September 2010 Archives

Trailcraft: Don't scare the hikers!

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Hand position study.jpg
I enjoyed this beautiful fall evening on the Gateway, and took the opportunity on one section to take some clips of different hand positions. The reason for doing this is that a couple of weeks ago when I was riding on the trail I noticed that other users were getting way out of my way. It was obvious to me that they were concerned about me going out of control and running in to them. Since then I've been trying to focus on quieting down my upper body movements, and one aid in doing that is to hold my hands in particular positions.

I videoed three situations: hands quite at my sides, hands on thighs, and hands behind the back. You can look for yourself, but I think that hands at my sides is just as good as any of the other three. I spend a lot of time today on the trail with hands behind my back, and I really could build up some speed and control that way. In fact, it was a lot of fun, but I don't think it looks particularly good from the hiker's standpoint. I didn't show how it looks to ride with one hand on the front bumper. If the rider is male, I think it looks like the rider is hanging on his nuts, so I that's not an option I'll consider anyway when riding moderate terrain..

My tentative conclusion is that when meeting others on the trail, having hands hanging naturally at my sides is the least likely to cause hikers to be concerned about their safety. .

I had such a blast today bombing down the trail with hands behind my back that I'll keep doing that anyway, even if it looks a bit awkward to the hikers.
Hand position video (8MB)


Today's challenge was to ride down a few curbs. I was out riding unicycle around the university neighborhood and tried making the drop from sidewalk to roadway. Well, I actually only tried three times, and landed two of those, but not with confidence. I realize curbs aren't that tough, but they are a mental block that I think comes from worrying about pedal position. Truthfully, the height of the curbs I'm riding down isn't that great, so pedal position isn't a big deal, but I make it a big deal. One of the things I was trying to do today was to find a long stretch of curb, come at it from an angle and try to time is so that I could do a bit of a jump. I think if I tried this 20 times it might get me over my issues with making the drop. Maybe I'll do that another time when there isn't so much traffic.

The rest of the ride was mostly about trying to warm up and stretch the muscles that were a bit sore from the Sunday ride. The gravel on the experiment station paths felt like riding on rolley ball bearings compared to the packed dirt and loose sand of the Gateway. Toward the end of the ride I was having seat pain issues so I was working on taking pressure off my crotch by supporting myself with one hand, then the other. I tried putting both hands on the front handle, but I don't have good enough balance to keep them there for long.

Looking in control

After a rainy week, Sunday morning dawned bright and dry. I was out on the Gateway Trail around 9am after a cup of tea and small breakfast. My goal was to increase my best distance by a few miles, and to do this I was willing to spend a bit more time on the pavement rather than on the dirt/stone/sand/mud horse trail.

I'll share three observations from this ride, one dealing with mounting, another with riding pavement vs dirt vs grass, and the last on hand position.

I'm tired of my mounts feeling tentative and awkward. Shoot, I can ride for miles, shouldn't I have smooth starts? Today I focused on trying to point the wheel straight forward, and when stepping up on the unicycle, carrying my momentum straight ahead and in line with the wheel. I previously noticed that during my mounts I was twisting off the path to the left or right and not hitting the top pedal squarely with my free foot. I won't claim that the mounts were smooth, but I didn't miss a mount today, so it was a change for the better. Wheel in line with the path, momentum in line with the path, mount in line with the path. I'll recite that mantra this week and see if it helps.

Today I spent more time than usual on the asphalt part of the trail, and was frustrated that on this hard surface I couldn't keep an even rhythm and maintain a straight line on the path. I'd take 5 or 10 even strokes then wiggle, slow down, speed up, whatever, and then get it back together. Strangely, I feel more comfortable and in control with better rhythm on the dirt horse trail than on the pavement. Maybe I'm just more focused when riding dirt, or the dirt track gives more resistance to the wheel squirm. Whatever it is, I need to work more on keeping an even cadence and straight line on pavement. It is sooooo much easier to pedal, and there is less to watch out for. It feels weird compared to the dirt. The cranks seem tall too. Maybe if I do more asphalt I should switch to the 125mm pedal holes. Nah.

