Unicycling across canada

Dave Cox
Photo by Kerri Breen

If you’ve ever seen a person unicycling in St. John’s, it was likely Dave Cox. After three years of unicycling to work, now he’s kicked things into high gear. He is en route from Victoria, BC to St. John’s. On his unicycle.

Are you nervous?
A little. I don’t think it’s totally sunk in yet. My plane leaves at 6:30. Tomorrow morning I probably realise what I’ve gotten myself into. When I’m standing in line.

I saw on the blog that you’ve been packing very carefully.
It’s actually a little bit of a balancing act because you can’t take very much at all with you on a unicycle. There’s no where to put a pannier bag or anything like that. You’re kind of limited to what you can put in a back pack and what you can tie to the back of it. I’m reading about ultra lightweight backpacking on the internet. All these crazy ideas for shaving weight, just to be able to do the trip in the first place.


A photo of all Cox’s gear laid out.

One of them was a pop can stove?
Yeah, which is a really neat thing. It runs on gas line antifreeze and it cost me the can of pop I got to drink. It works pretty well. It takes seven or eight minutes to heat up a meal. You’re not doing much else out there on the trail.

So what possessed you? What got into your head?
I think it was a long time ago I wanted to do something big like ride across the country. And it wasn’t always on a unicycle necessarily. But in the past few years I’ve done a lot of big, long distance things on unicycles so I thought, why not do it on a unicycle. It’s more interesting than a bike for sure. That’s pretty much why I guess I’ve been doing it for fun. To prove I can do it.

What kind of long distance stuff have you done on a unicycle before?
I did a tour through the Mediterranean which is something like 1200 kilometres in 19 days. I was at the International Unicycle Convention doing the marathon race there and also did Ride the Lobster [a unicycle relay race] that happened in Nova Scotia. That’s 800 kilometres in four days. Seeing some really good riders and seeing what’s possible kind of led me to believe this was possible.

Really good riders… unicycle riders?
Yeah, unicycle riders breaking world records in the field of unicycling. As bizarre as that may sound, there are distance unicycling and speed unicycling records. They’re actually starting to get pretty scary fast, and it’s pretty cool to watch the sport grow.

I imagine it probably grows in tandem with any other kind of cycling as the technology develops.
Well, exactly, but in a way unicycles are like a hundred years behind the times. And I say that because it’s only recently–in the past two or three years–we’ve had the ability to put up a shiftable gear on a unicycle. Which is what mine has, and it’s really rare. You have to pedal backwards. On a bike you have a derrailer and it’s very easy to build, but it’s very difficult to build a unicycle like that. It’s interesting, the technology is just starting to come in line with what people need, and all kinds of cool things are starting to happen.

It makes it possible for me to cruise at like 30 kilometres an hour over long distances, in the right conditions. Otherwise I’d be spinning like a hamster, spinning along incredibly quickly. Whereas with this, I can pop it in high gear and in a more relaxed way go quite fast.

And that’s probably what people are imagining when people think of going on a unicycle across Canada. It’d look just crazy. It would look like a hamster in a wheel.
Well, it still kind of does look like that. It totally looks ridiculous. I think I’ve seen so many people riding for so long it looks normal to me now. I wake up in the morning, have my coffee, hop on the unicycle and go to work, and then I ride home at night. That’s just the way that it is, and I don’t really find it weird, but also I always find it great that every day there’s someone… you look at them and you put a smile on their face and they’re a little bit happier for having seen you do your crazy thing that day.

And you ride in the winter! I’ve seen you around.
DC: Yeah, I’m always trying to keep in shape. [laugh] It’s my way of exercising.

For this ride you’d have to be in very good shape.
Yep, and actually it’s good because I’ve had the time to prepare for it properly and do some really nice rides. Up to a hundred kilometres in a day kind of thing. My legs are getting pretty beefy now. (laugh)

Have you measured them?
No, I haven’t measured them. But it’s easier to get up Prescott than it once was.

I’m really curious about technically how you change gears. Can you walk me through that process?
The hub is an internally geared bicycle hub. It’s a really big, fat thing, as opposed to a narrow kind that you have on a bike. There’s a whole planet gear system in it. The crank attaches to the hub. There’s a little button—a gold one and a silver one—and of course the gold is the high button, because of course why not. As your foot comes around you kick your heel in and it contacts the button and pushes it in and it moves the whole thing sideways and goes ca-chunk. You freewheel a little bit then all of a sudden you’re riding in high gear. It’s kind of hard to describe, unless you’re a unicyclist, the total amazement of being able to do it. But it’s a very cool thing.

How long have you had it?
It’s only been two weeks now.

Holy cow! And you’re headed across Canada with it.
I’ve been starting to break it in. I’ve been riding 36” wheels for quite some time. That’s what we did the Mediterranean tour on. Everyone was on 36, and they can still go quite fast and cover a lot of distance. The gear is taking a little bit of time to get used to though, that’s for sure.

What’s your favourite ride in the St John’s area?
Just recently I rode to Petty Harbour and back. It’s the route where you go up to Cape Spear and you turn off to Petty Harbour then you go back through the Goulds. Absolutely gorgeous ride. I hadn’t realised. I hadn’t actually ever been to Petty Harbour, even though I live so close to it my whole life. I was like ‘wow, this is great.’ It’s a nice little 40 kilometre loop that’s just really nice to ride.

