Text size

Most people who hear the word "unicycle" think of a circus clown riding a large wheel with a high seat. The truth is, however, that circus acts are not this vehicle's main arena. Most unicycle riders are athletes who ride for pleasure, just like bicyclists.

The unicycle is a sporting vehicle in every way: There are even unicycle races, although they are somewhat different from bike races. There are 400- and 800-meter races, relay races and even high jumps and long jumps. Still, unicycling is mainly a hobby sport, particularly for extreme sports athletes. There are even downhill races, trail races and freestyle races, which are relatively new.

"Unicycling is an exciting and challenging way to improve your fitness and your abilities," says Nimrod Nir, 26, a psychology student who teaches unicycling. "And I used to be convinced that water sports were the perfect activity."

When he was 17, Nir won the world sailing championship as captain of the Israeli team. After his discharge from the Israel Defense Forces, he met Ramy Yannay, founder of the Israeli Unicycling Society.

"My curiosity was aroused," recalls Nir, "and I also thought it would be easy, because in addition to sailing, I also ride a bicycle and a motorcycle. I tried, and of course I could hardly keep my balance on the unicycle, never mind moving." Yannay's son Yinnon, who was 6 at the time, taught Nir his father's 10-step method for mounting, balancing on and riding a unicycle.

Yannay developed this method while working with students with attention deficit disorders, after trying to teach them Tai Chi exercises and finding this was too slow for them.

"Then Ramy thought of the unicycle," says Nir. "It requires a lot of concentration, builds self-confidence, challenges the entire body, and also provides quick fun for the students. He began teaching them how to ride a unicycle, and their scholastic achievements improved dramatically."

Since then, Yannay has been teaching elementary- and high-school students throughout the country to ride a unicycle. He also has been running a growing unicycling school. When he founded it in 2003, he had 100 students. Now he has 1,000.

"When someone succeeds in balancing on a vehicle that is considered impossible to balance," continues Nir, "and can control and ride it, the body responds as it does to any extreme challenge - it produces an adrenaline rush and a great feeling. This sport immeasurably improves not only physical abilities, but also mental ones."

Nira Yanir, 39, from Ramat Hasharon, began riding a unicycle after her daughter Tal signed up for a group lesson and got hooked.

"As a professional athlete and as someone who has been involved in different sports my whole life, I was sure all I had to do was sit down and pedal - but it took me hours until I managed to get my balance," says Yanir. "After the lesson was over, my daughter and I stayed with the instructor for a few more hours, because I would not give up. Then I practiced at home, leaning on my daughter or the wall, and I found it very challenging."

Yanir has been working on this for a few weeks, and only now is she beginning to feel some control.

What is it about this vehicle that makes it so difficult, yet so attractive?

"The unicycle requires you to hold your body, especially your head, totally differently," says Yanir. "That is the real challenge. The tremendous fun is in the success - it puts a smile of achievement on every rider's face."

Until one reaches that sense of accomplishment, "a lot of little muscles in the body, which you never even knew you had, suddenly cramp up," says Yanir.

Ofer Posner, 53, of Ramat Gan, manages an electronics assembly company and is a triathlete. "It is unbelievably relaxing, and it is the best way I have found to control tension," says Posner. "I take my unicycle with me everywhere, and riding 50 meters is enough for me to release my stress. Anyone athletic who starts riding a unicycle will find that it changes the entire nature of his training. Everything one learns in order to ride a unicycle can be applied to any sport, and will improve one's performance."

He continues: "First of all, Nimrod taught me to loosen my muscles, to relax my head and then to further relax my muscles. Only then could I make any progress on that vehicle," recalls Posner. "When I told my swimming trainer that, he said, 'I have been trying for years to explain to you not to work forcefully with your arms and legs, but rather to work from your stomach and relax everything else.'

"When I told my cycling trainer, he said the same thing. For years he has been trying to teach me that progress on the bicycle is not connected to power from the legs. When I changed how I swam and cycled, my enjoyment and performance also improved - all thanks to learning to ride a unicycle."

How does a CEO in his 50s wind up with a unicycle stowed in his trunk?

"While I was finishing the triathlon in Herzliya, I suddenly saw a young man on a unicycle, riding around us, going around in circles, and simply enjoying himself," says Posner. "That really intrigued me, and immediately after the race, I approached him and asked where I could learn how to ride. I found out that the Kfar Maccabiah fitness center, where I am a member, offers unicycling classes. I enrolled about two weeks later, and unicycling has been part of my training regimen ever since."

One important facet of the learning experience is that the advanced students help the beginners.

"You learn to ride in stages," explains Nir. "Anyone who has mastered these stages can teach people working on earlier stages. So teens teach adults, children teach teenagers, and so on. This creates more cooperation, motivation and close personal connections, something that people who run with headphones do not have, even if there are another 10 people with headphones running on the track alongside them."

The main element in unicycling is that riders must relax, loosen their muscles and their mind, and thus increase their control over the vehicle.

"In order to loosen up and be more flexible, however, one needs a lot of self-confidence," says Nir, "and that is one of the biggest challenges of this sport."

After students complete a few lessons and master riding a few dozen meters, they can begin learning how to maneuver the unicycle - riding in a straight line, slaloming, making 90-degree and 180-degree turns, riding in circles, making figure eights, and even jumping.

Tal Yanir, 12, uses her unicycle instead of a bicycle.

"A few months ago I went to play tennis," recalls Yanir, "and I saw Nimrod riding on the court. It made me want to try, too, and I asked him where I could learn. Eventually a class opened up near my house. We all learned together and helped one another maintain our balance. Now I ride a lot around the house and neighborhood, and sometimes to school. People always look at me when I am on my unicycle, and some even say 'Good for you,' or ask me if it's not scary. I hope my mom will reach my level fast, so that we can go riding around the neighborhood together."

Yanir expresses her confidence that girls and women learn faster than boys and men, as they are more flexible both physically and mentally.

Unicycle classes are offered in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramat Hasharon, Savyon, Bat Yam, Shoham, Ahisamah, Tsofit, Nov, Bnei Yehuda and elsewhere. For details visit www.unicycle.co.il. A basic unicycle for an adult costs about NIS 700. A stunt unicycle costs NIS 1,500-2,000, as do unicycles for long-range cycling and races. The best unicycles cost about NIS 4,000.

Unicycles can be purchased at the Unicycle Center of Israel and circus equipment stores. Better cycling shops also sell basic unicycle models designed for beginners. Used unicycles can also sometimes be found on online biking forums.

Off to the circusUnicycle classes are offered in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramat Hasharon, Savyon, Bat Yam, Shoham, Ahisamah, Tsofit, Nov, Bnei Yehuda and elsewhere. For details visit www.unicycle.co.il. A basic unicycle for an adult costs about NIS 700. A stunt unicycle costs NIS 1,500-2,000, as do unicycles for long-range cycling and races. The best unicycles cost about NIS 4,000.

Unicycles can be purchased at the Unicycle Center of Israel and circus equipment stores. Better cycling shops also sell basic unicycle models designed for beginners. Used unicycles can also sometimes be found on online biking forums.