Hand position
A few times I've noticed people on the trail coming toward me giving me really wide berth when we pass, as if I am out of control and about to collide with them at any moment. While their caution isn't totally unfounded, my control really isn't that bad. However, it must look bad. I've been thinking about how to ride so that I look like I'm under control. The change I've made, that seems to help a bit (based on recent encounters with others on the trail) is to keep my hands and arms as quiet as I can. In previous posts I've mentioned keeping hands behind my back as a training technique, but it is also good for looking under control. Today's approach was to keep my hands resting lightly on my upper thighs. This seemed natural and yet encouraged me to get into good position. I think I need to make a few videos from the point of view of other trail users who I'm meeting on the trail to compare hand positions and find out what looks most normal and in control. I realize that being in control is actually the goal, but I want to also look like I'm in control.

Yes, I did have a nice long ride...somewhere in the 15-16 mile range based on Google Maps.

View Dellwood loop in a larger map

Down on the farm


Crosby Farm Regional Park hugs the north shore of the Mississippi river as it winds through St. Paul. Tall limestone bluffs separate the park land on the river flats from the traffic and buildings of the city. Maps and descriptions of the park I found online showed about 5 miles of paved trail snaking through the park. Friday afternoon after work I drove there on the way home to give it a ride and see what it is like as a unicycle destination.

The entry to the park is just past the Ford plant where they are sputtering out the last of the Ranger trucks before shuttering the buildings. The park has lots of parking which made me think at first that it is heavily used, but in reality I think it is a hidden gem. Very few cars - maybe 5 or 6 - were in the lot that afternoon. Maybe the cloudy cool weather was keeping others away. The 6' wide asphalt-paved trail ran alongside the parking lots and was easy to find before it headed out into the bush.

Back in the lot by my parked car I tried three times to mount, and realized it would be one of those rides where I always feel awkward and never quite settled on the seat. Finally I caught my balance and was off and riding. I literally rode the first mile without seeing anyone. During the whole ride I saw perhaps three or four couples walking, a woman walking her pit bull (the only dog that has ever growled at me passing by) and a group of high school kids at a picnic shelter.

The path, as you can see by the map, follows the river. I had long stretches of the Mississippi to myself in the middle of the Metro Twin Cities! Two short, but steep, abrupt climbs beat me both going up and coming back down. There were other hills, but manageable when I focused on keeping my feet firmly planted on the pedals during the upstroke, and particularly just before applying power on the downstroke. I would have preferred packed dirt like the Gateway, but really this was fine. The site and trail actually felt very remote at times.

What did I learn on this ride? Well, maybe it was that when riding a new path more of my attention is spent thinking about route options, distances, and discovering new surroundings than on technique. From the parking lot I knew this wasn't going to be a technically adept ride...I wasn't feeling balanced and pavement isn't my favorite...but I was very pleased that so much of the path was on or within sight of the great river. I'd like to figure out a way to cross the river and continue the ride on paths on the souther side. I also realized that I prefer to feel the resistance of a dirt path to the hard roll of pavement.

View Hidden Falls Park Ride in a larger map

Unicycling helps your French

I just found this obscure reference to learning and unicycling. The authors argue that recall of prior learning can be improved by learning a new, unrelated skill.

Harvey, I. and J. V. Stone. 1996. Unicycling Helps Your French: Spontaneous Recovery of Associations by Learning Unrelated Tasks. Neural Computation 8:697-704.
"The following is a simplistic analogy, which assumes that this effect
carries over to human learning of cognitive tasks. If you have a French
examination tomorrow, but you have forgotten quite a lot of French, then
a short spell of learning some new task, such as unicycling, can be expected
to improve your performance in the French examination. Students
of French should be warned not to take this fanciful analogy too literally;
it requires the implausible assumption that French and unicycling make
use of a common subset of neuronal connections."

Mon français s'améliore...

There's balance, and then there's position


Riding the Gateway today, as I was coming off the top of the unicycle after sliding through some mud, I realized that there is balance, and then there is position.

What I mean is that if you are successfully riding, then you are in balance. However, even if balanced, your body may not be in position to deal with sudden changes. Like mud. Or rocks. Or that whatever-it-is that's hiding in the grass on the trail that inevitably jumps up to block your tire. My issue at the beginning of the ride was that I was overly hunched at the waist, hips back, tentatively riding along fretting about the sand and mud. Of course, as soon as I hit some and had a little wheel slip, off I went.

