CIRCUS UNLIMITED! Circus Stories:  On Yer Uni!
Circus Stories

On Yer Uni!
(The observations and experiences of a novice unicyclist)

Years ago, I was younger. I didn't ride a unicycle. Then I decided to learn. This is about how it happened .

I got a unicycle for my birthday. Quite expensive. It's for this birthday, next Christmas and probably three or four birthdays and Christmases to comel My friend knows all about unicycles ("Uni's") so he told me what type I wanted, what the tyre should look like and how long my "seat pole" should be. I had very little idea what he was on about. All these technical terms ("Semsaddle" "UMX" "Sixoclockfalloff") meant little to me. I ordered the machine and waited for it to arrive.

Later, Postman Pat delivered an impossibly small box to our house. It can't be the Uni it's too small. They've forgotten to send part of it. They've sent the wrong thing. They hadn't. It was in kit form. Never mind, where's the spanner? No spanner. Where's the essential allen key? No key called allen.

Off to the shops, then. All my spanners are pre-metric (as I am myself). All my keys had other names.

Finally I stood back and proudly surveyed the silver cycle which I now honestly felt I'd had a hand in making. Where's the instruction book? No instruction book. So what happens next? Well it can't be that hard. One leg over the saddle and onto the pedal; one hand on the wall; other leg onto the other pedal and....the antique oil lamp had been a present from my Great Aunt Nellie. Made in the late 19th century, it had spent its last few years with me. Alas no longer. Alternative strategies obviously called for. On the phone, ordering a book about Uni's. On the grapevine to find the nearest local workshop.

The youth club wasn't a youth club that night, it was a Unicycle Workshop. I knew because, when I went in, there were lots of people floating around the room four feet above the floor and on one wheel. Well it can't be that hard. One leg over the saddle and onto the pedal; one hand on the wall; other leg onto the other pedal and....the parquet floor tiles were cool to the touch and slightly dusty. The room seemed much taller from this viewpoint. The others in the place giggled, laughed and guffawed encouragingly. Like a horse rider who has just been thrown, I turned, faced the animal that had so recently unseated me and....went and had a cup of coffee. Later, I tried again (this time the coffee had run out; I resisted the temptation to run out after it).

Eventually, spurred on by the good-natured shouts of those around me (all of whom could ride their Uni's) about the terrible injuries they had endured (or witnessed) I launched forth. 2 feet 5 feet 8 feet 12 feet 15 feet 18 feet "Hey! Look at me! I can do it " The man who was juggling clubs near the door had, rather sensibly, dived for cover (he'd been before). I felt great!

Arms out....don't look down!

My first night and I'd gone from sitting on it for the first time to unicycling 18 feet. A doddle.

Of course I couldn't do it again. I got 2 feet or 3 feet and then gracefully (not!) "dismounted" (one doesn't "fall off" one "dismounts"). For those few brief seconds I was travelling that 18 feet I, too, had a floating feeling. All the thoughts about how impossible it was to balance on one wheel gushed away. All the worries and concerns of falling off backwards and breaking something important (on me, not the Uni) disappeared. I was at one with the machine.

The workshop closes at nine thirty. At nine twenty-eight I gave it one last go. Well it can't be that hard. One leg over the saddle and onto the pedal; one hand on the wall; other leg onto the other pedal and....the Uni went forward. I went backwards (Newton or Einstein probably have a theory to explain it). The base of my spine hit the parquet. Both my hands went down flat on the floor. My brain fell at 32 feet per second per second. Unfortunately my head fell slightly faster. My brain hit the top of my skull. The muscles in my wrists pulled tight and then snapped back. Darkness and stars fought for supremacy in front of my eyes. I felt awful. "Home time!" yelled Martin. "Thanks for coming! See you all next week". You bet, mate I'll be there! I'll master this thing if it kills me.

Next week, I had the flu ( honest!) so no unicycling and no workshop. The week after I was in Sheffield running a training course. Don't ask.

But I practised a little during these two weeks and I had the feeling that confidence was slowly beginning to grow. What helped during this time was that painful fall I'd had. Keeling over backwards was my worst nightmare and I'd already lived through it! I might live through it again (and again) in the future; now I knew how it felt.

The night of the next workshop fell, I loaded up the Uni and set off in anticipation ("Anticipation" being the name of my car). For the first 20 minutes or so I carefully wobbled around the walls with one arm outstretched and the other patting the yellow emulsion quite frequently for reassurance. Suddenly I did an unexpected swerve away from the wall. My eyes focused on a distant point and I found myself pedalling very fast as a panic response. Strangely I didn't fall off. Amazingly the Uni didn't fall over. Speedily I found myself on the other side of the room. Did I just ride across the floor? I tried again. Well it can't be that hard. One leg over the saddle and onto the pedal; one hand on the wall; other leg onto the other pedal and away! Floating across the floor on one wheel; all by myself! To the experienced unicyclist this is probably really boring. To such people I say: Remember how it felt when you were learning. A wise person once said: " A great master always revisits the basics". 'Dismount' once in a while. It keeps you in touch with the feeling and the floor!

