April 2010 Archives

Remembering Art

There's a cemetery on the other side of the Junior High where I ride the unicycle some weekend mornings. It has challenging hills. There is a particularly steep one leading up to a mausoleum in the center of the property. I haven't even tried going up there yet.

I feel a little strange when I first ride in the black wrought iron gates. Unicycles are so frivolous, and death is so, well, grave, that I feel that maybe I'm out of place. Will others who are visiting the cemetery take offense? No one has yet.

I do find that when I'm riding there I think about more than keeping the beast under me. I do think of others in the family who have passed away, and in particular my grandfather Art who did before me many of the things I am am drawn to trying to do now. He liked to do tricks on a bicycle...riding backwards was a specialty. And he played concertina in a dance band. And he kept a great vegetable garden interplanted with ornamentals. Gladiolus in particular.

So I have a story ready in case I'm challenged. I'm there remembering Art. And trying to get up and down those hills.

Running and riding

Not sure why, but I didn't want to take the unicycle out today. Yesterday I spent time doing flatwork on the tennis court, practicing figure 8s, stopping, mounting. Today I normally would have taken a longer ride, but it just didn't sound appealing.

So instead I ran the route that I normally ride. It is a bit over 4 miles through neighborhoods and the experiment station, a mix of pavement and dirt path, some ups and some downs. Here's what I observed:

  • Last time I rode the course I went 44:30. Today I ran the course in 39:30. Very roughly I was running at a 10 minute per mile pace and riding at an 11 minute pace.
  • Based on the songs that were running through my head, I think my cadence running and on the unicycle are similar. The running cadence however is much more even.
  • My running stride is about 4' so in two strides I cover about 8 feet or 96". The circumference of my rim is 24" but with the tire it is closer to a 26" diameter. x 3.14 =about 82" per revolution. So two strides, or one "revolution" of running covers 96" while one revolution of riding covers 82", about 15% less. So to keep up with my running I need to spin at a pace about 17% faster than my running pace. Or I could get a 29" unicycle, but that would be more expensive than spinning faster.
  • I was more tired after running than riding. That makes sense because when running I'm supporting all my weight while when riding I'm only supporting some of my weight.
  • I felt the bottom of my feet in a good way. I don't know what to make of this. I felt like the bottom of my feet were tighter, stronger, more aware of the surface they were running on. My first thought was that on the unicycle I might be using muscles in the sole of my feet for balance adjustments, so that area was stronger than in the past. Or it was just my imagination.
  • I don't think either riding unicycle or running are very balanced exercises around the knee. It is all push and no pull, so there will be a muscle imbalance at that joint. I've done some rowing, and that involves pulling with the leg (opposite motion to the unicycle stroke) so maybe I should do more on the Concept II (a rowing ergometer/medieval torture device) to develop those muscles.

High side

I'm glad I'm wearing gloves because I've gone over the top at least once a day the past few days. It seems to happen during mounts. Half the time I do Megan's wheel-grab mount and the other half a straight up static mount. Its during the latter that I go over the top. The back pedal is pointing down at 45 degrees or more, I step up on that pedal, grasp the seat, step up with the other foot. But wait a minute, because I wasn't focusing I've rocked back too far, I miss the free pedal, the unicycle shoots out the back and I go over the top.

It almost always seems to be due to a lack of focus. First, I'm having some difficulty deciding which hand makes most sense to grasp the seat...same side or opposite side of the back foot? I've been doing same side, but now that I think about it, my free hand should be opposite the foot that is stepping up to the free pedal. Whatever, I'm sure this issue makes no sense, or difference, to someone who knows what they are doing. It only matters to me, a newbie.

I find that the best focus point for me when mounting is to look at the free pedal. That's the surface I need to hit without fail, so I intentionally look there. I've found that when I give some attention to the pitch or orientation of the wheel I miss the pedal or at least my foot placement is awkward, so now I watch the pedal.

And if I don't, I'm watching the ground rush up to greet me.

Tender knees

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I'm feeling badly for my knees and my knees are feeling badly. All around the kneecap, my knees are complaining. I've read about this before in the writings of other beginning unicyclists. It seems to be a unicycle overuse problem. Sometimes it has to do with seat height, but I'm guessing that in my case it is overuse.

