I missed the details due to my email problems, but I’m aware that my fiancé
Jacquie asked the newsgroup which of her zany suggestions for a “20 years of
unicycling” gift for me to use. Oddly, almost all the replies appeared to be
Yes, I count Halloween 1979 as the day I started unicycling. But unfortunately
it’s not that simple. So I figured I would share with you a good example of how
not to learn to ride:
It all started many years before that, at the 1967 or 1968 Detroit Thanksgiving
Day Parade. We watched from my Grandfather’s old office right on Woodward Avenue
near the Art Institute. The front of this building was about to be torn down to
make way for street widening, and it was already empty. That parade made a big
impression on me because I saw it live (age 5 or 6) and it was also on TV. I
especially remember the unicycles. There were a whole bunch of them, various
sizes. I remember being told it was a school where the kids rode, and if they
were good enough they rode the taller and taller ones.
[Many years later I would learn that this was either the St. Helens group from
Newberry, OH (1967) or the Pontiac Unicycle Club (1968). St. Helens was indeed a
school where all the kids rode, and appeared in the Detroit parade up until
Pontiac started doing it, which I believe was 1968.]
That put unicycles in my mind as something I’d like to do, but I never actually
asked for one.
Flash forward about eight years, to junior high school. A kid in the
neighborhood had a Schwinn, and several of the kids on his street were learning
to ride it. I was a shy young man and didn’t ask to join them. Also it wasn’t
that strong an urge in me at the time. But then my next door neighbor Chris
Vennix mentioned he had one too. A cool red one! It was obviously not as nice as
the shiny chrome Schwinn, but he loaned it to me.
It was a piece of crap, made by Troxel. It had a 16" hard plastic tire, not
very many spokes, tricycle crank arms and pedals, and no bearings, just nylon
bushings. This means that if you actually sit on it and try to pedal, there’s
lots of resistance. Just what you need when your cranks are only about 3" long
and really wide! See pictures:
http://www.unicycling.org/unicycling/Unidb/qdesc/troxel.html Buy one on eBay:
http://cgi.ebay.com/aw-cgi/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=190547263 (as of this
moment, you have 2 days to bid) - This Troxel has a worse seat, but is in
better condition than my old one. Fortunately mine did not come with those
Anyway, with no instruction available, I took this thing down in the basement
and proceeded to hold onto desk, file cabinet, shelves, stairs, splinters, etc.
while trying to ride it. Impossible! I threw it in the corner in disgust.
Days later, there it sat. Every time I walked past it it seemed to say “Nya nya,
you can’t ride me!” so I’d try it some more. Dammit! Back into the corner.
This went back and forth for maybe a month or more. I gave up many times, but I
didn’t stay “given up” because I didn’t want to believe I could not do
it. I’d seen other people do it. A different guy, in a nearby neighborhood,
could ride it, rock back and forth, and maybe even ride backwards (it was
also a Schwinn). And he was a geek, not an athlete. Just a regular person
like me. If he could do it, why couldn’t I? I would not give up yet.
Finally I was making some progress. I was able to go half the length of the
basement without touching anything. I needed more room, because my riding
“track” down there had sharp corners on it. So I went outside and started riding
it down the driveway. Downhill was a little easier. Now to turn. My goal was to
be able to turn around and come back up the driveway, to the house (see the
Uh oh, every time I try to make a turn, the wheel goes crooked and rubs the
fork, coming to a sudden stop! Hmm. The bearing holder bolts are loose, causing
the “bearing” holder to rotate in relation to the frame. In engineering terms,
this form of construction is known as a hinge. You don’t attach things together
with a single fastener, unless there’s something else to hold it straight (as in
the tubular shape in the Schwinn seat post).
Try as I might, I couldn’t get the cheap, crappy bolts tight enough to make the
bearing holder stay put. I tried other nuts & bolts, but to no avail. The
resources available to me at that time were not sufficient to fix the Troxel
POS. I could ride it straight, but whenever I tried to make a turn, instant-on
brakes. I did not have access to welding or other, better methods for fixing
this rainy day, so that was about it. The unicycle was shelved. I tried to give
it back to Chris much later, but he said to go ahead and keep
Now at some point during this time, I had a single opportunity to ride the other
neighbor’s Schwinn. I mounted from a curb or car, and took off down the street
for a beautiful, smooth, nearly effortless ride of 100 yards or more! This was
ten times farther than I’d ever got on mine. I knew my equipment was inferior.
But my equipment didn’t work.
Let’s stop here for the first two lessons learned:
- DON’T ATTACH TWO THINGS TOGETHER WITH A SINGLE BOLT! This would be
called a hinge.
- DON’T BUY JUNKY DEPARTMENT STORE UNICYCLES, BE THEY CHEAP, FREE, OR
OTHERWISE! You are not doing anyone a favor by having them try to ride or
learn on one, even once. As a Christmas or birthday gift, they merely teach a
child that unicycling is impossible, or nearly so. They taint the image of
our sport, and make it seem much more difficult than it actually is to
everyone that comes in contact with them. They fall apart if you actually
ride them. They suck. Can the President of the Unicycling Society of America
say this? He should, but louder than everybody else. DOWN WITH CRAPPY
UNICYCLES!!! Here’s some basic rules of thumb for identifying the “bad” ones:
3. If it’s red, stay away. NOTE: This does NOT apply to CyclePro,
Jugglebug, or a few other quality unicycles that do not fit the
descriptions below. But otherwise, you can use the red color as a
warning. STAY AWAY! I don’t know why, but almost all the cheap,
nasty unicycles in my collection are red. Check eBay for examples
of red junk.