Next week at the workshop I was launching myself towards the centre of the room and leaving the walls behind! I began to experiment with turning (before I crashed into the opposite wall). Well it can't be that hard. One pedal at six o'clock, the other at twelve o'clock (obviously!) and t-u-r-n towards the six o'clock side. It works! Most times. Meanwhile the experts were practising complicated "hovers" and other moves. I began to notice that someone always falls off after shouting "YES!" and meaning: "I can do it!" I also discovered that the group keep an ear open for crashes from the gym next door (where perhaps just one Uni rider is pursuing their art in isolation). One crash is ignored. A second crash means that the rider must be OK after the first crash. A third crash means the rider survived the second crash....and so on.

The workshop closed over the Christmas break and bad weather prevented private practise outside for a few weeks. If you're thinking of getting a Uni; get one in the Summer when you can practise externally!

Another trip to Sheffield meant another workshop missed. Next week though I was back again. Riding forwards and turning corners. Turning right seems easier than turning left. Why?

Philip, a novice Unicycler ("I got it for Christmas"), falls off quite heavily and hurts himself (serves him right for being so good at it. He's a good juggler too!) You can just see everyone mentally filing away the experience to relay to other new Uni owners when they arrive freshly saddled and pumped up in the future! I am doing so well I wonder whether I can yet call myself a Unicyclist and not contravene the 1968 Trade Descriptions Act. Now turning left seems easier than turning right. Why?

Politics and organisation take up some time at the next meeting. The caretaker of the venue suddenly announces that Unicycles should not be used in the small hall (you remember, the parquet tiles were cool to the touch and slightly dusty). He said he'd had trouble getting the tyre marks off the floor (what tyre marks?) We are banished to the gym next door .

Despite my increasing skills and those of the others, everyone begins by crashing into each other in this unusually busy space. Peter practises backwards, Philip refines idling, Mark develops free mounting, Julian is turn training and others pursue their own activities all at once! Somehow we get through. Someone mutters something about finding a new hall. Outside it begins to snow.

Ten minutes! Ten short minutes into the next gathering and muggins gets a puncture! An unknown person had secreted a drawing pin onto the floor of the gym and (of course) its me who picks it up. I gain the distinction of having the first workshop Uniflat. Now I'm ashamed to say I have, up until this time, got through my life without ever having to repair a puncture. Still if you want to learn. Fifteen minutes later its done and I've done it. I'm right proud of myself and the right (and left) turns are coming along nicely, thank you.

Just before the end I try idling (or "hovering") a safe distance from the corner of the room. Its quite successful for a first try. Perhaps this is within my capabilities too! Onwards and upwards

Arriving next week, I notice all the Unis are cavorting around the small hall (with parquet tiles cool to the touch and slightly dusty) despite the fact that Unis are banned from this part of the building (see above). Revolution? Anarchy? Power to the people? No the gym is being decorated and there are dangerous pieces of scaffolding everywhere. It actually makes Uniing (Uniing?!) in the gym more exciting. The yellow, fine powder dust of redecoration is too much for these lungs though! So its back to the illegal small hall. Now going straight seems harder than turning. Why?

An intriguing message on the answering machine on the day of the next gathering proclaimed: "Its Bernie here" (Martin's partner) " Just a message to say that there's no Unicycling tonight Martin will speak to you soon." Visions of the youth club caretaker finally flipping over the tyre tracks and banning all future meetings spring to mind. Or perhaps they're decorating the large and small halls together this week? Maybe a flying saucer full of little green aliens have commanded a special workshop! I can't wait to find out

No mystery at all really, Martin had to work late (he's something big in computers) and they've sealed the floor. Not sure if the two are connected. Hovering is coming along nicely now after some expert instruction from Peter. Half way through the workshop three young men of little brain burst in and start to throw snowballs at us. Then they run off into the night. We give chase of course. We can't catch them. Its too difficult to unicycle on the snow outside!

Next week I concentrate on the hovering. I discover that its the pressure I put on my right foot as well as the pressure I don't put on my left foot that makes the difference (that makes the difference). The difference is whether I fall off to the right or fall off to the left. Does this make sense?