Over lunch today I did the 4 mile loop around campus and the experiment station, then in the evening went out to the track with other family members who were running. My knees felt quite tender before, during and after the evening session. I noticed that when I was doing the evening ride I could relax the muscles around the knee a bit, and the tenderness was reduced. Maybe this is important. I'll try to focus on relaxing around the knee and see if it helps.

Weaving

The track team at the local Jr. High must have been working on hurdles last week, because about 100 hurdles were scattered along one of the straights when I rode the unicycle by the track Sunday morning. I couldn't resist the opportunity to set up the hurdles about 12' apart all the way down the straight. No, not for hopping, but for practicing linked turns.

It was really fun weaving in and out of the hurdles as I rode down the track. I tried to get some rhythm to the turns, purposely shift arm and shoulder positions as I transitioned, and worked at sensing the unicycle's lean. At the beginning of each run down the course I would have decent rhythm and could somewhat feel the lean, but about half way down the straight I just had to focus completely on making the turns in time and not falling over.

Oddly, I could weave through those gates, but at the end of the course, when I was doing a large-diameter loop to come back the other way, I would fall every time. I had a lot of difficulty resisting jerky, small diameter turns even though I had lots of space.

No-man's land

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There is a unicycle no-man's land. I'm sure that no-one who knows what they are doing goes there anymore, but I bet they've been there. It isn't a place, really. Its a position.

I go there sometimes when I'm losing my balance. Usually it's when I whoop forward, arch back to catch myself, realize it's a lost cause and take my feet off the pedals to step off the beast. But wait, for a moment the unicycle is perfectly, mercilessly balanced under me. My feet are reaching helplessly for the ground, but to no avail because the unicycle is rigidly positioned between me and the earth. My arms are frozen in mid flail, my face paralyzed with an Edvard Munch look of horror.

And then the moment passes and I fall. But because the balance was so sublime, I have no clue which way I'm coming down. I really don't need that type of random excitement anymore.

Almost muni

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I should wash off the unicycle this afternoon. It rained for the first time in a while, which was great for the lettuce and radishes that are just starting to emerge, but it kept me inside until about 11am. When the downpour petered out I rode around the lake, which involves some wandering through neighborhoods, a paved path around one side of the water, a boardwalk across the neck and dirt and sand paths around the other side.

Other than feeling like my feet were going to slip off of the plastic pedals, the paved parts were fine, and I really enjoy the boardwalk. The paths were another story.

After the rain, of course, they became soft in places, and I wasn't too skilled in knowing which places were firm and which were soft. When the mud suddenly sucked up my tire, there sure wasn't enough time for me to adjust, and I went shooting forward while the unicycle tumbled into a nearby puddle. Not once, but at least three times. Man, was that fun! A runner went past and gave me wide berth in case I unintentionally timed my next catastrophe for when she was nearby.

At least now I know what it feels like, and hopefully can be prepared next time. Because as soon as it rains again, I'm definitely heading out to that path.

Doing the jerk

My first turn was a desperation, force of will, whole-body yank to the right as I left the driveway and tried to head down the street. I was pretty sure that turns shouldn't be that jerky, but at that point I didn't care a bit. Whatever it took to keep on top of the unicycle was fine by me. My current technique isn't much more sophisticated, really. When I'm riding round the neighborhood or station roads, lots of arm waving seems to get the job done. I've got to figure out how to be smoother than that!

Earlier I worked on controlled turns out at the Jr. High track by staying between the lane lines, then staying on the lane line itself. I didn't really feel anything in particular that I was doing to make those gradual turns except maybe looking in the direction I wanted to go, which probably twisted my trunk a bit into the turn.

Out on the tennis courts I was having difficulty with narrower radius turns when doing figure 8s between pairs of courts (around one court, through the gap between net supports and then around the adjacent court). It felt to me that if I gave a bit more focus to the downstroke of the inside leg I could get a sharper diameter turn, but nothing I would consider smooth or controlled.

