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Why in the heck would anyone want to ride a unicycle? Maybe because. . .
With a bit of practice, the unicycle can be a serious, fun, and easy-to-use transportation machine. It is lighter, easier to park, and less expensive to buy and maintain than a bicycle. Yet you can install lights and a luggage rack, and use it just like a bicycle. You can install three more wheels, an engine, doors, and some other parts, and use it just like a car. (But that’s outside the scope of this book.) You’ll find the unicycle is also easier to maneuver than a bicycle in crowded places, or when you may have to start, stop, and turn quickly. You can take it on the bus or put in in the trunk of your car, and store it under your desk in your office. Don’t store unicycles with apples. It affects their flavor.
No one learns to ride a unicycle without gaining a little self-esteem along the way. You may not think that’s important, but a healthy, positive ego encourages one to do more. It is not uncommon for children who take up unicycling to become better in their academic achievements.
Why unicycling in particular? Wouldn’t basketball, tennis, or bicycle racing have the same effect? Sort of, but less so. You see, if you work really hard at playing the guitar or baseball, you’ll get good. But a thousand other people are getting good at the same thing. You won’t be noticed in the crowd. You’re accomplishment, even if you are the only one noticing it, will wither in comparison to others in your community.
The child who takes up unicycling, or any untypical activity, will be among few, and it becomes easy to stand out. This person will receive positive reinforcement from peers. The child will start to develop a ‘can-do’ attitude that spills over into other tasks. It’s as if they’ve learned an unconscious program that says, “If I can learn to ride a unicycle, then algebra should be easy!”
Did I say child? What about adults? An interesting thing happens when adults take up unicycling. It’s as if they were glowing at ten watts, and now they’re shining at a hundred watts. Adults benefit from the exercise, of course, and that means they start to get the full capacity of their bodies back. Adults also get the boost in self-esteem. And they learn to have fun again. The adult may have a stressful job, and kids that could drive anyone crazy, but a little unicycle ride around the block can change the whole evening. For some, it’s being noticed for a unique skill. For others it is just an adult version of the can-do attitude. Their new unconscious programming helps them get through the work day with more joy. They may notice a sense of accomplishment that they have not had since their school days.
Unicycling can create social interaction. Unicycle polo, basketball and soccer clubs love new members, as soon as they can ride well enough to play. Then there are all sorts of formal and informal unicycle get-togethers. It might be as simple as three men who ride their unicycles to the pub on Friday evenings and talk ‘shop’ (unicycling) for a couple of hours. It could be a formal unicycle club that holds competitions, raises money through unicycling events for charity, and has a president, secretary and treasurer.
Unicycling is a flexible sport. You might prefer unicycle touring solo or with a group, racing, off-road activities, or performing in a show.
Speaking of shows, unicycling in itself is common enough that most people won’t drop what they are doing to watch you ride by, unless you have super-long fingers. But if you develop a presentation, possibly mixed with clowning, music, juggling, comedy, or other activities, there is no limit to how far you can go in the entertainment world. Compare that to learning to play piano or guitar, which in the end results in few professional opportunities, unless you have super-long fingers.
The equipment is inexpensive in comparison to many other sports. There is no overhead. You don’t need to buy a ski lift ticket or rent a lane at the bowling alley every time you go out. You don’t need to own a Kentucky Friend Chicken franchise.
Unlike many sports, it is not about the equipment, but rather the actual riding. A rider on an ordinary unicycle can have just as much fun, and develop just as much skill, as a rider on the best unicycle. It is about the clothing however. You’ve gotta admit that a unicyclist in a tux and a bowler hat is more elegant than a tux with a derby.
Whereas one can become a racer or be judged in artistic competitions, possibly getting trophies and rising above all others, one can also just enjoy riding for the fun of it. For those who prefer the stress of showing up at competitions, and actually enjoy practicing real hard all the time, unicycling has you covered all the way up to national and international conventions. For those who feel that there can only be one ‘winner,’ and that makes everyone else a ‘loser,’ competition is not required.
Who can ride a unicycle? Children as young as four years old, and people over seventy have learned to ride. Anyone who has a body that works fairly well can master unicycling. It is probably about on par with rollerblading in terms of difficulty. How could anyone stand up with a bunch of little wheels strapped to their feet? Same thing with unicycling. How could anyone stay balanced on top of a single wheel? Patience is the only requirement. Some people will learn the basics in fifteen minutes and manage their first wobbly ride down the street. More commonly, it takes two to six weeks, practicing for perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes twice a week. Some people will require months to learn. But everyone who has patience can get it.
People who are mentally challenged or have something like Down’s syndrome have learned, although the majority of riders are above average intelligence. You’ll find a large number of college professors, doctors, lawyers and scientists out for a stroll on their unicycles from time to time. I don’t know why that is, but my guess is that there’s something about the simplicity of unicycling, the pure joy of it, that appeals to a sophisticated mind. Or, maybe they just have a thing for spokes.
You may have heard of Patch Adams, played by Robin Williams in the movie of the same name. The real Patch is indeed a medical doctor, but unlike Robin, he is 6 feet, 5 inches (195 cm) tall. Dr. Adams is a good unicyclist.
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Oh yes, there are some negatives that should be considered in any fair presentation of unicycling.
Just like with a bicycle, a unicyclist can mix with motor vehicle traffic, and be subjected to all the risks that entails. The unicyclist is generally moving slower, and has the ability to turn more quickly, but the risk of a traffic accident is still a real possibility.
Just like the bicyclist, the unicyclist can fall off. The falls are at a slower speed, and that’s good, but one has no handlebar to hang onto, so riders tends to try to stop falls with their hands. Sprained and broken wrists are common. Falling backward off the unicycle is a distinct possibility, resulting in a hurt tailbone. This is generally not serious, but can be painful for weeks after the fall. And rarely, it can be serious.
Fortunately, most unicycle injuries happen in the first stages of learning. If a new unicyclist wears good safety equipment, the risk is reduced to almost nothing.
In general, the only experienced unicyclists who get hurt are those who want to push the envelope, or put the cart before the horse, or cry over spilled milk under the bridge, or something like that. This is true in any sport, but probably much worse in auto and bicycle racing, football and other collision-oriented sports. Interestingly, volleyball is rated by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission as the sport with the most injuries per capita, with tennis being second. Evidently the winning player tries to jump over the net to shake hands with the loser, and flops over the net instead.
Even though you probably won’t fall over a net, this is where I should insert a disclaimer. There is a possibility you can get seriously hurt on your unicycle. Especially, if you are new to the sport and don’t wear safety equipment. So, I, and everyone associated with this book, assume no responsibility of your use for this information. You ought to do everything under the proper supervision of experienced unicycle professionals, of course. Right?
In the beginning, the seat seems uncomfortable. Almost all of the rider’s weight is supported on a small area. In time this problem goes away for most people. The new rider should limit practice sessions to fifteen minutes, or however long the seat seems reasonably comfortable. Men, especially, should experiment with different seat configurations or seek medical consultation if the rare condition of persistent numbness develops. You can modify a seat by wrapping a towel around it, changing the height, or tipping the angle up or down.
Some shy people may not enjoy unicycling in public, because invariably some people will want to stop the rider and ask about the machine and the sport.
Unicycles can be stolen just like bicycles. Well, almost like bicycles. Bikes are often stolen by thieves who jump on and ride away. Most people can’t ride unicycles, but they can carry them away. When parking in a public place, you may want to lock your unicycle, just as you would lock your bike.
One spring, your author built eleven unicycles out of old bike parts and what-not, and ‘lent’ them to some young teenagers in a run-down neighborhood. The kids lent them to other kids, who lent them to others. Some became quite accomplished riders, and started meeting informally to play unicycle basketball, ride through the neighborhoods together, try unicycle dancing, and (eee-gads) have demolition derbies. Some bought their own unicycles and still ride today, many years later. But at the end of the summer, not one of the eleven unicycles could be accounted for. The author expected this, and knew that the unicycles had accomplished their task beautifully.
Types and Sizes
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The most common unicycles have 20-inch (500 mm) and 24-inch (600 mm) wheels. Unicycle tires, like bicycle tires, are measured by their outside diameter, unlike car tires and unlike milk cartons.
The 24-inch unicycle is probably the most versatile. The wheel is big enough that each turn of the cranks covers a reasonable distance, so it can be used for commuting, but at the same time, the wheel is small enough to maneuver and learn tricks on. With a 24-inch wheel, the seat can be lowered so the smallest adult and most children over age ten or so can fit. With the addition of a long seatpost, the tallest people will also fit just fine. Unicycling does not discriminate based on height or weight. Wind resistance, however, may be a problem for people with particularly large ears.
The 20-inch wheel is somewhat easier to learn most tricks on, and can perform in a smaller area, such as a small stage or street corner, but is slow and tiring for any serious commuting.
In general, children up to about age twelve will do better with the small wheel. Unicycles with 16-inch (400 mm) wheels and even smaller are available for children. Occasionally, an adult will use a small-wheeled unicycle for performing, generally for clowning.
No matter what wheel size you choose, it is the seat height that matters. A tall rider is fine on a small wheel and vice versa, as long as a long enough, or short enough seatpost can be had.
The standard unicycle has a normal width (1.75-inch, or 35 mm) tire with a mixed or road tread. Unicycles can be had with thick knobby tires for off-road use. Riding off-road is a difficult skill to master, but you can have a lot of fun learning, once you’ve learned the basics on smooth pavement. For off-road, you’ll want a large diameter wheel to smooth out the bumps.
For serious commuting, you’ll also want a large diameter wheel. Otherwise, you’re feet will be turning a million revolutions per minute to make any serious progress. With the larger wheel, you cover more ground for each turn of the cranks. Some commuters have built unicycles with very large wheels, even in excess of 48-inch (122 cm) diameter. As the wheel becomes that large, the unicycle is very fast, but becomes nearly impossible to control. The typical commuting unicycle is from 26 to 28 inches (66 to 71 cm) in diameter. The commuting unicycle typically has a narrow tire to keep the weight low. With low weight the unicycle reacts more quickly to your control, is easier to take uphill, and easier to carry around when you’re not actually riding.
A commuting unicycle
Your author built what he called his “commutiuni” with a 26-inch (700mm) sew-up tire mounted on a light-weight tubular rim, using thin light spokes. On this, he mounted a custom solid plastic seat that was drilled with holes. The cranks on this unicycle, rather than the typical 6-1/2″ (175mm) length, were 4-1/2″ (125mm). This super-light unicycle could be ridden very fast. Short bursts at 20 miles per hour (30 kph) were not uncommon.
A sew-up tire mounted on a wooden rim.
Sew-up tires, also called “tubular” tires, are less common today than thirty to fifty years ago. They were used by almost all bicycle road racers, and some serious tourists. Unlike ordinary bicycle tires that have an open inside and clinch to the sides of the wheel’s rim, they enclose the inner tube entirely. The inside edge of the tire is stitched up like an American football or a baseball. You can inflate a sew-up off the wheel, and it will look like a large, thin donut. The tubular rim is coated with double-sided tape or glue, to hold the tire in place. If a sew-up is punctured, you can tear it off the glue, unfold another from your backpack or under your seat, stick it onto the remaining tape or glue, pump it up, and ride away. On a bicycle this can all happen in two minutes. On a unicycle, you have to take the wheel off first, which requires a wrench. When the rider with the punctured sew-up gets home, s/he can unstitch a short section of the course inside edge stitches, patch the inner tube in the usual way, stitch it back up, and use it for a spare. Perhaps it wasn’t a practical tire for a unicycle, but I’m just saying. That was my commutiuni.
Unicycles for activities such as basketball, dancing, and polo will have the typical 20-inch or 24-inch wheels, depending on the riders’ discretion, and on the size of the playing area. If short quick maneuvers are required, 20-inch will be better, but if bursts of fast distance riding are required, then the riders will tend to use 24-inch.
The final category is art unicycles. Unicycles have been decorated, outfitted with colored lights, and made to look like other objects, such as wheelbarrows. For some reason, no one has ever made a unicycle that looks, and feels, like an octopus.
via Steph B
Most artistic unicycles have something added, since there isn’t much left to remove from a unicycle.
Many years ago, your silly author added a couple of wheels to make a tall unicycle in which one tire rubbed on the one below, turning that wheel backward, and that one’s tire rubbed on the bottom wheel, turning it forward.
The author on his three-wheel unicycle
One goofy addition is a “handlebar unit.” This is not attached to the unicycle, but pushed along, generally in front, not for assisting the rider in balancing, but for show. At first, it appears the rider is on an ordinary bicycle. But wait, there’s no frame between the front and rear wheels. Then the rider can turn the handlebar unit this way and that, hold it over head, throw it and catch it, and so on, resulting in a rather amazing show for anyone not expecting that.
via Daniel Oines
Learn to Ride
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Almost no one gets hurt when learning to ride a unicycle, but it can happen. Therefore, protective gear is strongly recommended. An ordinary bicycling helmet is particularly important because some head injuries are unrecoverable.
I once talked with a woman about 24 years old, who had been in a bicycle accident and hit her head on the curb. She recovered, mostly, and looked just fine to me. But, she had one condition left, which unfortunately was going to be a life-long affliction: She could no longer distinguish a single object from many. If someone was talking to her with other people around, or just a TV running in the background, she couldn’t hear anything but random noise. If she went shopping, she couldn’t select things. For instance, she told me, when she’d look for laundry soap, she’d see all the laundry soap in the store as one ‘thing.’ She couldn’t, just couldn’t, pick out one box of soap. Moral: Wear a helmet.
You may also like to wear the same gear that serious skaters use: Knee, elbow and wrist guards. Broken wrists are common with beginning unicyclists, so don’t avoid the wrist guards.
Wear sneakers or work boots, not sandals. You may want to wear two pairs of socks, since when you are first learning, your ankles may bump the cranks with uncomfortable results. If you can arrange padding for your butt, that’s a good idea. In the beginning, it is possible to lose control such that the unicycle rolls out quickly, and you fall on your bottom, which can create an injury that’s painful for a month or more. Finally, you may want to wrap some padding around the seat. This is to protect the seat, not you. Unicycles tend to get dropped hard and frequently when learning, which kills seats. The good news is that once you become proficient, all these problems go away. Expert unicyclists, just like expert bike riders, seldom fall.
You might think it is a good idea to start with the seat low, but it is easier to learn with the seat properly high, so you’ll have better control of the unicycle. When the seat is in the right position, your legs will extend almost all the way at the bottom of the pedaling stroke, with perhaps two inches (5 cm) to spare.