However, during the rest of the ride I concentrated on trying to keep my body in good position, which for me is like what my wife says about dancing...its like a string is extended through your head, down your back and through your center of gravity. I think that's what I'm really getting at when I write about getting my hips forward, shoulders back, torso loose. I'm getting everything lined up with that string. And why? Because I'm in better position to ride through the rocks and slippery bits and respond to sudden changes. It seemed to work although it was hardly a good experiment. It also helped, I think, that this position resulted in a more confident, even aggressive, riding style which meant better flow and momentum through the trail.

So for the next few rides I'm not only going to try to stay in balance, but also in position for the unexpected..


trail saturday.jpg

  • While my balance on the unicycle has improved, I'm not convinced that this has crossed over to improved balance off-unicycle. Maybe I can stand on one leg a bit easier.

  • I like the diameter of circle that my feet follow with 150mm cranks better than the diameter of the circle from 125mm cranks. It feels more like what I'm used to on a bike, I think the leverage is better for XC hills, and my knees hurt less after long rides.

  • Darren Beford told me in August that I'd never regret buying (from him) a Kris Holm 29" unicycle. So far he's right.

  • The style of riding I like to do...dirt trails with moderate called "cross country" (XC). I think I'll pass on hopping rocks, 45 degree descents and "skinnies" that are part of mountain unicycling. But I do need to find some more challenging trails than the Gateway, which is really a rails to trails corridor, so little abrupt change in elevation.

  • I always wear a helmet and KH gloves with wrist support. I never wear knee or shin protection. Darren recommended sixsixone 4x4 knee/shin. Maybe after I have a bad fall. I haven't had a bad fall that requires more than rolling. Knock on wood. I like going slowly enough that I can usually run off the unicycle when I am bucked off.

  • After five months of steady riding (maybe 3x a week) I can comfortably do a 12.5 mile ride on the horse path of the Gateway Trail.

  • The unicycling I do isn't nearly as physically demanding as if I were to run the same distance. It isn't as demanding as if I ran for the same amount of time. So running would be more efficient. However, I'm very motivated to ride and less motivated to run.

  • I focus on these things when I ride: hips forward, quiet hands, balance over force, rhythm, watch out for sand.

  • I like the Big Apple tire for XC. And road. If I were always in the dirt and mud, I'd put on the Stout.

  • I still can't idle. Maybe that's because I don't practice idling very much. I'm going to go do that now.

Leaves are falling

blog pic.jpg
Last night I notice for the first time that the leaves are starting to fall. First ones down seem to be the ash from the big tree near the driveway. Harvest time.

This morning I rode the Gateway Trail from Jamaca to the end at Point Park, a round trip of about 12.5 miles. I think that's my longest. I'd like to get up to a half marathon this fall.

I can't say I specifically learned anything new on this ride. It was more about practicing skills like body position during ups and downs, balance, position on the flats. On one flat section I I bucked off the top when some sand sucked in the wheel. I had to do a bit of a roll when I hit the dirt. Otherwise, it was an enjoyable ride through fallen leaves.

Here's short vid of me going and coming, trying to keep hands quiet. You can see that I tried out Sam's Camelback for the first time. Worked fine.

Day's End


After teaching and marking assignments today until about 5pm I left the office, stopped in the gym to change into my riding gear, and on the drive home stopped at one of the parking lots along the Gateway Trail. I had been thinking all day about riding the Gateway up to 75th street and back, so I did.

The first few hills beat me. The wet mud and sand didn't help, but I was also tired from the day's work and I realized I rarely ride this time of day. On the return leg I had way better balance and took some shots with a Flip video camera that I take with me now on rides.

At times during tonight's ride I felt more gung-ho that usual, was less worried about falling, and just got my butt under me and rode hard. I had the feeling on one of the flat stretches of getting out in front of the forks with my center of gravity, and it felt great, like flying.

Here's the video I made from the segments I took during the ride. It is about 10MB so downloading may take a while.

