Every great unicyclist has an origin story. Scott Wilton’s relationship with the sport began on Christmas morning in 2003, when he walked into the living room ready to open gifts. Awaiting him: the unicycle that would change his life. “My mom had a friend when she was younger who unicycled, and I was this crazy 10-year-old kid,” Wilton remembers. “She was like, ‘Here’s a good challenge.’ ”
Wilton admits that learning was indeed a challenge—and not just because winter in Wisconsin, where he grew up, was far from conducive to outdoor practice sessions. “We had a playroom in the house, so I cleared stuff to the side, and I was able to use the wall to practice,” he says. “At first, I couldn’t do it at all.”
He continued “playing around with it,” he says, and at age 14, he convinced his mom to take him to the North American Unicycling Championships and Convention (NAUCC). He was hooked, and since then, Wilton has become one of the best unicyclists in the country. He’s tried and competed in nearly all of the unicycling disciplines, from cyclocross and mountain to urban and “artistic unicycling,” which features choreography similar to figure skating. He’s traveled to unicycling events around the globe, including in Denmark, New Zealand, and Nepal, and is now a six-time world champion in the marathon and 10K road race events. He even currently holds the unicycling marathon world record, after having blazed a 26.2-mile course in just one hour, 19 minutes, and seven seconds.
Wilton wants to see more people get into the discipline, which he says is challenging and features a fun, welcoming community. In Colorado, there are also plenty of opportunities to explore beautiful terrain on one wheel. For example, mountain unicycling can be done on many of the same trails frequented by mountain bikers. “A lot of people have an initial association of unicycling with circus arts–and there is that part, with juggling or performing–but the majority of the unicycling, and where I’m most involved, is much more on the sport side of things,” he says. “It’s a super addicting type of challenge.”
In honor of National Unicycle Week, May 15 to 21, we asked the Boulder resident for simple tips to help the rest of us get up and rolling. Here is an introduction to the basics.
5280: Besides the fact that it only has one wheel, how is a unicycle different from a bike?
Scott Wilton: Almost all unicycles have no gears. When you’re not coasting, you’re pedaling. Some unicycles, specifically most mountain unicycles, have a grip on the saddle that helps give you control and makes it so you can jump; it’s also where the brake is usually mounted.
How is learning to unicycle different from learning to bicycle?
One of the hardest things about learning how to unicycle compared to riding a bike is that you have to worry about your front-to-back balance. On a bike, when you’re riding slowly, you’re tippy, but as you get up to speed, you’re pretty stable. On a unicycle, the speed doesn’t help you with the front-to-back balance. But, because you have all of your weight over a single point of contact with the ground, you’re really nimble. You feel a strong connection both with the unicycle, as well as the terrain you’re on, whether it’s flat ground, bumpy pavement, or a challenging obstacle. It has a really special feeling of flow.
There’s also the community that’s different. When I went to NAUCC the first time, I signed up for one event. I raced that event, and afterwards, people were asking, “So what’s your next event?” I said, “Nothing.” And they said, “What do you mean? What we do here is everybody tries everything.” So I ended up racing a few other events. Someone even loaned me their road unicycle. In unicycling, we all try stuff. It doesn’t matter how good you are.
Who can ride a unicycle?
Anyone who can ride a bike can learn to ride a unicycle. And if they struggle to ride a bike, they can still learn to ride a unicycle. People can learn at any age. I have taught five year olds and 65 year olds, but I think it’s an especially awesome sport for kids. Everyone struggles with it when they start, so it teaches perseverance. It’s something physical. It’s a really welcoming community wherever you are around the world. And it’s really accessible, too.
What do you need to start unicycling?
Getting a basic unicycle is relatively inexpensive. A new one is only $100 to $150. The best resource is unicycle.com; you can find used ones. For learning, good shoes are the main thing—sneakers with a fairly flat bottom are totally fine.
If you’re able to find someone near you to learn (for example, a local group like ours, the Colorado Front Range Unicyclists) they’ll be super happy to teach you and will have unicycles that you can try without having to buy one. If you’re learning on your own, there are great resources online, such as the Unicycling Society of America.
Where do you practice initially?
You want to be able to hold onto something when you’re starting, so tennis courts work well because they have a fence along the side. Having that bit of assistance is basically the unicycling version of training wheels.
How much does learning hurt?
It’s super safe to learn. When you’re sitting on a unicycle, there’s nothing to get caught up on, so when you fall off, you generally just put your feet out and you land on the ground. The unicycle goes skating away from you, and you’re totally fine, unlike a bike where you can get all tangled up or stuck on the handlebars. In that way, [unicycling] is significantly safer than most biking sports. On average, it takes people around 20 hours of practice to be able to ride on their own.
Mountain unicycling is one of the fun ways you can participate in the sport here in Colorado. Can mountain unicyclists ride the same trails as mountain bikers?
In general, if bikes are allowed, unicycles are allowed. As far as trails go, on a unicycle, it’s hard to go really fast, so flowy trails often aren’t that challenging for me. Steep, rocky, rooted trails are what challenge me the most, and that’s what I enjoy the most—trails like Enchanted Forest in Golden, Hall Ranch in Lyons, and the downhill trail on Floyd Hill.
(Read more: What to Know Before You Hit the Trail on an E-Bike)