Others on the web have mentioned leaning the cycle into the turn, and some noted that this lean is preceded by a counter steer (wheel briefly points away from the turn in order to set up the lean into the turn). To me, that sounds like someone describing what they do after they already know how to do it, and I don't find that type of advice helpful. If I can't steer well in the first place, how in hell am I supposed to counter steer?

Yesterday I was back out at the tennis court working on tighter figure 8s, in particular, trying to fit the figure 8 into one end of one court. For the first time I sensed the importance of the unicycle leaning into the turn. It felt like I was getting smoother turns by slightly shifting the seat under my butt into the turn, which I think causes the unicycle to lean in slightly. I am having difficulty making the shift at the junction in the middle of the 8 shifting the seat from one side over to the other side. Its kind of funny/frustrating doing the top end of the 8 ok, and then at the half way point wiggling off track and having to yank myself around the bottom end of the figure. Felt like I was at the end of the driveway again.

Leaning into the unknown

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I hoped that riding the unicycle backwards would feel like ice skating backwards. And in key ways, it does.

Years ago I would take a Coleman lantern out to the frozen lagoons at Tenney Park in Madison late at night after the lights were switched off and other skaters were gone. I couldn't skate backwards very well, and I was on a mission to learn. Skating backwards then felt extremely tentative and a bit scary because I hadn't developed much edge control, had a fear of falling backwards and also because of the unnaturalness of the action. When do humans ever go backwards fast under their own power?

That feeling came back to me when I was working on idling. In order to work both foot positions I was rocking (with support still) around five times with one foot up, then riding backwards three strokes and rocking around five times with the other foot up. I think some other blogs have called that a stretch idle. Riding that backward segment required me to lean back into the unknown and use wheel control to keep balanced and ultimately stop. That sequence of sensations was very familiar. That doesn't mean I did it well, just that it felt familiar, so I have confidence that I'll be able to do it with time and reps.

Can't do backward crossovers on the unicycle, though!

Wobble and squirm

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I'd like to revisit the idea of unicycle wheel squirm that I mentioned earlier. In that post I noted the side to side motion of the wheel that I thought was caused by my pedal strokes when I was riding on sandy, gravely trails. I thought that it helped if I put less weight on the pedals and more on the seat.

Well, I'm finding that the squirm can be pronounced at other times too. In particular, I am noticing it when I am trying to power up a hill.

I'm sure there are many pieces elsewhere written about the mechanics of the unicycle pedal stroke. What I've gathered though is that the wobble is the result of the force on the pedal applied off the center of rotation of the wheel. It makes sense to me that the wider the wheel hub and spindle, and the greater the distance of the pedal from the center of rotation for the wheel (q-factor), the more pronounced the wobble force. You can see in this picture of a track racing unicycle that the hub is kept very narrow, and I suspect that the cranks are straight (no offset to keep ankle bones from hitting the crank) so that as much of the human effort as possible goes toward moving the unicycle forward, and as little as possible is wasted in side to side oscillation.

So what to do? I noticed yesterday when doing some hills that the more I focused on spinning tight circles, the less wobble I felt. Maybe I was just finding a more efficient balance point and didn't need to put so much force on the pedals, but whatever the case, the ride up the hill felt way smoother when I was spinning instead of pumping.

Unitasking

Unicycling takes concentration. At least it does for me. I'm either on the unicycle or off the unicycle. I just can't ride if I'm not mentally focused.

If I come home from work late and just want to relax a bit by riding around the block, forget it. I can't even get out of the driveway. If I need to hash out my work issues I should shoot hoops or garden, not try to mount.

Maybe I'm the only one, though. The guy at Muni or Bust answered his cell phone while he was trail riding a few days ago. Right. For me, trying to dig something out of my pocket would be the the thing I do just before an immediate face plant.

Once I do focus though, there are rewards. I feel refreshed after a session of being such a one-tracked unitasker.


Linking skills

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I'm finding that skills need to be linked together to be of value. Take hopping, for instance.

