The physics behind rail riding and stillstanding?

Some of us Australian trials and muni riders are putting together a combined movie project that we plan to sell and that we hope will raise awareness, etc of unicycling in Australia. As well as my sectin of the movie, I’m making a rail riding tutorial to fit into an extras menu and I want it to be useful and to make sence…

…so I’d really like to know a little about the physics of rail riding. When I’m riding a rail, if I’m falling to the right then I’ll throw my arms and upper body to the right to somehow regain my balance. Could somebody please tell me what’s going on here? Being higher above the ground, and often heavier, I would have thought that the upper body would pull the rider even further off balance if it was moved in the direction he/she was falling. Or is it that when the rider moves their upper body to the right, they are pushing their lower body to the left, and keeping their weight over the rail?

Also, I’ve sometimes found myself swinging one arm in circles in a final attempt to regain balance, and sometimes it’s worked. Actually, I just looked at a video of a rail I rode once and it’s sometimes more of a push of the arm from the back to the front. In the case I just observed I was falling to the right and I did this action with my right arm to regain balance. Can someone please explain this?

And one last thing, is the forward momentum doing anything to keep the rider upright? Should narrow rail riding (with no lateral wheel movement) be any easier than stillstanding?

I’ve attached some frames fro ma video to try to explain the actions I’m referring to.

Thanks a lot. I’m sure I could attempt to analyse these goings-on myself but I’d rather hear even the basic stuff from somebody who knows what they’re talking about.


I’m not particularly good at riding rails, but from the physics point of view the idea of swinging the arms is that the reaction from your arms swinging moves your weight in the opposite direction, in the same way that you can do sharp turns y swinging your amrs around you, just in a different axis.
I think its also important that the arms are aove your head, which means they are further away from the pivot (the bottom of the tyre) so the force from swinging your arms produces enough of a moment (turning force) to regain your balance without moving your cnetre of gravity even further over to the point that you fall anyway.
I suppose that technically with no lateral movement a rail should be the same as a still stand, but with most rails the thickness of the tyre might mean you can move a little to regain balance. From the pictures you can probably answer that better than me.:slight_smile:

Hope that helps,


Yes, that was helpful, thanks John. I think that with rails that size and smaller any lateral wheel movement is unintentional for me.

Keep the explanations coming!


Re: The physics behind rail riding and stillstanding?

Hi Andrew,

Sounds like a neat project. I don’t have much time now but I’ll give it some thought and post later. One of the stillstanding threads had a good discussion of what is going on. You’re on the right track with your hunches. (Oh - sorry about the double pun… :slight_smile: )


When you throw your upper body to the right, it throws your lower body (including the wheel) to the left.

Conservation of momentum: Your total momentmum must be the same at all times in the left right direction, so if you give your arms momentum to the left, then the rest of you must go to the right to ‘cancel’ the momentum to the left.

Same concept as throwing something heavy when you’re standing on really slippery ice: the thing you threw goes one way (Like your arms) and you go the other way (Like your torso and uni).

Aah, one of Newton’s big scary laws:
every action has an equal and an opposite reaction.
(that’s my thinking done for the day)

Okay thanks, but how about these ones…

“Also, I’ve sometimes found myself swinging one arm in circles in a final attempt to regain balance, and sometimes it’s worked. Actually, I just looked at a video of a rail I rode once and it’s sometimes more of a push of the arm from the back to the front. In the case I just observed I was falling to the right and I did this action with my right arm to regain balance. Can someone please explain this?”

“And one last thing, is the forward momentum doing anything to keep the rider upright?”

And I noticed that the guy (in the Moab section) riding that brown rail seems to prefer to keep his upper body very low. This seems strange to me.

I found a good clip yesterday to add to the tutorial. It’s just me stillstanding on a wooden rail but you can see clearly how I’m trying to push my hips to the side by moving my upper body to the other side.


Re: The physics behind rail riding and stillstanding?

Of course. In a stillstand you are not allowed the freedom to roll forward and back. The rolling also allows you to make some left-right corrections with slight changes in your line.

There is the whole Newton’s law and conservation of energy/momentum issue, but this doesn’t explain how a Kris Holm can spend 3 minutes stillstanding on a piece of railroad track. Clearly he was doing something the rest of us were not.

Add time to the physics info from above. I believe that is a factor. Also if you make your body movements in a wave, that kind of gets wider as it goes up. Those are two brief descriptions of how I think you get around the normal laws of physics to balance where common sense says you can’t.

Did i read that right? THREE MINUTES? is there a special technique for stillstands?

This would be easier with pictures, but I haven’t figured out how to do that easily in a regular post so here goes:

Imagine two vertically elongated masses with one stacked on top of the other and joined together with a powered hinge. The lower mass represents your legs, hips and the unicycle. The upper mass represents your torso, head and arms. The hinge and power source are your waist and abdominal/back muscles.

Since you can roll on a thin rail you can control your fore and aft balance with normal pedaling. This frees your abdominal/back muscles from the need to balance a still stand in that direction so there is more “power” for still-standing in the lateral direction.

