January 2011 Archives

Finally outside


Video 9 0 00 40-18a.jpgI've been rocking back and forth inside in the lab too long. But I really haven't had the opportunity to get outside, until today that is. The main roads were clear pavement, but the side roads ranged from hard pack up to maybe 2" of loose old snow. The loose old snow was the worst - it was like riding through sand, only slipperier.

I headed to the cemetery, but couldn't ride more than maybe 50 feet without a dismount. I had lots of mounting practice. Maybe I was imagining it, but I think I have way better low speed balance now as a result of the idle practice, and my mounts are quite secure. That was a pleasant surprise. Once I hit some downhill sections I could ride the snow without too much problem. The ride home was on one of the more major roads with bare pavement. I did take a detour down a steep hill and up again, just for the challenge and exercise.

It sure was nice to get out again.



Ok, I have to admit that I'm getting a bit bored with the idling drills, but I'm keeping at it. Progress isn't fast, but I'm not regressing either. My best so far is 8 cycles left foot down and 6 with right foot down. Still a long way to go.

The mental images that I've been using during my idling practice the past few days is to emphasize smoothness and rhythm through the whole cycle of the idle stroke, and to emphasize the backstroke.

The smoothness and rhythm image idea came from my realization that when I was doing the 100 or so idles using support I had reasonable smoothness and rhythm, but when I later let go and tried to idle as many times as possible, all that form went out the window and I just did whatever i could to stay on top and rocking. I suspected that would lead to bad habits, so now I'm trying to maintain the rhythm, still try to do as much idling as possible without support, but not hesitating to touch supports on either side that allow me to keep balance and keep idling. I think that learning to keep that rhythm will pay off down the road.

The backstroke idea came to me when I was flailing around trying to keep my balance. I found that I wasn't using the backstroke much to make balance adjustments, instead doing most of the shifting on the forward stroke. When I did use the backstroke for more balance, I had greater success. So now I make sure I carry the backstroke back far enough that my lower back arches a bit, and that seems to help.

I realize that all these mental images will be discarded once I get proficient, but for now, when I'm still struggling, it is helping a bit, or at least giving me something to think about while I'm doing the drills.

Drill baby, drill


I realize that I have adopted the same approach to learning unicycle that I use with other sports. I like to drill.

In the previous post I mention Paul Anderson's videos where he recommends 100 rocks left foot, 100 rocks right......etc. So that is now how I am starting my unicycling day. Indoors in the lab at lunch hour, 100 rocks right, left right leg 1 foot, left leg one foot. It takes maybe 15 minutes and I do it while I'm making a pot of coffee. And I think it helps. After doing those four drills, I do 10 starts left foot down and 10 starts right foot down where I focus hard on doing the best I can. If I do 1 cycle or 7 it still counts as one start. That puts just a bit of pressure on me to get a good one in during those 10 starts.

I said before that I find learning to idle tough. That is still the case. The best I've done is to idle 7 back-and-forth cycles (is that 7 or 14 idles?). And that only once. I've done 4s, 5s, and 6s, but only one 7. And in truth my most frequent is 1. 1, after all this time. Progress is slow, but steady. Maybe by spring I'll be up to 100.

Today once when I got to 3 cycles of idling I briefly had the feeling that I could keep going indefinitely. You know, it was just like when you are riding down the road with confidence. You don't keep thinking, "can I do one more rotation?" You just keep riding. I tasted that level of confidence today, briefly. Maybe again tomorrow. Intoxicating.

Muscle, reflex and determination


I had three small revelations today about learning to idle and why it is difficult for me to master. The first revelation came as a result of watching a video by Paul Anderson demonstrating idling variations. Paul runs a circus school and talks about how you might learn to unicycle in his school. He recommends 100 rocks with right foot down, 100 with left down, 100 with right down and left on the frame, then 100 with left down and right on the frame. So I tried that.

Revelation 1 - Rocking uses muscles that aren't as well developed as those I use for linear riding. By the time I'm at about 80 rocks with my right foot I'm getting sore above my right ankle. When I switch to left foot, the same happens. I've been putting Paul's advice into action this week and I'm noticing a difference - rocking is easier and without soreness. So now I'm doing 100 rocks each day with each of the four variations above.