Hopping on a unicycle isn't as hard as it looks. I'll qualify that: bunny-hopping a few times, not too far off the ground, without moving around much, isn't as hard as I thought it would be. It feels normal compared to some of the other things I've tried to learn. Pedals at 9 and 3, even weight, butt off the seat, one hand on the front seat handle, spring up, bring the seat with you so you can keep feet on pedals, land and cushion with your knees. It feels like I'm riding a pogo stick with very little travel and a very tight spring. I'm clearly still just getting the hang of it. I can do about a dozen hops with right foot forward, same with left foot forward, one hand then the other on the seat (I think I'm obsessed with symmetry). But all the time a rail, pole or car is nearby to support me if I lose my balance. And of course it is tiring.

I know it it will be a useful skill when I come across obstacles I am uncomfortable riding over, but to use it I need to link it with other skills. In other words, I need to figure out how to be riding normally, come to a standstill, hop and then start again. That linkage of skills is still beyond me for now. I should take Megan's advice (linked in an earlier entry) and learn to stall first, and then move on to bunny hops.

Unweighting for comfort

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Today while riding the track I watched a guy exercise his dog on the football field. There's a sign on the chain link fence by the entry to the field that says "No dog training", but there is also probably a "No bikes" rule about the track too, so he, I and the dog peacefully coexisted.

The track gives me a chance to try new moves on the unicycle without worrying about bumps and debris. Today I worked on unweighting. By the end of the week I'd like to be able to stand upwhile riging, so the first small step is to figure how to unweight my butt from the seat. Like everything else on the unicycle, unweighting seems to be a matter of balance and timing. I find I can get a bit of distance off the seat if I apply even pressure to the pedals just as I'm coming up to the 9/3 crank position (is that what some folks call the "power position"?). At first I thought that squeezing my thighs against the saddle helped stabilize my balance, but as I did it more, I wasn't sure it mattered. It was easier to do the elevation with my right foot forward and left foot back, but I worked on the opposite orientation and that was eventually ok too.

I had the feeling that I was pogoing down the track, but I'm sure that my rise and fall was barely perceptible.

The unexpected benefit of this slight unweighting is that it allowed me to reposition myself in the seat for more comfort. Sometimes I find I'm a bit off center after a mount, so unweighting the seat lets me get things adjusted just like unweighting the pedals lets me get my feet centered.

Beginnerish footie

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I'm thrilled when I freemount my unicycle and find my balance. But then I often have to do something about my feet. How do you deal with that situation where one foot is where you want it on the pedal, but the other is hanging off or too far forward or aft or just plain uncomfortably wrong? I'm sure not going to dismount now that I'm up there. I've got to figure out how to get the malfunctioning foot repositioned.

Just slightly off topic: I'm surprised to read some Muni blogs that recommend positioning the pedal under the arch. The rationale is that the heel of the boot (also recommended) can be used to stabilize the pedal. Well, probably so when doing whack stuff that I'm not doing (shoot, not contemplating) yet. For my beginnerish riding I like the standard bicycle position with the pedal centered under the ball of the foot.

I've found that there is a very brief window of time where I can squirm my foot over, back, up or whatever, and that window opens when the pedal is rising to the top of its rotation, just before it begins a power stroke. It is hardly a window of time. It seems more like a sliver of light, a crack in time that I can use to slightly shift. It is such a simple thing, repositioning the foot, but it means that successful freemounts aren't waisted.

A straight-2 engine

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Downhill runs on the unicycle are driving me nuts. The uphill climb is fine, but once I get over the crest I have to fight my way back down. I have a pretty fair and even pace going up, but on the descent I fear I'll get going too fast and run out of control. To keep control I focus hard on holding back on the upswinging pedals. My feet feel like they are holding back pistons in a straight-2 engine. I can't seem to even out the pressure through the whole arc of the rising pedals, so the result is a jerky descent that slows and slows and slows until I buck off.

I'm trying to figure out how to keep the cranks spinning at about the same pace as I went up the hill, but instead of using leg strength on the down stroke, to use it evenly throughout the upstroke. As I noted in an earlier post, that upstroke pressure is an unfamiliar sensation - the last time I felt it was probably when I was a little kid trying to slow down a tricycle. Maybe the muscles used to restrain the pedal on the way up when going downhill are different that those used to mash the pedal down when powering up the hill, so it is just a matter of strengthening those new muscles.

