Steep hills, bikes and unis.

In Sheffield where I live there’s a lot of very steep road hills, all of which I can climb with the muni.

From my ill fated challenge race up one of them with some cyclists some time ago, I know that a geared two-wheeler can easily beat a uni up a steep hill.

Presumably, despite the eaxtra weight, the gears mean it’s easier to get up a hill on a two wheeler.

Nevertheless, I find that hills that are quite pleasant on the muni are a real drag when I go up them on a two wheeler- it feels like there’s more effort involved.

Also, although in a pre arranged race with a cyclist, the two wheeler will win, I’ve recently got into the habit of spotting cyclists slogging up a hill, approaching from behind so they’re not aware of me, then overtaking and getting up the hill faster than them.

Also, I sometimes get into conversations with them and generally find that I can talk OK while they seem to be very out of breath.

Obviously there’s a lot of factors at work here such as: -

  • I may just have a higher level of fitness than many cyclists, as I do spend a lot of time riding up really steep hills on one wheel.

  • one of my previous theories was that many cyclists slogging up steep hills may have just been riding for an hour or so, and hence be tired. However, recently I spotted a mountain bike going up as I was going down- I peeled round, came up behind him and overtook.

He said ‘don’t be cruel!’ as I passed. I consoled him with the thought that he’d no doubt been on a long ride and was weakened, to which he replied that he’d only been out for ten minutes; I’d spent the previous hour climbing Sheffields finest gradients :slight_smile:

  • another of my theories was that, though it is actually more effort to climb on a muni, the fact that it’s more interesting on one wheel (on a cycle it seems it’s a matter of getting from A to B, and a hill is just a hindrance, whereas on a muni there’s loads of balancing, looking for bumps in the road etc) and the upright posture is much more comfortable, disguises the extra effort.

So, my question is-

is there some sense in which it is easier to get up a steep hill on a muni than it is on a bike?

Obviously, it’s probably best to venture an opinion only if you are fairly good at getting up steep hills on a unicycle and also had some experience of riding up them on a bike.

I find climbing much more pleasant on the uni then on a bike. In fact, on the few bike rides I’ve participated in with my uni, I pass a fair number of bikers.

Anyway, on the question:

I think that being on a uni is like being on a low gear on a bike. 1:1 is a very low gear for a bike. I would even go as far as to say that a unicycle is more efficient on hills then a bike, just not as fast. It’s like saying that my Honda Civic is more efficient then your, but your Corvette would cook my ride burner in the quarter mile.

I hope that makes sense.

Happy climbing,


I’m still a newbie, and so I don’t find hills easier than on a bike, but I’m starting to get to the point where it’s easier :slight_smile:
I just like the looks I get… people have a hard time getting it through their heads that it is possible to take on hills :slight_smile:

I’ve found the exact same thing, it’s interesting isn’t it. I’ve done a reasonable amount of MTB riding (mainly before getting into muni) and there’s one long constant climb in particular that I’ve only ever done on my muni. I honestly think it’s all (or mostly) in the mind. I think the reason hill climbing is more efficient/comfortable/enjoyable for a lot of us on a unicycle is that like you said there is so much to think about. I think that the need to maintain balance in all directions stops us from thinking too much about how exhausted we may be…so we don’t feel exhausted. It’s interesting.


I feel exhausted, but I know what you’re getting at.

I have often read Nathan’s posts stating that bikes beat him on the downhill, but he takes him on the hills. I don’t really understand it. Especially when talking about equally fit riders. Maybe some of you more experienced riders can clue us in.

I’ve found that I can catch up with and even over take SOME 2 wheelers when going up hill. It depends on the slope of the hill AND the gear choice of the 2 wheeler. If its one of those grindy long but not moster steep hills where bike riders drop into a very low gear and twiddle the legs around not to fast, then I can over haul them with my 1:1 gear and legs going round fast. It was fun doing it off road during the Polaris challenge rides and on the south downs way.


