My interest in a self-balancing unicycle started out as an interest in other ways of getting around. I had taken a Segway tour of Chicago and was enamored with the simplicity, speed, mobility, and delight of the Segway. During a three hour tour, we covered probaby 12 miles and saw most of the waterfront. The Segway inverted the calculus of touring making the tedious inter-location trip a delight and making the site itself a place to rest before bounding off again. I looked like an idiot, sure, but damn if it didn’t get the job done.
A few weeks later, I found myself chewing on the idea of getting a used Segway. It was $2000 off MSRP bringing to a mere $2700 but still I couldn’t pull the trigger. I live in a 3rd story walk-up and its 100 lbs didn’t seem to mesh well with that arrangement. Also, the Segway is kind of the acme of dork. It’s a PPD, a pregnancy prevention device, and while Segwaying around Chicago seemed great, I don’t know how I’d feel about rocking it on my home turf. That dismissed, I looked about for other devices in the burgeoning field of electronic vehicles (EVs) and chewed on a few options, almost all ruled out by the maximum weight. 260 lbs seemed to be the universal maximum for things one could tote around and losing 80 lbs wasn’t quite on 60 timeline. My heart lept when I found the SBU v3. 12.5 MPH max speed, a 10 mile range, and the glory of operating a unicycle. A unicycle isn’t exactly a chick magnet but I’d be comfortable being labeled as quirky. After a quick survey checking that my idiotic idea detector wasn’t broken I hit “buy” and told my boss I’d be working from home in two days.
The box arrived, I tore into it, and immediately set it to charging. This was my way of buying time to stave off having to actually ride the unicycle and all the potential failure that could represent. After waiting 90 minutes, I hopped on, hiked the seat as high as I could comfortably get it and started dicking around with it. The unicycle self-balances forward/backward but not side to side. To go forward, one leans forward and the device, in an attempt to get under you, spins forward and moves you along with it. By maintaining this balance you can get up to a fair clip. To stop, you simply lean back a little. The internet told me that learning to ride a self-balancing unicycle would take about 30 minutes and I made my doubty face and said “two hours, minimum”. The first step to learning was to hold myself in a doorway and just lean forward and back to get a feel for how the unicycle would catch me. The second step was to kick off and drift a little. Maybe going 3-5 feet before stomping my foot down and pushing off again. After 20 minutes of this there were brief moments where I’d glide for 6-8 feet and I felt like I was flying. This wasn’t without cost to my apartment. When you lift the SBU, the wheel spins like hell still trying to keep perfectly upright, but without a floor beneath it, the wheel can work up to a fair clip. Putting it back down has resulted in a few spots of burnt rubber on the floor of my living room. Luckily, I could remove these with the scrubby part of a sponge.
You can make a pretty good runway in a row home apartment. By clearing away extraneous furniture and pulling your limbs in through doors you can go a good 40 feet without having to turn around. My path during this 40 feet was straight as a corkscrew, but still. After a day of tooling around like this. I figured my next step was to find a parking lot and see if I could get some distance. Just west of me there’s an often empty church parking lot with a gentle slope to it and late the next evening I went over. I tooled around there for about an hour trying to increase the distance I could drift with each kick and making slow process. During that time, a fellow tried to give me advice on how to unicycle. I asked him if he’d ever unicycled before and he said “no, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help”. After five minutes of him telling me I needed to “get low” he started muttering about no one would give him a job and he puttered away. After about 90 minutes of puttering, I was sweating a lot, sore as hell, and had answered a bunch of questions from passersby about the mechanics of a unicycle. I had hit my two hour mark and was by no means a unicyclist.
The next night I felt like I had no more success and god did it hurt. Night 4 marked my fourth or fifth hour of trying with little success and it hurt. Not only physically but emotionally. I’ve failed my last two actuarial exam sittings, put on a considerable amount of weight in the last two years, had little relationship success and now a self-balancing unicycle that the internet told me would take 30 minutes “tops” was destroying me. I stared at the ceiling a lot that night.
The night after, Matt came over and we took turns. Matt noted that maybe a slanted parking lot was too much so we tried the garage below an outpatient facility and that proved helpful. In that 45 minutes, I felt I made more progress than I had in the last two nights. Matt took to the unicycle quickly and was able to do an entire loop around the basement parking lot without needing to recenter.
I gave it a rest for the next two days and one week after purchase tried to return the same underground parking lot. It was locked, as was the church lot and this somehow redoubled my efforts. I took my chances and started puttering around the dimly lit CVS across the street. After 30 minutes I was sweaty and sore but didn’t feel spent as I had other nights. So I kept at it, this time doing three things differently.
1) Look up
2) Tilting into turns when I felt I was going to lose my balance
3) Absolutely planting one foot on the balancing peg but not giving up the other didn’t quite land where I wanted it
The CVS was ringed by CCTV cameras and hope they had active IR because whatever security guard watched that store would see an obese white man seemingly learn to ride the unicycle over the next two hours. When I was done, I could a lap around the CVS without having to recenter myself or put my foot down and it simply felt magical but the kind of magical where everything hurts and you want to die a little. Midway through the evening when I was able to get about 30 foot stretches down without falling a giant black man on a bicycle rode by and yelled “DOOOO IIIIIT”. I took that as a sign. I was giddy at the end of the evening. My knees hurt like hell and I thought I was going to die before I went up my apartment steps but dammit I had ridden a self-balancing unicycle around a CVS and I was king of the fucking world.
