Zen and the Art of Unicycle Riding

Although this blog is supposed to be dedicated to urban design, transportation and land use, today it’s going to be about something even more geeky and esoteric: learning how to ride a unicycle.

Let’s call it “alternative transportation,” and pretend it counts.  I’m hoping the blog police will let me off with a warning.

Where to begin?

Like most folks, I’ve seen a lot of people ride unicycles—circus performers, jugglers, the kid who delivered our paper in the 70’s—but I’d never tried it myself until a few years ago.  I was visiting a friend whose nieces owned a small, yellow “uni,” and I simply had to give it a shot.  While my attempts to ride it were laughable, I was intrigued.

At first glance, a unicycle looks like some sort of early prototype that should have been abandoned shortly after the invention of the wheel.  At second glance, it makes even less sense.  Under no circumstances does it seem like a practical approach to personal transportation.

And yet, it’s the improbability that makes unicycling so appealing.

Three years after seeing that little yellow unicycle, and about a month after my 48th birthday, I finally bought one.

Now, if I could just ride the darn thing.

Embrace the process.

Unicycling is not a hobby for those seeking instant gratification.  Achievements occur at the nano level, so you have to be able to discern tiny, incremental improvements—then celebrate them with all your might.

You also have to be willing to look like a complete dork.


They say it takes between 15 and 30 hours of dedicated practice to become competent on a unicycle.  You will look like an idiot during most of that time.  But as a friend said: “What’s 30 hours of frustration compared to the kick-ass reality of being able to ride a unicycle for the rest of your life?”

So true.  And since I needed a new challenge, it’s been a fun diversion.  Really, this whole unicycle thing is turning out to be a metaphor for life.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve already learned:

Feeling terror just means you’ve made a healthy decision to step outside your comfort zone.

The first time you attempt to balance on a unicycle, your body (correctly sensing a threat to life safety) floods your cells with adrenaline, leaving you shaky and trembling.  The following day, you’ll be sore in 38 different muscles you didn’t realize you had. This is merely a sign that you haven’t been living up to your potential.  Sitting at your desk isn’t cutting it.  Maybe it’s time to try more things and shake it up a bit!

You’re also sore because…

Fear takes energy.

I can’t begin to express just how impossible unicycling seems at first.  You are keenly aware that the unicycle is a slippery devil, disobedient to your will, and bent on your destruction.  For this reason, you tend to clench parts of your body that have rarely been tensed.  It’s exhausting.  Try to relax.  There’s enough going on without adding unnecessary stress.

You have to move in the direction of your dreams before you can get there.

Unicycling is about having the courage to lean forward into nothingness, and trusting that your legs can pedal fast enough to keep the center of gravity beneath you.  The difficulty is that once you’ve finally learned how to balance in place on a unicycle, it starts to feel comfortable and safe.  Your body naturally wants to remain in this position of security.  But the only way to get anywhere is to lean forward and go.  So you have to tip ever so slightly forward—which feels exactly like falling—and start pedaling.

If you think about it, this is precisely how everyone learns to walk.  We’ve simply forgotten the lessons of toddlerhood:  Be brave!  Don’t just stand there, go someplace!  Lead with your heart.  Falling is part of the process.  And remember to celebrate each and every little step along the way.

Brute force doesn’t work.  

This one’s difficult to explain.  In the beginning, one of the hardest things is to simply rest your weight on the seat.  This is scary because the unicycle is a tipsy and unreliable vessel, poised to flop in any direction at any time.  But the pedals are “fixed” to the wheel, which is oddly comforting.  The pedals appear to be the only thing you might be able to control.  So you’ll be tempted to try to exert your will through them using every muscle in your legs.

But here’s the catch.  Trying to balance delicately on something while exerting brute force with the largest muscles of your body is difficult and exhausting.  You’re also wasting a lot of strength pushing down, when your goal is to go forward.

The answer is simple and elegant.  Like the song says, “Let it go!” (I know, I know.  Sorry.)  Don’t fight with the thing, just sit on it.  Really sink into the seat.  For some reason, as soon as you do this, everything becomes easier.  Since you’re no longer exerting brute force, you can relax and feel your balance.  And because you’re not putting all your weight on the pedals, ironically, pedaling becomes much easier and more fluid.  As soon as you stop fighting it, you start getting somewhere.

It’s better when you just go for it.

Weirdly enough, when you hold back, you’re much more likely to fall than when you just go for it. Due to some physics that I can’t explain about centripetal force and inertia and who knows what else, the unicycle becomes a lot more stable as soon as you start pedaling.  Anyone who’s ever ridden a bike knows this.  You can cycle comfortably all over town as long as you’re moving.  But if you try to balance on the bike while stopped at a stoplight, it becomes incredibly hard to stay upright. So once you get started, keep going!  Momentum is your friend.

Doubt doesn’t help.

Eventually, you’ll experience a moment where you think: “Hey, this is working! This feels right!  I’m doing it!” which is inevitably followed by: “Holy crap! This is scary! I can’t do this!”  Doubt creeps in. You get nervous and pull back.  Which immediately causes you to dismount.  And by that I mean fall/jump off.  Try to hold onto that other feeling.  The one that, for just a split second, felt like grace.  Focus on your successes, not your fear and failures.

Life is about incremental progress.

So here’s where we can bring this whole thing back to cities and urban design.

In many ways, my unicycling skills mirror my hometown’s early attempts at complete streets and smart urban design.  We’re not there yet, and mostly we don’t know what the hell we’re doing, but we’re making small, incremental progress.  We make a lot of mistakes, but we’re starting to do some things right.

In Tulsa, we’ve updated the zoning code, which will allow smart people to build better places by right, not via special exception.  We’ve reduced minimum parking requirements, which will help entrepreneurs who want to revitalize old buildings in historic parts of town.  Our city engineers are beginning to understand what complete streets are, and they’re starting to think about bike lanes and sidewalks as critical components of the public right-of-way.  People are beginning to talk about the harsh economic realities of sprawl and car-centric design.  And soon, we’ll be updating our subdivision regulations, to ensure neighborhoods are designed for connectivity, not cul-de-sacs.

We have a long way to go before we master this thing, but in between our mistakes, we’re doing more and more things right.

It’s progress.  I’m learning to respect that.

Happy New Year!  Keep pedaling!

by Sarah Kobos

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