Irish dancing

I've watched a lot of Irish dancing due to my daughters' participation in that activity over the years. A very quiet upper body is characteristic of Irish dance. All the action looks like it is happening from the waist down. The back, neck and head are held straight, and arms are held close to the body. It looks constrained to me compared to other forms of dance where the arms are more expressive. There are explanations for why this is so. One explanation is that dance was outlawed by the English rulers in occupied Ireland, so when groups of Irish got together some in the middle of the group could dance without giving themselves away to the English if they held their upper body rigid. I doubt there is much truth to that, since there is a great deal of jumping during the steps in Irish dance, so surely the English would notice heads pogo-ing up and down in the group, even if arms and torso were held rigid.

But what does this have to do with unicycling?

Today I did a 7 or 8 mile ride to the campus football stadium and back. I rode on pavement all the way. It was one of those days where my balance didn't feel too good, but regardless I worked on keeping my arms quiet at my sides, against my hips or clasped behind my back. I find that type of arm placement to be challenging and helpful at improving balance. Today while riding this way it struck me that one of the reasons for holding arms and torso stationary in Irish dance is that it really challenges and tests the dancers' balance. If you can keep your arms absolutely steady you really have excellent balance during your steps. Likewise, if I can keep my arms and torso quiet when unicycling, I'm well balanced and maintaining a steady pace regardless of the terrain.

I noticed from the video I posted last time that I didn't look all that steady riding down that trail on the unicycle even though at the time I thought I was under control. It was the active arms that made me look ready to lose control. I think if I maintain quiet arms and body when I ride, I give the perception of greater control, and don't scare pedestrians and others that I might weave into their path at any moment. So I'll keep working on hands behind the back, and improving my balance.

Balance over brawn


ride.jpgOn Sunday Karen and I rode the northern-most 5 mile segment of the Gateway Trail using the horse paths. For some reason the path seemed more sandy and rutted than in the past. That's my excuse anyway. Karen was on her mountain bike and I on the 29er. It was the first time we rode together, and probably was a bore for her from the exercise and excitement point of view, but I found it nice to have someone to talk to on the ride.

I had moderate success on the uphills, and had more success when I focused on balance over brawn. The first few challenging hills I tried hard to keep my legs pumping, and that seemed to result in stalling and unbalanced positions on the steepest part of the hill. On the way back I instead worked on keeping my butt under me and concentrating on good balance, even when approaching a stall. I found that I was more successful using that approach...focus on balance over speed.

I made a short video of Karen and me re-riding one of the trail's downhills. With the camera on a very short tripod you can't tell much about the pitch of the hill, but it was one that the first time down I started too fast and really had to keep my speed in check near the bottom. Dorky but fun. (shhh, don't tell Karen that it is posted here!)

Downhill video


I need to develop better street skills.

Thursday after class I rode from the gym out to a local park with basketball court and hockey rink. I wanted to do some agility work on the bb court surface with the 29er. I mostly worked on figure 8s and tight circles...well, tight for me is still a 10' diameter. I'm starting to like the metal studs on the pedals and the way my foot surface keeps contact with the pedal. This is particularly comforting when I'm leaning the unicycle one way or the other during turns. I'm sure the time will come when my foot slips and those studs bite my shin, but for now its been good.

After the 8s and circles I wheeled into the iceless hockey rink and used the boards for support while I worked on idling. I was practicing by doing a single idle on one foot, then doing a rotation and a half forward followed by a single on the other foot, repeated down the length of the boards. I need the boards for support. Several times I tried to do even a single idle out in the open, but no dice. I though for a while I'd get it, but I can't claim any victory yet. These idles are the hardest skill I've worked on since learning how to ride. In many ways its the same challenge as learning to ride...I have to make the break from holding on to the boards and just keep at it in the open until I start to feel the balance. I find it particularly hard to stay balanced while reversing direction. I feel like I have to lean a fair bit back as I bring the wheel to a halt, and then pedal sharply backwards to get the uni back under me. It will come, but jeeze, its taking a while.

I took a route back to the gym that let me ride a short park gravel path, just to add some trail surface into the ride in addition to the pavement. On the way I was approaching an intersection with stoplight, and as I was about 30 feet from the corner a car came up behind me and gave me a honk. It was a Minnesota honk (Minnesotans normally don't honk - it would be impolite)...a beep that was short enough to be considered by some who aren't from here a courtesy beep saying "I'm here", but actually meant "get out of the way". I heard the car coming before the honk (interesting how your sense of hearing gets keen when you are riding on the street), but I still jumped a bit when I heard the beep off my left shoulder.