Everything seems to be sorting itself out ok so long as I just keep working at it, so maybe in a week or so those downhills that are throwing me off now will be a pleasure to descend.

Stoners

I didn't get out to the track until it was dark. Between working late and watching the Canadiens beat the Caps in overtime of game 1 it got dark before I got out on the unicycle. Real dark, with only the faint sliver of the waxing moon in the west.

I thought the local Jr High track would be the safest place for a workout. No traffic, no people and a flat surface. While unloading the uni from the van I heard some kids over at the tennis courts farting around. "Hey is that a unicycle?" Yeah. "That's cool, man". I haven't done anything cool in forever. Luckily they didn't become an audience.

Now here's the thing that really was cool: The black track mostly blended into the black night so that the only way I could stay oriented was to follow the white lane markers around the ring. I could see the track faintly, but I had the sensation of riding more by instinct and feel than by observation and adjustment. It was useless to intently focus on the road ahead of me, the way I do during the day.

One mile winding around the track clockwise, and another mile counter-clockwise to unwind, and I packed up for home. I liked the experience and I might do it again. I hope that being challenged to ride at night by feel and instinct will improve my riding during the day.

Gravity helps me up the hill

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I felt today like gravity could be my friend going uphill. Yes, uphill.

My ride today was through a local neighborhood with moderate ups and downs. The ride concluded with a long (for me), 4 block uphill climb where the grade was fairly constant from bottom to top. This gave me a chance to practice finding an efficient rhythm and pace for the duration of the climb.

The sensation I had during that climb links all the way back to my first post on "hips forward". When I occasionally found that sweet balance point where I was leaning forward into the hill and felt like I was right on top of that unicycle, I felt I had the most efficient transfer of muscle energy into forward motion. The pedaling felt easier and smoother, and I'm sure I was going faster, than if I sat back a bit .

I don't know if this makes any sense, but I think that as I was leaning forward gravity was helping by pulling my body down, but also forward. In short, gravity was helping me move up the hill. My pedaling was easier because it was just keeping the wheel under my body. When my center of mass was back further and I was riding straighter , then gravity pulled me forward less, and pedaling had to move more of that body mass that was no longer being moved by gravity.

That's what it felt like anyway. Hope I can find that sweet balance point more regularly in the future.

Lighten up

I've got to lighten up on the pedals.

I rode he dirt/gravel paths around the experiment station again yesterday, which in my case takes a lot of concentration. I find myself looking maybe 10 feet ahead, with occasional glances up, trying to pick a line that has fewer bumps and less loose gravel. I have to do lots of adjusting to keep balanced. Because this eye lock on the near path ahead I can't really enjoy the landscape around me. Last night I was reading the Mountain Unicycle FAQ and they advised looking 5-10 feet ahead when riding rough terrain, so I gather it isn't unusual to concentrate on what's right in front of you. Then also noted that as the terrain gets rougher you put more weight on the pedals.

I noticed that when I transitioned off the dirt path to smooth pavement I could relax my body some, look around more and worry less about my line. Part of the relaxation was being able to put more weight on the seat, take pressure off my pedals and think more about spinning. I'm trying to transfer that sense of relaxation on pavement to my dirt path riding, with some, but frankly limited success. I expect that with more experience and skill I'll be able to relax, lighten up and spin on the trails, too.

Megan's mount

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The folks at Twin Cities Unicycle Club during the lessons I attended recommended freemounting using a technique similar to the one described at
Freemounting a Unicycle that starts with cranks at 9 and 3 o'clock. You rest one foot on the near pedal, apply very little pressure and, with your crotch in the seat, you spring off the other foot, so that you and the seat rotate over the center of balance and simultaneously place the free foot on the forward pedal with enough pressure to begin your forward rotation. The video at How to Free Mount shows this technique and some exercises to get used to springing off the free foot with the right force.

Unfortunately, for me as a new unicyclist, it was all but impossible to keep from applying pressure to that back pedal, and I just couldn't control the spring of the free foot up to the forward pedal.

