Sunday, January 26, 2014

Day 259 - Riding a Unicycle

I have never ridden a unicycle. While this activity hasn’t necessarily been something high on my list of things to learn, I have always marveled at the skill required to ride a unicycle. In the fleeting moments I would encounter a person on a unicycle on television, riding down the street, or in live performances I would wonder about the balance and focus needed to make the small, one-wheeled device work. With limitless possibilities for ways to fall it seemed nearly impossible to me that people were able to maintain such poise and balance atop a single wheel in motion. It was uniquely incredible to me, and I figured if I ever had the time and the drive I would give riding a unicycle a try.

Considering my “I have never...” goals, I knew my goal of learning to ride a unicycle would be a good task to take on during my year of new experiences. As a result, I began looking around for potential opportunities to learn in and around my hometown of Madison. At first, this effort yielded little positive results until I met a man named Cory at new recent experience with a Circus Arts class. As one of my student partners, Cory and I spent a little time talking about my new experiences up that point, which inevitably led to the topic of riding a unicycle.


“You know, I’ve been riding a unicycle for about five years,” Cory stated as a matter of fact. The unexpected statement caught me off guard for a moment, but I realized it offered me a terrific opportunity. As I prepared to ask him about the possibility of taking a lesson, Cory beat me to the chase. “If you want to learn, just let me know. I meet with a group, the Madison Unicyclists’ Club, twice a month and we would be happy to have you.” I immediately confirmed my interest, which set into motion a little bit of planning and the trading of some information. With that, I had my connection to learn how to ride a unicycle. All that was left to do was to set aside some time to join Cory at a Madison Unicyclists’ meeting and make my first attempt at riding a unicycle.

Eventually, that effort resulted in Cory and me making plans to meet this afternoon for the Madison Unicyclists’ annual kickoff meeting at the Goodman Community Center. Upon meeting Cory at the facility, Rachael and I chatted with him about some basic unicycle techniques as we prepared for the event. With roughly two hours to practice riding, Cory stated I would have plenty of time to practice my mount, balance, and steering techniques with hope I would be able to ride a short distance by the end of the event. Optimistic, I committed to giving it my best, which caused Cory to crack a smile and give me a little encouragement, “No, give it your all.” The remark was simple, but it was the push I needed to dive into the challenge headlong.

After getting a unicycle ready for me, Cory led me to one end of the practice space and directed me near a padded wall. He was quick to give me a primer on mounting the unicycle, finding my balance with the support of the wall until I was comfortable operating without it, and steering the unicycle with subtle leg movements. Although Cory made the task look simple and easy, my efforts to replicate his movements resulted in a lot of instability and tumbles to my feet. Determined to make the process work, I continued mounting the unicycle after each of my missteps, all the while being encouraged and cheered by Cory. Ultimately, Cory’s direction helped me find my position atop the unicycle with relative ease, which meant I was ready for the next phase of the task, trying to ride the unicycle with a little help from the wall.


Cory stuck with me long enough to ensure I was capable of completing the steps necessary to mount the unicycle, control my position along the wall, and begin a slow forward movement consistently before taking to his unicycle and riding around my area. Calling directions and pointers as he rode, Cory helped me focus broadly on my technique, which advanced my slow progression with the skill as the afternoon pressed on. Although I expected the activity to require incredible balance and focus, staying on the unicycle was far more challenging than I ever expected. The task required me to forget everything I had learned about riding a bike, firmly plant my weight at the center of the unicycle, and maintain balance on a golf ball sized area of the unicycle tire. With gravity attempting to pull me down in any possible direction, I attempted to pedal down the wall with as little support as possible. Each pass ultimately resulted in me taking a tumble, but I increased my distance down the wall with each new attempt. I was making progress, but the challenge was wearing me down. Without question, riding a unicycle was far more difficult than I ever expected it would be.

Nearly 90 minutes into my attempt to ride a unicycle I found myself sweaty and fatigued. That reality made me question whether I would be able to successfully complete my intended new experience for the day, casting doubt over my desire to continue. Remaining committed to my progress, Cory provided me some more encouragement and advice in an effort to spur me back to action. “Everything is looking good. I think you just have to go for it. Use the wall, gather some momentum, and go all out,” he said. The perspective caused me to look down the length of the wall before and glancing up at Rachael and Cory. “That’s what this year is all about, right?” I asked, wiping the sweat from my head. Cory responded with a smile, “It is. Just go for it, man.”

A little help from a club member

The words steeled my resolve to press on and make good on my intentions of riding a unicycle unassisted by the time the event was over. As a result, I lined myself up along the wall, climbed atop the unicycle, and lined up to begin another attempt. Once balanced in the seat, I pushed the pedals down and leaned forward. As I began moving I felt the tips of my fingers leave the wall and return in segments of unsupported, free movement. Although I was certainly wobbly, the realization I was close to riding a unicycle for the first time caused me to refocus and bear down. With a flex of my thigh I turned the unicycle away from the wall and out toward the open floor. I pedaled once more, continuing my forward movement with nothing but my outstretched arms keeping me in balance. Still upright I gave two quick kicks with my feet, sending me five feet forward in my path and leaving behind any chance of returning to the wall. I was officially riding a unicycle; at least for a moment.

A split second after my third unassisted pedal I felt my weight shift, sending the unicycle into a rocking motion that left me falling to my feet. Finding my balance, I immediately turned to the felled unicycle and smiled. My ride was only a few moments in time, but my success overwhelmed me. Throwing my hands into the air, I bellowed over the crowd of people riding around the practice space, “Yes!” My comment caused a few people to turn in confusion, but Cory and Rachael immediately knew the significance of the moment. Returning to their location, I grinned. “There it is. I might not be riding around the place like a bat out of hell, but I rode a unicycle.” My remark elicited a few responses of congratulations from the Cory and Rachael before Cory summed up his thoughts simply, “I knew you could do it.”

Following my brief success I took a few minutes to rest before returning to the unicycle and the wall for a few more attempts. For the rest of the event I continued to press myself in an effort to continue my progress, but by the time the practice drew to a close I had peaked at a few feet of unassisted riding during my best rides. It was less than I had hoped to achieve during my first attempt at riding a unicycle, but I was filled with an ample feeling of accomplishment given the unexpected degree of difficulty the task required. As Cory, Rachael, and I left the community center we chatted briefly about the experience. After I recapped my successes and challenges, Cory looked at me and gave me one last thought to consider. “You made more progress in your first day than anyone I have seen before. Feel good about that. Not many people would have the drive to stick it out, but you did.” The remark was all I needed to know today’s “I have never...” experience was a success. I walked away with new knowledge that riding a unicycle is a challenge, with new respect for people that have mastered the skill, and with five foot track of freedom on one wheel to revel in. It might not have been what I hoped to achieve during today’s “I have never...” experience, but in my opinion, anything that results in those takeaways can only be defined as a good experience.

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