I think a lot of (non-serious) cyclists don’t know how to use their gears properly and to great effect. I’m not a frequent bike rider and I found that going up a hill in the wrong gear to be quite energy sapping. And changing gear going up hill can be tricky for the inexperienced rider. I find my muni more comfortable to ride uphill than on flat ground because I don’t have to keep pressure on the back pedal.

I remember from my bicycling days that it was the accepted wisdom that a short wheelbase was good for hillclimbing. Well, wheelbases don’t come much shorter than on a uni!

On a bicycle, you tend to lean forwards a bit, so your weight isn’t acting so effectively on the pedals when you are out of the saddle and “honking”. On a uni, your weight is almost directly over the pedal.

Also, quite simply, the uni weighs less.

Don’t be misled by the 1:1 gear thing, though. There are other variables. Your uni has a 1:1 gear whether you are riding on 110mm cranks or 175mm cranks. The number of revolutions of the wheelk per revolution of the pedals is irrelevant. It’s the ratio of movement of the wheel rim to the movement of your feet that matters.

Also, bicycles lose a % (for some reason, I have 8% in mind) due to friction losses in the gears, the angle of the chain in certain gears, and so on.

oh oh obviously I have something to learn …
I can climb almost anything with a bike (with almost any gear!)
on a uni:

  • I am short of breath
  • I often UPD because my pedaling is not regular enough
  • I can’t freemount uphill (ok downhill or on a not very steep climb)

so my question: how to climb efficiently with a uni?


Thanks, you just made me think of something to mention in a tutorial video on hill climbing. :slight_smile: I think that irregular pedalling is perfectly fine and can’t be avoided when doing steep climbs. In my opinion (I just thought of this then so I haven’t gone into any detail) you just have to make sure that your body and the uni as a whole is constantly moving forwards and up the hill. I think it’s okay to pedal in half-rev bursts as long as your body is always moving forwards. I have some video clips I’m going to throw together for this little tutorial that will hopefully show more clearly what I’m talking about. They’re not up very steep hills though, unfortunately.


I like that one a lot :slight_smile:

I remember that prior to my aforementioned hill challenge race against some local cyclists up a short, but very steep hill; I did actually believe that I was in with a chance, for the following reasons (several of which are ones Mike Fule mentions)

  • no friction from chain/gears

  • better riding postition (directly over the hub)

  • much lighter weight of a unicycle

  • the fact that I could get up the hill on my muni, but on a bike it was very harsh (in fact I may as well be honest and say that I personally cannot get up this hill on a two wheeler)

Whilst I knew that I could well not win, I was genuinely surprised at how the cycles zoomed off in front with such apparent ease (so much so that I fell off my muni, which is a most rare event).

I was thrashed so soundly that I guess I decided that the above ideas were incorrect. I also suspected, and some of the cyclists mentioned, that the relatively meandering path of the uni (I actually ride pretty straight, but there’s lots of micro adjustments) meant a longer path than the cyclists were taking.

I now realise that there is a distinction between getting up a hill fast and getting up with more ease.

That I was wrong to shed the above reasoning purely on the grounds that I lost a speed race.

My current feelings, based partly on reasoning, partly on my own experience, and bolstered by some of the posts on this thread, is that there is some sense in which it is physically easier to climb a steep hill on a one wheeler, than on a cycle.

i.e. it’s not purely an illusion, but has basis in physics.

I believe that it’s due to the combination of a ligter machine (unis seem to be at least half the weight of a bike, and it’s obviously a factor as top cyclists put so much emphasis making their bikes a few ounces lighter); zero chain friction and superior riding position.

In addition, the meandering I now see as an actual advantage as it effectively means you can, at your choice, make the hill less steep (though longer) by taking lots of little less steep diagonal tacks.

Finally, the ultra low gear, though extremely limiting in terms of speed, makes for a more relaxed ride (presumably a my muni will be in the equivalent of a mountain bike in slightly less than 1:1 ratio, as my wheel (24x3 therefore same as 26") is the same, drive is direct (i.e. 1:1) and my cranks (150 mm) are slightly shorter than MTB 170’s) ?