4. Don’t buy it if the crank arms are a single piece, bent to go thru
the center of the wheel, with pedals stuck on the ends and little
caps to hold them on. Pedals should be screwed into solid crank arms
that can be removed from the axle.
5. Don’t buy it if it doesn’t have an air tire.
6. Don’t buy it if it comes with “training poles”.
7. Don’t buy it if you’re not willing to spend any quality time sitting
on the seat it comes with.
8. Don’t buy it if there are no ball bearings on the wheel. Try pressing
down on the seat and see how much resistance there is when the
wheel’s turned. If it doesn’t want to go when your weight’s on the
seat, it’s not a “real” unicycle.
Okay, enough of the tirade and back to the story.
All that happened above was during 8th grade (I think), 1975 or 76. I learned to
ride a little, but in my opinion I wasn’t “finished” learning. If I’d had that
Schwinn to start with, I would have learned in probably one fifth the time, and
been riding all over the place. Also, I wouldn’t have stopped for three years,
because a Schwinn doesn’t fall apart when you ride
iv. In fact, little will kill a Schwinn short of a car backing up over it:
There was one other occurrence during 8th grade that cemented my fascination
with unicycling. I was in the school talent show. There was a guy there with
unicycles. He was a member of the Pontiac Unicyclists, but I don’t remember his
name (‘ganders, help me out; he went to Bryant JHS in Livonia!). As part of his
performance, he rode a 5 foot unicycle over a ramp with a 1’ drop-off at the
end. As he headed up this ramp, I was absolutely convinced that he was going to
die! When he simply rode off, I was blown away. I wanted to try his giraffe, but
I couldn’t really ride my “red thing” at home so I didn’t ask.
But alas, I did not have a working unicycle, so no unicycling did I do until
1979. That year another neighbor, Bradley Nowak (who later changed his name to
Bradley Bradley, don’t ask) bought a Schwinn Giraffe. I was fascinated with
this, and hung out with him from time to time as he rode it. I rode with him on
my bike, but I was too fast. I walked with him, but I was too slow. I went with
him in my car, but that was just stupid. I wanted to ride it! But I could barely
ride a regular unicycle, and that was three years earlier. I was chicken.
Finally, on Halloween night, I decided to go for it. I stood on the back of a
car ready to ride away as on a regular uni from a curb. Building up the nerve.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, just a second, wait a minute, almost ready…”
After an intolerable amount of that, I finally made my move and tried to ride
it. SCARY! As is anyone’s first time on a giraffe; and it should be done with a
spotter or along a wall. But what did we know? I rode about three feet before
panic took over and I went down, landing on my feet. What a rush! that was it
for the night.
But within a week or two, I spent the afternoon after school learning to ride
Bradley’s giraffe. I stood on the hood of his car, backing the unicycle tire up
against the car’s front wheel. Pedal pedal splat. Pedal pedal pedal splat. Pedal
splat. After about 45 minutes of this, I successfully rode away from the car,
made a 180 degree turn, bumped up onto the driveway, rode up past the house to
the back-yard garage, and grabbed the basketball hoop. I could ride!
About one week later, Bradley and I, with a borrowed Schwinn 20", rode to a
McDonalds 5 miles away. We walked most of the way back, due to severe crotch
pain. On that ride I did the first mile without a dismount, though I had to hold
onto some obstacles to get around and under them.
We rode every day. All through the Michigan winter, even if it was only 15
minutes or so, in the garage. I think I kept up a 99% record of riding every
single day for several years after that. Somewhere in there we figured out, on
our own, how to freemount onto the giraffe. In February 1980 I bought my own.
Schwinn Giraffe. http://www.unicycling.com/unifoss/garage/giraffe.htm It was the
first one I owned, not counting that red thing. Why a giraffe? It’s all Bradley
had either, and I wanted to ride on his level. Later I got a Schwinn 24", and
after that a Miyata 24" (the first one to be sold in Michigan, to my knowledge).
In March 1980 I went to my first meeting of the Redford Township Unicycle Club,
which I later joined. Club organizer Carol Brichford was the USA Newsletter
Editor at that time and Joyce Jones was the Secretary/Treasurer, so I found out
about USA. I went to my first unicycle meet in 1980 in Kokomo, Indiana hosted by
Two more lessons learned:
3. DON’T GIVE UP. This is perhaps the most important one when learning to
ride. Remember who else can do it. What makes them different from you? Of
course you can.
4. DON’T LEARN ON A GIRAFFE. Though it worked for me, I can’t recommend it as a
method. I was the right age, with the right previous experience, and the
right motivation to succeed in that situation. A nice regular unicycle will
be much more useful and will serve you well!
So I learned to ride on Bradley’s giraffe sometime in November, 1979. What do
you count as a start date when learning to ride like that? I count it from
Halloween because it’s easy to remember. Though I probably qualified as a USA
“Rider Level” rider back in 1976 or so, I didn’t have a unicycle to qualify on
(plus that level didn’t exist then).
Unfortunately I’m not as good as I was at keeping up the frequent riding. Now
it’s mostly on the weekends, mostly on the trails. But I’m not too rusty, and
I’m still very interested. Unicycling has done things for me that would never
had happed had I not gotten involved. I’ve traveled the world, met amazing and
wonderful people everywhere, and learned more than a college education’s worth
in the process (but no degree to show for it).
I think I’ll stick with the sport a while longer.
“I’m okay, I crash like that a lot.”
- Dan Heaton