Learning to ride a unicycle is easier than it might seem. For best results, find a place with smooth level pavement and a chain-link fence. When first starting, the tiniest irregularity in the surface can mess you up. The chain link fence is about hanging on. You have infinite handles to hold onto, so you won’t fall. You might like leather gloves so a sudden grab of the fence won’t hurt your super-long fingers.
Now, you may be thinking, “Wait a sec, my fingers aren’t super-long!”
Oh, yes they are, compared to an ant, who’s whole legs are less than a millimeter. But that’s a subject for another book.
Place your foot on a pedal in the six o’clock position. By pressing down hard on the pedal with your foot, the unicycle will not be able to roll out from under you. While holding onto the fence, situate yourself on the seat. Just cling to the fence for a while as you roll a few inches (perhaps ten centimeters) back and forth to get a feel of the machine. When you are ready, lean forward and roll forward just a single revolution of the wheel in one smooth continuous motion, while holding onto the fence. In time, you can hold the fence more loosely, and with more practice, you can go two or more turns of the wheel while just touching the fence here and there with your super-long fingers. If you are patient, you will soon feel confident riding away from the fence altogether. You’ll learn to turn and stop almost automatically. Your body will know which way to lean to control the unicycle.
An alternative is to learn with one or two friends. You’ll find it is actually easier to learn with one helper rather than two, because you’ll have a hand free to hold onto the front of the unicycle seat as needed. Two can hold you up better as you get on the unicycle for the first time, but then use one friend from that point on. The ideal support is to grab the back of your friend’s upper arm while your friend also grabs the back of your arm. Make sure your friend is attentive, and knows that s/he must support your weight if you fall. Your friend can be attractive too, but for this exercise, that doesn’t matter. In the case of a fall, disregard the unicycle. Your friend’s job is to hold you up, not the machine. Your friend will also want stand as far away as practical, keeping feet away from your wheel, expecting that the unicycle may suddenly kick out in any direction. A single friend in combination with a chain-link fence also works well.
You probably won’t want to try for more than a few minutes in your first session. Until you get used to the seat, it will be uncomfortable after a very short while. You will also notice sore muscles as you strain at first to maintain your balance. Like sunburn, you may not notice until later how much you’ve overworked your muscles if you don’t allow yourself to quit after a short session. The muscles that can hurt will surprise you. It is most likely going to be your upper arms, since you worked them very hard to maintain balance, but it can also be back and thigh muscles.
Most new riders practice just fifteen minutes at a time, but a few times during their first few weeks. In time, you’ll extend your range and be comfortable riding all day long.
You’ll notice that the smallest bump on the ground throws you at first. The cure is to ride faster. When you are moving fairly quickly, you can so easily recover from rolling over acorns and sidewalk cracks that you may not even notice them. You’ll find that riding smoothly over refrigerators is more difficult.
Once you become an expert, you can learn a number of tricks such as riding backward, spinning in tight circles, riding with one foot, mounting and dismounting the unicycle in unusual ways and more. One of the important techniques to learn is idling, in which the rider rocks back and forth, maintaining balance in one spot. Once that’s possible, the rider can play a musical instrument, juggle, and other such activities, without needing to cover any distance. You can get a lot of unicycle trick riding ideas from YouTube.
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The very first trick for most people is free mounting. This is the term for getting on the unicycle without the help of a fence, friends, ladder, etc, which becomes important if you want to ride your unicycle from everywhere. You don’t want to carry your ladder with you everywhere you go. If you are very wealthy, you can hire someone to bring your ladder. Or better yet, have chain-link fences constructed everywhere. Maybe better yet, just go ahead and learn free mounting.
The usual way to learn free mounting is to go back to the chain-link fence. Place the unicycle in front of you with one pedal just behind the six o’clock position. While holding onto the fence with one hand, and the front of the unicycle seat with the other hand, you can place all your weight on that low pedal. Being behind the six o’clock position, your weight will cause the unicycle to roll up under you. By letting it go so far back that you are leaning a bit forward, you are automatically in a position to start accelerating. But for the first few times, you can just step over the other pedal. So, you will have stepped on the low pedal, the unicycle will roll under you, and continue behind you, while your foot that was standing on the ground lifts up and over the unicycle’s high-side pedal, ending up with the unicycle behind you, and your foot back on the ground. All the while, you will have been holding onto the front of the seat.
Once you can confidently step over the unicycle, you can instead lean more forward, place your other foot on the other pedal, and ride away. In time, you can do it with only a light touch on the fence, and eventually without the touching the fence with your super-long fingers at all. No big deal. Except, for most people, this has to be practiced hundreds of times before it works reliably.
Some people use curbs in an intermediate step in learning free mounting. By backing the unicycle up to a curb, it will not roll backward as you are getting on. You can simply lean forward and go.
Anyone can fall off a unicycle. But the better way, and more common way to stop is to lean way back as you stop pedaling, so you can easily take your foot off the high pedal, and set it on the ground. The unicycle ends up in front of you, the seat being held by one hand.
You’ll want to wait until you are confident in your unicycling before you start carrying things. When you are ready, start with something small and light that you can hold in one hand, such as a kitten, which won’t matter if it suddenly falls to the ground. Oh, maybe a kitten isn’t such a good idea. Maybe a cup of coffee. Oh well, you figure out what to carry. Start by carrying the thing in one hand, and as you start riding, hold it in both hands. In time, try holding it overhead, to one side, then the other. Try heavier and more bulky objects. Keep in mind that if you suddenly drop an item in front of your wheel, you’ll crash into it. If you drop it where your foot will go down when you stop, you can end up with a twisted ankle. Oh, it won’t be twisted forever, but it might be annoyingly painful for a while. Work up to heavier objects. For carrying things on a regular basis, you’ll find that a backpack works nicely. For obvious reasons, don’t carry glass bottles or spiky things in your pack. You can also attach a luggage carrying rack to your unicycle. People usually modify bicycle luggage racks to do the job. Sometimes people attach three more wheels, an engine, a windshield. . . . Wait, we’ve been down this road before.
Idling is the way to ride your unicycle without going anywhere. You can idle at red lights, when waiting for people who are walking in front of you, on small stages, or when you want to do something like pass juggling clubs with another juggler or play a musical instrument.
Back to the chain-link fence again. Mount your unicycle, and hold onto the fence with one hand. Push your foot down on the lower pedal so the wheel rolls backward under you a bit, but keep your foot on the pedal and push again, so it rolls back in front. The distance the wheel travels will probably be a few inches (around ten cm). Do it again, and start repeating, so you get the unicycle swinging under you like a pendulum. Extend the travel a bit, so the unicycle is moving back and forth perhaps a foot (30 cm). You may notice that you can hold the fence lightly with your super-long fingers. As you continue to practice this, you may be able to let go of the fence from time to time, and eventually, you can let go of the fence altogether.
Sem Abrahams, founder of Semcycle, recommends a different approach to idling. He likes to start with his pedals at the three o’clock and nine o’clock positions, and roll back and forth from that orientation. This may be a bit harder to learn, but probably leads to greater stability.
While idling, grab the front and back of the seat with both hands. Suddenly pull up hard and lift your butt off the seat when your unicycle is straight under you, and it will hop off the ground a little bit. Do this now and then until you get used to it. Now, do it twice in a row. After that, do it multiple times in a row. You’ll soon discover that you can automatically maintain your balance by popping around as if you were on a pogo stick. As you become proficient at this, you’ll discover that you can hop higher, and that you do not need to hold the seat. Experts can hop over curbs. Extreme experts can hop over pick-up trucks. OK, Toyotas. OK, plastic models of Toyotas.
Hopping will get you used to landing. In order to land from a jump without getting hurt, you want most of your weight on the pedals, and almost no weight on the seat. Your legs become shock absorbers. I suppose this goes without saying, but here I am saying it: You can get really, really hurt with big jumps. Not just a twisted ankle or something, but you could end up spending the whole summer in a hospital. I don’t recommend jumping for anyone but expert riders who feel their lives just won’t be significant without unicycle jumping.
A Fancy Mount:
If you normally mount your unicycle with your right foot low, follow these instructions. Otherwise, reverse the instructions.
Start with your unicycle held on the right side of your body, with your right hand holding onto the back of the seat, and the left pedal at the 6 o’clock position. In one smooth motion, tilt the unicycle way to the right while you place your left foot with all your weight on that low pedal. For a split second, you’ll be balanced on the unicycle. During that split-second, swing your right leg between the left leg and the seat of the unicycle, so it is in front of the wheel, then swing it back so that your right foot lands on the right pedal. Ride away.
A Fancier Mount:
Do everything the same as the last mount, but instead of placing your right foot on the right pedal immediately, swing it around for another rotation, while letting go of and grabbing the seat as necessary, or using both hands on the seat as needed.
An Even Fancier Mount:
This is called the kick mount. As in the previous mounts, reverse everything from left to right, if you prefer. Lay the unicycle on the floor so that the pedal facing up is in the 4 or 5 o’clock position. The wheel should be toward your left, and the seat should be toward your right, so the unicycle frame is perpendicular to your line of vision. (I don’t quite know what that means, either, and I wrote it.) Step on that pedal with your left foot (your foot will be diagonally on the crank and pedal for a moment), and at the same time, hook your right toes under the seat, and rapidly lift the seat up to a vertical position with your right foot. The seat will probably bang gently into the inside of your left leg, at which point you can sit down on the seat. As the unicycle takes it’s position, put your foot on the right pedal, and ride away.
A Fancy Dismount:
As you dismount in the usual way, with the unicycle in front of you, reach down and grab the top of the wheel. Lift it up, and the rest of the unicycle will swing downward, then around, then to a vertical position. Let go of the tire, and grab the unicycle by the seatpost, so that you are standing there holding it in a victorious grasp with your super-long fingers. In very short order, you can perfect this so it is a natural and rapid dismount. Pay attention to catching that seatpost. A couple of things can happen: If you grab it by the seat post binder bolt or just under the seat, it can hurt your hand. If you fail to grab it entirely, the whole unicycle will hit you in the face, which is a less-elegant version of this dismount.
The easy way: Simply ride over the rope when it is in its lowest position. You can go down the street, “skipping rope.” Only thing is, you’re not really skipping. So, if you have perfected hopping, then you’ll discover you can skip rope just like someone on foot. Can you cross hands? Can you turn the rope backward? Can you do double-spins? (I can’t.)
Idling With One Foot:
As you are idling with the pedals in the six o’clock and twelve o’clock positions, try lightening the weight on the high foot until you can briefly lift your foot entirely off the pedal. With practice, you can leave your foot off for longer periods of time. For greater stability, you can park your foot on one side of the fork crown (where the fork comes together above the wheel).
Riding With One Foot:
Once you are comfortable with one-foot idling, you can try advancing one turn of the pedals with one foot off the pedal, and come back to an idle. Now go two revolutions and come back to an idle. Keep going.
OK, you’ve been putting it off for a while, but someday, if you’re going to be an expert rider, you’ve gotta ride backward. Start with idling. When your unicycle is on the forward end of the pendulum, lean a bit farther back than you normally would, and roll the wheel back one entire revolution. Then resume idling. Once that’s easy, try two revolutions, and so on. The trick to backward riding is confidence. The trick to confidence is knowing that there are no problems behind you. So, make sure you are in a place where you have lots of room, no one is walking or riding around behind you, that the ground is smooth, and there are no rattlesnakes.
Riding in a forward circle is a no-brainer. But have you ever tried a backward circle? As long as you are sure no one is behind you, and there are no bumps in the floor, give it a try. You might start with a large easy circle, even stopping to idle from time to time if you must. In time, you can shrink the circle and pick up your speed. You’ll find that something transformative happens. Backward circles feel nice, kind of like floating.
When you can ride backward easily, you can suddenly stop, lean to one side, swing your arms around, and do a half-turn, coming out riding forward. After the first time, you’ll discover that it is not particularly scary. You may be a little more frightened by starting forward, doing the half-turn, and coming out backward, but this too, turns out to be easy.
Now that you can do those half-turns, try a cloverleaf. Start by riding forward in a circle approximately twenty feet (six meters) in diameter. Once you have gone one-quarter of the way around the circle, do a half-turn and ride backward for the next quarter of the circle. Once you have gone another quarter of the way around, do another half-turn, coming out forward. Finish the cloverleaf with one final half-turn. You can go around and around as often as you like, and of course you can shrink the circle as you become experienced.
Spins cause rapid tire wear if you are on pavement. For best results on any surface, your tire pressure should be as high as possible. Thin tires are helpful in tight spins. You can start by turning in ever-smaller circles. When the circle is about as small as you can go, stop pedaling, get as vertical as you can, and swing both arms to one side. This will cause the unicycle to turn in place. At first, it may turn only a quarter or half-turn before you want to ride away to regain balance. With practice, you can get a full turn, and in the right conditions, an expert rider can get many revolutions. In order to get many revolutions, bring your arms in close to your body. If you find your spins end too soon with you falling forward, you’re not upright enough when you start. It may even feel like you need to lean back to start a spin.
Picking Something Up:
An easy way to pick things up off the floor is to circle around an object. This causes your unicycle to lean, so that you can momentarily reach the floor with your outstretched arm. Some riders will pick up things up directly in front of them by reaching down at the far back end of an idle swing.
Walking The Wheel:
This too, is easiest to learn along a chain-link fence. Place a foot diagonally on the top of the tire, and get a feel for the unicycle when you are in this position. While leaning forward a bit, push forward with your foot. Repeat this a few times until your body understands how to maintain balance. Then try putting your other foot behind the first foot as it moves forward so that you can continue to roll forward. Eventually, you’ll be able to push the wheel forward with one foot after another – walking the wheel.
On a gentle downhill, you can ride with one foot, and place the other foot diagonally on the fork crown so that the front part of the bottom of your shoe presses gently on the tire. You can slow your downhill acceleration by letting your foot rub on the tire. With practice, you can take your other foot off the pedal, extending your leg to help with balancing, or placing both feet on the fork crown, and coast downhill for long distances. You can also use this momentarily on flat surfaces. With very gentle pressure on the tire, you can maintain your balance while slowing down only gradually. Once a rider becomes confident with coasting, there is a tendency to ride down steep hills in traffic. Dude, that’s insane! (Being in traffic is a squishy place to lose control at a high speed, and getting squished means a long, embarrassing hospital stay.)
If you play guitar, recorder, violin, saxophone, you’ve probably thought about playing your instrument on your unicycle. If your instrument is a $320,000 Stradivarious, please wait until you are an expert unicyclist. Otherwise, just go for it. You’ll find that combining music and unicycling is natural.
You can mix and match any sort of unicycle maneuvers in time to music to make up a dance. You can just wing it, or you can choreograph a routine that you can then practice and memorize. Your author performed a simple routine to the Christopher Cross song, “Ride Like The Wind” in which he interpreted the song into American Sign Language for the deaf while dancing on a giraffe unicycle. This is not patented. You can use sign language with any song you like except Dave Brubeck’s Take Five (because it has no lyrics).
