If you're not in a circus, riding one is just a cry for attention; if you are in a circus, you're signalling that you want more attention than anyone else, writes Eric Kendall.
Advocates of the unicycle praise its hidden qualities. It shares with the 2CV the inability to harm innocent bystanders or the rider, by dint of going so slowly. And like a jump-jet, it's so hard to operate that you must be brilliant and highly trained to be riding one at all.
Some claim that as a practical proposition round town, a unicycle beats in-line skates because you're only a loony while you're on it. Back on your feet, nobody need know - you don't have to wear clown's shoes to ride one. You can carry a unicycle easily in one hand, park it in the corner of a room, pop it into the luggage rack of a train or bus. So with all this going for them, why do people choose to play unicycle hockey instead?
Well that's what they call it, but polo would be nearer the mark. Back in the mists of time, a strange unicyclist made a list of things that would be fiendishly difficult for anyone to do on one wheel: vigorous arm movement (preferably with a long stick in one hand, to upset balance), periodically connecting with a rapidly moving hard object (might as well make it a ball), lots of unpredictably wobbling obstacles to negotiate (perhaps in the form of other unicyclists), and a couple of goal-shaped nets on which to snag your pedals (could also serve as a target into which to knock the ball). The really odd thing is that he found anyone to join him.
But he did, and the rest is history, albeit on a very small scale - at least in the UK. It's an amazing sight - a combination of extreme skill, stop-start twisting movements, blurs of legs and wheels, and a spirit that underlines just how hard it is. The achievement is to have taken part, not in some woolly-liberal, brotherhood-of-man kind of way, but literally.
Strangely big in Germany, unicycling is inherently humorous, at least as seen from the sidelines. Riding one, or learning to, is funny in the sense that you may as well laugh rather than cry. It helps to start on a smooth surface, preferably with a wall next to you and one behind you: you're going to need all the support you can get. Come to think of it, some parallel bars would be ideal - the kind that Kenneth More learnt to walk between on tin legs, in Reach for the Sky.
The first stage, getting aboard, gives a hint of what's to come. Get the unicycle the right way round (there is a difference). Choose your starting foot, place it on the relevant pedal, which should be cocked backwards, towards you, and get the saddle under your backside. The unicycle is currently stuck out in front of you at an angle which is closer to falling over than staying upright, but persevere. As long as that other foot is on the deck, you're safe.
Now, brace yourself and stand down on the pedal, which pushes the unicycle miraculously towards the vertical and will spit you out over the top if you're not very careful. If you start with the pedal in the wrong position, cocked away from you, you bypass this stage completely, going directly to flat on your back in one smooth move.
And that's almost all there is to it. In no time at all you'll be demonstrating the sport's greatest misnomer, the "stable position" (pedals horizontal), before moving on to straight lines, stopping, turning (extra pressure on one pedal) and even the "free-mount" (no walls) - at which point you've cracked it. Finally, for the utter nutter, there's the "suicide-mount", definitely in the advanced category, and a sure sign that you're ready, at least psychologically, for the hockey pitch.
Where and what to ride
Lots of bike shops have one unicycle in stock and no idea of how to ride it, but they usually know someone who can. Be deeply suspicious of offers of help from a keen unicyclist - they're probably recruiting for their unicycle hockey team.
A few people find them easy to ride and learn instantly, others don't - it can take weeks. Unicycles cost from around pounds 80 up to pounds 200 or more for a model designed for hockey - they're stronger all round, and have more spokes in the wheels. Try DM Engineering (01202 471 943). No good for hockey, or to learn on, a popular "giraffe" model is adjustable between 5ft and 8ft, and makes you stand out from the crowd.
Unicycle hockey teams and circus schools are the most organised areas of unicycling. Contact Oddballs (0171-250 1333), a specialist juggling shop, or circus schools: Circus Space (0171-613 4141), or Albert & Friends Instant Circus (0181-741 5471). The Catch (01275 332 655) is a juggling/street theatre/new circus magazine that carries listings including unicycling. Main contact for the Hackney Hokey Cokeys is James (0171-729 5013); other hockey teams include the London Loonies, the Hastings Unicycle Group (Hug) and the St Leonard's Unicycle Group (Slug). Rumour has it that someone in Birmingham is trying to start a team.
There is also a world unicycle convention - and, of course, leaping on to the bandwagon and balancing up hill and down dale, there are even mountain unicyclists with knobbly tyres.Reuse content