Once considered the exclusive domain of circus performers and neighborhood daredevils, the unicycle has made significant inroads into the general consciousness. There are now social clubs for unicycle riders, as well as demonstration teams and modified sporting events. Some commuters have been using a unicycle for gas-free transportation, and there are even unicycles designed for off-road and mountain riding.
A unicycle consists of a single air-filled tire, a set of off-setting pedals, a shaft surrounding the axle and a seat for the rider. The seat is generally a padded and curved variation of the 'banana seat' found on some standard bicycles. There is no chain and sprocket arrangement on a normal unicycle, although extended models called giraffes may use a chain to connect the rider's pedals to the tire several feet below. Some advanced unicycle models actually contain gears for more efficient pedaling, but a unicycle cannot coast like a regular bicycle.
Most sources trace the origin of the unicycle to an early bicycle called the penny-farthing. This bicycle, popular during the late 1800s and early 1900s, featured a very large front wheel and a significantly smaller back wheel. If the bicycle gained significant speed or struck an object, the rider would often find himself balancing on the front wheel exclusively. Early versions of the unicycle also implemented a very large wheel. For decades, only stuntmen and trained circus performers dared to tempt fate on a unicycle.
Eventually unicycle manufacturers developed low-riding models suitable for public use, although the unicycle's main audience seemed to be young males looking for a new skill to master. Many would-be unicyclists became discouraged after many hours of attempting basic forward-motion skills. A unicycle does not behave like a bicycle — riders must center their weight over the wheel and learn to maintain balance. The basic stabilizing move, called idling, is actually quite difficult and involves making several back-and-forth pedaling moves.
The first step in learning to ride a unicycle is usually forward motion. The rider must pedal in complete revolutions while maintaining balance. This is accomplished first by riding next to a wall or fence, and then letting go as the rider acquires more skill. Since there are no brakes on a typical unicycle, the rider must simply stop pedaling. To remain upright on the unicycle, while staying in roughly the same place, the cyclist must idle as previously described. Turning on a unicycle is often a matter of twisting the lower body in the desired direction while maintaining balance with the arms and upper body. A beginning unicycle rider should feel accomplished if he or she can successfully ride both forwards and backward.
Progress on a unicycle is often measured in stages developed by unicyclist associations. These groups can provide training manuals and proficiency tests for serious riders.