Pretty much anything you can manipulate on the ground can be handled the same way on a unicycle. A unicyclist performing with hula hoops, ribbons, nunchucks, batons, or balancing cups and saucers makes a good show.
You’ll find it easier to learn juggling while standing, but if you like a good challenge, you might rather do it while riding your unicycle. I actually learned with lemons, about thirty feet (ten meters) off the coast of San Diego, California. I was waist-deep in the water, so every time I dropped a lemon, it was floating right next to me. I didn’t have to stoop down over and over again to pick the lemons up.
Start with three balls or beanbags. They should be about the same size as tennis balls but weigh more. Tennis balls tend to bounce out of your hands when you try to catch them. You can cut slots in tennis balls insert some weight, such as unpopped popcorn, then glue them or tape them closed.
For the sake of this discussion, I’ll assume you are right-handed, since 89 percent of people are. If you are a leftie, just reverse everything.
Hold two balls in your right hand, and one in your left.
Throw one of the two balls in your right hand to your left hand so that it goes about two feet (60 cm) into the air. Catch it in your left hand, along with the ball your left hand is now holding. So now, you have two balls in your left hand, and one in your right. Now, throw the same ball back to your right hand, Make sure the height of the ball you throw is around two feet again. You ought to be back where you started: With two balls in your right hand, and one in your left.
Do this a few times until it is comfortable.
Now, Throw the ball from your right hand in the same way, but just before you catch it, throw the ball that’s in your left hand to the right. So, it will be a sort of exchange, and in the end, again, you end up with two balls in your right hand, and one in your left. There is a strong tendency to throw the first ball high, and then just hand the other ball over. It is important that each throw goes approximately two feet high. There is also a tendency to throw both balls at almost the same time. It should be one ball. . . and then the other, at the last possible split-second.
When you can do that exchange easily, let’s throw in one more step. As before, throw one ball from your right hand to your left, and then throw the ball from your left hand to your right. But, before you catch that second ball, throw the remaining ball in your right hand to your left. Each ball needs to go about two feet high, and each in its own distinct place in time. No low throws. No rushing. No low blows. No morning rushes. No toothbrushes. In fact, nothing that rhymes. At the end of this double-exchange, you’ll have two balls in your left hand, and one in your right.
Can you guess what’s next? Right. Throw a ball from your right hand to your left, just like you’ve been doing. Then throw a ball from your left hand to your right, and then throw a ball from your right hand to your left, and then throw a ball from your left hand to your right, and so on, and on, and on. Congratulations, you’re juggling!
You can think of this pattern, called the “cascade” in another way. It turns out that you’re actually just throwing one ball at a time. Each time you throw a ball, it goes to the other hand. In order to catch each ball, you then throw the ball that occupies the hand that’s going to catch it.
You may find yourself moving, maybe even running forward, when you first start juggling. You can practice against a wall, or just know that in time, the running forward habit stops automatically. What’s happening is that through thousands of years, the human body has learned not to throw things where one could be hit in the face. It’s an instinct. So, we tend to throw the balls forward, and have to run to catch up to our throws.
Once you have learned the three-ball cascade, there is no limit to the number of juggling things you can do. You can juggle four, five or more balls. You can do tricks or juggle in time to music or while telling jokes. You can pass balls with another partner. The most common way is to throw every other right hand toss to your partner’s left hand in an underhand, fairly high (3 feet or 1 meter) arc. This is called “every-others.” Of course it looks quite impressive if each juggler is on a unicycle while passing balls. For even greater effect, you can juggle or pass objects other than balls, such as tennis rackets, knives, or small pitbulls. Your author used to end his act by setting his unicycle on fire, and riding it while juggling three fire torches.
You do not want to do anything with fire until you are an accomplished unicyclist, and have learned all the details of what can go wrong with fire, so you have a backup plan for everything. You also need to study legalities. In some communities, and some seasons, you must perform with a fire extinguisher on hand, or the audience must be a certain distance away, or in some cases, it is just plain illegal to perform with fire at all. This author recommends that you do not put on shows with fire until after you have studied under someone else who has performed extensively with fire.
While not recommended as a performance routine for a whole number of reasons, I’ll tell you about my fire unicycle. Perhaps you can come up with something safer.
I purchased a juggling torch wick from Renegade the juggling prop manufacturer. A torch wick is a strip of non-flammible absorbant material about 1-1/2 inches wide and 18 inches long (4 x 45 cm). I cut it in half, and wrapped each half around the spoke intersections at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions when the pedals were at 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock. I tied these wicks in place with flexible steel wire (picture frame hanging wire), and cut off the ends of the wire so my legs wouldn’t get poked.
Before riding, I would dampen my pants legs with water, especially the insides of my shins and cuffs. I made sure my shoelaces weren’t hanging loose or tied with big loops.
I would then soak the wicks in white gas, also known as Coleman Fuel, which does not have lead or cadmium, so is less toxic. White gas lights easier and more quickly than lighter fluid or charcoal starter, and burns with a brighter flame than some materials such as alcohol.
When riding, I made sure never to stop moving. I didn’t idle in my shows, but if I did idle in fire practices, I would idle big, so the flames were never around my legs long enough to catch anything on fire.
I’ve left out one or two tricks from this collection. Actually, I’ve left out one or two thousand tricks. Just take a look at what people are doing on YouTube. By now, you know enough to watch and try what you see. Sometimes, if you can’t quite figure out a trick, and try it anyway, you end up inventing something new, and possibly even better.
The Giraffe Unicycle
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Tall unicycles are often called “giraffe” unicycles. Using a chain drive from the pedals to the wheel, they can range from 4-1/2 feet to over 100 feet (1.4 to 30 meters) tall. When tall unicycle are discussed in America where the unit of measurement is the foot, the size is usually exaggerated up to the next even foot. So, a five-foot-four-inch unicycle is called “six-foot.”
Interestingly, once you get on, a tall unicycle is easier to ride than a standard one. Imagine balancing a toothbrush vertically in the palm of your hand. Now imagine doing the same thing with a tennis racket. Right, because of the extra length, the tennis racket is much easier to control, requiring less quick reaction time.
The shortest giraffe, around 4-1/2 feet (1.4 meters) tall is an interesting gadget. Because of the extra height, it is easier to maintain control than on a standard unicycle, yet it is not so high that falling is especially dangerous. You can also experiment with gearing, eventually putting on a large top sprocket so you can ride very fast.
Tall unicycles can be problematic. They tend to flex, which can cause problems.
One problem is that the frame can be too wobbly to be rideable. Frames can become permanently bent from incorrect mounting. The most critical, and the most common problem is that chains want to fall off. Many unicycles combat this to some degree by using two sets of chains and sprockets, one on each side. Others have one or more jackshafts with several sets of chains and sprockets, each leading partway from the wheel to the crank. Yet another problem is that sprockets that use ordinary bicycle technology to attach to the wheel hub strip or slip, because the forces of balancing a unicycle, plus the low one-to-one gearing put more stress on the sprockets than they were designed to withstand.
Unicycles up to about six feet (two meters) tall can be “free mounted” or “open mounted.” This means that the rider can get on the unicycle unassisted and without the use of a ladder or any accessory. There are two ways to free mount. One is to quickly place a foot on the tire while holding the unicycle tilted slightly forward. Then quickly place the other foot on the lowest pedal, and then the first foot on the other pedal, riding away before the unicycle becomes too unbalanced. The other way is to run forward while holding the seat of the unicycle, then as a pedal comes around, the rider places a foot on the pedal, causing the wheel to stop, and the rider rides up in the seat as the unicycle levers forward. Once the unicycle is a bit beyond vertical, the rider pedals, gaining an upright position.
Free mounting, as well as many other unicycle tricks can benefit from friendly competition or encouragement. Your author was reluctant to learn free mounting. He had a friend who also owned a giraffe, and likewise, was reluctant to learn. The friend proposed a sort of competition. Every day during practice, each rider would try twenty free mounts. Whoever managed the most successful free mounts won. There was no real prize, other than the feeling of success. But, I was just burning to win everyday. Unfortunately, I only won about half the time. The result, though, is that we both learned free mounting fairly quickly.
One problem with tall unicycles is that they can be hard to take places. Even at six feet, they can be hard to put in a small car. Your author received a commission from a customer to build a take-apart unicycle. It had three sections. The seat, seat tube, crank and pedals formed the top unit. It had a square plug on the bottom that fit into a hollow square middle tube. The bottom section was the fork and wheel, with another square plug on the top. By plugging the parts together and installing the chain, the unicycle became a solid unit. This machine was actually provided with three middle pieces and came with three chains. One set was very short, to make a five-foot unicycle. One was typical, resulting in a six-foot (two meter) unicycle, and the long set resulted in an eight-foot unicycle.
Upon building a custom nine-foot (meter) unicycle, your author felt that a test ride was required before handing off the finished product to the customer. He didn’t feel ready, but went ahead and tested the machine. This was done by standing on the top of a Volkswagen Van (which dented the roof), then climbing up to the unicycle seat while hanging onto a streetlight. After fifteen minutes of procrastination, the author then rode away from the van, completed a figure eight in a small empty parking lot, climbed off the unicycle, and stated that he would never build such a tall one again, because he didn’t like test riding them.
Nine feet scared your author, but Sem Abrahams holds the world record with a unicycle more than ten times taller. His unicycle was just a bit over 114 feet (34 meters) tall. The picture below links to a video of Sem’s world record ride. If your ebook reader doesn’t support Internet links, you can go to http://www.semcycle.biz/record/html/35m.html.
World’s tallest unicycle
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Then there are monocycles. Whereas a unicyclist sits above the wheel, or outside of the wheel, the monocyclist sits within the wheel. Monocycles are exceedingly rare. You can’t buy them at Walmart, and probably for good reason.
What do you suppose will happen if this rider has to stop fast? Right! One of the problems with monocycles is when you slam on the brakes, you tumble right around with the wheel.
The Ultimate Wheel
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You would think that you can’t remove much from a unicycle, and still have a useful vehicle. But actually, you can remove the seat, frame and bearings. Then you have what’s called an “ultimate wheel.”
via Ian Muttoo
Ultimate wheels have been made in various sizes. The easiest size to learn on is around 700 mm (26 inches) in diameter. The pedals should be mounted as close to the plane of the wheel as possible, on cranks of typical length – around 6.5 inches (20 cm). To get the pedals in close, the ultimate wheel is usually made by bolting or welding a plate into the middle of the rim, and attaching threaded holders for the pedals directly on the plate. I have found from painful experience that you don’t want large openings in the center plate in an ultimate wheel. Otherwise, a rider who has lost control may get a foot caught in the wheel, which makes landing on one’s feet impossible. It makes landing on one’s hands very possible, which is tough on the wrists.
When first learning, you can cover the sides of the tire with electrical tape. This way, you can use the insides of your shins as a frame and bearings. Just squeeze your knees close together, and let the wheel rub as needed. In time, you can learn to ride without contacting the tire at all. At first however, you’ll want to wear pants, at least, since the wheel will inevitably tilt one way or the other and rub uncomfortably hard.
To ride an ultimate wheel the first time, find smooth pavement along a chain-link fence, just like you would to learn a unicycle. Some people learn unicycling by being held up by friends. With an ultimate wheel, this does not work as well as doing it by yourself. Place a pedal just behind the bottom center position, and as you place your foot on that pedal, the wheel will roll under you. As the wheel rolls past you, place your other foot on the other pedal, and start riding, keeping your knees close together. Some people hold the top of the tire with one hand as they start.
The biggest problem you may encounter is that an ultimate wheel can roll away if you dismount quickly or fall. It can roll out into traffic, causing a real mess. I once let my ultimate wheel roll across a highway, being barely missed by four cars, then across a sidewalk, into a bank, up to a teller window, ask for cash, and. . . well that’s as far as it got. The wheel didn’t know my PIN.
The hardest thing about riding an ultimate wheel is owning one. I have taught people to ride ultimates who have never ridden ordinary unicycles. While most people require weeks to learn, some can get a feel for an ultimate wheel within a remarkably short time. The most intriguing student was George.
He was a very good bicycle mechanic, and a friend. He wanted to just try the wheel, and see what would happen. He backed it up to a curb near a fence, got on while holding tightly onto the fence with his ordinary-length fingers, and just stood there for five whole minutes. I figured that’s it, he’ll get off and give up. But no, he repositioned the wheel away from the curb, and still hanging onto the fence, he rolled back and forth a few times, getting the feel of the wheel. He continued to idle, grasping the fence desperately at times. And he continued – for another eight or ten minutes. I lost interest, turning away into a conversation with some other friends. Suddenly one said, “Look!” I turned around and looked. And there was George, riding down the street. He went at least 100 yards (100 meters) before gracefully dismounting and carrying the wheel back. He handed it to me without comment, as was George’s way. So far as I know, he never rode an ultimate wheel again. He just wanted to know what it was like.
The BC Wheel
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There’s also a “BC wheel,” which some call the “impossible wheel.” This has pedals mounted on bearings in such a way that both pedals are always about an inch (2.5 cm) below the center. A rider can learn to coast on this machine, but can’t easily accelerate.
St. Helen’s School
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In 1961, Reverend James Moran founded a Catholic school in Newbury, Ohio. He believed that children should be educated in mind as well as body, so was a strong proponent of forms of physical education that would appeal to all children. He picked up a tandem bicycle and a unicycle for the students to experiment with. The bike drew some interest, but no one really even looked at the unicycle, until one small boy wanted to try it. Needless to say, he soon learned to ride. This encouraged some other kids, and as they say, the rest is macaroni.
In time, unicycling became popular among almost all the students. Rev. Moran and physical education instructor Robert Pastor noticed so many benefits in those children, that they made unicycling a mandatory subject in phys ed classes.
The students were allowed to unicycle in the halls between classes. Collisions were surprisingly few. Many of the students learned to jump from ramp to ramp, ride along narrow beams, play basketball and baseball on unicycles, and ride giraffes up to eight feet (2.4 meters) tall. The school put together a drill team, which became rather famous, appearing in parades around the United States, and at two presidential inaugurations.
In approximately 1990, the drill team was disbanded. The usual reason given is that the school could not find a coach. Your author believes that interest in unicycling had pretty much fizzled at the school. All that was left is a sign on the school’s lawn stating that it was home to the once-famous unicycle drill team. Until now. In 2011, after a 21 year break, a new drill team was established at St. Helens.
Maintenance and Repair
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A mountain bike has more than 1,000 parts, although half of them are in the chain. A standard unicycle has at most 100 parts, counting spokes and ball bearings individually. You would think with one-fifth as many parts, the machine would need much less maintenance. In fact, unicycles need as much or more maintenance than bicycles. You’ll find out why as you read the next paragraphs.
