What to know about long distance road races on a unicycle

Not being a born and bred Capetonian, it was said to me by the locals that one of the bucket list things to do in Cape Town was the Argus (now the Cape Town Cycle Tour). It was explained to have the most amount of gees. I bought this niche cycling business whereby I needed an accolade that the regular Joe Public could associate with. What’s niche in cycling you ask? The bewildering self-propelled 1-wheeled unicycle. Yip, I rode the Argus on a unicycle in 2012 and 2014 – although not being the first unicyclist to do so but the first and only female.

Unicycling has had leaps and bounds in the last 25-30 years. It is no longer only a circus art and currently lives in the world of adventure and extreme sport. If you happen to find unicycling and get bitten by the bug you will want the long distance road race notch on your belt. Each major South African city has one, Cape Town’s being the CTCT. It is the world’s largest timed cycle event with around 35 000 entrants. It is overwhelming busy and with over 100km’s of road to ride in one of the world’s most beautiful natural settings.

To consider tackling 109km’s on a unicycle you need to be already proficient on a wheel. In unicycle land this encompasses the International Unicycling Federation (IUF) Base Level Skills 1 – free mounting, dismounting safely and riding. Once you can do these with automated ease and comfort then you start leveling up and begin exploring the disciplines. For road races you need to ride a big wheel. Traditionally done on a 36” wheel – think penny farthing. Your free mount height changes from hip to chest/ shoulder height. A foot lift becomes a jump. Dismounting a monster wheel also needs to be reigned in when cycling with speeding peloton’s and costumed novices, you need your wits and control about you. Riding, oh my goodness, it’s a continuous repetition of long flats, big climbs and descents whilst you slowly deplete of energy. David Eave has been quoted comparing it to childbirth. Not that a man would know the full extent of childbirth but let’s entertain the thought.

These large wheels used for long distances are fitted with extra’s; a brake which is either disc or rim hydraulic, handle bars and perhaps even a geared hub. I failed to mention that unicycles are factory fitted with fixed hubs. There is no coasting, no freewheeling, no resting. If you stop pedaling you stop moving. Why fit a brake? Imagine coming down Wynberg Hill, Smitswinkel, Chapman’s Peak or Suikerbossie on a 36” wheel with only your legs to stop you. It puts immense strain on the legs and applies the pressure to the knees. The brake acts as a drag system to avoid unnecessary damage to our legs and provides mental well-being (at least for me it did).

Handle bars are also a useful add-on as unicyclists tend to have flailing arms. It takes hours, if not years to control the flap like waving motion. It’s also a good place to mount one’s brake lever, fuse to the unicycle and push down onto which allows the numb buttocks and perennial a moment of pressure release. Something that you really need to work on and through – sore buttocks on a unicycle – let’s not go there just yet. The community have experimented with a variety of saddle options – the hot favourite at the moment is a kind of figure-of-eight shaped hard flat saddle with perennial cut-out and adjustable angle. This lady unicyclist does NOT like it! My preference is the classic banana shaped saddle with thick cushioning and wide back for my sit bones.

Geared hubs are rare and expensive! In SA you won’t find many unicyclists riding them. I was fortunate to acquire this amazing piece of engineering. Both my Argus’ were done on a geared 29” unicycle. It’s not an easy feat to ride with one of these especially if you are a smaller human like myself. The gear itself is an extra 1kg on your setup. The gear changes happen at your heels through the centre of the hub – your heel knocks a pin inward to gear up to a ratio of 1.5.1 or down to direct drive (i.e. a 29” will run like a 44” wheel and a 36” will run like a 54” wheel). You don’t ride this hub, it rides you. It wants to move with demanding forward propulsion. An added factor when using the KH/ Schlumpf unicycle hub is that moment of slop between the gears. You learn to trust the slop.

On a fixed hub different crank lengths change the gearing. The shorter the crank the faster you go but then you compromise on the climbing because you loose torque. A 36” wheel is factory fitted with either 127mm or 145mm cranks. Often unicyclists run 127mm. If you want to go stupidly fast with no climbing you could try 117mm or shorter.

