Rewind four years and Australian Kelli Jackson harboured a dream to one day ride a unicycle across the world. However, in her own words, Kelli was an ‘overweight, middle-aged smoker who couldn’t walk up a hill’ and had never ridden a unicycle, let alone trained on one. This didn’t stop her. Four years and many major life changes later, 52-year-old Kelli has unicycled across Taiwan, South Korea and North Korea – the first person in the world outside North Korea to do so – and has many more worldwide unicycling adventures planned.
In this Q&A, Kelli shares the impetus behind her goal to unicycle the world, plus the tricky logistics of riding a one-wheel bike without handlebars up and down hills whilst carrying luggage. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story, Kelli.
Where did your idea to unicycle the world come from?
In 2015/16 I went through a pretty tough period of post-traumatic growth after a difficult life situation and decided I wanted to do something a bit epic. I’d always had this notion that unicycling the world would be a pretty incredible thing to do. I have no idea why! Possibly because no one had actually done that. I also had no concept of whether it was even possible. And I couldn’t actually ride a unicycle…
In 2019, I met my current partner and had to make a decision about that big goal. Instead of leaving home to embark on a 3.5-year trip, I decided to try and keep the relationship going and do one unicycle ride each year. It was Lucy Barnard (currently walking the length of the world) who taught me how to feel okay with changing my goal. I remember her saying ‘it’s your trip – no one else’s – and you can do whatever you want’. Up until that, I’d felt like a bit of let down in changing the goalposts for what I wanted to do. Besides, a young bloke from the UK (Ed Pratt) set off in 2018, and he did unicycle around the world. I have to say, unicycling entire countries, even small ones, still feels a bit epic.
How difficult was the ‘learning to ride’ process and how long did it take?
If you’re a Cirque de Soleil acrobat, or a professional dancer, or an Olympic Gymnast, it would probably take you about half an hour to learn, because you’ve got great core strength. But as an overweight, middle-aged smoker, I had zero abdominals and had to build them up over time.
Unicycling is the only thing I’ve ever learnt where I couldn’t ‘think’ my way into learning it. Your body has to learn to balance itself, and the only way to do that is by spending time on the ‘bike’. It took me over 12 months to learn to ride. I was also an over-cautious learner. If I’d been a 14-year-old boy who gets on and falls off 10 times, I probably would have learnt much quicker.
As you put it, you were ‘an overweight, middle-aged smoker who couldn’t walk up a hill’. Did this mean you had to make major life changes while also learning to ride?
Hell, yes! I had to change my entire identity because ‘overweight accountant’ wasn’t going to get me a) riding unicycles or b) around the world on a unicycle. That involved some deep work in redefining who I wanted to be, and then pursuing the behaviours and actions and values that someone like that would have. I took up a pretty steep training regime, ate healthily and completely changed my sleeping habits.
I had a sign taped to my TV that said ‘At Olympic Training Camp’. Of course, I wasn’t at Olympic Training Camp and never would be, but that sign reminded me every day to make sure that every action I took was moving me forward towards my goal. I haven’t watched TV now for years.
In 2018, I left my 20-year, safe corporate accounting job to be able to focus exclusively on training.
Where did the idea to ride the length of Taiwan come from and how experienced in riding were you when arrived there?
My partner was visiting Taiwan (and I think secretly wanted some company!) and asked if I’d considered adding Taiwan to my then around-the-world route. Quite naively, the only thing I knew about Taiwan was that a lot of hardware items seemed to be manufactured there. I Googled ‘Unicycling in Taiwan’ and discovered a group of school kids had unicycled around the island. I thought, well, if they can do it, surely I can?
At the time, I had signed up to raise money for a kids’ cancer charity ride. I put it to my friends that if they could raise $2,000 for my charity ride, I’d actually go unicycle the length of Taiwan. Well, they raised $2,500 in 24 hours didn’t they, so then I had to go and do it!
What were the biggest learning curves of your unicycle across Taiwan?
