The Skills of Unicycle Racing
A workshop presented at the 1996 National Unicycle Convention by John Foss, former IUF World Racing
Champion and Guinness 100 meter record holder.
In the early days of our unicycle conventions, most riders got together to have fun and see who could ride the
fastest that day. Over the years, more and more people have been devoting time specifically for race training. These days, it is very
unlikely you will win a race unless you have done some practicing! Riding fast is becoming better understood, more rider are
training, and the equipment is slowly evolving into higher tech machines. Unicycle racing was not invented with the first USA meets, either. In one of the earliest issues of the USA Newsletter, Bill Jenack listed some unicycle speed records that were set in 1888. These records were set with very large wheel unicycles.
Like every sport, unicycle racing requires skill as well as strength. But on the unicycle, the amount of skill required
can be equally important as the amount of strength the rider has. Of course, the only way to perform at your best in unicycle racing
is to know the event, and to know your own limits. You can accomplish both of these things at the same time, by practicing.
That's how today's fast riders got to be that way.
Your Machine The wheel must be 24" or smaller, and the crank arms must be 5" (127mm) or longer. For 20" wheels,
min. crank is 4½" (114mm) and for 16", 4" (100mm). You may want longer cranks for some events. Pedals with a good grip are essential.
Toe clips, or other types of pedals that lock to your feet, are not recommended. Many have tried them and all have tasted pavement. A grippy rat trap pedal, along with grippy shoes (I use turf shoes) make the best combination. Today riders are
experimenting with narrow wheels, disks, spoke covers, lighter or stiffer parts, etc. This can get expensive but is fun as a hobby. Aerodynamics play a minimal role in unicycle racing because the speeds are not that high and the body moves around too much.
Our approximate speeds are 17MPH in the 100m, 14MPH in the 1600m, 11MPH in the 10k.
Clothing Don't forget your kneepads and gloves; you won't be allowed to compete without them! If you are serious about unicycling,
pay enough to get nice ones that are comfortable. I use volleyball kneepads and fingerless cycling gloves. Because gloves can be fingerless, as long as the palm, which takes the punishment, is well covered. Wear them when you practice!
Cycling shorts are recommended. They are designed with a seamless, padded crotch, and long enough legs to extend down past the saddle, making them much more comfortable than "normal" shorts. Helmets are required for the Fast Backward and Gliding races.
TrainingPractice each race. Find out how far forward you can lean at the start, without falling. Find out what kind of pace you can keep up for a long four lap race. Practice starting by holding onto something, like in a real race. Get to know each
racing event personally, by doing it over and over. Details on the various events below.
Riding Position The ball of the foot should be centered over the pedal axle for all forms of fast riding. This makes the
pedal a natural extension of your ankle and foot, giving you maximum power. Holding the front of the seat with one hand
locks you more solidly onto the unicycle, and allows your legs to pump with maximum power without your body lifting off the seat.
It also stabilizes you, and helps you go straighter. Does it look and feel strange? Yes. Get used to it if you want to be fast. The
hand not holding the seat is used for balance and steering. In long races, sit up straight for best, most comfortable breathing. In
shorter sprints, don't worry what you look like, just pedal your brains out!
The Start Concentrate, so you can shoot away exactly on the gun. Don't let your wheel move forward before the gun.
The Finish You must ride all the way across the line in control! If you "fall over" the line in a race where you're
allowed to remount, you must back up and ride over the line again. The back of the wheel must cross the line before your feet
touch the ground. Aim for an imaginary spot beyond the finish line, and ride all the way to it.
If you dismount It happens, especially if you haven't practiced. When you fall, be sure to stay in your lane and don't interfere with the riders near you, and especially behind you (the ones who were slow but didn't fall off)! In races where you are allowed, you must remount without running. If remounting is not allowed, please walk to the finish line to keep from confusing the officials. You must go to the finish line for your results to be recorded.
Think like an athlete Just because your sport is non-traditional doesn't make you any less an athlete. Eat the right
foods. Take care of yourself. Do stretches (on warmed up muscles only) before or after riding. Dress and behave as an athlete,
and you will be treated like one (except for the money).
Attitude If you think you can do it, you can. If you think you can't you still can but you probably won't because you're making it harder for yourself. Set realistic goals. Make them easy goals, and set new ones when you meet them. The real joy is not in winning, but in doing your very best!
