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Sunday, 31 May 2015

Unicycling Across Canada With Sophie Stirl

By Jack Hawkins
Photos: Sophie Stirl

Many people ride a unicycle, and many people ride across Canada. But not many people ride a unicycle across Canada. Meet Sophie Stirl.

Sophie Stirl has spent the last four months cycling across Canada... on a unicycle! Sophie, 18, from Dusseldorf in Germany has been cycling across Canada since early July, and her journey has taken her from Toronto to Montreal, then back West again as far as White River, Ontario.

Sophie has been riding a unicycle from a young age, "
When I was six there was a girl in my kindergarten, who had a unicycle, but couldn't ride it. I told my parents that I would like to learn it and a couple of days later my dad came home with a 16" unicycle. I've been riding since then."

"It does take some time and it does require balance. It's hard to say how difficult it is, because some people learn it in a couple of hours and for others it takes a few weeks. It depends on how often you practice. It's usually easier to learn when you're a child. Children are just less afraid of falling."

I was interested in how different it was for Sophie to ride with panniers, and what she did about maintenance while on the road...

"I tried to ride with a bigger backpack first, which was easier to learn, but harder at the end of the day. Then I tried to ride with more weight on the unicycle and less on my back. I only went for a few rides with the panniers before this trip, so I guess it didn't take me too long."

"I have a second inner tube (which I never had to use, because I didn't have a single flat tire!), a couple of spare bolts and nearly all tools that I need to fix it (except for crank tools, because if one of my cranks break, I have to order one online anyway, so it doesn't make really sense to carry it). Oh, I have spare spokes as well. Some things are easier to maintain on a unicycle than on a bike, because I don't have a chain to look after. On the other hand all the weight is only on one wheel so I have to look after my spokes a bit more often."

Sophie also rarely locks up her bike. "Whoever steals a unicycle must be really stupid, because finding it is a lot easier than a bike."

Sophie has been planning to ride across Canada for two years, but already has extensive bicycle touring experience, on both one and two wheels, "My family (my parents and now 14 year-old brother) went on cycle tours almost every summer holiday." Sophie and her family have toured in many countries, including: France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and her native Germany.

Sophie had been planning her cross-Canada ride for two years, she was attracted to Canada by the Unicycling World Championships, Unicon that took place this year in Montreal, Quebec. "I knew that Unicon was going to be in Canada, so I decided to come here two years ago. Then I figured that I might as well apply for a working holiday visa, because I wanted to do a gap year and not go to university straight away anyway."

"And then I thought, 'Oh, if I do a tour I'm going to see so much more and meet so many more people.' I didn't plan a lot, which was probably good. Planning the route in Germany was hard, because I didn't know which roads were better. Once I met a few WarmShowers hosts in the first few days in Canada, I knew a lot more then from my reading on the internet."

Some of the highest points of Sophie's trip, she says, have been the people she's met. As well as personal milestones. "I met a guy the other day who is walking across Canada. That was very motivating to keep going. I had my first 100km ride (I've never even ridden that much without gear) that day as well."

Conversely, the lowest points of Sophie's journey have been the wet and windy days - which any cyclist can understand. "I rode 10 kilometres in 2 hours (I think) and had to concentrate a lot to stay on the unicycle. That wasn't fun."

Sophie's cross country voyage on one wheel has unfortunately come to an end. But, she plans to stay in Canada until next summer.

"I have a working holiday visa, which allows me to work in Canada until next year July. I want to stay here over winter, find a job and just keep meeting people. And continue for a bit next year."

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