Before Taiwan, I’d never unicycled on the road or with gear, and the longest ride I’d ever done in one go was 40km. I had to learn to carry gear, my biggest ride was 50km one day, and I rode on the West Coast freeway 61 in Taiwan, next to double-trucks going 120+ km an hour. It was pretty scary, actually. I learnt when things get a bit tough, you have more fortitude than you think you do.
How difficult is it to ride a unicycle uphill and to ride with luggage?
It depends on the grade of the hill. I can kind of zig-zag a little uphill but if they are too steep, it’s walk-a-bike. Riding with gear is extremely hard because it adds extra weight and complexity to the bike that your core has to manipulate to keep balanced. Just getting the seat up off the road to get onto it when it has a couple of kilograms attached, is incredibly hard.
It’s a bit scary falling off downhill – sometimes it’s easy to get out of control going downhill, and you have to bail off the front of the uni and it goes crashing with all your gear on it. That’s never much fun, so you learn to go slowly downhill, too.
What were the high and low points of your ride across Taiwan?
High points were proving to myself that I could actually do that ride, plus meeting the wonderful Taiwanese people, seeing beautiful nature views, and enjoying amazing Taiwanese food! Low points were on days when rides were super-challenging – getting chased by wild dogs, having to ride next to speeding trucks, falling off and having nowhere to hold onto to mount again. But really, low points aren’t all that bad.
Since then you’ve ridden across South and North Korea. How did this compare to Taiwan?
I guess any cyclist will tell you that every ride is different. South Korea’s ride, whilst all on a bike path, was actually much harder because the path in some places appeared to have been hand-screed and wasn’t very flat – it was almost like mountain-unicycling (yes, that’s a thing) across South Korea.
I could write an entire book about my trip to North Korea. It’s going to be called ‘Unicycling the 52 car parks of North Korea’ because three days out from going into North Korea, I was told I suddenly wasn’t allowed to take my unicycle in! After some negotiations, I was then allowed to take it in but only allowed to ride it in car parks. Which was kind of amusing because my ‘entourage’ of minders would take me to an attraction (e.g. the Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang) and no real tourists would actually be around.
After we’d visit attractions, my Tour Guides (North Korean government employees) would ask if I wanted to ‘ride my bike’, which of course I did. So out the unicycle would come from the dodgy tour van, and I’d do laps around these various car parks at various locations across North Korea. I’m actually the first person outside of the country to have unicycled there, which is a pretty whacky kind of achievement.
What have you learned about yourself during your unicycling adventures?
#1. If you set yourself a big goal and you are truly committed to it, it’s amazing what you can achieve. If you want to really commit, try getting a tattoo about it, like I did!
#2. It’s never too late to try something new and different.
#3. If you really want a lesson in persistence, tenacity and perseverance, go try and learn to ride a unicycle!
#4. If you pick a weird sport to try, it’s easy to do really well at it. I could never be an Olympic marathon runner for example, but I only need to beat one other female unicyclist at the National Championships to be in the top 3 in Australia in my age group!
Do you train as such, either on the unicycle or off it?
Yes, I do a weights program three times a week to help build muscles for unicycling (although I never have to do any core exercises – WIN!). [I do] cardio three times a week and have a little training ride program like any other cyclist, but the distances and times are a lot different. I also do regular ‘skill’ work like free-mounting, idling, turning sharp corners, etc. Once you’ve learnt to ride, that’s never enough; there is always another skill to learn with unicycling such as riding backwards, mounting with different feet, hopping stairs, etc.
Covid-permitting do you have other unicycle plans in the pipeline?
Yes! A trip to Papua New Guinea in 2021 is a definite!
What are your must-have items of kit for your unicycle adventures?
Decent flat shoes for riding like Van Sports, a rain jacket, and a bike pump. I can’t really carry much more than that. I also ride in a Salomon running vest that holds my water and phone and sits nice and close to me making it much easier to balance and ride than riding with a backpack would.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
No, but last year, one of the larger unicycle manufacturers in the world, Unicycle.com, did come out and ask ‘who wants to be a sponsored rider?’ Can you imagine if Nike did that?!