Training for a road distance event on a fixed 36er or a geared 29er requires dedication for 6-months to a year dependent on your level and familiarity with the discipline and wheel size. Adequate preparation is key to having a successful race day as conditions may not be ideal – the Cape Doctor is known to be savagely cruel, hot temperatures or heavy downpours. How did I train? I wasn’t very familiar with the geared 29er. I dabbled in it. I am a proficient mountain unicyclist with my favourite size being 26”. I had little experience with road riding as I have a strong dislike for it especially after my near death experience at the intersection of Kommetjie Rd and Ou Kaapse Weg when a mini-bus taxi hit me from behind. I am grateful I was riding a unicycle – it enabled me to disconnect immediately and run the impact out. Fortunately the taxi had slammed on brakes just before impact so the severity was decreased. Eish! Safety during training is the most important and I cannot stress it enough. Far too many cyclists die on the roads because of distracted motorists.

Training varies from person to person – the novice riding for gees, a weekend warrior or professional athlete. I live in the world of weekend warrior to professional. My business is OddWheel Unicycles and I am a unicycle specialist. Not only am I a unicyclist but I need to speak unicycle more knowledgeably than an entry to intermediary unicyclist. I have many unicycle facets – teach it safely, ride it (Muni, Road, Trials, Flatland, Hockey), workshop it, website it, live it, love it.

Training has facets – eat, sleep, ride, recovery, repeat. You need to figure out your schedule and diet. My recommendations:

  • Eat. Experiment. Eat regularly to avoid flattening. A carbs to protein ratio of 4:1. Liquid meals, ride snacks, and recovery fuels within the first hour after a workout.
  • Sleep. Recovery comes with rest and sleep.
  • Ride. Put saddle time in at least 4-5 times a week.
  • Recovery. Ensure you have rest days. Balance your cycling with stretching (a yoga practice). Pre-ride activation stretches and warm down’s.
  • Repeat. Work on monthly routines that lay the foundation and incrementally increase moving towards the goal. Learn to use the equipment and then become a proficient user.

(The above is assuming you can ride a unicycle but need to familiarise yourself with a bigger wheel with a brake and handle bars)

Wake up with the sparrows so that you are on the roads before the cars arrive. Be visible. Find a training buddy for security, mental support and accountability. If you can, find a coach.

  • Day 1 – start the week with a yoga practice or a gentle ride. It’s Monday after all.
  • Day 2 – do a flat short ride in the hood. Focus on learning mechanics, riding setup, tweaking gear.
  • Day 3 – small distance and add a short hill climb and descent. Let’s start using that brake.
  • Day 4 – do some interval rides.
  • Day 5 – a flat gentle session or this be your yoga practice day. It’s Friday.
  • Day 6 – the bigger weekend ride. This is where you start riding pieces of the route in short stints. Over the months you would have covered every piece of the route. It helps with the mental preparation. Further do some races – this will prep you with race day dynamics.
  • Day 7 – rest. No riding. Down time.

Stretch this approach over 6-12 months. Break the months into 3 parts – give each part a theme. Part 1; build your base correctly. Feel and understand your equipment and how to use it. Part 2; focus on gaining riding comfort of small to medium distances. Part 3; start pushing your boundaries for endurance. I was told if I can ride 80-90km’s on a training day just before the event then last 20-30km’s is carried by gees. It’s true! The camaraderie is phenomenal.

Do your research. Ask other experienced unicyclists for advice. Here are some resources:

  • Ask Donna the OddWheeler to put you in contact with experienced riders in your area.
    One hot tip – contact the race office and change your start time. Unicyclists are normally placed in the recumbent chute. You want to start just after the elite riders.
  • Visit Unicyclist.com. It’s the best forum out there.
  • Visit Unicycle Chat on Facebook.

The fastest time set for Argus was on a 36” unicycle by unicyclist Dylan Eave at 5hrs 17min 13sec on 13 March 2011. Twelve years on and the record has gone unbroken.

Click here to read the thoughts of 5 Unicyclists who rode Argus in 2014.