ☺.
My skin easily makes bruises. They start blue, turn black, then brown, green and yellow, before vanishing. I had them big and small, on the arms, chest, back, head, legs, everywhere, interspersed with scabies and itches (I was sometimes hurting myself harder). Given each of these was in various state of aging, I'm sure that, naked, I was pretty decorative. On the other hand, I knew I would never learn if I was letting the first ache stop me, and my motivation was strong.
Once I've been able to run the length of my bedroom without falling too often, I then moved to a bigger room in the house, and gave myself the goal of making its diagonal. Twice, I fell particularly badly. Once on the back. I walked with difficulty for days. Climbing the church stairs to get to the organ (I touch this instrument for the choirs), I had to pull myself with both hands on the bannister. A little later, I fell on the side over big metal cans holding paint, and this cracked my left arm. This time, I went to the organ with a cast, from which the fingers were exceeding a bit, curious as I was to know if I could play nevertheless. As I soon discovered, the main difficulty was to shift the arm between the three manuals: as the cast was forcing a right angle to the elbow, the whole body had to lean forward or back. I surely simplified the musical score a bit, too ☺. I also pursued practising the unicycle wearing the cast, yet very careful at not falling on this side again.
No doubt I found it amusing, learning to dress and undress with a single arm. But such amusements should end, and I had to accept, reluctantly, that I have to protect myself better, giving in an advice I frequently read. The wearing of protective machinery does work, you know. I never really hurt myself since I do. Humph! Let's be honest here… One day, the unicycle very suddenly took the unilateral decision that I shall kiss the sidewalk: the helmet was not protective enough, and my dentist had to remake a tooth fragment.
My first unicycle has a 20″ wheel, with no brand name, but it gives me the impression of being solid and cleverly designed. It is supposed to be much easier to learn using a smaller wheel. Yet, for travelling distances, I acquired a second unicycle with a 24″ wheel, and quickly noticed that a bigger wheel requires some adaptation and learning, which should not be taken for granted.
5 Getting outside
The spring was not fully there that I started running my wheel outside, over a mix of melting snow and ice, travelling between my girlfriend's home and the place where I work every morning, and back in the evening. A bit difficult at first (I was dismounting the wheel quite often, unable to go over sidewalk irregularities, and careful enough to walk while crossing streets), things became progressively easier. Nowadays, I run the distance in half the time, and some days, not dismounting even once, finding my way between cars.
I was a bit shy at the beginnings, but the recipe was simple for me: just go over my timidity, kick myself out and do it. I found some unexpected rewards in the activity: probably because this is rather unusual, people see me, say hello, chat a bit, smile, wave their hand, and such things. Teenagers send me various sign of appreciation, like if I had their own age. Children, in particular, do not hide their curiosity or enthusiasm. I find it re-warming, inside, receiving these tiny marks of human communication from old and young, morning and evening.
Learning to drive outside had been stepwise. Initially, I could go straight ahead for a good distance, succeed in starting with no object or wall around to help me climbing. I was mainly turning through swivelling, only later I came to turn through slightly leaning on one side or another. How to find the correct equilibrium while leaning? Since I struggled so much initially to immediately counter-act any leaning, it became a mere and strong reflex, which I had to fight.
There is another thing I would like to learn, and this is how to wait without dismounting, that is, how to move back and forth around a still position. This is not that important in practice once someone know how to mount and dismount easily (and gracefully, of course)! I cannot yet go backwards for more than a few seconds, and have also much difficulty standing almost still.
I use the wheel instead of metro or bus whenever possible, when the distances are short enough. More it goes, more distance I can cover. Some days, when I work on a difficult algorithm say, it happens that I go out for riding one hour or two, and I feel another guy when back.
I travel on one wheel by choice and pleasure, not by necessity. I much enjoy the constant challenge and the level of concentration it takes. It's all of an exercise, which gives me a good sweat every time (except when I do short distances). It is also a good workout for concentration, getting over road bumps and such. Overall, it surely helps me at feeling in better physical shape. I'm glad having survived the learning which, admittedly, has been a bit rough. My main interest is getting out to breath and enjoy the greenery, listen to the birds and the wind in the trees, and as I happily discovered, people as well.