The technique that first worked for me is demonstrated by Megan Rouch who does a series of videos on off road unicycling that shows her unique mounting style. She starts with the cranks at 9 and 3 o'clock as above, but instead of immediately springing up with the free foot, she first leans forward and places a hand on the wheel to resist the backward rotation and uses that hand to initiate a forward rotation. She then rotates and straightens the body over the unicycle, and brings the free foot up to the forward pedal. It sounds complex, but for me it was very intuitive, and I see from posts elsewhere that it has worked for others too.

Now I find I have some success with the hands free technique, and will probably adopt it as my main mount in the future, but I think the ability to mount with the hand stabilizing the wheel may be useful on up or down slopes, and with larger wheels.

Hockey rinks

I don't think its going to snow again, although Green Bay got some last week. But I know for sure that the ice is out in all of the outdoor rinks in the neighborhood. That makes them prime flat space for learning new skills.

Rinks have a lot going for them from a unicycler's perspective:


  • They are flat, which I already mentioned, and they are usually paved if they are permanent rinks.

  • They have boards that make great supports for mounting if free mounts remain challenging.

  • They are a decent size for practicing figure eights and other turning skills, which is where I'm at right now.

  • They have benches where you can take a seat.

  • Nobody is around to see how badly you suck at this.


Watching videos

I was watching some of the amazing MUni videos that are on other sites. Obviously you won't find any of those here because I'm still working on just following a straight line down a dirt path. I just love watching riders pick their way along tree stumps, down washouts and hopping from boulder to boulder. Urban riders are cool too, the way they negotiate stairs and berms. OK, I'll admit it...I like watching the wipe-outs as much as the makes.

The reason I'm really watching those vids though is that I want to know what the riders are doing with their hands, particularly the hand that is holding on to their seat. It is obvious that the hand is on the seat grip so that butt and seat, feet and pedals stay in contact, and perhaps also to help hop the MUni over obstacles. I find this amazing because I can hardly even hold the grip on my seat, let alone apply any force.

I've been practicing though. When I hit a straight stretch I try to at least get one hand, and then the other, to touch the seat. Earlier in the week I felt good about just getting a hand to rest their for a few strokes. Today I was actually getting two or three fingers under the handle, gripping, and trying to imagine I was stabilizing the unicycle when going over bumps.

It's a first step. Maybe a lame one, but like with everything you have to start somewhere.

Wheel squirm

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Dirt roads criss-cross the experiment station fields near my office. Today I gave them a ride. Now this represents two problems. First, there aren't may objects to lean against when mounting so I either had to never dismount (unlikely) or free mount (also unlikely). Second, dirt roads are way, way, way less smooth than the neighborhood roads, tennis courts and tracks that I've been practicing on.

Once I got out riding on those dirt roads I realized there was a third problem. The dirt roads aren't just packed dirt, but covered with loose sand and gravel. It was bad enough trying to keep balanced through the wheel ruts, but things got really nuts when I hit those sections with loose gravel over sand. Every stroke of the crank pointed the wheel first this way, then that, as I squiggled and squirmed my way down the track. The wheel was rolling over gravel and sliding through sand. I was glad I had my Pulse gloves on because more than once I went flying off the front. I appreciated the padded palms and wrist supports.

Free mounting is going better, but it is a bit of a different story when there isn't anything to lean on and you HAVE to free mount. It was either mount or walk. Sorry for being crude, but the biggest problem for me isn't mounting, but mounting without crushing my nuts. If I have a support to lean against then I can get everything adjusted right, but when I have to just get on and go, about half the time it isn't very comfortable. When its not comfortable I know right away and come right back off that seat just as fast as I went on. I figure if I keep working at it, out of sheer necessity I'll figure something out. And as the ride went on, I did figure something out. I figured out how to stay on the damn unicycle so I didn't have to free mount much.

On the return ride I worked on the wheel squirm problem caused by the gravel and sand. I found that if I really focused on sitting down into the seat I was able to dampen the twisting caused by my pedal strokes. I had been putting more weight on the balls of my feet so that I could balance over the dips and humps, but this accentuated the squirm. By sitting down in the seat I squirmed less, but felt I had less control over balance. I eventually found a decent compromise and had a nice, long, dismountless ride through the fields back to the gym.

