Gadgets

'Riding on the future': My first time on an electric unicycle

Crave writer Amanda Kooser overcomes her distrust of unicycles by ruling the road on the Focus Designs SBU V3 self-balancing electric unicycle.

On the SBU V3
Preparing for take-off on the SBU V3. Amanda Kooser/CNET

Unicycles look difficult to ride. The only people I've ever seen on unicycles was the one kid in high school who went to clown college on his summer break and that talented troupe of local street performers who also breathe fire. I never imagined a unicycle would be for me. I just knew I would end up flat on my face if I even tried. All my life, it was two wheels or bust. Until I met the SBU V3.

SBU stands for self-balancing unicycle. It comes from Focus Designs, a Washington company obsessed with unusual electric-powered one-wheel devices. In 2008, Focus debuted the original SBU by modifying a regular unicyle design, adding a battery, and integrating accelerometers and gyroscopes. Focus could have called it a day right there, but instead it's been steadily improving the SBU until it reached the current pinnacle of electric unicycles: the V3. The V3 has a noticeably sleeker design compared with the two previous SBU models. It's faster and has a slightly smaller wheel, which gives it more torque to help haul you up hills.

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Hanging out with the SBU V3. Amanda Kooser/CNET

My faith was about to be tested. I was going to have to reexamine the belief that I would never be a unicyle rider. The V3 arrived at my house swaddled in styrofoam. I hauled it out, marveling at the sheer solidity and weight of the thing. This isn't a toy. This is a serious vehicle. I pored over the manual and watched an introductory video on riding it. Then, I got on, wearing my bike helmet for protection.

I imagined the wind rushing against my face as I swept across the urban landscape. I walked the SBU around to get used to leaning forward to accelerate and leaning back to stop. Then, I pulled my feet up and tried to ride. I fell over to the side. I fell over again, having scooted forward only a few inches. I fell over many, many times, always catching myself easily with my feet. I thought, "Hmm, maybe I'm not cut out for being a unicyclist. Perhaps I should have enrolled in clown college first."

The self-balancing part of the SBU is forward-to-back, not side-to-side. It will help you out, but you still need to develop some skill. I headed off to a local park with long stretches of concrete and no cars. I brought a friend along to encourage me. (This is actually really helpful.) I fell over some more. But then something started to happen. I could go forward, feet off the ground, and not fall over. I went farther and farther. I picked up speed. I relaxed. I could do it.

Riding the SBU V3 is the closest I've ever felt to riding on the future, like I should be rolling through some sci-fi movie. There's a gliding sensation, and a feeling of power when you speed up, zip along and then bring it to a controlled stop. I see how it could earn its place as a urban commuting device. It's so much less conspicuous than a Segway, though it certainly turns heads as bystanders try to figure out why you're not pedaling.

My straight lines are excellent. My turning skills need work. What I least expected is how my mind wanders to the SBU when I'm not riding it, thinking ahead to taking it back out and improving my abilities. It has a range of up to 10 miles (16 kilometers) and a top speed of 12.5 mph. I haven't hit the limit yet, but I've probably gotten pretty close.

I know an electric unicycle isn't for everyone. It costs $1,795 (about £1,103, AU$ 1,984). It weighs 27 pounds, or 12 kilograms, so you won't want to have to carry it for long distances, though you can buy a special backpack for hauling it about if you need. There is a learning curve. Yours might be long like mine, or you might take to it right away. If you're worried, you can always drop an extra $85 on some Noob Wheels, cute little training wheels for your V3.

I see unicycles very differently now. They're no longer just the transportation mode of choice for people too quirky to ride a regular bike. Unicyles aren't dorky; they're as cool as bow ties, fezzes and Stetsons. The SBU V3, in particular, is the landspeeder and "Tron" light bike of the unicycle world. I now look at my regular bike like it's too much, just too ostentatious with all those wheels. It can't compete with one wheel, a full charge and the world whirling by under my feet.