May I can reasonably hope driving the wheel over snow or ice? I should find more convenient clothes first, compatible with all the protective outfit. What I wear in Fall for this is currently not warm enough, and what I wear in the cold is too big, and would be embarrassing. I should probably search for what is available for winter sports.
Now, one thing I would like to find is a unicycle with a 26″ wheel, a stronger chassis and tire for irregular lands, and a big seat with handles, to better control jumps. I'm far from having the required skills to drive in the rough, but I'm curious to acquire them if I get a good enough physical shape: I suspect this is very demanding.
6 Why not a bicycle?
In a word, why this, instead of that:
o .\ ,__o > _-\_<, (*) (*)/'(*)
Bicycle did not attract me so much. First, I never liked the bending of the neck coming from the cyclist posture, it does not look healthy nor natural to me. Second, a bicycle is a bit cumbersome, you have to lock it and it may be damaged by vandals. Third, good bicycles are expensive.
On a unicycle, you stand straight a bit like when you walk, and moreover, my friends tell me that I stand more straight in my life now that I do that exercise. A unicycle does not take much place and is not heavy, I just grab it with me in restaurants, for example, and nobody complain that I should leave it outside. The price is affordable, even if not fully cheap. (I would presumably have to pay a good amount for a MUni – mountain unicycle – from England or Germany; I do not find the model I would like to have around here.)
Another fun detail, but this one does not annoy me, it's part of the game. Bicycles have a gearing system, allowing you to acquire a reasonable speed. Contrarily to a bicycle, the pedals of a unicycle are tied to the wheel, so you have to drive the pedals at all times, there is not possibility of advancing without moving your legs, and using inertia to rest, like one does on a bicycle (well, this is not fully true: advanced people are able to stay on the wheel for good distance without touching the pedals, but this is completely out of reach of my current skills). On a bicycle, you give yourself a good and solid momentum, and then may rest for a few seconds on the pedals. You can do the same while descending hills. One a single wheel, where this is no chain and no multiplicative device, and no kind of brake at all, you pedal all the time at slow speed, and there is no rest time. This quite limits the distance I could reasonably travel before getting exhausted. I'm still far from having enough breath and stamina for traversing a substantial fraction of the town, say. One day maybe, who knows. I should find ways to stretch the distance every day, but the truth is that distance from home to work is rather fixed, and while I could elongate the road, I noticed that in the morning, I'm more eager to get at work than to explore the town ☺.
I like to think that a unicycle could eventually go everywhere I could walk, yet a bit faster. I use it on sidewalks, and cross city streets with no particular problem. As a final note, unicycling seems more open ended than bicycling, so far that I can see, when times come to acquire new skills (see later down).
People seeing me on the road often shout something like You've lost a wheel!. If I do not want to stop, I merely shout back When I get richer, I'll buy the other one!. If I feel like stopping, I then explain (repeating what I've read somewhere else) that young children use one or two supplementary small practice wheels when they learn to bike. A unicycle is merely an adult bike without its practice wheel…
I found two unexpected drawbacks to unicycling, however.
First is the time and burden it takes for putting and removing sweater clothes, then all protective devices (helmet, knees, wrists, elbows). Bicycles are simpler in that respect. I imagined myself just using the wheel for the smallest runs, like getting bread, going to church for practice, visiting nearby friends, etc. But if it takes 5 minutes to put on all the protections, I only do it for more substantial distances. Sometimes, I say to myself that if I succeed in running three months in a row without falling once, I would start removing some of the stuff. But a bit sadly, I have to reset my counter to zero a bit more often that I would like. ☺ I thought I could go on the average, and forget the ankle and knee protections. The first day outside, I pondered going with only the helmet and the wrist protections, but after hesitating a bit, I put everything. That day, my only fall day was pretty hard on both the left ankle and knee (judging by sound of the plastic hitting the cement of the sidewalk), but I did not hurt myself the tiniest bit. This suggested that I better continue bearing all the outfit. Moreover, honestly looking at all the scratches it got (yet the helmet is still impeccable), I ought to admit they serve a purpose. I'll have to learn patience!