I learned a lot today out on those dirt roads about mounting, balancing and sitting down in the seat. The experience sure made the paved sections feel easier in comparison.

Downhill rowing

You would think that downhill is easier than uphill. Its not. At least not for me. I was out in a rolling neighborhood today where some of the downhill legs are two or three blocks long. I found it took lots of focus and concentration to hold back the pressure as the pedals rotated up. Holding back pedal pressure is a feeling you never get on a conventional bicycle, although I suppose it is familiar to those who ride a fixie.

As I was riding down the hill, my focus on executing an efficient pedal rotation reminded me of an earlier time when I was learning to row. The rowing stroke is complex, and you do it over, and over, and over and over. Small adjustments throughout the stroke make a difference in your ability to move a shell through the water. I was never that accomplished as a rower, so I know that those in my family who are accomplished rowers will roll their eyes if they read this, but still I think there is some similarity. Both are complex repeated motions that get smoother and more efficient with time, instruction and practice.

Uphills are a lot more fun. For one thing, if you struggle, that's ok because uphill is expected to be harder (unlike downhill which is expected to be a breeze). Secondly, I find it easier to balance when I am applying power on the downstroke. Third, I know I'm building strength, because I can feel my legs starting to burn. We'll see how enamored I am with hills when I come up against big ones.

The first day of school

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The first day was surely the most frustrating. I took a learn-to-unicycle series from the Twin Cities Unicycle Club this winter. I liked the classes because


  • it was the middle of a Minnesota winter so I wouldn't be learning outdoors anyway

  • I could use the club's unicycles and get an idea of what to look for when I bought one

  • I got hands-on, supportive advice by folks who could watch what I was doing and suggest alternatives

  • I could see experts riding, which gave me inspiration and hope that someday maybe I could ride well too.


But still, the first tries at mounting the machine were almost enough to turn me away. We were in a school gym using walls for support, and learned to mount by positioning the crank nearest us at a low angle, then stepping up on that crank, which brought the unicycle under our bodies. Simple to say, hard to do. Frustratingly hard.

I know there are proponents of other techniques for teaching how to mount, but actually I don't think it would have mattered what technique we followed. I think my frustration had to do with not yet having the brain-muscle development and coordination in place, as noted in the memory consolidation entry below.

The best advice I got really wasn't about technique at all, it was about attitude: don't give up.

Rain reflections

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It was raining today in St. Paul. Over lunch it slowed to a sprinkle, so I took the unicycle out to the tennis courts again to work on figure 8s. It was wet enough that the surface of the court was shining...shining enough to see my reflection, and that became a bit of an issue for me.

As I was riding, particularly when I was doing turns and my arms were pretty active, I would catch sight of my arms' movements reflecting off the wet court surface. Whoa! Those mirror images of flailing arms were enough to throw me off balance. Not enough for a dismount, but enough that I had to do some corrective shifts. I reminded myself to focus further away.

I was able to stay on top of the machine pretty well today, so after about 20 minutes of court riding I went for a ride around the neighborhood. I only went around the block, but on each leg I had to power up some extended uphills and control the wheel on downhills, which I found entertaining after doing 8s on the court. I'd like to work up to the point of unicycling my running route which includes a section in the neighborhood, a section on campus and a section through the experiment station. I need to learn how to hang on to the seat handle for extra control and power when going over big bumps and small drops. I also need to be able to handle steeper hills, and to freemount. If I dismount out at the experiment station there's nothing to use for support.

1/4 mile track

I liked riding on the local Jr. High track this weekend. Its a nice 1/4 mile oval around the football field. The pebbly, rubberized surface has great traction and if I take a spill I have confidence that the surface will cushion my fall more than concrete.

The marked lanes challenge me to stay within the lines. It is fairly level and clean so I can work on developing a consistent pace without worrying about dodging obstacles. Plus, from the workout point of view, I can keep track of how far I go.