Before we get too far into this, there is one bit of terminology that we’ll want to clarify: “Wheel” means the whole assembly including the hub, spokes, rim and sometimes the tire and tube. “Rim,” on the other hand, is just the outer metal ring of the wheel.
In almost all circumstances, you’ll want to keep the tire inflated to its maximum rated pressure. You’ll find that number molded into the side of the tire, along with size numbers and other information. When the pressure is low, the unicycle is hard to control, and the tire wears very quickly. Furthermore, when you hit sharp-edged bumps such as a low curb with an under-inflated tire, the rim can become dented.
Because sharp turning is a big part of unicycling, and because the pedals are always in the same orientation to the wheel, it doesn’t take long to wear flat spots in the tire tread. To get the maximum life out of your tire, you’ll want to rotate it often.
To rotate a tire, take the wheel out of the fork. Let all the air pressure out. Remove the tire and inner tube, turn the tire a bit, reinsert the inner tube, put the tire and inner tube back on the wheel, inflate, and reinstall the wheel. Sometimes, you can take a big shortcut: You can just deflate the tire, grab it, and turn it while it is still on the wheel. Hopefully, the inner tube will not turn with the tire, so the valve stem will still stick straight out of the valve hole.
If you have to remove the tire, you’ll want to be careful about puncturing the inner tube. For best results, try removing the tire without any tools. When it is fully deflated, press the sides of the tire all the way around both sides of the wheel if necessary to make sure the tire is fully unseated – not stuck in position on the sides of the rim. Grab the tire on the side of the wheel opposite the valve stem, and pull outward and sideways. If you are skilled or lucky, the entire tube and tire will slip off the wheel.
If you are not lucky, such as when the tire is a thin one with a tight fit, you may need to use tools. Bicycle tire levers are the best tool, but the back of spoons or forks works almost as well. When it is fully deflated, stick a tire lever between the tire and the side of the rim on one side approximately opposite the valve stem, being careful not to stick the lever in any further than necessary to engage the side of the tire. The big risk here is that you might stick it in too far and puncture the tube. Sometimes it is best to prepare your tire levers by polishing off any sharp edges before you use them. Pry the side of the tire over the side of the rim, always being aware of where the inner tube is, so you don’t puncture or pinch it. Put another tire lever in about 5 inches (12 cm) away from the first, and pry more of the tire over the edge of the rim. After doing this a couple more times, the rest of one side of the tire will slip over the rim by hand. Pull out the inner tube, then pry off the other side of the tire in the same way.
You will not need any tools to put the tire and tube back on the wheel.
First inspect the rim strip. This is a thin strip of rubber or plastic that protects the inner tube from being worn through by the spoke heads. Make sure it is covering every spoke head, not offset to one side in any area.
Put just enough air in the tube for it to take its donut shape, then place the tube within the tire. Stick the valve through the valve hole, being careful not to trap the rimstrip in the hole. Start putting the inside edge of the tire in position within the rim, starting from the valve and working around the wheel until one side of the tire is fully within the rim. The last little bit may be hard to work over the edge. If so, make sure the valve stem is pulled only halfway through the hole in the rim, so that part of the inner tube is not pinched under the edge of the tire at the valve. Make sure the inner tube is not caught under the side of the tire anywhere. Make sure you don’t have too much air in the tube. Then, with your palms or thumbs, you ought to be able to work the edge of the tire over the rim. A bit of patience helps.
With one side of the tire on, you can repeat the process for the other side. If the second side gives you difficulty, check the same things – that the inner tube is not pinched under the side of the tire anywhere, and that there isn’t so much air in the inner tube that you have to fight it.
Once the tire is fully on the rim, inflate the tire just a little bit. Look all the way around both sides of the tire to be sure it is properly positioned on the rim. If it looks good, bring the tire up to half-pressure. If it still looks good, pump it all the way up. Nothing is more embarrassing than to bring your tire up to full pressure and have it explode loudly off the rim, killing your inner tube in the process.
When you ride your unicycle through thorns or glass, you risk punctures. In fact, occasional flat tires are pretty much unavoidable if you ride your unicycle outdoors.
The normal way to fix a flat is to take the wheel off the unicycle, and the tire and tube off the wheel. Put a little air in the tube and listen for the leak. You may be able to hear the air hissing out, and then see the leak. If not, you can immerse the inner tube in a bucket of water and find bubbles coming out.
Experts will sometimes just pry a section of tire over the edge of the rim, pulling out the area of inner tube where the hole is. That way, the wheel does not have to be removed from the frame.
When you find the leak, dry it if necessary, and buff it with sandpaper to remove the outer oxidized layer of rubber, so a patch will stick securely. After the area is sanded, do not touch it with your fingers, or tongue, or toes, or any part of your body. Or anyone’s body. Spread a layer of patch glue on the buffed area, and let it dry fully. Patches use contact cement, which is unlike other kinds of glue. This is the way it works: When it is fully dry, it makes a special chemical bond with the patch, that is very strong. If you try to stick a patch on glue that hasn’t dried, it won’t stick right – ever. So, once it is dry, peel the plastic backing off the patch, and without touching the sensitive surface with your fingers, or tongue, or toes, etc, stick it on the inner tube, and press it on securely with your thumbs.
Now, put the tire and tube back on, right? Hang on a sec: There’s something else you have to do first: Look around the outside of the tire and see if the thing that caused the puncture is still stuck in the tire. If so, it would just puncture your tube again, as soon as you ride away. If you don’t see anything stuck in the tire, then carefully – very carefully – feel all the way around inside the tire with your super-long fingers to see if you can find the puncturing object stuck in the rubber. If you find a thorn, piece of glass or whatever, you can press it out with a blunt tool such as a screwdriver.
If your tire went flat because it blew out – because the sidewall gave way, you can sometimes fix it temporarily by placing a layer of cloth between the tire and the tube.
The other common maintenance problem with unicycles is loose parts. Because unicycles fall a lot, generally banging hard onto the floor, the pedals, cranks and other parts come loose. You need to check all these parts, especially the pedals, frequently. If a pedal gets loose, and you don’t notice, then by the time it falls off (generally causing you to fall), the crank threads may be damaged beyond repair. Unicycle cranks can be hard to get, so take care of them.
The crank on one side will be a regular bicycle part. It is a “left crank” although it may be on either side of your unicycle. It is the same as the left crank on a bicycle. It has left-hand (reverse) threading. You tighten the pedal as if you were unscrewing any other part. So, to tighten the pedal on the left crank, you can think of it as the reverse of a jar lid. The same way you unscrew a jar lid is the way you screw on the “left” pedal. The left crank is usually marked somewhere on the inside edge with a “L” in English, or a “G” in French.
Now, the right crank is the weird one. It is unlike bike parts, because bicycles have sprockets attached to their right cranks. This crank is special for unicycles, and may be very hard to get, so you’ll want to take care of it by keeping the pedal tight, and the crank tight on the axle.
When replacing pedals, apply a touch of grease or oil to the threads. This seems counter-intuitive. You’d think the threads should not be slippery so the pedal will stay tight. But in fact, by being slippery, you can drive the threads down just a bit tighter. Furthermore, cranks are often made from aluminum alloy, and pedal spindles are made from steel. When dissimilar metals are in contact, they can suffer from “electrolytic action.” The electrons of the molecules trade orbits, which is a form of corrosion. In time, unlubricated (inlubricated? dislubraced?) pedals can become stuck in their cranks.
Most unicycles have spoked wheels, and you may have noticed that the spokes are adjustable. You can turn the spoke heads at the rim to tighten or loosen spokes. At any bike shop, you can get a spoke wrench to turn the spoke heads.
If you were to tighten all the spokes attached to the left side of the hub along one section of the wheel, they’d be shorter, drawing that section of the rim to the left. Your wheel would become bent. Knowing that, if your wheel has been bent from some sort of hard riding, you can straighten it. If a section of wheel leans too far to the left, loosen the left spokes a bit, and tighten the ones on the right. This is called “truing the wheel.” Some people call it “aligning” or “balancing.” You shouldn’t only tighten spokes, or only loosen spokes, but work in bunches, tightening some to counter the loosening of others. Otherwise, your whole wheel can become out of round – egg-shaped. If you tighten only in a section of your wheel, it will develop a flat spot.
To get a clear picture of which spokes to adjust, you can put a tie-wrap on your unicycle’s fork that almost touches the rim. When you turn the wheel, you can easily watch the distance between the rim and the tip of the tie-wrap.
For minor truing, you can leave the tire and tube inflated on the wheel, as long as you know the rim strip is in good shape. For major truing, you may want to remove the tire, tube and rim strip, so you don’t grind holes through the strip, and ultimately the inner tube.
Spokes are thin rods, they can only pull so hard, so if your wheel is quite bent and you depend on the spokes to hold it straight, something will give, probably at an inopportune time. If you have a badly bent wheel, loosen all the spokes, bend the wheel back as much as you can by stepping on it, or by applying pressure, re-tighten all the spokes and then finally true your wheel by adjusting some of the spokes.
Build Your Own
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You can build a giraffe unicycle almost entirely out of junk bike parts, although by using specifically chosen materials you can build a better giraffe. Standard unicycles are more challenging because you need a hub with an axle that goes through bearings to the pedal cranks. This arrangement is not a typical set of bike parts.
The one part that’s worth investing in for any kind of unicycle is a good seat (called “saddle” by ‘serious’ riders.) If you try to use any old bicycle seat, you’ll find the unicycle is harder to control. You have to spend a lot of energy keeping the seat in position under you. The unicycle seat is curved in such a way that you don’t have to do anything to maintain front to back positioning. Those who have used bicycle seats tend to tip the front up about fifteen or twenty degrees.
The one bit of equipment that’s a must-have for unicycle building is a welding set. With that, a world of possibilities opens up, limited only by your imagination.
You might prefer electric or gas welding. Each has its advantages, and if you can afford it, buy both.
The classic electric welder plugs into a heavy duty circuit in your home (a 220 volt circuit in America), and converts the electricity to a low voltage with high current (“amps”). When you create a electrical spark, it gets very hot. The most common arrangement is to have a metal rod held in a clamp. A ground wire is attached to a part to be welded. The metal rod in the clamp is held in the welder’s super-long fingers, and has the other wire attached. When the person welding touches the metal rod to the metal to be welded, the electricity flows. The person then draws the rod away from the metal a short distance, typically a couple of millimeters. This creates an ongoing spark that heats the metal very quickly. The metal becomes so hot that it melts. The welding rod also melts. The person welding wiggles the rod around to mix its metal into the weld as the job progresses. When done and cool, the edges of the piece that were welded, and some material from the welding rod, have all mixed together into a solid single piece.
Other versions of electric welding include a sort of gun instead of a clamp that feeds wire from a spool into the weld. With this, the welder doesn’t have to clamp new rods every time one becomes too short. This too, automates part of the process, so the welder can be less skilled, yet come out with a better weld.
Welding rods are usually coated with a chemical called “flux” that makes smoke. This smoke keeps the air away from the welding area, because otherwise oxygen would cause the metal to burn, weakening the weld.
Another approach is to use an inert gas (a gas that doesn’t mix with the metal) to shield the weld. The gun that shoots out the metal wire also squirts out the inert gas. This is called MIG welding, which stands for Metal Inert Gas.
Yet another version is TIG welding. That’s Tungsten Inert Gas. With that, a non-meltable tungsten rod is used to draw the spark, but metal from a handheld rod or spool of wire is mixed into the weld. TIG is less common than MIG.
For the home hobbyist, the basic kind of welder, often called a “stick welder” or “buzz box” is sufficient. Be careful about buying the most inexpensive versions, that plug into an ordinary outlet, because many of these simply don’t have the power for the kind of welding you’d want to do. In fact, they don’t have enough power for pretty much any kind of home repair. For the more sophisticated unicycle builder, a MIG setup is nice.
Stick welding leaves flux behind, which hardens into a plastic-like substance on the surface of the weld. Flux can be difficult to remove. It needs to be removed before painting so the paint won’t chip away. MIG and TIG welding do not leave flux behind.
Then there’s gas welding, also known as “oxy-acetylene” or “oxy-propane” welding. These sets have two bottles of gas under high pressure. One gas is oxygen which causes things to burn much hotter than they would in air alone. This is why a regular Bernz-o-matic style torch does not get hot enough for welding. The person welding holds a torch that produces a small, but very hot flame. This flame melts the edges of the parts to be welded, and the person welding holds a metal rod in her other hand that is melted into the weld as it progresses. The exhaust from the oxy-acetylene flame itself is sufficient to keep the oxygen away from the weld, so no shielding gas is usually used, although for some operations, the welding rods are coated with flux.
The advantages of electric welding are that it is faster, and causes less warpage. When you heat metal, it becomes soft and expands a little bit. When it cools, it doesn’t shrink back down into the exact same shape it once held. So, if you weld a flat piece of metal, it won’t stay flat. It will become wrinkly. Electric welding heats only the immediate area of the weld. When a person is welding with gas, it takes time to heat up the metal sufficiently to melt, and this heat dissipates further into the metal parts, resulting in extra warpage.
Whereas there are ways to weld unusual metals and cut metal with electric welding, these are not common or easy. The gas welding set is more versatile because you can use it for heating, bending, and cutting, as well as welding.
One of the most popular uses for gas equipment is what’s called “brazing.” This is sort of like a cross between soldering and true welding. Soldering uses a combination metal made from lead and tin to join parts. It is great for electrical circuits, but is not strong enough to hold unicycles together. If you could solder with a different metal, one that’s plenty strong, but melts at a lower temperature than steel, then you’d have something special. That’s brazing, which uses alloys of bronze to hold steel together. The big advantage with brazing is that the steel parts never get hot enough to melt. When you melt steel, it loses some of its strength because as it transitions from liquid to solid state, it crystalizes. Crystalline metal is brittle. Brazing is at its best when there are large surface areas to join. The hot bronze is flowed between the parts, essentially gluing them together. Until recently, the best hand-built bicycle frames were all made with brazing. Some even used expensive brazing rods made from silver mixed with bronze, which flows at a lower temperature than regular brazing, resulting in even stronger joints.
Most of the welding in unicycle construction involves ordinary steel. But it is also possible to weld aluminum alloy with electric and gas equipment. For electric welding of aluminum, you normally use MIG, with aluminum wire.
For gas, you can buy hollow aluminum welding rods that contain flux in the middle.