And lets not forget that, when a cyclist goes into a low gear, they are entering the least efficient part of their gear range, with the highest percentage loss due to the chain drive, whereas the unicyclist is still in 100% efficent fixed gear mode.

Also, on a muni I seem to take a little ‘break’ after each pedal stroke, balancing momentarily in a mini ‘stillstand’, whereas, on a bike it seems vital to keep up the momentum.

It would be interesting to see some kind of scientific study that measured energy usage for a muni-ist and a cyclist up the same steep hill.

In fact, as I live in a town with two universities, I may well get in touch with a proposal for such a student study, and offer my services as the unicyclist.

On offroad uphills, the rear wheel on a bike can lose traction and spin out, especially when the trail surface has loose material such as sand, pine needles, sticks, etc.

A muni, on the other hand is less likely to lose traction, because you can observe the ground right below you, where your tire is. You’re less inclined to spin out because the consequence on Muni will be a upd. As a result, when you’re on a Muni, you tend to work you way uphill in a very deliberate and careful manner.

I’ve found that I can pass just about every mbter on steep technical uphills. However, on less steep, fireroad type uphills, a less experience biker can zoom up the hill in a sloppy way and achieve good speed.

I think on steep technical uphills, Muni has a significant mechanical advantage for an experienced Muni rider. Only very experienced mtbers with an inclination toward trials have the technical know how to make it up a very steep gnarly hill. Often you’ll see an average skilled mtber spinning away as they go up a hill. The muni on the other hand will be plodding away, slowly but surely, and will pass they inexperience biker as they spin and thrash their way up the hill.


A mountain biker’s POV

Well, as unicyclists go they don’t come much newbier than me, but having a pretty fair amount of mountain biking experience I can say that I can pass a good number of two wheelers when going up a steep hill too (on my 30 pound/13.6kg two wheeler, though as I can’t quite stay up on my uni yet.)

I feel that to truly be good at climbing steep hills on a bike there are some skills that must be mastered which many recreational bicyclists don’t know or maybe even care about, but which are a necessity for riding a unicycle regardless of terrain. Keep in mind that I’m still quite low on the unicycle learning curve so most of what I say about that is from what others have said or from my own speculation. Anyway, disclaimer aside, to climb you need:

-A smooth pedal stroke- Most Bikers that I pass are just chopping at the pedals rather than pedaling in nice smooth circles. As I understand it, this practice would put you on the ground even on a level surface on a unicycle. It also disrupts your…

-Balance- to bumble up a low to moderate grade hill on a bicycle doesn’t take much technique. To climb a really steep hill on a bike requires you to know what you’re doing. When climbing very steep hills, a bicycle practically BECOMES a unicycle (a recumbent, though) with a training wheel in front that skims over the ground. All steering is done through weight shift. Again, I Would guess that this is another skill that every unicyclist has perfected, but is optional for bicyclists.

-Center of Gravity- Advantage unicycle. On a bicycle, as the hill gets steeper, the seat, pedals and drive wheel all change positions relative to one another. This makes the rider scoot forward onto the point of the seat (ouch) and lean forward to keep the front down while keeping weight on the drive wheel. This position is somewhat awkward and closes up the chest a bit and requires the rider to support more weight on the pedals (try it, you’ll see why.) As was said earlier, the climbing position on a uni is more comfortable.

In short… there are certain techniques required for good climbing. Bikes let people get lazy and not practice these whereas unis would seem to require these all the time anyway or not at all. My guess is that a unicyclist would also be a good climber on a bicycle. Please correct me if my unicycling assumptions are incorrect, though.

OK, I’ll shut up now. Thanks for reading :wink:

In a prearranged uphill race, the biker goes faster for a couple reasons.

They don’t have to correct for forward/backward balance

Odds are their drive wheel is bigger, they have a higher gear ratio, and their crank arms are longer, giving them better leverage and more distance per stroke.

They can stop pedaling for a moment, and still continue up the hill.

