Not so long ago I got in contact with Kris Holm who is probably the world’s leading mountain unicyclist. He is famous for having cycled on a mountain unicycle all over the world and for having created his own bicycle brand.
Given the chance, I had to ask him a few questions about unicycling:
How did you get into unicycling?
Originally I was inspired by a street performer and asked for a unicycle for my 12th birthday. That was in 1986. I didn’t know anyone else who rode one, and coming form an outdoorsy family it just seemed natural to ride on singletrack. I was also into rock climbing, and trials unicycling (trials is obstacle riding, just like bike trials) is mentally very similar.
I’d take my unicycle to a local beach and try to ride on rocks and logs. It wasn’t until much later that this time period became known as the origins of mountain and trials unicycling.
What is the difference between a standard unicycle and an offroad unicycle?
Modern unicycles are like bikes – it’s no longer just about road versus offroad. You can find unicycles for almost every riding style, from styles that look like bmx riding to offroad cross-country and downhill. A good offroad unicycle typically has a high volume mountain bike tire, strong 24″ to 29″ wheelset, splined cranks, disc brakes, and it might even have a front handle and gears.
A modern road unicycle has a wheel as large as 36″ and can go over 30 km/hr. If you visit a good unicycle shop (e.g. Unicycle.com Denmark) and ask for a good unicycle, they will want to know what kind of riding you do. Just like bikes.
What made you build your first offroad unicycle?
From 1986 to 1998 I used a standard 24″ unicycle because commercially made mountain unicycles did not yet exist. Then in 1998 I moved to Vancouver and discovered the famous North Shore trails. It became obvious this was inadequate for such trails, and I worked with a custom builder to make a 26″ unicycle with splined BMX cranks and brakes. This was the unicycle I rode in all my early films and I guess you could say it was the first “KH” brand unicycle.
Today Kris Holm Unicycles has distribution in over 15 countries. Really, the story is not that different from the emergence of mountain bikes in the 1970’s.
Is there a specific unicycle model you prefer to ride on?
Around town I ride a geared 36″ wheel unicycle, which is almost as fast as a bike. For most offroad riding I prefer a 26″ setup with a mid-fat tire (around 3″) that provides shock absorbency. For easier XC trails I’d ride a 29er. Like any bike fanatic you end up with a quiver of unicycles that you select from for specific rides.
What is your favourite of all the places you have been with your unicycle?
Every trip has been amazing for different reasons. I’ll never forget freeriding for a month in Bhutan in the early 2000’s, because of the incredible riding and the people we met. But the best part of this sport is not the rare trips, it’s that I get to ride virtually every day, close to home. Southwest BC contains a lifetime’s worth of world class riding, the diversity is just incredible. Recently I had the chance to do the first riding descent of an alpine peak near Canmore, Alberta, called Heart Mountain. That was a beautiful trip – no cameras or media, just a solo descent of a hard trail that no one had previously ridden.
Any recommendations for people who wants to go from normal bikes to unicycling?
Unicycling is challenging to learn, but not difficult once you know how. So above all – be patient with yourself. Most riders take 10-15 hours to learn the basics. Second, be sure to check out the full scope of the sport, not just viral unicycle videos of elite riders. Imagine how doable biking would look if you had only seen Danny MacAskill videos. Yet that is how many people judge unicycling. The reality is that the sport is just as diverse as biking.
What about if you want to go from normal unicycling to offroad unicycling?
Just like bikes, you can start riding easy trails as soon as you can ride down the street. Even though you fall more, it’s actually safer than mountain biking because top speeds are lower. The most basic offroad riding skill you need is to ride while holding the front saddle handle, for control over rocks and bumps.
Can you tell us a bit about your Factory Team and your Evolution of Balance grant?
In partnership with co-sponsors, the KH team is a way for me to give back by helping support the next generation of top riders. The team is doing some amazing things, most recently Lutz Eicholz’s unicycle descent of 5670 m Mt. Damvand in Iran.
The Evolution of Balance grant is a mountaineering-style grant supporting independent unicycling adventures. Previous winners have traversed Panama, ridden North America’s Continental divide trail and traversed offroad through South Africa from Durban to Cape Town. The most recent winner is Cary Gray, who is over 20,000 km into an epic unicycle ride criss-crossing North and South America.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about your book?
My book is called The Essential Guide to Mountain and Trials Unicycling. It’s an instructional guide, photographic showcase of our sport, and a way for me to share stories and experiences after almost 30 years of riding. It is a far more complete and realistic picture of mountain and trials unicycling than you will ever see in a video. More info on the book is at www.gradientpress.com.
If you haven’t seen some videos with Kris Holm already, you might want to start with this one where Kris talks about how he got into mountain unicycling.