Using a unicycle to do a bicycle's job

I refer to myself as a "unicyclist" since it is an activity I do on an almost daily basis. People who unicycle regularly will do so for various different reasons. For my own part, my interest is primarily to use it as a tool for getting around and/or keeping myself fit and active. Thus I use my unicycles pretty much as others might use a bike (or perhaps even a car). The longest I have travelled in a single ride is a little over 62km (39 miles) but I cycle distances in the 25 to 30km (15 to 19 mile) range fairly often and I cycle at least 10km (6 miles) for my daily round trip commutes (sometimes more than double that, as I love taking detours if I have the time).

When I tell people this in "real life" a couple of questions are often raised, so I decided to write them up and give myself something to refer to in the future.

ℹ If you are reading this and have more questions however, feel free to send me an email and I might just do a follow up. 😉

Why not just ride a bike?

A unicycle is physically more work than riding a bike. It simply is not as efficient, nor as quick. The vast majority of unicycles (and certainly all the ones I own) have fixed hubs. This means that the cranks cannot move independently of the wheel and thus there is no straightforward way to "coast". You have to pedal every stroke. Bicyclists tend to forget how often they coast. Many casual bicyclists stop pedalling on even the tiniest, most minor downhill gradients. I have seen cyclists coast on the small drop off the back of a speed bump!

Additionally unicycles have very low gearing (one revolution of the cranks is one wheel revolution). A midrange gear on a bike is typically such that one revolution of the cranks will turn the wheel through two complete revolutions of the wheel, i.e. you go twice as far and twice as fast for the same wheel size if you assume the same peddling speed (cadence).

If that was not enough, a wider range of muscles seems to be involved in balance and control on a unicycle, compared with a bike.

For all these reasons, new unicyclists often find themselves completely worn out and sweating profusely after a couple hundred meters of cycling. With improvements to technique and muscle conditioning it certainly gets much easier but it will never be anything like as low effort as riding a bicycle, which is likely the most efficient form of human powered transport.

So why bother? For much the same reason that someone might choose to run or skate instead of ride a bike. Efficiency is not the be all and end all. Many people enjoy the extra workout, for others they find the movement more interesting and hence more fun. Unicycling is much the same, while superficially it might appear to be essentially the same as bicycling, in practice the differences can be the very thing you are seeking. Certainly that is true in my case. I relish the extra effort and the feeling of balance is something quite special and not matched by a regular bike bike, as far as I am concerned.

How fast is it?

Unicycling is not necessarily as slow as many might assume. The typical image of a unicycle in most people's mind is fairly small, with a 20 inch wheel. Unicycles of this size are likely the most common and it is a good size for a range of tricks but it is a little small for my use cases. My smallest unicycle has a 24 inch wheel (roughly the same size as a child's mountain bike wheel), while my largest has a massive 36 inch wheel, which is far bigger than any bicycle you are likely to encounter.

A bigger wheel means gets you closer to bike performance as you will travel further and faster for the same cadence relative to a little wheeled unicycle. There are other tricks as well. Learning how to spin fast comfortably is a skill that can be achieved with some effort.

Running very short cranks can also help with spin rate. It is easier spin quickly with small, tight movements, which is more natural when using shorter cranks. A bicycle will typically have cranks in the 165-170mm length range. I have been known to run cranks as small as 75mm (which look like something I stole off a small child's bike). Shortening crank length comes with a lot of compromise however. You lose control (something already in short supply on a unicycle) and by using less of your leg length, you are not making optimal use of your muscles. For this reason I tend to favour lengths in the 100 to 117mm range.

So… how fast is it then? Well it varies of course depending on which size unicycle, which size cranks, how hilly the route is, the weather and other factors. On my commutes I tend to average 15-16km/h (9-10mph) for a typical 5km distance. Though on a good day, if I am in a hurry, I might average in the 18-19km/h (11-12mph) range. These kinds of speeds actually put me pretty close to a casual/relaxed bicycle rider. So slow… but not that slow. 😉

P.S. Here are some of my previous articles that talk a little about unicycling.

Brakes on a unicycle

Unicycling in the snow


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