So, imagine that you are looking down the rail. Mentally “float” the two mass system an inch over the rail. (“Matrix” physics rules are in effect - gravity is suspended.) Imagine the system is perfectly still and aligned perfectly straight and vertical. What happens if the hinge “motors” are actuated to bend the top to the right? Conservation of momentum (Newton’s first law) says that the center of mass stays put, since there are no externally applied forces (the “tire” isn’t touching the rail). Further, there is no reason for the system to rotate as a whole since there are no externally applied torques either. So the top and bottom of the system move to the right, and the waist moves to the left. The center of mass of the upper mass stays on the vertical line but moves down, and the center of mass of the lower mass stays on the line and moves up. The overall center of mass stays put.

Now, mentally straighten the masses out again and turn gravity on. The mass system drops onto the rail and balances. If everthing is PERFECTLY alligned it will just stay there, however this perfection is only possible in cartoons and computer simulations. In the real world it will never happen. Eventually it will begin to rotate around the contact point on the rail and fall. Why?

With gravity turned on the mass system pushes down on the rail, and the rail in turn pushes up on the mass system. When the system is perfectly vertical these two pushes are exactly in alignment and cancel out. When the mass system tips, even a tiny amount, the two pushes become slightly offset. This creates something called a “couple” in physics that creates a pure twisting force or “torque”. Since these forces are externally applied Newton’s second law comes into effect - the masses accelerate. As the masses tip they also start to accelerate sideways because the rail “up” push is no longer exactly vertical.

Now imagine that the masses are still aligned straight with each other but have tipped a tiny bit to the right. What happens if the “motor” in the waist is actuated to rotate the top mass strongly to the right?

In the zero gravity thought experiment the top part rotated to the right and the lower part rotated to the left. But in the gravity-on case the “tire” is in contact with the “rail” so the bottop part isn’t free to rotate anymore. In the free-air this floating tire tread would have moved to the right too, but since it is in contact it can’t, so the whole system is pulled to the left.

Now, mentally stop time: What happens if you bend the system at the waist and then straighten it in the same instant? The answer is nothing. It will go back to exactly how it was. So managing time must be part of the solution for still standing. Ok, start time again:

When the tire patch causes the system to move to the left it causes the center of mass to move to the LEFT of the rail. Now the tipping couple is reversed and the masses start to fall to the left. After a suitable period of time imagine the motor is actuated again to straighten the system. This causes the center of mass to move to the right, but since the masses spent some time falling to the left it doesn’t go back to where it started from. If the timing and movements are done perfectly the center of mass will wind up right over the rail and the system is back in balance.

So what about the arm windmilling? Well, it’s the same thing but with three masses (and a new powered hinge at the shoulder.) When you start your arm rotation you cause the tire to pull your center of gravity one way, and when you stop the rotation it pulls you the other way. Get the timing right and you stay over the rail.

This form of balance isn’t limited to unicycleing. Watch any good soccer player in slow motion and you will see the arm-swings and waist bends helping him (or her) maneuver. Or just go down to the bar and watch the really drunk folks - since their balance and timing systems are impared you can see in an exagerated sense the waist bends and arm swings that we all do to just stand and walk on our feet.

Hope it helps. For the video I’d have an illustrator make some animations. Long leather coats optional for the “Matrix” physics section.


In my opinion, I think that one of the most important points to mention in any video would be to explain that the primary focus of balance when doing stillstands and riding railings (or for that matter any other unicycling move) is not your arms- it’s your core. Developing a good sense of core balance will do way more for still stands than concentrating on balancing with your arms.

This means thinking in terms of shifting your hips around to maintain balance, rather than just flapping your arms.


Thankyou very much guys, that combined was exactly what I was looking for. Of course in a short tutorial on rail riding which will rely only of video, maybe a diagram, and text (because I don’t have a microphone) I can’t go into too much detail at all but all of that info has really helped me to understand what’s going on. I just need to practise now.

I find stillstands and rail riding easier when sitting down on my trials uni (rather than either sitting or standing on my freestyle uni with a high seat). It’s clear to me now why that is.

Thanks a lot,

andrew you for all the pictures you take, you should start making a lot more short clips!!!

your fan, George

Jack Wiley has a line in “The Unicycle Book” that goes:
Trying to maintain balance by wild arm and body motions is something like trying to balance a wet noodle.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what you have to do when still standing or riding a rail. In normal riding the object is to keep the wheel underneath you. When still standing or riding a rail the object is to keep yourself over the wheel. It’s opposite of the way that you normally ride. Learning to ride on a rail requires learning a new way of doing balance corrections. It’s not like normal riding at all.

That’s the gist of what you want to get across to the lay person. That’s why riding on a rail is difficult and a feat of balance while normal riding is not so difficult and doesn’t require extraordinary balance.

Yes, that’s what I’ve been telling any of my unicycling friends who have wanted to learn to ride rails in the past. I think it’s a very important point that instead of keeping the wheel beneath you you’re keeping yourself over the wheel.

I have many many many clips on my computer from the movie we’ve been filming. I’ll put a downloadable version of the movie up when it’s done (very soon…just sorting out music now). Thanks for the kind words but I’m really not fan-worthy. :slight_smile:


That’s a lie and you know it!

Re: The physics behind rail riding and stillstanding?

On Fri, 23 Apr 2004 21:35:43 -0500, “andrew_carter” wrote:

>I’m really not fan-worthy. :slight_smile:

Andrew, I’m a fan of you!

Klaas Bil - Newsgroup Addict

Clearly a system of 1/14 and 1/16 is not decimal - Mikefule on the English weight system