Aluminum carries heat away much more quickly than steel, so gas welding aluminum can require great skill. You need to heat it with a big flame quickly, do the welding, and get out, before the whole piece melts down. Furthermore, it is hard to see when aluminum is ready to melt. You can sort of see the surface crinkle up and change shape a bit, just as it melts. Gas welding aluminum can work out very nicely, but it is almost a lost art. It was perfected in World War II by a mostly female workforce who built airplanes. Since the advent of MIG welding, it is seldom seen.
As you might guess, welding is dangerous if done by people without experience, so you should be properly trained and supervised when you start. However, if you invest your time to learn welding, you’ll find it is useful for far more than building unicycles. It is one of those skills you’ll use in various ways for the rest of your life.
Since it is easier to build a giraffe than a standard unicycle, let’s start with that. For this exercise, we’ll use an old junk bike, such as you might be able to pick up at a garage sale for $20, or at a bicycle store for $2,000.
1. Disassemble the bike entirely.
2. Cut off the seat stays, those are the tubes that run from just under the seat to the rear dropouts, where the wheel attaches.
3. Bend the seat tube, or better yet, cut it off and reattach it to the bottom bracket shell (the part that holds the crank assembly), so that it is 180 degrees opposed from the chainstays – the thin tubes that go from the bottom bracket to the center of the rear wheel.
4. Add some reinforcement, so the chainstays and seat tube won’t bend. You’ll want to be careful not to distort the top half of the seattube, so that the seatpost can still slide in.
Now, you have completed the frame. You can paint it any color you want, so long as it is black (remembering a Henry Ford quote).
5. Unless you were very lucky, the rear wheel does not have a fixed gear hub. If you have a coaster brake rear wheel, you can take the hub apart, removing the brake parts, and braze or weld the large input part that holds the sprocket to the hub shell. You may want to remove and reinstall the spokes, because if they get too hot, they’ll loose their tension or even melt. You can learn all about working with spokes at BikeWebSite.com.
If the rear wheel is not a coaster brake, the easiest thing to do is get and modify a coaster brake hub, and spoke that into the rear wheel. There’s just nothing to weld to on a typical multi-gear freewheeling rear hub.
The sprocket you attach to the rear wheel should be from a coaster-brake or internally-geared hub. You don’t want to use a sprocket from a derailleur bike, since those are designed to shed the chain easily when shifting. The last thing you want happening on your unicycle is for the chain to fall off.
6. Modify the crank / chainwheel assembly. What was the front sprocket will be way too huge. For a typical giraffe, you want the top sprocket to be nearly the same size as the bottom one. So, weld another coaster brake sprocket onto the right crank or chainwheel – however it fits best. Centering is important. If it is not perfectly centered, then as the pedals turn, the chain will vary from too tight (wearing out the bearings) to too loose – risking falling off the sprockets.
7. Attach a genuine unicycle seat – or make one of about the right shape.
You’re done! The whole process should take about ten minutes. OK, maybe ten hours.
When I made the eleven unicycles that I ‘lent’ to the kids, I invested in unicycle hubs and seats from a bicycle parts supplier. Seats are commonly available, but you may have some trouble getting hubs. In addition to parts suppliers, you might check eBay – not only for hubs, but you might also consider buying broken unicycles. You can post in discussion groups that you are looking for unicycle parts, and all sorts of connections may come up. (Hey, I should try that myself!) Late breaking news: You can get some unicycle parts, and browse a surprisingly complete collection of unicycles for sale at renegadejuggling.com
You can get nice ball bearing assemblies from any bearing supplier. There may be a supplier in your town. If not, you’ll find bearings readily available online, in any size combination you can imagine.
I’ve made regular unicycles entirely from old bike parts, and miscellaneous stuff, but I had metal lathes and other equipment available. Perhaps you are inventive, and can do it with less equipment. Perhaps you have more equipment than I realize. Do you have a shoelast? An escargot cooker? A box of crayons? A lobster boat?
Using bike parts, you can start with an ordinary front fork. Widen the blades so the hub will fit between them. Cut off the dropouts – the parts where the wheel attached, and build some sort of mechanism to hold the bearings.
Stick a seat on top of the fork.
Respoke the wheel so your unicycle hub is in the middle, attach cracks and pedals, and you’re all set.
Because most bicycle right cranks accommodate a chainwheel (sprocket assembly), you may prefer to use two left cranks and two left pedals.
You can also buy from a bicycle shop, probably by special order, a thing called a heli-coil that you can use to make an aluminum left crank into a right-hand threaded crank. The heli-coil kit has a drill or reamer to grind out the old threads, a tap to create new oversize threads, and one or more strong steel threaded tubes. The tubes have the regular diameter threads on the inside to accept a pedal, and larger threads on the outside to thread into your now oversize crank hole.
Making an ultimate wheel is probably the easiest task of all. It can be done without welding. Start with a rim by removing the spokes and hub from an ordinary bicycle wheel. Using 3/4-inch plywood, create a disk that exactly fits inside the rim. Make a cutout large enough to access the valve stem. Find two bicycle cranks. Sand the edges and back sides to expose fresh metal. Trace them on your disk, and using a router, make cutouts in the disk so they can be tightly embedded. Using Epoxy glue, fasten the cranks into the disk. Using wood screws, attach the disk within the rim through several spoke holes.
Put on a tube and tire, and attach pedals. You’ve got an ultimate wheel! You may want to coat the sides of the tire with electrical tape. This will make it much easier to ride.
Most art unicycles start out as ordinary homemade unicycles with parts attached. Many are giraffes – it makes the process easier, and in the end, you have a more spectacular art piece. I have seen unicycles that seem to grow up through the middle of a wheelbarrow. I have seen two-wheeler giraffes, in which one tire rubs on the other. The rider has to pedal backward to go forward. I have even seen a one-and-a-half wheel giraffe. The rider could only control the unicycle when the top half-wheel was in contact with the lower wheel. In another case, a unicycle’s wheel consisted of twelve big wooden spokes. There was no tire. Instead, at the end of each spoke was an old shoe. This was a ‘twelve-foot’ unicycle.
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Unicycle performing sorts into three categories.
The first is simply doing a bunch of tricks. That can be interesting to technically-minded unicyclists, but has little performance value.
The second kind is to perform to music. This can be very successful, and has resulted in headliner acts, circus acts, and has launched a few careers in the performance arts. One or more unicyclists put together a routine and practice it to perfection. The music is usually selected to set a mood. For instance, if the theme is danger, you might pick a theme song from a spy movie. Most of the tricks are timed to relate to the music in some way. In a musical performance, it is possible for the unicyclist to not relate to the audience at all. No acknowledgements, no smiles, no interaction. But it is far better to smile, or wear expressions appropriate to the various parts of your act. It is better to nod to people in the front rows. It is better to do something silly, or do a bit of gesturing or acting along the way. If you get any sort of weirdness from the audience, perhaps a cheer, or a jeer, or a heckle, learn to work with it. That’s far, far better than ignoring audience interaction.
The third kind is the most versatile, but also perhaps the hardest to learn. I’m talking about comedy shows. The format can vary from skits possibly involving costuming, props, accents, and background sounds or music, to stand-up comedy on a unicycle. Mixing comedy with technical unicycling is an unbeatable combination.
Comedy is hard to invent, yet it is bad form to steal spoken content that other performers have come up with. The very old material that ‘everyone’ has used since the 1920’s is OK to use. Many of the responses to mistakes fall in this category, such as when you fall off, you can say, “There’s a lot of gravity in here.” or if indoors, “The sun got in my eyes.”
To invent comedy, you can use at least two approaches. One is to create a story, essentially acted out on unicycles. Your material will be one-liners built on the storyline, the characters, and then one-liners built on the one-liners, sometimes called “toppers.”
If there are two or more performers, each can fit into a role. Typically, you have the smart performer, who gets shown up in the end by the one playing the stupid role. Both can play stupid, and that works. Both can play too smart for their own good, and that works also.
With two performers, a rhythm can develop in which one performer sets up a scenario in a sentence or a paragraph, and the other adds the punchline. For example:
Gracie Allen (after George says something less than kind Gracie): “You were a lot more gallant when you were a boy.”
George: “You were a lot more buoyant when you were a gal.”
Another version is to use mostly physical comedy in response to music or to the unicycling action. The performer can over-act fear of an upcoming feat, can think he’s finished when there’s a break in the music, only to rush back to center stage when the music resumes. The actor can do something like check the wind direction three times, then do something that has absolutely nothing to do with wind direction. You get the idea.
Your author used to have a point in his show when he would pick up three juggling clubs, stare at them for a moment, then drop them as if phobic of clubs, along with a tiny, high-pitched scream.
While picking the clubs back up, I’d turn to the audience and ask them, “Have you ever seen these?” The audience can respond in either of two ways.
If the strongest response was “yes,” Then I’d put them down, with a Jack Benny-like expression – and then pick them up a minute later.
If the strongest response was “no,” I’d say, “Neither have I.” and throw them down again.
Timing is important. Most everything having to do with comedy can be done slower than you might think. The so-called “pregnant pause” is your friend. Wait for people to laugh, if they’re going to. If a line fails to get a laugh, you might have something memorized for when a line fails to get a laugh. “My mom laughed at that joke.” or “That used to be funny in 1998.” Johnny Carson was the king of saving bad lines. You can see some of his monologues on YouTube. He also made great use of the pregnant pause.
There are a few cases in which high-speed delivery works well. Puns generally fall short if you use just one. But if you have five rapid puns in a row, all built on the same topic, you will almost certainly have people laughing in the end. Look at the stand-up work of Robin Williams or Jim Carrey for successful fast delivery.
Much comedy is born out of repetition and accidents. I once spoke with a great unicyclist and Juggler, Dan Menendez, the guy who is famous for bouncing balls off a piano keyboard, who told me, “Anyone can be a great performer. All you have to do is perform a thousand shows.”
Perform in front of an audience as much as you can. Carefully notice the audience’s reaction to all your material. If something is not working, adjust the timing, toss it out, or change it. When something works, look for toppers and variations. Don’t be afraid to be bigger than life when on stage. Don Rickles wasn’t really grouchy and biting in real life. Phyllis Diller did not really think she was ugly. James Roday (star of the TV show Psych) probably isn’t all that impulsive. But these performers have all taken parts of their personality and built them bigger than life.
Click for YouTube video on those devices that support it, otherwise, you can see it any time at youtube.com/watch?v=MwLJTiYuBy8.
Before you perform, practice as much as you can, even trying out your costuming. Nothing is worse than having your scarf get caught in the spokes during a show, or the microphone sliding around the back of your neck, or the buttons popping off your pants when you do a quick maneuver.
If you’re performing in a small venue, check the lighting and sound. You may find that a certain light blinds you when you do a certain trick, so you have to do the trick on a different part of the stage so you can face a different direction. You may find that all your spoken comedy goes down the drain when the audience cannot hear you clearly. If in a large venue, do a full tech rehearsal with the stagehands, sound and light people. It is embarrassing to wait there on stage, gesturing to the sound guy that he missed a music cue.
If you’re performing indoors with fire (not recommended unless you’ve trained under a fire performance expert), make absolutely sure you won’t be setting off the smoke detectors. Wherever you perform with fire, have fire extinguishers ready, a safe way to put out your burning objects at the end of the bit, and someone on hand who is ready to extinguish flames.
An aside: I was once watching an outdoor juggling show, when one of the juggler’s torches broke in mid-air. The flaming head of the torch flew off into the crowd. It landed on a teenage girl’s skirt. She screamed, and stood up, backing away as fast as she could. The torch fell harmlessly to the floor without hurting her, but it did leave a big black mark on her skirt.
There was once a fire performance in a barn filled with hay bales in one of the eastern United States. I think it was New Hampshire. The performer accidently set some hay on fire, and within minutes, the whole barn burned down. Again no one was hurt, but as I understand it, the entire state has passed a law against performing with fire.
Another aside: I, your author, was once doing a dinner show on a college stage. Seated in the front row were the VIPs. I was going to come out on the stage swinging my arms wildly while holding machetes, and eventually start juggling the big knives. I was one hundred percent reliable in the juggling, but as it turns out, not so good at holding them. On this particular evening, I came through the curtain, swinging my knives, and one caught on the curtain, flew out of my hand, and landed in the proctor’s bowl of Jell-o. He immediately stood and backed up, although he thought it was funny. I said the only old line I could think of as I saw him backing away: “Hey, I didn’t leave when you got here!” It brought down the house, but the situation could have been much different if that knife had hit someone. For years afterwards, my unicycling and juggling buddies would play a video of that performance whenever I was at a party to the great amusement of everyone.
4 Ways to Make Money with Unicycling
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Now that you can ride a unicycle you might as well capitalize on it. You have an opportunity beyond most people who do not ride unicycles. While they’re bagging groceries or crunching spreadsheets, you can create your own business around your interest in unicycles. Some of these business ideas require little time, skill, knowledge or money.
Before we launch into the main discussion, let’s talk for a minute about partnerships in business. A partner can be the perfect way to fill in what’s missing, what would otherwise keep you from being able to have a successful unicycling business. A partner is great for people who like a “we’re in this together” feeling. You can read more about partnerships in the bonus chapters.
Have you ever watched sign spinners? Research “sign spinner” on YouTube and see what comes up. That’s a great skill in itself, but combined with unicycling, it would be awesome, wouldn’t it? In a heavily trafficked area, doing it on a giraffe unicycle, you could rise above the others. (Sorry about the pun.) You would make it so motorists and pedestrians could see your sign from a distance.
To get sign spinning gigs, you can approach local merchants directly, advertise on Craigslist, put up local flyers and hand out business cards. But wait, what are we talking about here? How about making a sign advertising your services as a sign spinner? Here’s the crazy thing: If you do it that way, you are presenting yourself as a specialist. You can contract to make $30 or more per hour. But if you respond to a company’s request for a sign spinner, they may not understand how much the unicycle adds. They might offer you what the other sign spinners get, which is likely to be near minimum wage.
By the way, as a professional sign spinner, you are within your rights to request that your signs be printed on both sides, so no matter what happens when you’re spinning, a printed side of the sign is visible to people watching.
One winter, many years ago, I came to Waikiki. I had an opportunity to street perform, but only for two hours every other Monday. I almost made ends meet, but not quite. So I took a job handing out flyers for a moped and jeep rental company. Many people do this. Some of the companies that hire people to hand out flyers pay them on a piecework basis, instead of hourly, and it usually works out to less than minimum wage. something like five cents for each one they hand out. The company has spies, so these guys can’t just dump the flyers in the trash and say they handed them out. I was able to make twice as much as everyone else in the company because I did it on a unicycle. I just rode, carefully, among the throngs walking on the main sidewalks, often idling in place, and everyone was happy to take my flyers.