So where this rant is going is my sense that I really need to develop better street skills, and idling is one of those skills. I need to be able to stall while traffic and pedestrians clear. The honk was motivation to keep working on those idles. Or just swallow my pride, get off the uni and remount when the pressure clears.

Wind? Nuts!

The State Fair closed last night and the Fall semester opened this morning. I took the unicycle out after my noon class and rode the campus/experiment station circuit which includes a bit of trail through the state fairgrounds. There were gates up around the midway area, so I followed a lane along some parking lots and past a kiosk where a parking attendant sat. About 50 m past the parking kiosk I heard a guy calling "HEY", then another "HEY" and I wondered whether he was trying to get my attention and keep me from riding through the grounds. I didn't turn around and no shots rang out, so he must not have meant me. Besides, shouldn't a guy on a unicycle be commonplace at a fair? Kind of circus-y after all.

On my way out of the fairgrounds a Volvo wagon with sunroof went past. The driver had the roof open and was sticking his big paw through it giving me the thumbs up! I've been getting lots of supportive comments in the last few weeks on the Gateway and now at the fair.

The ride back takes me through the experiment station and it was there that the wind hit me. I've had trouble with wind before on the station roadways, and today it happened again...big, heavy gusts that make so much noise in your ear that you can't hear yourself shout. I wish I could say I handled it, but I did dismount once when I lost control. Riding in heavy wind is a good learning experience. Its the gusts that get you, not the constant pressure - in the same way that undulating and rutty paths get you, not the long constant uphills.

While on the station I stopped to check the bean and peanut plots, and dug a peanut plant to see how the pods were maturing. Below is a pic of the harvest from one plant. The pods are reasonably full, and the seeds inside are nearly fully formed. If we have some decent September weather I'm sure we will have a successful crop...maybe one of the most northerly peanut crops in the world!
peanut campus 7 Sept.JPG

Single tracking


I visited the Gateway Trail again this morning. At 7am there was ground fog, air temp was about 52F, very clear and crisp. I parked at the lot off Delwood, jumped on the unicycle and headed down the horse trail to the lot by I694...about 5 miles away.

In contrast to how I felt during my last long trail ride, right away I felt comfortable on the machine. Maybe it was because Karen and I spent some time last night doing agility work at the hockey rink, or maybe it was just a good night's sleep or the beautiful morning. I can tell, though, by how steady the free pedal is when I'm trying to mount. If I can hit it squarely as if I'm just walking up stairs, then it is going to be a good day.

I'm enjoying the 150mm cranks particularly over the dirt and grass trails. The greater range of motion for my knees feels better at the end of the ride I think than the 125mm cranks. And I think it gives me better leverage and control up (and down?) hills than the shorter crank even with the bigger wheel. On the pavement though I think I'd like to switch to the 125s. Too bad it can't just be done on the fly.

The section of horse trail from 75th to the I694 bridge has long stretches of single track with sand or loose gravel and a fairly deep channel. For some of the trail I stayed up on the grass and out of the track because I didn't want the wheel to get channel-locked down in the track and suffer getting bucked off if the wheel strayed up the channel walls. But tough, I figured that if I was fearing something I should just dive in, so down into the single track I rode. Actually it was easier than I thought. I tried not to focus too hard on the trail and ride more by feel, although frankly it did take more concentration than a wide trail. Having a quiet upper body helped keep the wheel from zig-zagging too much. I really didn't have any difficulty with the sides of the single track, and it turned out to be fun, although a bit more mentally and physically exhausting.

Not too many hills on this section of the trail. Maybe five or six sharp ups and downs. I had trouble with one on the way down but got it on the third try. Sand always messes with my head particularly on corners and bases of hills. Maybe its because I expect a sandy trail to be resistant and slide-y so I am too timid. I found a moderate approach to be the best...bombing up the hills was ok until you started to hit the tougher bits. Too slow and you loose momentum. I try to tell myself to just keep the pedal pressure evenly (remember to use the left pedal too!) and the cadence reasonable right up and over the hill.

Today's target cadence was "Sweet Georgia Brown"

Maybe there will be time to knock the soccer ball around this afternoon and loosen up the knees.

View Delwood to 694 in a larger map

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