Sportsmanship A unicycle meet is a perfect place to learn about the concept of sportsmanship. One of the purposes of
competition is to seek the best; the fastest. No matter how good everybody is, only one person will win each event, but all good
sports are winners. Remember, if you did your very best and came in second, it means you opponent deserved to win and earned it. Congratulate that winner! Poor sportsmanship is extremely rude and is the absolute opposite of the proper way to
behave at a unicycle convention. The same should be true for any sporting event. Being a good sport should be more important
to you than winning. If it is, you will never, ever be a loser.
The records listed after each event below are the current world records for those events, with 24" max. wheel and 5" min. crank. Faster records have been set in Japan with unlimited crank length.
Strategies for various racing events
100m A good fast start is very important! Practice full power acceleration from the starting line. Find out the highest speed you
can pedal without losing control. Work on gradually increasing this speed. Like all the other sprint races, remember you have to cross the finish line for it to count, so don't fall! World records: 13.65 (female)/12.68 (male).
200/400m Both are sprints like the 100m, with a slightly lower top speed. You must hold your fastest possible speed for the whole distance. Don't let yourself fall near the end; a common occurrence in this event because riders try to go just a little
beyond their limits. Records: 32.98/28.57 (200m), 1:03.94/58.22 (400m)
800/1500/1600m These are endurance races. You must practice
to find out what speed you can maintain for the full distance. Save a little for the end because you may need to sprint. Follow the lead rider to wear him/her out, and try to
shoot past them near the end. Psychology can be very effective in this and other long races. Don't look back! This will slow you
and may cause a dismount! Records: 2:41.48/2:21.91 (800m), 4:20.53/4:10.21 (1500m), 4:55.99/4:29.31 (1600m).
50m One Foot Work out the number of pedal turns to the 5m line. You must be pedaling with one foot at that point.
Practice accelerating with as much power as you can. Records: 9.25/7.98.
50m Backward Be careful! Make sure the track is clear before starting. In the actual race, don't look back, and do not
slow down until you know your are definitely past the finish line! Remember if you fall, to do everything possible to
contain yourself and your unicycle within your lane. Records: 12.36/9.64.
50m Juggling It's still a race, which means gloves are required! Practice juggling while riding, then juggling while riding
fast. You don't have to start juggling until the 5m line. Divide your concentration as necessary to maintain your pattern
while getting the best speed you can put with it. Use a small or medium pattern. I get best
results looking through the pattern and concentrating on riding. Records: 11.50/7.98.
Wheel Walk This race has two parts; acceleration, and holding a steady speed. The transition is when many riders fall.
Keep your balance through the transition from forward lean to balanced riding. Always keep a space between your heel and toe as they push the tire. If you fall, you're out so find the speed that works best for you, and always hold back just a little to make sure you finish. Records: 4.36/3.57 (10m, adults), 8.11/6.81 (30m).
Ultimate Wheel If you have one pedal as fast as you can! I don't have one. Records: 6.16/7.00 (30m).
Obstacle Course The thinking person's race. The more you practice, the better you'll be. Use as much strength for speeding up and slowing down as you can, but be careful to keep your traction. Work up a rhythm to get through the
center 5. Not all riding surfaces are alike, so get comfortable with the actual course during practice. 22.19/19.80.
Slow races The skill is the same for backward or forward. Practice balancing in place with various pedal positions. Sit up straight,
concentrate, use your arms for control, remember not to stop! Some slow race judges are more lenient than others. Records: 27.99/44.75 (fwd), 20.47/31.11 (bkwd).
Relay Practice that baton exchange! Make sure all team members know exactly what to do. it's all sprints, but
remember that if you fall you're letting down your whole team, club or country, so ride well! Records: 1:08.53/1:02.49 (100m x 4).
UMX/Muni Race If the course is very bumpy, consider lowering your seat 1 or 2 inches. Watch the trail carefully, and choose the best path available. Practice by riding fast on everything you can think of. You must be able to handle unexpected
obstacles when tired and out of breath. These races seem longer than they are due to the more work it takes to pedal over grass or rough terrain. Watch out for the bumps that get you while your pedals are vertical!
MarathonPace yourself. Find out what kind of speed you can maintain for several miles. Let another rider be the race leader most of the way, so they can worry about how fast to go, and not see you, while you merely follow. Save some power for the end to make you move, within the last kilometer. Don't save it for the last 100m, because the leader may have more of a kick left than you! Records: 33:04/31:07 (10k), 2:20:29/2:10:37 (26mi, 395 yds).
John Foss, the Uni-Cyclone