Street performing is also known as “busking” in much of Europe and the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, it has a stigma attached. Street performers are considered by many to be near the bottom of the food chain, almost down there with homeless people. Not that being homeless in and of itself is a bad thing, but that’s a subject for another book. The fact is, many street performers make less than minimum wage, and live less than ideal lives. This, however, is no excuse not to perform.
On a unicycle, street performing is an awesome opportunity. Unlike most street performing musicians, the experienced unicyclist can make well upwards of $40 (30 Euros, or zillions of yen) per hour. Some, under the right circumstances, can make hundreds per hour. Now, before you get all excited, I should mention that until you’ve done many street shows, you’ll make far less than minimum wage. Performing is a skill you have to learn, just like you learned unicycling. Unless you have super-long fingers. Then, all you have to do is stand there.
Besides being a good way to earn a living equivalent to what many PhDs get, you get to travel or stay put, work whatever hours you like, show up or not on any given day, be your own boss, decide what routines to perform, who to work with, and so on.
Alright, let’s get started!
The first thing you’ve gotta know is that the general public isn’t quite as enthusiastic about unicycling as you are. For them, what you can do is a momentary novelty. So, you’ll probably want to add something to your performance. I’m not saying that every unicyclist has to become a circus clown. Far from it. But adding a little bit of dance, a magic trick or two, a bit of comedy, into your mostly unicycling performances, can put you on the road to making more money than any hourly wage.
Before you start, you want to look for a place with two qualifications:
First, it must be legal to street perform there. You can check with the local police department or chamber of commerce. In some cases, it is just plain illegal. In others, you can perform, but not collect money. (That’s not quite what you’re looking for, is it?) In others, you’ve gotta get a permit first. This is usually as easy as asking around about which is the right office to approach, talk to the people there, and sign your name to a form. Some places, such as shopping malls, are privately owned. They want performers to audition. In yet other places, you have to meld into the local street performer pecking order. It may be that a dozen other street performers have worked there for years, and there’s no room for a newcomer. Or the newcomer gets a junky spot or bad scheduled time until another performer moves on. Finally, there are thousands of places in the world where you can just start street performing any time you want.
The trouble is, many of these thousands of places are not lucrative. Sure, you can street perform in Bugtussle, but you won’t make enough money. Either few people walk by, or they are too busy to stop and watch a show.
So, you’re looking for a legal spot where there many tourists, and you have enough room to set up and perform your show. One of the best ways to determine whether a spot is good is by the number of other street performers there. One of the easiest to break into, but not the best-paying, is outside of Pier 39, in San Francisco. To appear on the stage at Pier 39, or Ghirodelli Square or the Cannery, you need to audition. But to appear on the sidewalk outside of Pier 39, Pier 41, and around the fish market, all you need to do is show up, as of the last time I checked. You’ll want to check any place with a reputation of being a good place to perform, since regulations and conditions change at times.
An aside: I showed up one evening in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I had heard a while back that street performing was good there. There were a thousand tourists on the boardwalk, and a breakdancing troupe was entertaining huge crowds. So, I broke out my unicycles and started doing a show. So far so good. I had well over 100 people in my crowd. Near the end, a cop showed up, standing stiffly toward the back of the crowd, with his arms crossed. Before I started my hat routine, I thought I’d better check things out, so right in the middle of the show, I had a conversation with him, which amused the crowd. He said performing was legal, but not collecting money. (Dang!) So, I finished my show, and did not pass the hat. The cop walked up a minute after the crowd dispersed (some still clutching their $5 bills that they had expected to drop in my hat), and he pointed to my machetes. He said they were dangerous weapons, and he grabbed all three, telling me I could pick them up at the police station. Then he left with my knives. At that point, I faced a quandary. I was quite concerned that if I went to the station, they might charge me with something and lock me up. On the other hand, I liked those machetes, and didn’t want to lose them. After thinking it over, I decided that I was a good citizen and so couldn’t be in all that much trouble. I had never spent the night in jail and might find it interesting. So I drove over, and here’s what happened: I met a desk officer who ordered a deputy of some sort to get them out of the evidence room. I had to sign a paper saying essentially that they gave my property back in good condition, and then he handed me my knives, all neatly wrapped in a large sheet of brown paper. That’s all. I left New Jersey the next day.
So, the moral of that story is that the law enforcement officers are all individual people. Within the limits of their job descriptions, they might do anything, and so if you do work on the streets frequently, you can expect occasional situations like that, or completely unlike that.
The audience members too, can be entirely unpredictable. I have had people yell out incoherent weirdness, I have had people disrobe, and I have had people try to steal props or money. This is part of street performing. The good news is such incidents are few and far between.
At first, you can just ride up to small groups of people, tell them you’re going to do a trick, do the trick, and pass the hat. This will make a small amount of money, and takes no experience.
You can combine clowning, or better yet, balloon art, into your street unicycling, and people will be more inclined to tip you. Especially if you have given their kids balloons. Especially if you come up with a way for the kids to tip you.
I saw a fellow in Jackson Square in New Orleans wearing drywaller’s stilts. These are articulated with artificial ankles and feet on the bottom, so one can walk around quite easily and safely, even though one is nine feet (three meters) tall. He had custom made long pants, so he really looked nine feet tall. He could have just as well been on a giraffe unicycle, although the custom pants might have got stuck in the chain. He simply walked around, playing his flute. Each piece he played was only thirty seconds or a minute in length. Then, he had a sort of musette bag on a long strap that he would lower from his arm, so that people could drop in their money. The invitation to put money in the bag was very obvious. Furthermore, he approached children, who especially seemed to get a kick from dropping money in his lowered bag. No parent could resist handing the kids a couple of bucks to give this fellow. He was making good, really good money, even though it was the off-season.
In my opinion, he wasn’t that great of a flute player. But he had a repertoire of perhaps six songs that he could play well enough. This was years ago, no doubt by now, he is an expert flutist, since one naturally becomes practiced while being paid on the streets. Dude, it’s getting paid to practice! What could be better?
A proper street show can be even more prosperous, and it can be a memorable and wonderful event for everyone who stays and watches.
The street show has three parts. The first is crowd gathering. You want to build a large number of people who have become willing to watch your entire show.
The middle part is the actual performance. This will typically be a mixture of riding, possibly other skills like juggling, and a lot of talking, possibly with comedy or music. The middle part is usually around 15 to 25 minutes long.
The last part is called the “hat routine.” In this part, you build awareness that you are going to ask everyone to pay you something, you perform a finale, and then you actually pass the hat. This is almost always done with a friendly kind of comedy, and most people are actually glad to pay you. I have seen performers collect hundreds of dollars at the end of a single show. I’ve done it myself. Let me tell you exactly how it’s done:
Gathering a crowd is the single most important part of your show. Without a crowd, you won’t make much money. On the other hand, a crowd begets a crowd. Once you have gathered a small number of people around you, others will naturally come over to see what’s going on. One time in a California coastal town, your author saw a crowd formed in front of a restaurant. There must have been 100 tourists in a tight little knot. I went over to see what was going on, and once I worked my way toward the front, I saw that two men were carrying buckets of lobsters into a restaurant. That’s all. But the first few people who stopped to watch caused everyone else to come around to see what was going on. This is the effect you want to create.
Some performers have a cardboard clock that shows when they are going to start their next show. During the 20 minutes or so between shows, some people will note the time, and plan to be there a few minutes before the stated time.
Typically, in some sort of costume, with unicycles and props on display, you build a perimeter. You might put down a rope, set out bricks, or draw a chalk line. You don’t do it shyly, or quietly. You make a big production of it. Let people know that they are about to witness a show unlike any they have ever seen before, yet much like any they’d never want to see again – or something like that.
You want to be personable and inviting to the first people. Invite them to come up to the line. Tell them why they don’t want to hang back, as people tend to do. You want them up close so they won’t have to strain to hear or see. Tell them how lucky they are to be there right at the start, because everyone else will have to crowd in behind them, not in front of them. Some performers even bring a few folding chairs, offering them to the first people. Now that you have won over your first half-dozen people, you can loudly announce that you’re going to do a pre-show exhibition of some sort. It might be a single unicycle trick. You describe it. Build it up. But take a while before you actually perform it, because this trick will actually be the start of your show, and you want to have gathered a reasonable-size crowd by then. Perhaps by the time you would normally start your show, you might take another couple of minutes to do something very noisy. Some comedy bit involving a trumpet or at least a kazoo is a good idea. This causes the people walking around in the general vicinity to notice that you have a crowd, then come over and see what’s going on. Some unicyclists balance a unicycle on their chins or foreheads while talking to the crowd. This has the bonus effect that it can be seen from a long distance.
Now you do your show. The normal street show consists of three to six ‘bits,’ or ‘routines.’ Each is a self-contained skit or act. For instance, you might want to open with a choreographed riding routine involving several basic tricks, while you play a musical tune on a boombox in the background. Your next bit might be idling on the unicycle while you play the violin. The next might be a story about giant people, acted out in costume, on a giraffe unicycle. Then you might do a bit involving a volunteer from the audience.
Working with volunteers can be profitable, as well as amusing. You want to pick someone who has come with friends. You’re looking for the vivacious one. The one who is the life of the party. Typically, your going to have some good-hearted fun with the volunteer. The volunteer’s friends in the audience will laugh, even if your comedy isn’t very good. Laughter is contagious, and so you’ll have your entire audience laughing soon. The most common use of volunteers in a unicycling act is to hold the unicycle while you climb laboriously on. You never have to let the audience know that you can easily free mount your unicycle. Or, a variation is to struggle climbing on with two volunteers trying to hold your unicycle, then give up, and say, “Oh heck, I’ll do it myself,” and then quickly and easily free mount it. Better yet, let the volunteers help you actually mount it and ride away, then come up with a reason to get off. The audience will be thinking, “Oh no, he’s going to have to go through that whole process again.” But instead, you just quickly and easily free mount it.
To see some examples of working with volunteers, watch street shows in your nearest city, and do a little YouTube research.
A common thing street audiences will do is heckling. This is loudly making fun of the performer. Stage audiences can heckle too, but it is much more frequent in the streets. A good performer works with this, topping the heckle, ultimately making the heckler, or in some cases the performer himself, look like a fool, and of course causing the audience to laugh. It is best to memorize some cute responses in advance. Things like, “Hey, I don’t go to Walmart and tell you how to stock shelves!” You might also want to come up with some memorized recovery lines, so if you fall off your unicycle, or mess up in some way, you can just say something like, “That happened once before. I think it was in 2004.” The people will laugh, and you can try again.
Every now and then, you are in a position where you have to entertain, but can’t use your regular routines. I have been asked to extend a show for five minutes because the next entertainer was having trouble setting up a prop. I have been asked to do an hour-long show when I only had 45 minutes of material. I have been asked to do something impromptu with another performer.
When that happens, I have a bit of music ready to go. Before starting, I tell the audience that the next piece is “jazz improv. I’m going to show you how unicyclists play.” Then I tell them the absolute truth: “This may not be perfect, I may make an mistake or two. I might fall off. But, hey, it’s all part of the show. Relax and enjoy my display of play.” Then I start the music.
Suddenly, I have a beautiful situation. I do indeed get to play. I can just dance around doing whatever tricks or what-not. I can stretch it to whatever length is needed. If I’m working with someone else, the other person can be as freewheeling as I am. With that preamble, no matter what I do, the audience loves it. This eliminates the tension the audience will often have for a performer, in which they are very concerned that all goes well. Now, it doesn’t have to, and everyone is fine with it.
Before the end of one of your final bits, it is time to start the last part of the show, the hat pitch. Even though you may not use a hat, specifically, to collect money, that’s what it’s called, the “hat pitch.” You want to get people used to the idea that you’re going to be collecting at the end. This gives them time to start digging bills out of their pockets. People will see other people doing this, and so they’ll do it too. No one wants to look like a cheapskate in public. You do it politely, and as amusingly as possible. You let them know two things: It is voluntary. They do not have to pay you any money. (If you were to require money, it wouldn’t take long before the local authorities would throw you out.) The other thing is that you’ve presented a real show. This is how you earn money, so you really are expecting some form of payment. You might also mention that you are expecting bills, not change. If you can talk about $5 and $10 bills, even $20s, you might just get some.
Then, you announce a finale. This will be the biggest, ‘most dangerous’ part of the show. The final act may not actually be all that big a deal. It might be riding a unicycle on fire, or juggling knives on a giraffe, or balancing a unicycle on your chin while you ride another unicycle around in a small circle. But by building it up, you create a situation in which the crowd will come away believing that you’ve really done something. For instance, you can tell them that it may take you three tries – even though you can always manage it on the first try. You might hesitate, and back away a few times. You might joke about what’s going to happen if it doesn’t work. Finally, you do your finale, take a bow and thank the audience, and then immediately start passing your hat. You want to start the process of collecting money before anyone has a chance to walk away unseen. Of course many people won’t pay you anything. And that’s fair. After all, they weren’t expecting a show. They didn’t ask for you to do a show. They didn’t sign a contract. They may not have any cash on hand. But if people see others putting money in your hat, they’re pretty likely to follow suit.
When I started street performing, I was a shy individual. I wasn’t particularly funny (as you can see by reading this book). But I really wanted to street perform. My first show was kind of awkward. I earned $1.26. But I kept at it. Eventually, I was able to make $1,200 on my best day, and that was back in the early 1980s, when $1,200 was real money. Interestingly, my shyness wore off, or at least it did during my street shows, and I became a fairly good comedy performer. My act evolved into a five-bit act: I started with a sign language interpretation of a song (mentioned earlier) while ‘dancing’ (idling) on a six-foot (two-meter) giraffe unicycle. Then I rode an ultimate wheel. Next, I juggled three balls (not on a unicycle), one of which was on fire. Right after the first mention of the hat, I juggled three large machetes, also not on a unicycle. My finale was to set a regular unicycle on fire while juggling three fire torches, starting with a kick-mount. You may find it inspiring that my technical juggling and unicycling skills weren’t all that great. It was the performance, more than the skills, that made the money.
One night, also in Jackson Square, New Orleans, I came across a fellow who had set up an ordinary ten-inch reflector telescope on an equatorial mount, aimed at the moon. He had a sign on a small table inviting people to take a look in his telescope. He also had a hat on the table filled with money. People couldn’t resist. I couldn’t resist. We looked at the moon and marveled, even though we had all seen it before, and sure enough, pretty much everyone dropped a buck in his hat. There was nothing skillful about this guy’s deal, but perhaps it will give you food for thought for a unicycle exhibit of some sort. Of course it doesn’t even have to be about unicycling, unless unicycling is very important to you. Perhaps your tabletop non-unicycling presentation will earn the money you need, so you can support your ‘real’ unicycling pursuits.
