One wheel on my wagon: unicycling for beginners
It’s big in Japan, where it’s apparently taught in schools. But Anthony Furlong seems to be a lone rider here
Patrick Freyne learning to unicycle under the watchful eye of Anthony Furlong in Fairview Park, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
“People say, ‘Where’s your other wheel, Mister?’ and I say, ‘I don’t need stabilisers!’” says Anthony Furlong (55), who is cycling backwards around a basketball court in Fairview Park on a unicycle. Sometimes his response is: “Ah, cutbacks!”
A long-time cycling fan, Furlong picked up his first unicycle only last May when he spotted it in a bike shop. He initially dithered. “But I bought it for €110 in the end,” he says.
Now he has six, including two street-style varieties and something called a “municycle”. “That’s like a mountain-bike version of a unicycle,” he explains.
Some people, he tells me, have “gunicycles” (a unicycle with gears).
The unicycle has its origins in the 19th century, when extreme penny-farthingists realised that the stabilising little wheel on their penny farthings left the ground completely when they picked up speed.
Some of these fine moustachioed adventurers decided to hacksaw off the little wheel altogether and proceeded to bounce the first massive-wheeled unicycles and their own presumably short-lived bodies around the Victorian cobbles (this, online unicycle historians insist, is the actual history of unicycling).
Life was cheap in the pioneering 19th century. When other, saner minds realised that the future for self-propelled wheel-based locomotion was bicycles with two equally sized wheels (oh, it seems obvious now), the unicycle probably should have remained a historical dead end, like Utopian socialism or Betamax or the PDs. But it survives, thanks to circus acrobats, extreme sport practitioners and friendly enthusiasts like Furlong, whom I first met as he unicycled along Dublin’s North Strand and who kindly offered to give me a lesson.
Getting on a unicycle isn’t too hard, particularly when, like me, you’re doing so while leaning against a fence. You position the saddle under you with your feet on the ground, then you apply pressure to the rear pedal before propelling the saddle, with you on it, over the wheel and your second leg onto the forward facing pedal.
At this point you unicycle away to your heart’s content.
No you don’t. At this point you fall over, crashing against the railings.
Staying on a unicycle is very difficult. After positioning your saddle above the wheel, the wheel usually likes to go somewhere else, behind you, in front of you or off to the side. It’s upsetting.
“With a bike, you can only fall left or right,” chuckles Furlong. “With the unicycle there’s a whole 360 degrees in which you can fall. You have to watch out for every little thing and you’re constantly compensating.”
Learning to unicycle, Furlong admits, involves a lot of falling. He happily recalls a few incidents that ended with him lying on his back “having a think”, but insists that “‘it’s not really that dangerous because you’re never going that fast”.
The real issue, he says, is falling backwards, which is why he’s fashioned a special homemade hat/helmet with padded sides and a special hard bit protecting the back of his head (he later wears more conventional headgear for the photo; he stresses the need for head protection). He also wears wrist guards. “Because you put your hands out in front of you when you fall,” he explains.
Unicycling involves “the continual correction of mistakes”, he says. As I repeatedly mount one of Furlong’s unicycles in Fairview Park, I’m clearly at the mistake-making phase prior to the more enjoyable mistake-correcting phase.
To be fair, when I launch myself atop the unicycle, I do experience a temporary moment of weightless joy . . . before crying out in terror.
There are a few extenuating circumstances. I’m not dressed for unicycling. I’m wearing the wrong shoes (your soles need to be flat), it’s freezing and I have only one glove. I also have no protective gear. “Do you have shin guards?” Furlong asked hopefully that morning. Prospective unicyclists repeatedly clatter their shins off the pedals as they’re learning.
“Unicycling is on the curriculum in Japan,” says Furlong, and I picture a generation of bruised Japanese children. “Balance is good for the mind and the body. Trying to keep balanced and upright means your legs are working all the time and it’s good for focus. You can’t really think of anything else. Whatever the frustrations of work or whatever, if you’re on the unicycle you’re thinking only of the unicycle and what you’re doing.” Furlong would love to see the sport taking off in Ireland. He says there was once a unicycle basketball team in Trinity College, but these days he finds most of his fellow enthusiasts online and the sight of him on his unicycle mainly generates surprise and curiosity. Sometimes children say, “Look! It’s a man from the circus.” Furlong loves it.
“People will stop me to chat and a conversation develops. It’s a real sociable thing.”
Very occasionally he gets a negative reaction. Some people don’t think a man on a unicycle can also be a productive member of society. “They say, ‘Would you get a job?’ I have a job! I teach ceramics and pottery. I pay my way. They assume if they see you on a unicycle at half ten in the morning that you don’t have a job.
“Last week I was going up the North Strand and as I passed two men one of them said, ‘Do something useful. Get a bleeding job!’ and I called them back and said ‘Who said that?’ and the big fella pointed to the little fella, and I said, ‘I have a bleeding job!’” he laughs. “Then he went into the boozer.” Anthony Furlong unicycled on.