How long did it take you?
I’m usually averaging 17-18 kilometres per hour. I don’t really push myself too much when I’m in touring mode I guess. It probably took me a little over two hours to do the loop.

So you say you use your bike… your unicycle… Do you call it a bike?
Sometimes, but it’s usually an accident. I’m always correcting people when they call it a bike.

Do you say uni?
Uni, yeah some people say that for sure. This one would be a “guni” because it’s geared. You can get mountain unicycles as well and they’re called “munies”. Pretty common terminology in the unicycle world anyway.

So you use it for commuting. How long ago have you been doing that?
I’d say since the day after I got it. When I got my first 36″ wheel it must have been three years ago now. A week later I rode it across Nova Scotia to get to Halifax, which was totally ridiculous because I didn’t know what I was doing, but after that I started to ride it everywhere. First of all, my bike was broken, so I didn’t really have a choice. Second of all, it was so much fun it was impossible to not want to go for rides all the time.

So it helped that you bike was broken?
I think so, because sometimes you’re late for something and you’re like, “I could ride or I could hop in my car.” And, you know, you usually take the one that gets you there on time. So that probably did help, yeah.

And your employer is probably saying…
“You’re five minutes late but it was totally entertaining to see you pull into the parking lot.”

[laugh]
“So we’ll let it slide.”

So you got into it a while ago, I hear, after seeing the local magician Peter Duchemin on one.
Yeah, he was just riding down the road, and I was walking with my friends, and I was like “where did you get it?!” And the rest is history, pretty much.

Have you turned many people on to unicycling?
I really don’t know. I think the thing about unicycling is it has a really high learning curve. It takes about two weeks of an hour’s practice a day to learn how to ride. Some people can do it in 15 minutes, and some people need a year, but generally it’s about two weeks. So you get a kid who’s like “I’m going to go skateboard” and can get on the skateboard and go, at least, when he first gets it, but with the unicycle you’re basically stuck within two feet for the first couple hours, so I think that’s one of the barriers for why it’s not really widespread. But I think there have been a few people who have started, or at least ridden more, just because I’m around.

What’s one of your favourite things about unicycling in Newfoundland in particular?
It’s a difficult one to answer because I haven’t ridden a whole lot in other places. It’s actually nicer riding everywhere else. Less hills, less wind and it’s warmer and there’s more bike trails and people to ride with so I think I’m just sticking it out here in some ways.

[laugh]
You know, it’s just so much fun. Hopefully I won’t stop anytime soon.

We were going to ask what’s the worst thing about biking in Newfoundland, but we thought the question was too negative. [laugh]
The scenery is really great, I just don’t appreciate it more because I’m always surrounded by it. But that would probably be it.

What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about unicycling?
The question that I get asked the most — after “where’s your other wheel?” — is “how do you go up hills on that thing?” But it’s not really any more difficult than riding up hills on a bike. You just kind of point yourself at it and go towards it. But no one seems to be able to understand that you can stay upright up a hill on a unicycle but its totally possible.

Where’s your centre of balance?
You’re leaning a little bit forward of your centre of balance so to keep yourself upright you have to peddle. That’s the physics of it. You’re slightly forward so you don’t fall backwards and hurt yourself.

I’m excited to read your trip as you blog about it. How often do you think you’ll be updating the site?
As often as I can. On the route there are a lot of towns. Which is another nice thing about places other than Newfoundland. [laugh] There are a lot of towns that I’ll be passing through, and I’m going to have to stop and get supplies and food and hang out with the locals. I’m going to be trying to find internet once a day. That’s the plan. We’ll see how that works out for me. I think people really like having something to follow along like this. I know when I’m reading other people’s stories of their trips it’s always fun to see updates. I’m going to try my best to provide for anyone that might be following along in the way that they might provide for me.

There’s a message on your Facebook group that reads “I pray for your crotch.”
Sometimes I do too. [laugh]

Unicycle seat technology has actually advanced quite a bit in the last few years.

…Thank God!
This guy, Kris Holm, he’s a mountain unicyclist from Vancouver Island and he’s put a lot of money into seat molds and does research on this stuff. I have padded bike shorts too. As long as your riding position is okay it’s not too bad. But after you add a 30 pound backpack, it can get a little uncomfortable after a couple days of riding. But, you know, the nice thing about it too is that if I get tired or if I start to hurt in some way I can get off and take a break and ride some more when I feel like it. That’s really nice.

Just consider donating to a sperm bank before you do this.
[laugh] Yep, my children are going to have weirdly-shaped heads or something.

One last question: Does your unicycle have a name?
No. And actually that’s another thing with these trips. People grow more attached to their equipment, and I’ve always found it’s my equipment and I take care of it, and I maintain it but I don’t tend to personalise it. It’s just gear that keeps me going.

Well I wish you good luck. Any thing else that I missed?
I just wanted to make sure people knew I’m not totally nuts — I’m only kind of nuts. I know a little bit about what I’m doing, I’m not totally unprepared, and it’s not quite as brain-dead as it might seem to ride a unicycle across the country. I’ve been training for it, I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve put a lot of time into planning routes and finding places to stay and thinking of all the possibilities. I don’t have them all, but I think it’s going to work out.

That’s part of the fun of it too—the unknowns.
The trick to travelling I found is you plan just enough so you know where to sleep and you’ve got enough to be comfortable, and after that you just leave it to chance, and that’s where all the adventure happens.

You can follow Dave Cox’s adventure on his blog at tinyurl.com/­unicycledave

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