Most professional performers make most of their money by performing at local venues. They have a restaurant where they do shows several evenings per week, or they make the rounds of the festivals that hire entertainment, or they have developed a reputation for performing at parties, weddings, and corporate events.
This ‘ordinary’ style of performing can be lucrative, but for most it falls far short of their hopes. Every now and then, a performer breaks out, becoming the one that everyone in town wants to hire. Eventually the breakout performers play bigger venues, being paid travel expenses and much more. They may even get television bit parts and commercial contracts.
If you study these breakout performers, you start to see a pattern. These are not necessarily the best performers. They may not have the best equipment. They may not wear any special clothing. They may not even have the most winning personalities.
So what is it that propels some performers to success? They do something different. There’s usually some sort of positive eccentricity in what they do. The good news is just by the fact that you ride a unicycle, you are well on your way to positive eccentricity.
I remember one singer in San Diego who had an ordinary voice. The thing she did was to write comedy lyrics. She’d sing songs that we all know and love, but she’d come up with her own strange lyrics. She had her audience in stitches, and became quite successful.
Do you remember Weird Al Yankovic?
Weird Al Yankovic
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Oh, you don’t have to be as weird as Al. A couple of guys I knew had good ice skating skills. Their skills were not sufficient to win the Olympics or create any kind of attention. But they dressed up as old country peasant women, and performed a hilarious comedy skit on their skates. This got them a permanent spot in the Sun Valley Ice Show. You can see how this concept could be done just as well on a unicycle, right? Can you imagine a unicycle skit like that performed during a major basketball halftime?
I’m not saying you have to be an old country peasant woman. Besides, that’s not easy to do well. Just find something different, but something that people can relate to.
Getting gigs in the usual way is one of the most difficult ways to build a unicycling career. That’s why this chapter was written. But, if you absolutely must become a unicyclist in the traditional way, then here’s what you can do:
1. Put together a website with photos and video clips. Your website can be as simple as a single page. You can upload your videos to YouTube, then link them to your page. Make sure that your webpage has an action step. In other words, you can tell people what to do so they can book you – give you a call, drop an email, whatever you prefer. Then employ Search Engine Optimization (SEO) so that all the local people who search for an entertainer in your area will see your page near the top of search engine results. The general idea with SEO is that you include a specific keyword phrase in the H1, Title, Description tags, and in the text of your web pages. These would be the keywords that people are actually looking for. You can use the free Google Adwords Keyword Tool to figure that out. For instance, in picking a title for this book, I found out that 18,000 people per month look up “unicycle” but only 460 people per month look up “unicycling.” That way this book is “All About the Unicycle,” not “All About Unicycling,” which was my first choice. If you are performing locally, put the names of your local communities in your webpages as well. So, you might say, “Unicycle Show San Francisco Marin San Jose.” There are a gazillion pages that teach more about SEO on the Internet. Have fun!
2. Get attractive business cards printed with your web address, and your phone number. It is worthwhile to spend a bit extra for high-quality glossy cards. If necessary, pay a professional photographer to get a great-looking photo of your performance style. Make sure everyone gets a card who comes within twelve feet (four meters). Tell everyone you meet that you are a professional unicyclist.
3. You might consider free bookings at first. Some entertainers are afraid that if they ever take free work, or very low paying gigs, they’ll be caught up in a situation where everyone always expects them to work for free. This is an unfounded fear. You can slowly raise your rates from free or low, and eventually to whatever the market will bear. If you ever get a call that goes something like this, “Well, last year, I heard you were charging $100,” you can respond by telling them that you are more successful now. People like success, and are generally willing to pay for it. If their budget is really so limited that they can’t afford a reasonable rate, then you don’t want to do that gig anyway. It is completely acceptable to tell people that you were just starting out, but now you can charge more.
You can evolve your pay scale. At first you can literally fill your schedule with free performances. The more exposure you have, the better. Then, once your schedule is full, you can turn down all the free gigs you can’t do, because you’re booking low-paying gigs instead. Once you have evolved into a full schedule of low-paying gigs, you turn some of them down for higher paying gigs. Finally, your schedule can be as full as you want of only the highest paying gigs.
4. If you happen to enjoy street performing, you have a great opportunity to hand out business cards. You can also play at hybrid venues. These are ones that pay nothing or very little, but allow you to pass the hat or have a collection jar. Next to the jar you’ll want to place a stack of cards, or a small pile of flyers or brochures.
6. The more exposure you have as a performing unicyclist, and as an ordinary person, for that matter, the better. If you teach lessons, sell unicycles at the flea market, and so on, you always have the opportunity to give people your card, tell them to visit your website, and that you are available for bookings. Even if you attend classes in a community education school, that’s an opportunity to tell your fellow students what you do.
7. I can’t emphasize it enough: Positive eccentricity. Do something different. Something out of the ordinary. Something that people will remember and talk about.
8. Have patience. If you stick with it, if you can override the disappointing events like being turned down, maybe even performing a gig or two that didn’t go as well as you would have liked, you will eventually win. I’m hoping to see you on the Tonight Show in a few years.
Buying and Selling
On more than one occasion, I have picked up a unicycle at a garage sale for $20 or $25, put it in the trunk of my car, and the sold it to someone for what I paid. I could have easily sold these for a profit. A decent used unicycle is worth between $50 and $80 in America. Many people have unicycles in their garages and basements that are barely used. They received them as a gift, or thought they’d try a new hobby, but never really learned to ride. At garage sales, through Craigslist and via other ways, they are often available for next to nothing.
They are not so common at garage sales that you could earn a living from buying and selling them, but it can bring some extra rainy day money. Better, if you have a local market, you can pick up used and new unicycles on eBay for local sale. Even though your customers could do the same thing, they’ll be happy to buy from you, because they don’t have to wait for a unicycle to be shipped, and they get to touch it, maybe even ride it, before they have to decide.
If you can figure out ways to get giraffe unicycles, ultimate wheels, and other such equipment, and if you live in a metropolitan area, you might actually be able to earn a living as the local unicycle outlet. This make a good sideline if you already have a retail store. If not, maybe all you need to do is list your available unicycles on Craigslist. Unicycling probably isn’t popular enough to build a successful retail store specializing in unicycles, yet. You might be able to build such awareness and joy in unicycling in your community, and then start a store, but the more likely approach might be to buy and sell as a hobby. For instance, you might rent a stall at a flea market, selling unicycles only on weekends.
If you’re getting serious about it, then you’ll notice that Craigslist, although it is free, has a problem. You cannot relist your ads more than once every two days. The most effective category to list your unicycles on Craigslist would be “Bicycles.” But the bicycle category is busy, so your unicycle ad may scroll out of site quickly. To combat this, you can place a separate ad for each unicycle you have. You can spread your ads over time, so you might be relisting one every two hours. At 10am, you might list a standard unicycle with a 20-inch wheel, at noon, you might have a six-foot giraffe, at 2pm, a BC wheel, at 4pm, a special clown unicycle, and so on. This is not spamming, because each unicycle is different. Going a step further, you can create a website in which you have pictures, descriptions, and prices of all your currently available unicycles. Each Craigslist ad can carry a line to the effect, “If this isn’t the unicycle for you, check out mywebsite.com where you’ll see an interesting selection of 20 other unicycles.” Not only will Craigslist bring a lot of interested unicycle buyers to your website, in time your site will be bookmarked by hundreds of people who will tell their friends and so on.
You can also advertise unicycles by way of ordinary flyers on local bulletin boards. Laundromat bulletin boards work especially well, because people are stuck there waiting for their clothes to finish spinning. For some reason I don’t understand, bulletin boards at natural food stores also work very well. If you make color flyers or use a bright background color such as Solar Yellow, your flyers will stand out among all the others on the bulletin boards. The best thing you can do, though, is to make sure you have an instantly recognizable picture of a unicycle on the flyers. You might want to make full-page and half-page flyers, because many bulletin boards are too full to provide space for another full-page flyer. Going a step further, you can pin a half-dozen business cards, fanned out under a thumbtack, to busy bulletin boards. By putting up a bunch of cards rather than just one, you are telling people it is OK to take a card, so they’ll be more likely to remember when they get home and contact you.
I would not recommend spending any money on paid advertising. That almost never works well for small local businesses.
Creating Custom Unicycles
If you can build unicycles, you’ll have not only a local market, but people will pay you to ship them across the country or even the world. If you have a design that others aren’t making – which is very easy in the unicycle world – then you can sell them on eBay. For instance, I’m guessing there are seldom any ultimate wheels on eBay, yet many people have heard of them, and would buy one if they could. Walmart doesn’t sell ultimate wheels. That market is all yours.
A piano teacher who has students coming to his home can make $60 per hour, typically in $30 half-hour lessons. A unicycle teacher can do the same thing. The piano teacher is not usually credentialed in any way, and the unicycle teacher does not require any credentials either. You may not live in a home where you can have students coming over. It may bother your roommates, or your family may be too disruptive. That illustrates a big advantage of teaching unicycling over piano: You can teach in the park, in an empty parking lot, wherever makes sense.
There’s a disadvantage also: Piano students don’t often fall off their pianos. There is some risk that one of your students can get hurt. Fortunately, you can get liability insurance as an independent teacher, and the price is reasonable – around $300 to $700 per year. Unless you have assets to protect, you probably don’t need to get insurance right away, but you may want to eventually, maybe not so much to protect yourself, but to protect the students. If someone actually does get hurt, you’d like to know that the person’s recovery will be paid for by someone, wouldn’t you? This type of insurance is less common that car or life insurance, so you may need to start with your friendly neighborhood insurance broker, who will refer you to someone else if she doesn’t carry the insurance you need.
This business will be easy to start, although it may be slow going at first. You would advertise in the usual ways: Flyers at bulletin boards, business cards given to anyone who comes near you. Every card you hand out won’t result in a student, but don’t be surprised if someone you give a card to gives it to someone else who really needs unicycle lessons. You can also advertise on Craigslist if it serves your area. Advertising there is free, but services such as teaching don’t generally get good exposure on Craigs.
The way independent teaching works best is by reputation. After you get three or four students, if you are personable, if you are good at breaking concepts down into tiny steps, and guiding your students to success in what they want to accomplish, they’ll tell others, who tell others, and so on, until you have a full schedule. It almost doesn’t matter what you teach, if you are a good teacher. And, it doesn’t matter if you’re not the best unicyclist in the world. Maybe you can’t yet walk the wheel. That doesn’t make any difference, as long as you stay a step ahead of your students.
When your students exceed your skill, then you become a coach rather than a teacher. The coach is more about supporting and encouraging clients to do what they really want to do. For instance a coach might tell a client that she really has to learn free mounting the giraffe in order to put a certain routine in her show that she wants. Then, the coach asks whether she tried free mounting twenty times yesterday. If not, the coach tries to help her to want to try free mounting twenty times a day. Coaching can be a valuable service that makes the difference between a client getting what he wants, or not.
Many performance teachers have the students put on public shows from time to time. Most kids, especially, love this. It gives them an opportunity to perform. You can have students do street shows at the local farmers’ market, or do something more ‘professional,’ such as organizing an evening of unicycle entertainment at a local theater. If you can charge for tickets, this boosts the students’ esteem, because that makes them ‘professionals,’ even if the money gathered goes to charity, such as paying for unicycles to distribute in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
By the way, you can follow those unicycles into the neighborhoods, offering to teach for free. This kind of positive eccentricity will be shown on the local TV, written up in the newspapers, and will bring you more paid students.
You may find it more profitable, sooner, to teach at local community continuing (also known as “adult”) education programs, or after-school or summer children’s programs. The school does all the advertising for you, typically putting out a course catalog every three months. All you have to do at most such schools is tell them you want to teach, and write course descriptions. The pay ranges from nothing at all to remarkable. On the low end of the scale you volunteer at a school where the students don’t pay for the courses. Osher Lifelong Learning Center (OLLI), available for retirees in a hundred cities in the US, is an example. The way you leverage a school where you don’t get paid is through exposure to students who might like to progress faster, or to the next level, through private lessons – available from you at $30 per half-hour (or whatever rate you want to charge).
Some schools pay a flat hourly rate. $15 per hour is common in the US. The best schools pay a portion of the tuition fee. Forty percent is common. If a student signs up for your six-week course and pays $100, you get $40 for that student. If you get 100 students, then you get $4,000 for teaching your six-week course. If you teach three different courses, perhaps beginning, advanced unicycling, and unicycle maintenance, that’s $12,000 every six weeks. Of course you probably won’t get 100 students in each course at first, but you might get four students. So, let’s do the math. Hmmm, four students, at $40 each, for six 90-minute sessions, is $160 divided by 9 hours, equaling $17 per hour. That’s not bad for just starting out. The only real downside to this business is that you typically have to wait up to three months for the next catalog to come out, then another month until the enrollment period closes, and then possibly three more months until the course is finished before you get paid. But if you start today. . .
Here’s the upside: As you are teaching community education courses, you can also pick up private students, and you are starting to build a reputation. People will talk about how much fun they had in your unicycling classes. They’ll talk about the sense of accomplishment, and ultimately, how much fun they’re having with their unicycles. If you are a good teacher, or can learn to become one, you win! The qualities of a good teacher are: One who listens, and offers what the students want. One who is kind, friendly, and wants a positive outcome for each student. One who can appreciate each student for who they are, even if they are overweight, talk too slow, wear shabby clothes, are computer-illiterate, or their fingers are too long.
What would happen if you could combine some of these businesses? You’d be more prosperous, sooner, of course. Imagine a street performer who hands out cards or brochures at the end of each show. These brochures would say that this performer is available for gigs (birthday parties, corporate picnics, opening acts, etc.), and also teaches unicycling.
This unicyclist’s students would come to all of the performer’s gigs. At the gigs, this performer would not only be paid, but would pick up new students, and maybe sell a unicycle or two. Most unicycle sales would also result in a new student. The student would tell others, who would come to this performers street shows, making crowd building easier. From the crowds would come more students and gig opportunities. You get the idea. . .
When considering a partnership, you want to look for someone who has what you don’t have. Starting out with a partner who has the same strengths and weaknesses as you, means something won’t be covered. That’s a recipe for disaster. Generally, the three ingredients that a partnership (or an individual) needs are time, experience, and sometimes money. If you’re considering performing, another ingredient may be charisma, or stage presence. Anyone can learn it, but it is easier and faster to have a partner who already exudes the right kind of charm.
There’s one more ingredient – one that all partners need, and that’s enthusiasm. You absolutely don’t want to start something with someone who is not enthusiastic about the idea.
