One of the local cycling club’s fun annual events is the Chilly Challenge New Year’s Day ride and Chilli Dinner. I usually ride the four miles to the start, ride the 25 mile route with the club, eat some chili, then ride home. In 2010, I learned to unicycle, so three of us unicycled an abbreviated version of the route in 2011. This year we tried again.

Only two of us rode with the club, though we did see ‘Coker Guy’ ride zip by on his 36 inch unicycle on the way to the ride. This year we were much better prepared. In the last year my brother and I both found deals on used unicycles, so instead of riding 26 inch wheels, I rode my 29 inch wheel and my brother rode his 36 inch wheel.


Unlike on a bicycle where changing gears is just a matter of using different cogs, on a unicycle ‘gear’ is set only by the ratio of wheel radius to crank length. (Well, if you are rich, you could buy a Schlumpf hub.) I usually ride off-road on my 29 inch wheel with 165 mm cranks. A week before the Chilly Challenge, I swapped my 165 mm cranks for 125 mm cranks. This moved my gain ratio from 2.2 to 2.9. For comparison, I usually mountain bike at a gain ratio of 4, and the lowest gain ratio on my road bike is 3.3. The higher gain ratio theoretically makes it easier to ride faster on the road, but it also takes getting used to. To maintain the same riding posture, shortening the cranks by 40 mm means also raising the seat by 40 mm, which has a large effect on balance, particularly on cambers. The shorter cranks also mean you are moving your feet in smaller circles, slightly changing the muscles being used. With these changes, it took me two hours of riding to get mostly used to the shorter cranks.

The shorter cranks also make it even easier to out-spin my comfort level. Sitting so much higher also sligtly lowers my comfort level, especially on a day with strong winds. With 125 mm cranks on a 29 inch wheel, I fairly frequently think, ‘woah, I’m riding fast,’ then UPD. Since my brother was riding a 36 inch wheel with 150 mm cranks (giving him a gain ratio of 3.0) the limit on our speed was the point where I felt I was spinning to fast for a road ride. Fortunately, riding the Chilly Challenge helped me become much more comfortable with short cranks.

The ride

January 1 was a warm and dry day, but very windy. The winds were constant at around 25 mph, with much faster gusts. Because of the wind, this was by far the smallest group for the Chilly Challenge in the years I’ve ridden it; I’ve seen more riders on much colder years when it was wet out. Because the people who showed up this year were mostly serious club riders, we weren’t able to keep up on our unicycles as far as we did last year, so we took some shortcuts—and a long-cut—meeting the bike club at the site of the Polar Bear Plunge. The Polar Bears started a earlier than usual, so we arrived just as they were leaving the river. Since it was so warm out, I’d thought of joining the Polar Bears this year—it doesn’t seem so intimidating after the water on the HUFF course this year—but decided unicycling would be more fun. After the Polar Bear stop, we rode back to the starting point by a route slightly longer than the official short route. Even though we rode longer and farther than last year, the extra unicycling practice and better suited unicycles made it feel like a shorter ride.

After the ride is the traditional chili dinner at the park. There was a good variety if chilis to sample, but even the ones marked ‘Spicy’ were very mild. They tasted pretty good though.

Now that the Chilly Challenge and HUFF are over, I’m looking forward to the start of winter even more than I already was. Will winter ever come this year?