If you sneak up on them, they have no reason to exert themselves. They downshift, and extend the length of time it takes them to climb the hill, thus reducing the amount of work.

for soome reason i am useless when it comes to even the smallest slope on a bike yet on a unicycle i love hill riding and have mastered almost every steep hill around where i live and love the challenge…just proves that unicycles are better than bikes :slight_smile:

I was thinking about this myself, and thought that a uni climbs better because of the fact that on a uni, I can lean forward, then pedal the uni to catch up with my weight; whereas on a bike, you can’t ever get your weight out in front of the front wheel. It seems like by leaning my weight forward and pedaling the uni to catch up, it pulls me up the hill.

make sense?

It’s amazing how steep a hill you can crank on a uni. It’s always my legs and lungs that give out before my technique falters – and I’m used to cranking pretty steep stuff here in the Santa Monica mountains, with over 1,000 miles of fire roads and single tracks.

But a fit mountain biker will smoke me every time, on any hill, at any time. Period. The mechanical advantage is too great to have a prayer of hanging with the pros.


I haven’t ridden my mountain bike for months but I’ve been riding MUni every chance I get on the same trails that I’ve ridden probably hundreds of times on my bike.

I’ve been working very hard on my MUni technique and have made really good progress but there’s NO WAY I’m faster on a unicycle than a bike … steep uphill, moderate uphill, smooth or technical … doesn’t matter. I’d say that a typical 5 mile single track loop takes me more than twice as long on a unicycle than on a bike.

With my mountain bike I can shift up to a higher gear, get out of the saddle and power up stuff then shift to a lower gear and spin easier to recover. I find it VERY hard to do that on a MUni. I just can’t think of a single situation where I would be faster on a unicycle than on a bike.

It’s true that a MUni is more efficient (less drive train losses) than a bike but that’s more than compensated for with the advantage of gears and, in my opinion, the handlebars and the leverage and better riding position that you get from them.

On my unicycle I CAN keep up some bikers and have even passed a few but if I could race myself, me on a bike would SMOKE me on a unicycle every time on any terrain!


Remember that the question isn’t one of speed though, in the first post I mentioned that a unicyclist can’t beat a bike up a hill.

the question is whether hills are easier/less effort on a muni.

Given the right gradient and the correct wheel/crank ratio- I think a unicycle is potentially faster than a bike going uphill, with riders of equal fitness.

I have this hill which I regularly train on- my unicycle time is actually faster than my bike time. It’s a very steep road climb but as long as I ride my or 29’er I can beat my bike time. There is also an off-road hillclimb which I used to train- I did 25:30 up it two weeks ago. The record is held by my old mountainbiking buddy at 23:29, shortly before he headed to the MTB World Champs to ride for New Zealand as a junior. My usual MTB time up that hill is around 25-26min.

I think the unicycle has several things which make hillclimbing easier:
-the direct drive effect. Your power goes straight to the wheel. There is very little flex and chain drag
-It’s lighter
-Unicyclists tend to use shorter cranks- there is less ‘dead spot’ so you can spin in a smoother circle.

All of this assumes that the hill is the correct gradient that gears don’t add any mechanical advantage. I think the reason you got beaten is that you may have underestimated your gear ratio. If the bicyclist is using anything bigger than a 1:1 gear, you have to gear up the unicycle with a bigger wheel or shorter cranks.

I don’t believe having to balance forward/backward movement should slow you down at all. Unless it’s a bumpy track- it’s like saying that a biker will go slower than a tricycle because they have to think about balancing left/right movement.

Other tips for hillclimbing:

  • get a carbon fiber seat. If you climb like I do (out of the saddle half the time)- you’ll find that a standard KH seat will bob up and down like a yo-yo. A carbon seat or stiffened seat lets your power go straight to the wheel. I’m climbing up the sort of hills on my Coker/110mm that now that I used to struggle up on my Coker/125’s.
  • If the hill is steep, grab the front of your seat and stand up on the pedals. Basically the same as a bicyclist standing on their pedals. Good for short, sharp rises.
  • Lighten your unicycle
  • Most importantly, pick the correct wheel/crank ratio. This will take some experimenting, but in general you can use a much bigger wheel/shorter crank once you get used to it.

Good luck,