Unicycling is a sport. Contrary to popular perception, it’s not just for circus performers, eccentric panhandlers, and that odd kid you knew in elementary school. Competitive unicycling takes a number of forms, from one-wheeled basketball to off-road trail bombing. But maybe the largest cohort of sport unicyclists is the extreme (I promise that is the first and last time that word will be used in this article) athletic urban riders who hop, spin, and flip like Tony Hawk with a seat.
Called “flatland” or “street” riding, the sport even has a whole glossary of moves and tricks from the International Unicycling Federation (IUF) that sound like they wouldn’t be out of place on an X-Games broadcast (“crankflip,” “wheel-walk,” “catch-foot”). And just like with skateboarding and BMX, some tricks are so difficult that they are almost legendary. But what is the most difficult trick on one wheel, and what does it take to master?
“I still think it’s true to this day that a fresh unicyclist can rise to the top in just a few years with a lot of dedicated practice, and carving your own niche in a sport with an international scene is a really amazing feeling,” says Eli Brill, a young professional unicycler who has been pushing the limits of what is physically possible for over a decade. “I got into unicycling 10 years ago, when I was 12. At the time a lot of my friends were into skateboarding and riding bikes or scooters, and we liked doing tricks on anything we could find.”
For most, just getting on a unicycle seems like an almost impossible trick, but, as Brill says, with enough practice, just about anyone can ride, and probably even learn a few tricks. “When riders first dive into the world of street and flatland unicycling, it is often recommended that the first tricks they learn should be 180 twists, 180 unispins, and crankflips,” he says. A 180 twist sees the rider hop up with their unicycle and turn to face the opposite direction. A 180 unispin is similar, but you actually jump off the unicycle while it turns, and land back on the pedals. And then a crankflip requires the rider to hop off of unicycle and spin the wheel around before landing back on the pedals. Sounds easy enough right?
While such moves might seem advanced to us, they’re the basics that more difficult tricks are built on. “A hickflip, for example, is when a rider performs a 180 unispin and a crankflip at the same time. A 180 flip is when a rider performs a 180 twist and crankflip at the same time. A smallspin is a 180 twist and a 180 unispin at the same time. Riders can work up to 360 twists, 360 unispins, doubleflips, and higher—and then all of those tricks can be performed simultaneously again,” says Brill.
Brill says that he’s mastered every move at the IUF’s highest level, but there are a number of tricks that still elude even the most masterful riders. There are three in particular that he says are likely contenders for most difficult unicycle trick. One is adding an additional rotation to the ever-rotating unispin, so that the the rider jumps off the pedals and spins the cycle like a top before landing back on the pedals. The current record stands at 1260° of spin (3.5 full rotations), first done by Brill himself in 2012. “It has always been a huge deal in urban unicycling when someone manages to tack on another 180 to the current biggest unispin,” he says. “It’s fun because whenever somebody lands a bigger spin, it feels like it is impossible to go any higher—until someone eventually manages to make it happen. As of right now, three riders have landed 1260s, and it’s about time for somebody to step up and try to land the 1440.”
Then there’s the seatwhip, in which the rider jumps off the unicycle and flip the whole thing—seat-over-wheel—before landing on the pedals and riding away. This trick wasn’t even accomplished until 2010 when, according to Brill, an American rider named Max Schulze pulled it off, and named it the “maxwhip.” Since 2010, a number of riders have managed it, all the while adding various spins and flourishes that keep ratcheting up the difficulty. “Honestly, I’d be ecstatic if I could master any variation of the seatwhip. But the one that would make me the most happy would be my one-handed whip,” says Brill. “It’s different from the other variations in that it starts and ends with me sitting on the seat—as opposed to riding two-handed with the seat in front of my body—which I think makes it look really stylish.”
Lastly, Brill mentions the full-body frontflip, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, but with a unicycle between your legs. “This trick is truly legendary both for the boldness required to even attempt it, as well as for its sheer difficulty,” says Brill. “I think it will be interesting to see how the community handles this trick moving forward—I know that in a lot of extreme [author’s note: I lied.] sports the ‘first backflip ever’ is a huge milestone. That is something that has yet to be landed on a unicycle.”
Brill and his urban unicycling comrades continue to try to top themselves, but for now, he remains the undisputed master of at least one of the apex tricks. “Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, at the moment I am the only active rider who can land a 1260,” he says. “So I think, as of right now, the chasm between the first 1260 and the first 1440 is destined to continue growing wider and wider.”
However, as he says, with enough practice and determination, just about anyone can become a skilled unicyclist, so it’s possible that all new legendary tricks, or yet crazier versions of the existing ones, are right around the corner. No matter how long it takes to invent new master-level techniques or break the records, the next unicycle master probably won’t be found in the circus.