I'm not sure what first motivated me to learn how to ride a unicycle. It might have seemed like a way for a shy 15-year-old to impress her schoolmates. Or maybe a chance to be in the Fourth of July parade, with red, white, and blue crepe- paper streamers threaded in and out of the spokes of my gleaming one-wheeled marvel. Or maybe it was a way for a scrawny sophomore with glasses to possibly be noticed by a gorgeous senior named Norman.
Whatever the reason, the desire lasted long enough for me to save up the money for a brand-new unicycle. One tip for anyone learning to ride one of these slippery little beasts: Don't learn on a new one. Practice on a beat-up old cycle. After a few days of spills, the seat on my shiny unicycle looked as though it had been dragged across town under a bus. Each corner of the seat was taped up to keep the stuffing from falling out, and the sides were scraped and scratched from one end to the other. I was in slightly better shape.
Riding a unicycle is a matter of leaning. Lean a little forward, and it goes forward. Lean a lot forward, and you go forward while the wheel goes flying backward. Lean a little to the side, and you have to turn the wheel and pedal to that side until the wheel is directly under you again. Lean backward, and you're likely to end up on the ground with another dent in the seat of the cycle.
FOR days I climbed aboard, pedaled frantically for a few seconds in an unpredictable direction, than sprawled off the cycle, trying desperately to land on my feet. Often I saved myself at the expense of my unicycle.
At some point I lost all interest in impressing my friends, riding in parades, and even in Norman. My only goal became staying on the seat long enough to get off at my own choosing.
Our house had a large, mostly unfinished basement that became my training ground. I would hang onto the washing machine while I mounted and got my feet on the pedals. When I seemed somewhat balanced, I would aim the wheel toward the storage shelves, lean slowly forward, and take off, pedaling frantically, my arms flying wildly. On a good run, I would make it to the shelves, grab hold and regain control, then aim toward the stairs for my next run.
After days of careening around the basement, the successful runs came more frequently. Sometimes I even felt a hint of control while flying between supports. I graduated to the great outdoors. There I could scramble between the house and the car, then to the neighbors' cars, with distances growing as I began to learn how much pressure to apply to the pedals to keep me moving but not falling, and how to twist at the waist for the little side movements that kept me upright.
One day I finally rode to the car, pulled up without touching it, turned, and rode back to the house. I was finally in control. Soon I didn't need props at all, but could pedal happily around the neighborhood like a master unicyclist.
I made a new discovery at that point. Unicycles aren't good for much, unless you plan to join the circus. You can't give your friends a ride, and you can't keep up with them on their bikes. Worst of all, you can't coast. Even going downhill, you have to keep pedaling, slowing constantly on the pedals to keep under control. Your legs never get to rest, and long-distance trips hardly seem worth it.
Soon the unicycle became a fixture in the garage, but I never regretted learning to ride. For an uncertain teenager, it helps a lot to know you've learned to do something difficult that most people can't do.
Next came karate lessons.