No joke, I like racing unicycles. Since 2008 it’s mostly replaced my need to bicycle race. That’s changed a bit over the last couple of years as I’ve begun to again occasionally toe the line on two wheels, but high speed unicycle racing will always fascinate me as unlike bike racing, the sport is relatively new. The first Unicon (unicycle world championships) wasn’t until 1984. Before that, North America had the North American Unicycling Championships and Convention (NAUCC) which dated back to 1973 for the first one. The 36″ wheel wasn’t available until the late 1990s, and the Marathon didn’t really take hold until at least the mid 2000s. The 2 speed 1.54 overdrive hub, the Schlumpf, wasn’t available until 2005. Since then, speeds have increased as well as participation in racing. Just how fast? The current world record speed for the Marathon (yes, 42.195km) is 19.9mph.
With all of this significant development in the sport, there is significant development in the sport’s rules. As with any sport, some of the rules to unicycle racing are going to differ from those in other racing disciplines. Since many unicycles are direct drive, the size of the wheel matters. In theory, the bigger wheel goes faster. This is mostly true in practice- in Road Racing. Off-Road racing is a whole other discussion. Things also get a bit messy when considering the 2-speed shiftable overdrive hub as it alters the virtual wheel size with it’s own changes in handling due to the transmission. While that is part of this discussion, it’s not the focus.
Now that the background rambling is over, we can now get to the question:
Should there be a separate 29er class for the NAUCC Marathon?
The short answer: No. 29ers are welcome to race as part of the Unlimited class and placings count in age group placings as well (and also get counted towards the subset of overall Ungeared). However, there should not be a separate class for the 29in wheel ungeared unicycle.
- Speed. Road Racing is supposed to be fast. For the most part 36″ riders on ungeared unicycles are much faster than 29″ riders on ungeared unicycles since most riders run out of cadence before strength. 36″ wheels travel 24% further every pedal stroke. Even though the 36er wheel is heavier, it’s incredibly difficult to spin 24% faster on the smaller wheel. There is not a full Ungeared 36″ class yet as there aren’t enough Schlumpf hubs being raced to warrant splitting the Unlimited class fully into Geared and Ungeared, so why would a slower wheel get preference?
- Time. Very few elite riders at NAUCC choose to road race smaller wheels. This typically leaves the Ungeared 29er for those who are not comfortable on a 36″ wheel yet. A 26.2 mi Marathon is a long race. While the fastest riders are in the 1:30ish range (geared 36″= virtual 54″ wheel), the slowest ungeared 36″ riders sometimes still struggle to make 3:30. Some riders have finished on ungeared 29″ unis ahead of some ungeared 36″ unis, but they have not broken the top 10 of the ungeared 36″ unis yet. The Marathon is a long event. Being part of an approximately 30 event schedule for a week, it needs a cutoff time. By adding a 29er class (before 36″ ungeared) we would possibly be encouraging a few more riders to attempt the Marathon, but we would also run into more riders hitting the cutoff time and needing to be swept from the course.
- Geared (36, 29, 27.5, or 26) vs. Ungeared is a class designation that needs to develop first. Being that geared hubs have proven to be a definite advantage in Road Racing over the past 10 years, we recently added to the rulebook a clause to recognize the top finishing Ungeared rider as North American Champion. That clause is in effect when 5 or more Schlumpf riders are entered in an event as the Ungeared rider can get squeezed out of a top 5 finish. Unfortunately, uni racing hasn’t hit the point where the geared hub is ubiquitous enough yet to separate into Geared and Ungeared categories. It’s likely when the Geared vs. Ungeared split happens that the 36″ ungeared (the current biggest pneumatic wheel size) will be faster than the 29″ ungeared. Then again, maybe something bigger than a 36″ wheel will take hold by then. Giving the smaller wheel the nod now by making a 29er class would not make sense.
- For the good of the sport we should encourage racers to race at the highest, fastest level they possibly can. While geared unicycles can typically be the fastest, geared unicycles are not for all unicyclists. A single speed direct-drive unicycle is a very simple machine. It’s pure in a running sort of way. In a foot-running race, the person who runs the fastest wins. On an equally wheel sized simple machine, it’s the person who pedals the fastest. That has strong roots in the sport of unicycle racing and should be honored. A geared unicycle is comparatively much more complex and expensive- pretty much tripling the cost of the uni. And there’s a much greater chance of mechanical failure as well. In the realm of road racing, geared riding is typically the fastest, which is one of the main goals of racing. But, the addition of a transmission, extra expense and complexity skew the sport away from running races and more towards bicycle racing. Uni racing occupies that unique space somewhere in the middle and we should continue to respect the past and look forward to the future.
Completing a Marathon- whether by running on foot or balancing on top of a wheel with not much more than a seat and pedals, is indeed a significant accomplishment and should be celebrated. Anyone who completes the distance on any size wheel should always have their time and placings recorded. Newer riders should be encouraged to ride the Marathon as it’s the longest distance race offered in many unicycling competitions. However, until the ridership is large enough to support multiple class splits from what we currently have, we should not have a 29er class offered at NAUCC.
Now, the devil’s advocate addendum:
The 29 ungeared (instead of 36) is the Standard Class at Unicon. I was on the Rulebook Committee when we debated the merits of it. The reasons presented for the 29 becoming the standard before the 36 in the realm of intercontinental competitions were:
- Intercontinental air travel is the norm. A 29″ wheel is the biggest that fits standard airline baggage restrictions for international travel. A rider can also easily pack a frame and several wheels (29, 27.5, 26, and/or 24) and be able to compete in many of the events at Unicon.
- At the international level there are many 29er riders who are faster than many of the ungeared 36er riders attempting the Marathon for the first time who are not Road Racing Specialists. Timing is much less of an issue.
- It may seem unfair that the Ungeared 36 did not get a class designation yet, but the top 3 Ungeared riders will now be recognized. This was another rule that was voted into the rulebook the same time the 29 as the Standard size wheel was.
Maybe you enjoyed some of this nerdery, or maybe you tuned out. It’s OK either way. Unicycle racing is important, but not very profitable. Being a North American Champion, along with $3, will buy a cup of coffee at a decent coffee shop. This blog’s about the same as it isn’t about making money, it’s about making sense of the world around me.