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What is a Unicycle?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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Once considered the exclusive domain of circus performers and neighborhood daredevils, the unicycle has made significant inroads into the general consciousness. There are now social clubs for unicycle riders, as well as demonstration teams and modified sporting events. Some commuters have been using a unicycle for gas-free transportation, and there are even unicycles designed for off-road and mountain riding.

A unicycle consists of a single air-filled tire, a set of off-setting pedals, a shaft surrounding the axle and a seat for the rider. The seat is generally a padded and curved variation of the 'banana seat' found on some standard bicycles. There is no chain and sprocket arrangement on a normal unicycle, although extended models called giraffes may use a chain to connect the rider's pedals to the tire several feet below. Some advanced unicycle models actually contain gears for more efficient pedaling, but a unicycle cannot coast like a regular bicycle.

Most sources trace the origin of the unicycle to an early bicycle called the penny-farthing. This bicycle, popular during the late 1800s and early 1900s, featured a very large front wheel and a significantly smaller back wheel. If the bicycle gained significant speed or struck an object, the rider would often find himself balancing on the front wheel exclusively. Early versions of the unicycle also implemented a very large wheel. For decades, only stuntmen and trained circus performers dared to tempt fate on a unicycle.

Eventually unicycle manufacturers developed low-riding models suitable for public use, although the unicycle's main audience seemed to be young males looking for a new skill to master. Many would-be unicyclists became discouraged after many hours of attempting basic forward-motion skills. A unicycle does not behave like a bicycle — riders must center their weight over the wheel and learn to maintain balance. The basic stabilizing move, called idling, is actually quite difficult and involves making several back-and-forth pedaling moves.

The first step in learning to ride a unicycle is usually forward motion. The rider must pedal in complete revolutions while maintaining balance. This is accomplished first by riding next to a wall or fence, and then letting go as the rider acquires more skill. Since there are no brakes on a typical unicycle, the rider must simply stop pedaling. To remain upright on the unicycle, while staying in roughly the same place, the cyclist must idle as previously described. Turning on a unicycle is often a matter of twisting the lower body in the desired direction while maintaining balance with the arms and upper body. A beginning unicycle rider should feel accomplished if he or she can successfully ride both forwards and backward.

Progress on a unicycle is often measured in stages developed by unicyclist associations. These groups can provide training manuals and proficiency tests for serious riders.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Sep 05, 2012

I don't understand the point of unicycles and penny-farthings. The regular, two-tire bicycles were invented first and in my opinion, they work the best.

What's the point of making something that is not only very difficult to ride, but it's slow too. Yes, I know unicycles were and are still used for entertainment. But they're nothing more than a challenge. They don't have any useful function.

By turquoise — On Sep 05, 2012

@ZipLine-- I think what happened was that as penny-farthing riders got better at riding, they realized that the smaller tire was sort of an extra.

I've seen someone ride a penny-farther before at a festival. People could pay to try and ride one. When the rider hit the brakes, he would actually be left on only the front wheel for a very long time. So I guess from there, people decided that they can do this with just one tire.

By the way, there is a mounting step that you can use to get on the penny-farther. Modern unicycles don't have one since it's not necessary.

By ZipLine — On Sep 04, 2012
@andee-- Wow. I don't think I would ever be able to ride a unicycle no matter how much I tried or how long I practiced. There is just one tire and no brakes! That spells disaster to me.

A penny-farthing, on the other hand, I could probably ride since it has that second small tire for support. Actually getting on the penny-farthing might be the hardest part because that front wheel is so huge and high up.

And what an odd name for a cycle-- "penny-farthing." I wonder whose idea it was to remove that second tire and ride just that front one?

By andee — On Sep 03, 2012

We had an old unicycle around when we were kids and all of us had our turn riding it. My brother ended up becoming pretty good at it and he still rides one today.

I got to the point where I could stay up on it for quite awhile, but it really does take some practice. You really can't compare it to riding a bicycle. For most people it takes practice and patience to feel very confident on one.

By bagley79 — On Sep 02, 2012

I am fascinated watching someone ride a unicycle. I have never tried it myself but don't think I would catch on very fast. I think the riders make it look a lot easier than it really is. I just wonder how many hours of practice it takes to be very good at it.

By anon22968 — On Dec 13, 2008

To stop a unicycle the rider simply has to stop pedaling, and force the pedals to stop moving. Since the pedals are directly connected to the wheel's axis, the wheel will also stop moving. Beware, because you may fall "on your face." After stopping the rider normally puts one foot on the floor.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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