Mountain unicyclists do it in the dirt

OddWheel Unicycle's Alan Read
Date:24 March 2011 Tags:, , , , , ,

In the world of extreme sport, you don’t get much more ‘out there’ than taking to the hills – on one wheel. Story and pictures by Sean Woods

Mountain unicycling – mUni to its small but fanatical band of followers – is as far beyond the cycling mainstream as it gets. It’s wild, it’s tough, and it’s decidedly dangerous.

But, mUni followers say, it’s a legitimate sport with many positive attributes. And it’s fast gaining ground worldwide.

Mention the word unicycle, and the first image that pops into most people’s minds is a gaudily dressed circus clown juggling brightly coloured objects while pedalling around like mad on one wheel, to the delight of a predominantly underage crowd.

Frankly, that’s nothing compared with the heart-stopping sight of a MUni rider hitting the trail at speed. Fearlessly traversing narrow mountain footpaths at full tilt, sans brakes or gears, somehow managing to negotiate large boulders, exposed roots and fallen tree trunks… it’s almost as big a thrill watching as it is actually riding.

OddWheel Unicycles’ Alan Read has dedicated himself to establishing off-road unicycling in South Africa. “This sport turns heads all the time. We can’t ride anywhere unnoticed,” says Read. “Curious onlookers stop us wanting to give it a try. Until they realise that it’s not as easy as we make it seem.”

But, as insanely dangerous as it appears to be, Read is adamant that off-road unicycling is a lot safer than riding a mountain bike.

“You can fall hard, but you seldom really hurt yourself,” he insists.

For one thing, speeds are lower. Unlike a regular bike, there’s no freewheel; with a unicycle’s fixed drivetrain, you travel only as fast as you can pedal. We’re talking 10 to 12 km/h.

There’s also no cumbersome bike frame and, as you’re not clipped into the pedals, nothing to tangle you up when hitting the dirt. “You rarely actually fall, but almost end up stepping off and landing on your feet as the wheel slips from underneath you,” explains Read. “Plus, you know exactly when you’re about to lose your balance and the time to step off has arrived.”

But accidents do happen. So, to play it safe, experienced riders wear plenty of protective gear: helmets and wrist and shin guards represent the bare minimum. Elbow and knee pads come highly recommended. “Wrist guards are the most important safety item,” says Read. “If you get tossed forward, your instinctive response is to throw your hands up to cushion your fall. The wrist guards have splints inside to prevent your wrists from snapping on impact.”

Ranked a close second in desirability are shin guards. You’ll realise why after just one vicious whack from the metal pedals’ sharp, shoe-gripping serrated edges during an unplanned dismount.

Getting up to speed
Two things determine a unicycle’s speed: wheel diameter and crank length. The larger the wheel, the bigger the distance per pedal stroke and the higher the potential top speed. Happily, the bigger wheel also allows you to roll over obstacles more easily.

Short cranks let you pedal faster and thus pick up more speed, making them an ideal choice for road races or freestyle tricks. For that, though, riders sacrifi ce control and torque.

Longer cranks deliver less speed, but provide much more control and torque. Riders are able to power up really steep inclines as well as to control a descent when negotiating scary downhills. “Generally, we change the crank length to suit the terrain we’re riding in,” says Read. “We also use dual cranks with two sets of holes for the pedals which shift the pedal position to create a longer or shorter crank on the fl y. When riding crosscountry we would opt for the shorter option, but on encountering obstacles we’d change to the longer crank position.”

Choosing the right wheel size is a highly individualistic affair. As a rule, beginners should pick wheel size according to their height. An averagesized adult would fi nd a 26inch diameter wheel suitable; a teenager would use a 24inch wheel and a 10yearold would be most comfortable on a 20inch.

However, once you’ve picked up some experience, there is a range of different wheel sizes available to suit specifi c applications. The smaller ones allow better control, making them particularly suited to mountain unicycling. Mediumsized wheels allow good speed on dirt tracks, and a large wheel is what you’d need for long, fast rides on tar or dirt roads. “A 29inch enables you to ride pretty fast and still have a reasonable amount of technical control, allowing you to negotiate thin, rocky single tracks and steep downhills,” explains Read. “When riding long road races such as the Argus Cycle Tour, we use 36inch wheels exclusively.”

Geared hubs, although a rarity, are also available for more experienced riders. Handmade in Switzerland, they provide two ratios: low (1:1) and high (1:1,5). The rider changes between the two on the fl y by pressing a protruding button with his heel. “When Johnny Cronje and I rode from Durban to Cape Town late last year in support of the Bobs for Good Foundation, we both used geared hubs on our 29inch wheels – effectively turning them into 44inch,” Read says.

Hitting the trail
On offroad trails, wide highvolume knobbly tyres with rigid side walls are used. Their width provides stability when riding over loose rocks, and their high volume helps smooth out bumps along the way. “When negotiating obstacles you never sit in the seat,” Read elaborates. “Instead, you almost stand to put all your weight on your legs so they can act as shock absorbers. Although this means you have much less control, it does have one major benefi t – it makes you develop incredible core body strength!”

As far as Read is concerned, technical downhill singletrack riding is the most fun and satisfying form of unicycling. “It forces you to keep focused on one track. There’s no ‘autopilot’, no freewheeling – your concentration has to be there all the time. And, as obstacles come up you constantly have to prepare yourself mentally for getting over them.”

The mental aspect of mountain unicycling cannot be understated. “Riding an off-road unicycle is all about knowing something is possible, and then being persistent enough to try again and again until you get it right,” Read says. “It’s fantastic at helping to develop your focus and concentration skills. That’s great for cross-training.” In fact, he maintains, it’s ideal for any sport requiring bucketloads of co-ordination, core body strength, concentration and fi ne muscle control.

Tokai forest on the Cape Peninsula’s mountain chain is Read’s favourite riding location, but that doesn’t mean he shuns urban environments. “We organise gatherings all over the Cape Town metropole, and whatever your skill level you’re welcome to join in. Our focus is to have fun and encourage each other to push the limits, so when we go on social rides we always set the pace by the least experienced rider.”

  • For more information, contact Alan Read at OddWheel Unicycles on 082 341 2639, or visit

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