One of the skills I want to develop is to get enough balance to use one hand to grab the seat handle when going over larger bumps. Going down the straightaway on the track I could focus on practicing putting one hand on the handle for 10 strokes, then the other hand for 10.

Sunday morning there were some runners and walkers out there too, which gave it even more interest for me (people to dodge). I was probably a novel change for them too. Track riding was only fun for a while though. Luckily there were plenty of other places around the school to ride.

Second stroke

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Uphill static starts from sign posts cause me grief. Most of the instructional tips that I read say to make sure that the crank is at about the 2 o'clock position so that you can give a strong powerstroke, and of course lean forward. Recently I've increased my success by focusing on the second stroke.

I've noticed a tendency to stall even if I lean forward, start the first stroke at 2 o'clock and hit the gas. I fly off the front and leave the uni behind. Sometimes I feel like I've hit a stick, but when I check around, there isn't even leaf that I can blame it on. The mental image that has been working for me is to make sure I carry the power to the second stroke so that my wheel momentum builds and I can make some progress up the hill. Focusing on that second stroke gets me moving.

Tennis court

The last two days I've ridden on a tennis court, two courts really, side-by-side. My first discovery was that tennis courts aren't absolutely level. Close, but they have some fall to drain water I suppose. Funny how you can quickly tell this on a unicycle. Says something about my beginner status and leg strength that this slight rise and fall makes a difference to me.

Second discovery is that it takes some discipline and concentration for me to make a smooth and gradual turn around the baseline of the court. Sheesh, I have all the time in the world to make the turns, but I end up making these jerky quick slashes to the left or right and rotate myself way more than is necessary. Yesterday it helped to make myself take two revolutions straight after every slight turn. It also helped to keep my eyes on a spot slightly into the turn, rather than looking at where I eventually need to go at the end of the turn. And keeping my cadence up also worked. Slow cadence was related to jerky turning.

Third discovery was that the court surface is nice and grippy, which was especially nice during Friday's light rain. I had plenty of traction and saw what a wiggly line my tire track traced in the rain, too.

The chain link fence is great support for mounting, but I'm ending my practice sessions with 20 freemount attempts, and while I'm only at about 25% success right now, I hope that soon I won't bother with the fence.

Waltz cadence

I find it difficult to maintain an even cadence on the unicycle. I mentioned in an earlier entry that when I sense an obstacle I slow down and lose momentum, but this cadence thing even happens on relatively even surfaces. I imagine it is a balance thing. Lean back and my cadence slows, forward and it speeds back up. I'll probably be more consistent once my overall balance improves.

Cadence is easier to maintain on a bicycle. I typically try to keep longer rides early in the season at 90 rpm, moving up as my conditioning improves. My way of checking cadence is by running songs through my head, and for some reason, waltzes, you know, 3/4 time, are the best for me. I think that's because the accented beat alternates from crank to crank.

Yesterday when I was riding around a tennis court tried running a waltz tempo through my head as a way of forcing my cadence into something more regular, and I was pleased that it worked a bit. Nothing magical, but it was a way of challenging my balance to improve so I could pedal more evenly.

From what I learned on the web about unicycle cadence, a bicycle cadence isn't a bad target. I read that unicycle racers have to get up around 200 rpm for sprints, but I've no intention to be a unicycling Usain Bolt. If I aim for 90 now and over 100 later in the summer, I won't be going too far wrong.

Sustaining momentum

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After last night's ride I am making mores sense of the problem I reported earlier about stalling over small irregularities in the road. I think I'm slowing down too much (duh) and using too much caution.

Slowing down makes sense in lots of non-unicycle situations, but at least at my beginner skill stage, I need to focus on keeping the cranks moving and powering over the obstacle. Now just to be clear, an obstacle in my case isn't a tree branch or curb. I'm just talking about irregularities like a driveway to street transition, a bit of debris or a whoop in the road surface. If I slow down, I lose momentum. Then when I hit the obstacle I stall the wheel and pitch forward. Today I'm going to focus on keeping the cranks moving and sustaining my momentum through the bump.

If I get overenthusiastic about this momentum thing over bigger obstacles, I'll probably be reporting soon on the merits of caution.

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