Another workshop comes around and, just before he has a bad fall sideways injuring his knee and wrist, Peter gives me some really good ideas about conquering hovering. I've always been able to ride the Uni slowly; now Peter suggests going even slower and trying to come to a standstill with feet still on the pedals. Then go for a quarter turn backwards, then forwards again and away. This seems (and feels) much easier and has neatly divided the hover into two stages. When Peter fell off (sorry, dismounted) he was attempting to ride around a pillar backwards. So there's a fair way yet for me to go!

Seven days later I can stand still. Why does this not look impressive on the printed page? Its taken a lot of work and practice to be able to stand still! As yet, however, I cannot go backwards.

The caretaker suggests (now decorating work is complete in the gym) that we should get ourselves back in there and not use the small hall at all. We suggest that he should take a running jump. He comes around to our way of thinking. We use the small hall.

Next week, more success! I can go forwards, stop, go back a bit, go forwards again and then fall off. I'm quite chuffed about it. And now there is a new "generation" of unicyclists behind (and sometimes in front of) me at the workshop. These are they who are going through the same horrors and frustrations as I did at the beginning. I find myself helping them in the same way that I myself was helped. Who said: "The wheel hath turned full circle"? Sounds a bit Shakespearean to me. Did Willy ride a Uni?

At the next workshop, I try to conquer the freemount. This means mounting the Uni and riding off without holding on to anything (apart from your sense of the ridiculous). At first I can't work out where the pedals should be when I start. Luckily Mark knows and soon supplies the missing data. The workshop principle works! I am amazed to discover I can do it! Well, most times anyway. By the end of the evening I have freemounted seven times successfully. Shan't say how many times unsuccessfully!

Seven days pass and, as the weather becomes kinder, the amount of practise between workshops slowly begins to increase. I spend much of this most recent evening with the freemount. By the end I achieve 5 out of 6 successful freemounts. Mind you, it was intended to be 10 out of 10! Elsewhere, Peter continues to ride around the pillar backwards and continues to dismount!

Next week, more freemounts with an improved success rate of at least 1 in 3! I've now decided that I will feel I can ride a Unicycle when I freemount and hover (as well as go forwards and make turns). Riding backwards is, I've also decided, a trick and non-obligatory for rider certification. Perhaps if I spent less time making up all these rules in my head and more time practising, I'd get better quicker!

The next meeting is more of a showcase of all the circus equipment members have bought at the latest juggling convention. No, I didn't go myself due to....oh, its a long story. As freemounts and hesitant hovers continue, several strange persons turn up independently pretending to be interested in developing the art of the Uni. Me, I don't trust them. Especially as there are other (even more suspicious) characters hanging around outside! We form a rota to make regular external checks. In 2s of course because of cowardice. In the end, nothing happens so I suppose we were successful!

At the end of the following week's workshop I realise I have an extremely sore posterior. I have been riding my machine for 2 hours straight with only a 5 minute juggle break half way through. Time flies by when you're enjoying yourself! Colin makes his first visit on this day. I take on the role of getting him started. Turns out he once made his own unicycle and found he couldn't ride it. He's promised to bring it along soon for us all to see. Peter is now riding up-side-down across the ceiling backwards! (Shome mishtake shurely?) Ah, me.

Some little rat throws a big stone through the open door of the youth centre next week. It misses me by a mile but its the thought that counts! Martin and I form a(nother) vigilante patrol to catch the culprit(s). Luckily we don't see them so conflict is avoided. Its HOT (you remember the particular day!) so everyone is a little languid. Freemounts are now third (if not second) nature and still slightly second rate. I've returned to the hovering again too.

Photographs get in the way of serious Uniing at the following meeting as Mark and Peter bring their cameras. I learn that its hard to keep your balance whilst being flashed at. A state of affairs that is most probably equally applicable to Uni riders and non-Uni riders alike! Tonight I actually hovered! Well several times actually. I always find that if you experience anything once....and its a good one; then its that bit easier the next time. No sniggering at the back there! Pumped the old tyre up a bit too. Ah, that's better.

Couldn't go next week. Running another course in Sheffield. This time, took the Uni. Caused great merriment by riding it around the conference centre car park closely watched by CCTV cameras and bemused security guards.

Before the following workshop could come around SOMETHING HAPPENED! I'd been working as a juggler for a couple of years by this time. This particular Saturday, a gig in the centre of the local town. "Fun Day" or something. Decided at the last minute to take the Uni. The time, I decided, had come to be a Unicyclist!

Looking confident came much much later!

Standing on the pavement outside the vacant shop that serves as a base for street performers holding my machine. So what happens next? Well it can't be that hard. One leg over the saddle and onto the pedal; one hand out to wave; other leg onto the other pedal; push down and away....

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