The next day I couldn’t walk. I hobbled to work, sat for four hours, got lunch avoiding any fluids for fear of me needing to use the restroom, sat for four hours, and slowly went home trying to find ways of minimizing the amount of vertical movement I’d need to make that would require functional knees. That night, the unicycle bug bit me and I mustered the will to do a few loops around the block. 40th street has a nice bike lane so I stuck to that. The response to the device seemed to break down on racial lines. White people would consciously not look, Asian folks seemed to look and sometimes even smile while black onlookers were perfectly comfortable staring and asking me what it was, where I got it, how much it cost, and could they ride it. One exception, I would later learn, is that that drunk white people are curious about it but seem more interested in riding it. I don’t know if this is a function of dishibition or idiocy but damn did drunk frat boys really like my wheel.
The next day I brought it into the office. After hours I let some coworkers ping-pong around the office on it and they found it fascinating. Some were hesitant, some were macho, others just avoided it but the event ended in the CAO giving me permission to unicycle in the workplace. Awesome. We’d be in this building for another week, but I could tear up some…carpet in that time. That night I went for my first proper distance ride. I followed the bike paths in the city and was trailed by a group of kids who thought I was the world’s coolest man. They were going about 50% faster than me so cheer for me as they passed and ask a question, make 4 rights or 4 lefts, pass me again and ask another question. Pedestrians also riddled me with giggles an inquiries while waiting next to them at traffic lights. I was really hesitant about taking off from a dead start and wouldn’t so much as take a rolling stop at a 4-way intersection. After two miles, a former professional soccer player named Thorn started following me. He found professional sports too controlling so he had become a personal trainer. He said he thought I could use his services and I tried not to read into that statement too much. On the way back I was chased by a dog outrunning it around 22nd street. I got cocky and decided to overshoot 40th street and somewhere around the restaurant school the battery died and I had to walk the unicycle home.
The dead battery mode on the unicycle is that it severely curtails forward movement. I’ve never felt more impotent than I did sitting on a self-balancing unicycle as it actively resisted my attempts at going forward and just kind of sat there.
For the next few days, I took it out each night getting a little bit better. The unicycle did not enjoy trolley tracks, pot holes, sidewalk breaks, pedestrians, dogs, traffic lights, curbs, or other things that aren’t perfectly flat unobstructed pavement but each of these I learned to deal with in turn a little bit better. At the two week mark I decided to unicycle home which went well. It took me about 14 minutes to go two miles, putting my average speed at about 8.5 MPH. Not bad, but still slower than the subway. I also started noticing patterns. During weekdays, people asked few questions, but at nights and on weekends everyone was curious. A fair number of pedestrians, mostly women, saluted my effort and men largely seemed to think it qualified as cool. The unicycle was kind of working. At this point a few observations:
I could go about 7 miles on a charge.
I could comfortably go 9.5 to 11 MPH on good terrain.
I loved sidewalks but had little maneuverability on them.
I was constantly passed by bikes.
It was heavy to lug around.
It did not fail gracefully and I have the scars to prove it.
I took me about 8 hours to get the point where I felt comfortable unicycling somewhere and after that I felt I made considerable progress in becoming more efficient. My first non-stop loop around my block ended with my knees nearly buckling, now I could go two miles without much difficulty if I kept shifting my weight.
Then the honeymoon started wearing off. During a sample run to my workplace’s new office, I had the unicycle fly out form under me twice due to relatively small irregularities in the road surface. Falling off a unicycle must be comical to see. Unlike a bicycle or a motorcycle, while you’re falling, the unicycle isn’t often under you. You are a free-floating entity that gravity is taking down while moment takes you forward. You don’t fall so much as you slide. Here’s the part I didn’t think I’d ever say: I got road rash falling off a unicycle. As I write this, my right arm is ending a week-long period of being gauzed up to nurse the weeping wound that I received when a 3/4″ gnash in the road did me in while in view of some 20 college students. No one laughed and half the onlookers said “That was awesome” while most others asked if I was OK. Strangers can be so kind. That was the second fall of the day and came after a few days of feeling the unicycle was acting erratically.
Between injury, erratic performance, expense, and the realization that a unicycle wasn’t the key to infinite mobility I decided to send it back. I wrote a nice note to the firm, they agreed to let me return it for a full refund and it went back in the same giant cardboard box I had received it in. A few days later I signed up for Philly’s bike share service and haven’t looked back.
A few closing thoughts:
The unicycle demands you take ownership of what you’re doing. I felt compelled to wave at people who stared at me and loved answering questions. Cops were fascinated by it and had no problem with me riding it damn near anywhere I pleased. Drunk white college students always wanted to try it to the point where one followed me across UPenn’s campus for four blocks which was somewhat surreal when I think back on it. I was a pied piper for bros.
On smooth terrain in good weather riding simply felt magical. Moving felt absolutely effortless and I can think of nothing that gave the sense of mobility and freedom without necessarily granting it.
You turn with your hips.
Yet I have trouble coming up with a real use case. At 25 lbs in its compact frame it’s quite dense. Part of me wanted to use it as a last-mile solution when taking regional rail but I feel a folding bicycle would work just as well.
$1200 is a lot of money. I have no idea what the margin is for the maker, but I feel it’s a very expensive toy outside the few niches where I feel it has a real value proposition.
30 minutes to learn is horseshit. No one I showed it to was able to get to anything like extended riding in a time shorter than a few hours. This one makes me angry as the website says under an hour but the documentation says 2-5.
In other news, I constantly underestimate how long it will take to learn something but after that, I constantly overestimate the amount of time. My initial guess was 2 hours, but once two hours passed I assumed it’d be 200 not the 8 it proved to be. You’re not that bad Terry.
I’m going to miss it as a conversation piece. I hope it goes to someone for whom it makes sense.