Before forming a partnership, carefully consider your partner’s personality. Will you be able to get along with this person? How about in cloudy weather? Is the person lazy? Does the person have shoddy ethics? Is the person obstinate? I once saw a bicycle shop almost destroy itself because one partner of the three who owned it suddenly decided that they needed new wall-to-wall carpeting just a few months after starting the store. That would have cost $10,000. I think any objective person would agree that carpeting was not a top priority in that store. It had a painted concrete floor that was just fine. But, he couldn’t be talked out of it, and the partners nearly came to blows. Finally, the two other partners bought this fellow out, at an inflated price that took them years to recover.
In putting together a performing group, whether it’s a duo, trio or a large group, all the members must have enough interest in the project that you can be absolutely sure they’ll show up at gigs on time. They must also be the sort of person who won’t embarrass the group by showing up drugged or drunk, or say inappropriate things on stage, or when mixing with the audience. You also need people who are in alignment with your group’s philosophies and performing style. Finally, partners must have ego and emotions sufficiently in check to avoid damaging the potential for success. All this is necessary.
So, if you’re going to consider a partnership, think about all the things that might go wrong with your perspective partners. Do not mention the idea of a partnership to any of your prospects until you are absolutely certain. It is harder to burst their bubble after you’ve created it, than before they know a partnership is possible.
Family members can be the best, or the worst! I think you know what I’m talking about. A brother-sister or grandfather-grandson partnership can be wonderful with the right people. I’m sure you can think of several successful family performing groups such as the Trapp Family, Jackson Five, and the Haygoods.
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Let’s say you have a brother who has been in jail twice for drunk driving. He’s unemployed again because he came to work too hung-over. You might think that if you offer this brother of yours a partnership, it will help him. Wrong! You must, absolutely must, consider partners for their strengths, not their weaknesses, if you intend to succeed. And if you don’t succeed, it will not help your brother in the slightest. It will probably make his lack of self-esteem worse.
How many partners should you consider? The minimum number you can get away with. If all you need is someone with welding skill, a good trick rider, or someone who can keep the shop open during weekends, then one partner is sufficient. Additional partners means that the profit is split smaller. It also means it is harder to make decisions. Larry Page and Sergei Brin have been very successful with Google. When it came time to make decisions, they had a brief discussion, came to a consensus, and moved forward.
On the other hand, I knew of an organic restaurant that had seventeen partners. One of their specialties was waffles. They had one waffle iron, and so customers had to wait up to 45 minutes for their orders in the morning. The seventeen of them had a meeting to decide whether they should buy a second $30 waffle iron. The meeting, argument really, ran until after midnight, and they couldn’t come to a decision. In fact, it was weeks before they could all figure out that $30 was a reasonable price to pay for another waffle iron to satisfy their waffle customers. Can you imagine a unicycle troupe in which all seventeen members have to agree before adding a routine to their performance?
Once you’ve sorted out who your partners are going to be, you need to state some things up front. Is one going to be a silent partner? If so, how silent? How will various kinds of decisions be made? For instance, the person who’s just about to book a gig probably shouldn’t have to place a phone call to another partner before the gig can be scheduled. What happens as the business grows? Do you add more partners? Do you hire employees? How do the partners decide on new employees?
In summary, all the terms of partnership need to be discussed. More than discussed. You want the major points in writing, and a contract signed by all partners.
The very most important clause in that contract will be an escape hatch for each partner. What happens if the business loses money? What happens if a partner becomes sick or dies? What happens if two partners can’t stand the sight of each other after a while? Escape clauses need to be fluid. For instance, if a partner wants to leave early on, his value in the business is worth far less than after 5 years. These escape clauses must be manageable, so that it is truly possible to make changes in partnership as needed. For instance, a very bad escape clause would be that if a partner leaves, the others have to immediately pay her $500,000. If this is all spelled out in writing ahead of time, all will be well in these eventualities – or at least as well as it can be.
There was a performing partnership consisting of seven individuals who did a two-person show in a large city. Each of the seven entertainers could play “Part A” or “Part B” in their show. They were quite successful, and so it was common to have as many as three shows booked simultaneously at corporate events, birthday parties, anniversaries, and so on.
Another consideration in partnerships is your own personality. Take me, for example. I can’t stand having to share my decisions with anyone. I have always been a sole performer. I’d make a horrible partner unless I was allowed to run the show 100 percent. Or, unless you promise me a bag of chocolate-chip cookies.
So, on the opposite end of the partnership spectrum we have sole proprietorship. The individual doesn’t have to defer to anyone before making major decisions. 100 percent of the profit goes to the individual. That’s huge, even with just two partners. Let’s say that the profit of a business is $60,000 per year. That means that an individual takes home $60,000. But two partners owning the same business would only get $30,000 each.
There’s also an ego component. I love being able to say, “I own this.” For me, it would be miserable to say, “I own a portion of this.”
Getting back to the original question, what if you don’t have the time, experience or money to start a business on your own? And once again, there is a very simple answer. Start something evolutionary. Do you really need a musician, or just recorded music? Start something that you can manage, and let it build as you gain experience, money, whatever you’ve been needing.
The Unicycle Millionaire
As I indicated in the last chapter, partnerships are expensive. I mean really expensive. I’m not saying don’t get partners, I’m just saying you should consider expensive options carefully, weighing them against potential profit.
For instance, you might think the decision to buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks is simple – just do it. But what if I tell you that cup of coffee will cost you $42? Would you still buy it?
Let me explain. If instead of that $3 cup of coffee, you put the money in an investment such as a mutual fund, and leave it there for twenty years, it will, on average, turn into $42. I knew a fellow who understood this so well that he made millions of dollars, yet he worked for nearly minimum wage.
When I met him, Brian was 48 years old. He had retired with several million dollars two years earlier at age 46. When he was 26 years old, he got a job for Sears, driving a van, and repairing washing machines and driers in peoples’ homes, which pays just a bit more than minimum wage.
At one home, Brian met a couple who told him that he ought to ‘pay himself first.’ He asked what they meant, and it sounded like a good idea. So every week, he took 25 percent of his paycheck after taxes, and put it in a savings account. Then whatever was left went to rent, food, and fun. That wasn’t very much, but he wasn’t making very much in the first place.
Week after week, Brian kept it up, until he had $10,000 in his savings account. He knew he’d have to learn something about investing. Even though he didn’t feel like learning about that, he went to the library and started studying up – this was before the Internet. He learned about mutual funds, municipal bonds, money market accounts, and even some things that didn’t begin with “m.” He moved the money from the savings account into better investments.
Brian was content with his job at Sears, and not really qualified for anything else. He kept ‘paying himself first’ year after year. Early on, he could certainly have purchased a 35-inch TV, or even a 60-inch TV, but he knew how much that would actually cost. He felt his 21-inch TV was just fine, considering the bigger picture.
He learned to buy only the best car he could buy with cash – no payments. At first, this meant he had to keep his old car a few years longer than he might have.
He couldn’t really impress people with material goods. (He did impress people with his common sense.) He couldn’t buy fancy clothes. It had to be Walmart, and only when necessary. Sometimes he bought clothes at the thrift stores. After twenty years, he retired. He can now have pretty much anything he wants. He dresses well. He travels when he wants. Brian has a new Jaguar that cost $88,000, paid with cash, of course. Now, he can really impress people with material goods!
I think you can see that Brian was patient. Patience is a wonderful attribute in business. Just about any unicycle business you start, if you are patient, if you are willing to accept the occasional setback, grow it slowly, stay interested, you’ll be successful. Maybe even beyond your wildest dreams!
The Psychology of Making Money
Here’s another little story about patience in business. Steve was a science-fiction writer. Or, well, he wanted to be. He figured that if he could co-write with the big names in science fiction, he’d succeed. He pitched ideas to Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein and other big names in science fiction, and some of them accepted the idea of co-writing with him. For eighteen years, he wrote with these famous writers. One after another, the books flopped. The publishers would pay a small advance, then no royalties came in. To make ends meet, he taught English at the local college. Eventually, Steve’s name became poison in the industry. No one would write with him any more. All these great writers knew that if they wrote a book with Steve, it would fail.
Out of desperation, he wrote a book by himself. It became an international best seller.
Now, eighteen years is extreme. I tell the story only to illustrate patience. For you and I, just a few months can seem like years. But if you can stick it out those months, you’ll probably see some level of success. Even if your success is slow, you can stick with it, and eventually you’ll have your major success.
Also, note that the story didn’t go the way Steve figured. He thought he had to co-write. Turns out, a little adjustment made all the difference. Don’t force your story to go the way you figure. Allow for some flexibility. Look around the edges of things. See what you can experiment with. See what you can change. Have fun. You’ll do fine. Better than fine!
You probably heard about the three gold miners in California. They staked a claim where they were fairly certain they’d hit a big vein, and dug. And dug. And dug some more, but no gold. Finally, they gave up, selling their mine for nearly nothing. The new owners started digging. They went three feet (1 meter), and hit the biggest gold vein yet found in California.
What’s the point of all this? Learning to become wealthy is as easy, and as doable as it was to learn to ride a unicycle.
Table of Contents
When people first figured out that you could attach pedals to bicycle wheels, they discovered that the bikes didn’t go very fast. But, if they could make the wheels bigger, they could go faster. This was the world’s first version of “gearing up.”
The limitation was the length of the rider’s legs. Pretty soon, it became ordinary for bicycles to have large front wheels, ranging from 50 to 62 inches (127 to 157 cm) in diameter. So, these became known as “ordinary,” bikes, commonly refered to as “ordinaries,” or “ordinary racers.” They were also called “Penny-Farthings” named after large and small coins of the era, and sometimes “boneshakers” because they had solid rubber tires and no shocks, while the bumpy streets were typically unpaved or made from bricks. It was still years into the future before veterinarian Dr. Dunlop would create the first air-filled tires for his son’s tricycle. Back in the day, doctors and vets had to make their own rubber gloves. He was already equipped to try the experiment with his son’s trike.
via Agnieszka Kwiecie≈�, license: CC-BY 3.0
The fellow riding the replica in the picture is making it look easy, but these were far from easy to master.
First, there was the matter of getting started. If you look carefully at the picture, a few inches above the rear wheel fork, on the far side, is a little footpeg. The rider would run with the bicycle to gain some momentum, then place a foot on the peg while holding the handlebar. The rider could stand on the peg and coast along, but most of the time, the rider would complete the mounting process by essentially jumping up into the saddle, then letting the feet find, or catch up with the pedals. This had to be done quickly, before the bike lost much momentum. Without enough momentum, the bike would start pitching wildly to one side or another. You can imagine a modern bicycle at a very slow speed. When you get down to around walking speed, it is very hard to steer a straight line. But with the tall bike, it really becomes an exercise in careening if you are way up there, with your head nine feet (275 cm) off the ground. Furthermore, if you turn more than just a few degrees, that big old wheel starts rubbing on your thigh. Anything beyond that, and you simply have to fall off.
So finally, there you are mounted on your ordinary, and you come to hill. You’d better pedal really hard, because you can’t gear down. Worse, when going downhill with the first ordinaries, the techniques for slowing down were all harrowing.
The first option would be to resist the pedals. But, you’re geared up, and have not only your weight to resist, but the 60 pounds (27 kg) of the bike as well. If that is not sufficient, you can rub the palm of your gloved hand on the top of the solid rubber tire – until your hand gets too hot. Some of the later ordinaries came equipped with a metal bar called a “spoon brake” that could be operated from a hand lever that would rub on the top of the tire. If you have to make an emergency stop, there’s only one ‘safe’ option: Jump backward off the seat, landing with one foot crosswise on the top of the back tire. This jams your foot against the fork, and skids the rear wheel. It costs rubber – and those tires wore out fast, but it could save your life. Otherwise, if something comes up where you stop quickly, such as hitting a pothole, you pitch forward. Not only will you find yourself flying forward, but the bike will very likely be caught up with you.
Tires for the ordinaries – and all sorts of other contraptions such as children’s wagons and baby strollers were sold in bulk rolls called “cab tiring.” You’d pick a width, and buy perhaps 100 feet (33 meters) of tire. It was a fat-walled rubber tube with a hollow middle. The rubber was quite basic by today’s standards. It had carbon mixed in, so that it wouldn’t wear out in the first mile or so. That’s why tires were always black. You’d cut off a length of cab tiring just the right length to go around your wheel. You’d insert a solid steel wire all the way through the tire. Where the tire material joins, you grab the ends of the cable and twist them together. Finally, you cut off the extra length of twisted wire, so the seam in your tire doesn’t have metal sticking out.
Some of the earliest ordinaries didn’t bother with rubber at all. They had wooden wheels, iron wheels, and sometimes wooden wheels surrounded with an iron tire. These were the true ‘boneshakers.’
There are more replica ordinaries in existence today than real ones. How can you spot the difference? The first giveaway is the pedals. Most of the replicas use modern pedals, which by law, have to be manufactured with reflectors in most countries. Back in the day, most of the parts were forged from solid steel and hand worked, so they had a clunky look with hammer or file marks here and there. Replicas will tend to use shiny, perfectly formed parts.
Rumor has it that unicycles were born from ordinaries. It didn’t take riders long to figure out that they could ride along with the rear wheel floating in the air. The next step was to remove the rear wheel entirely, resulting in a large-wheel unicycle.
Circus bikes and unicycles are kindred spirits. Amazing tricks can be performed on a circus bike. The definition is loose, but in general a circus bike:
Has a straight fork and balanced handlebar so the front wheel and handlebar can be spun without throwing the bike off-balance. Common uses for this effect are to ride with the front wheel in the air, a “wheelie,” which is actually just like riding a unicycle. While in the wheelie position, spin the handlebar and let go, letting it spin a number of turns before grabbing it and moving on to the next trick. A simpler trick is to suddenly, turn the front wheel a half-turn while continuing to ride forward (or backward).
A fixed gear hub so you can perform all the standard unicycle tricks, plus riding backward, easy track-stand – a bicycle trick in which you can roll back and forth slightly to maintain your position without putting a foot down.
A long frame so your toes don’t interfere with a spinning front wheel. Another reason for a long frame is it makes riding on the head tube (the tube at the front of the bike that the fork goes through) easier. You can free mount a circus bike much like a giraffe unicycle, using the head tube as your seat.
Yet another aside: Your author was working on a routine that he never perfected. Perhaps you can: I would free mount the circus bike so that I was riding on the head tube. I’d circle around once or twice, then go into an idle. The front wheel had a quick release mechanism, so I’d take it off. Three tennis balls were stuck in the spokes of the wheel. I took them out. Next, I spun the wheel and balanced it on my head. A spinning wheel is easy to balance. Then I juggled the three tennis balls for only about ten throws. I’d toss the balls, one at a time, into the audience to keep as souvenirs, take the wheel off my head, reattach it to the bike, and dismount.
Footpegs or ways to place your feet, and sometimes your hands in places they don’t ordinarily go in normal bicycling activities.