Note: Yet, patience finally paid out! Now in my second year, I noticed that I just never fall anymore, so I did stop wearing all the protective outfit; it is much more comfortable this way! ☺
The second drawback is that a unicycle is not as fast as I expected it would be. I thought the speed would be significantly faster than walking; it is faster indeed, but not that much. My friends told me that they are surprised by the speed, but yet, I was expecting more. I unicycle at about the speed one would run, but never as fast as a bicycle, say. Maybe I'll learn to acquire speed over time and confidence? ☺
Whatever you're able to do with a unicycle, there is always a lot of possibilities for acquiring new skills, this is almost endless, the challenge is never gone. Oh, I'm not trying to learn circus tricks, I'm not interested. However, just for travelling, there is a lot I still need to learn, like how to wait almost still at a road intersection without dismounting, how to jump up from the road onto a sidewalk, or over small obstacles, how to climb steep, or go over very irregular places, how to turn abruptly without advancing, how to pedal a short distance with only one foot when it happens that your other foot slips out of the pedal, and such things. I surely have years of fun practice ahead of me! ☺
The standard base learning uses ten skill levels, which seem to grow an exponential difficulty from level to level. I'm somewhere between level 1 and 2, and begin to accept I will stay there for quite a while. I would like to learn how to ride that beast over uneasy surfaces, like in wild forest, but this is only a fantasm for now. I acquired enough control with my hands, when not busy at waving the air to restore equilibrium, so I can eat simple snacks while riding, but I'm still unable to merely get out for such simple things as reading a book while travelling.
The initial climbing of the unicycle, to start riding and get going, has surely many dozens of flavours, with some being extremely difficult. These are called mounts. I would of course like to know many of them, but besides lacking some precise documentation, I do not have a real need for them. Yet, I'm curious. Later maybe… For the time being, I learned only one mounting technique, a simple one. You put the cycle in front of you, the seat between your legs, with the left pedal towards the rear, a bit lower than horizontal. You push your left foot on this pedal so the wheel rolls backward, forcing the cycle to become vertical, pushing you up over the ground. When your right foot leaves the ground, you learn to quickly place it over the right pedal, while it passes under you towards the back. As soon as the cycle leans forward, you switch the motion of the wheel to forward: the acceleration restores the vertical line, and you are now on your way. One nice thing about this mount is that it is almost the symmetrical reverse of the correct steps for a nice, soft unmount. Whenever you get a technique starting with the left foot, you may fully have to re-learn it afresh with the right foot. It sometimes takes me a few tries when I attempt the same starting with the right foot.
One mount particularly impresses me, all impossible that it appears to be. You put the left foot, say, over the base of the tire of the cycle lying on the ground, you use the right foot from under the pipe leading to the seat to kick the cycle up, and while doing so, your left foot falls from the tube on the ground, from where it jumps you up over the seat just in time so you are in equilibrium, and of course, both feet landing each on its pedal. In some next life, maybe!
9 More notes
There is this food place where I was often going to get a lunch, with the intent of eating it in the nearby park, or elsewhere. From work, I was phoning in advance to get the meal ready, and used to ride my unicycle to pick it up. This much amused the people working in there, and the cashier took the habit of drawing a unicycling man, instead of writing my name, for identifying who was to reclaim the command. Here are two of such drawings, which I saved! ☺ By the way, what is written is Brik Epinard, which really means Spinach Brik. This is not any reference to my name (which is Pinard). No need to say that in my youth, the phonetic similarity between Pinard and épinard has been the source of endless puns and teases!
I used the mUni mainly to drive in the snow, at winter time. While it is easy going for many winter days, it is very exhausting after a thick snow shower : not only most of your energy is converted by the tire to shovel snow on each side, you also have to fight against the lateral slide of the unicycle, which is added to the usual fight against longitudinal fall (this one becomes easy after the learning period).
Years ago, while he was living in Korea, my younger brother (Gilles Pinard) appears to have stumbled on the original pictures at the beginning of this article. I received a few extra pictures from him, shown below… I guess he thinks he's funny! ☺