Revelation 2 - If I always hold on to a support, I will always need a support. That's because in order to successfully do the trick I need to develop the balancing reflex that I can only learn if I don't have a wall, chair or other support to hold. I've got to get my body to instantly respond and restore balance, and that requires new wiring for lots of synapses, plus probably some new muscles. I think this was true when I first learned to ride linearly too. At some point you have to let go and develop the balance reflex.

Revelation 3 - The best advice I've heard about learning to unicycle is just to keep at it. Given #1 and 2 above I'd say that keeping at it means that you stick with it long enough to develop the muscles and the balance reflex you need to master the trick.

Lab report


My winter indoor riding project is to learn to idle. Finally. It has been frustratingly hard, but I think I'm close.

I brought a 24" unicycle to my lab so I can practice for 30 minutes or so over lunch, using a wall and a lab bench for support.

I've learned that idling isn't moving the unicycle back and forth, but rather rocking the unicycle in front of, and behind, my center of gravity. Full disclosure, at this point the best I've done is 4 rocks, so I'm still very early in this process, but I think that the right sensation is one of moving my hips forward and backward under my center of gravity, which seems to be about an inch or two under my navel (or at least that's where I imagine it to be when I'm idling).

It has been uncomfortable for me to let the wheel get in front of and behind my center of gravity when I've worked so hard at normally keeping the wheel right under me. Thinking about that hip movement has been helpful. Also keeping the stroke short, learning to idle with either leg down, and letting the seat take some weight, have all been helpful thought while practicing.

But the greatest help has been working on it regularly, a half hour a day. Maybe tomorrow I'll be up to eight.

Know where you are going

Another beautiful winter day in Minnesota with bright sun and cold air. Santa brought a warm hood to wear under my helmet, so it donned that, plus other warm weather gear, and the new shin pads, pumped up my Stout to about 50 lbs and headed down the hill to Stillwater. I live up on the South Hill and if you were to throw a marble out my front door it would start rolling down to the St. Croix river. The hills are steep - steep enough to attract a bicycle race every summer that pits rider against hill as much as rider against rider.

When I started unicycling I had more trouble going down hills than going up, but that has changed. I was able to work my way down to the river on hills that would be impossible for me to climb on the unicycle, and that are a serious workout on the mountain bike. I find on those downhills that I need to pay attention to keeping even, constant back pressure on both pedals. Otherwise I have a tendency to overemphasize the braking on one pedal or the other. I was quite concerned that if I put too much back pressure on the pedal all at once I'd slip on the snow and ice covering the roads, but I had good luck with not slipping at all.

Once downtown I crossed the bridge to Wisconsin, the promptly turned right back around and rode back to Minnesota. The snow wasn't cleared from the dirt trail on the WI side, so there was no way to go any further. After riding round town a bit I followed the river north of town along N. Broadway St. and then turned on to Dellwood road to make the ascent back up the ridge. The vertical climb is stretched out over a mile or so on Dellwood so that it is manageable, but wow did I get winded making that climb! I did it earlier this fall when I was riding more, but I've lost some conditioning between then and now and it showed.

Dellwood took me to Stonebridge Trail / Owens St which is mostly flat until you hit the northern town limits where there is a bit of a climb. At the top of the climb is a speed gun that reminds drivers to drop back to 30 mph. As you can see from the image above I had no problem staying under 30.

During the ride I was thinking about times when I hadn't planned out my ride carefully and put off making a route decision until I was just about at a critical turn. Often in that situation I'd lose balance and UPD. I think it is similar to what you have seen and maybe experienced playing sports. Sometimes when playing soccer I'd get a pass when I was in the clear and could make a bit of a run with the ball, but as soon as I received the pass and turned upfield I'd stumble and lose the advantage. It was as if my mental processing couldn't keep up with all the physical movements I had to make. And since it was an unusual situation that I hadn't stored in muscle memory, my brain had to work overtime to receive the ball, turn, look where I was going, stay in balance, and the legs just collapsed under me.

I've seen similar things happen watching college football when a tight end (who normally blocks) catches a pass, turns upfield to run and trips without a defender laying a finger on him.

Today, I found that I was able to make some route decisions while riding, and that gave me confidence that some of the basic riding skills are becoming embedded in muscle memory and that some of the brain processing speed can go toward making decisions rather than focusing on staying in the seat.

I hope you are getting some time on top of the wheel this winter.

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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