The Essential Guide to Mountain and Trials Unicycling by Kris Holm

26er Gear

This book by Kris Holm is the first book written about unicycling in a mountain environment. It’s also the first book written about trials unicycling but since I’m writing this review for a mountain-biking website, I’ll focus on the mountain and trail-riding aspects.

So why write about unicycles on MTBR? I don’t even unicycle; in the 10 years I’ve known Kris he’s never been able to talk me into trying one. But first a caveat to get this out of the way. I fully expect snarky comments about unicycling and this review in general but I’ll remind anyone who reads this of several things:

  • In many parts of North America, grown men and women who ride bicycles are looked on as poor misguided souls. “Why on earth would you ride that push-bike around?”. Remember that just the act of riding a bike recreationally already makes you a bit of a freak in the land of triple Baconators
  • 29ers, 26″ wheels, 650B, 24″ wheels, penny-farthings, singlespeeds, geared bikes, 1×9, 2×9, 3×10 – we all ride different bikes with different equipment and different choices
  • Recreational cycling, recreational unicycling and indeed, all recreational pursuits are inherently nihilistic activities

To answer my own question, I thought I’d write this because unicycling seems like a great way to get to see places and have experiences that are inherently cool. It’s a means of locomotion and transportation that is (my opinion) also inherently cool. Just like bicycles, unicycling is a self-powered wheeled activity that is simple (simpler actually) and relatively portable. I’ve seen quite a bit of tribalism develop in MTBR over the past few years (just look at the ridiculousness of the 29er vs 26’er fanboy debates or the inherent ludicrousness of All-Mountain specific equipment) and thought that this review of a sport that is so alike (yet so dissimilar) might lend itself to a bit of introspection and perhaps, open some minds.

This video is of a 4 day trip riding in the high alpine of the Chilcotin. Each day was approximatel 2000m of climbing and averaged 45km each day. Kris was on this trip and was often leading the pack – especially killing us on the hike-a-bikes.

So who is Kris Holm and why is he qualified to write about this topic. Kris is a professional unicyclist. He’s also a geoscientist but spends about half his time running Kris Holm Unicycles.. He’s also the most well-known unicyclist in the world and is the person who you’ll recognize from TV commercials, from magazine articles about riding next to the Squamish Chief, or riding railings of the Burrard Bridge 10’s of meters above the waters of False Creek in Vancouver or  in Bhutan (just to quote some examples).

Mountain and Trials Unicycling” is a labour of love born of a passion for unicycling from a man who’s been riding single wheels for over 20 years and who has singlehandedly grown a sport from nascent beginnings, seen it thrive and spent countless hours and hours being an ambassador for having a good time on one wheel. Kris is genuinely committed to seeing the sport flourish and grow and has a ton of experience and knowledge in his head; knowledge that’s he’s not been afraid to share with others via KHU and via instructional movies and videos.

Mountain and Trials Unicycling” is printed on high-quality paper and laid out professionally. The photos are beautiful and depict unicycles being used in places and on trails that defy stereotypes. In fact, an undercurrent of this book is that it does break the stereotype of the unicycle being almost a circus toy used to cavort around campgrounds. Kris and others have ridden these machines in multi-day trips across serious terrain (the author did the 7 day BC Bike Race on his unicycle and podiumed in his category) and ridden some seriously committing trails.

The book is laid out logically. An Introduction sets the background for the sport’s genesis and lays some groundwork for complete Noobs (ie beginners). The next chapter covers Equipment. It turns out that unicycles are very simple but even so the sport has evolved specific equipment needs as unicycles become specific to different needs (up and down “cross-country” trails vs touring long flat distances vs street trials vs freeride offroad trials ). Tongue in cheek I will therefore note that a quick perusal of the KHU and other online retailers catalogs and forums will reveal that gear – weenies also exist in unicycling & that there are different wheel sizes (10″, 24″, 26″, 29″, 36″) but all seem to co-exist fraternally in a unicyclist sister/brotherhood without keyboard posturing. Perhaps mountain-biking can take something from this!

The next section then addresses Safety making the observation that, in most cases, unicycles move slower than bikes and that its harder to get hurt unicycling than biking. Riding with Kris I’ve also observed that its harder to get tangled up with the uni than a bike. Having said that he’s big into safety gear especially for beginners and kids. The subject is accordingly canvassed in some detail.

The next few chapters then get into Unicycle Trials. Essentially this involves riding over or on obstacles on a uni and is a subject about which I’m frankly quite disinterested so I skimmed the chapters. There’s a lot of content here and even my cursory glance shows that many of the skills you’d learn (eg hopping onto trees. hopping off rocks onto other rocks) would be useful for riding munis (mountain unicycles) on trails. Kris’s instruction is thorough, photos are exceedingly well done and his writing conveys contagious enthusiasm.

For me, the meat of the book is the Mountain Unicycling section. I approached this as someone who appreciates trails and mountains. Reading cool vignettes about places to see and how to see them (almost incidentally) on a unicycle was fascinating. Kris takes the lessons from previous chapters on Trials and Equipment and explains their utility in the context of trail riding getting into details of pacing, approaching obstacles, managing hazard and getting around a surprising amount of terrain on a Muni.

One takeaway from “Mountain and Trials Unicycling” is some insight into the mentality of people who ride unicycles. At the risk of generalizing it seems that unicyclists are persistent, patient people who like simplicity and can do more with less. Another takeaway (and eye-opener) was the extent of trails and terrain n which you could ride unicycles ranging from smooth rides of the Colorado Trail from technical features of Vancouver’s North Shore. The other message is that if bike riders think they know what mountain unicycling is all about and all they’ve seen is videos, they should think again.  For the first time this book shows what the sport is really all about, in context, as the sport’s participants see it.  What’s remarkable is really how unremarkable it is – a sport much smaller than biking but that spans the same demographic range and nearly the same diversity of riding styles.

You can buy “The Essential Guide to Mountain and Trials Unicycling” for $ 19.95 from the same place that you can download a preview chapter. Buy the book! Try a unicycle (do as I say, not as I do), you might just like it.


About the author: Lee Lau

Lee Lau calls North Vancouver and Whistler BC home. He's had over 15 years experience riding bikes mainly in western North America and in Europe. Unlike many people who learned to ride bikes on North Shore trails, he actually enjoys riding (and sometimes bushwhacking) uphill.

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