No. Generally speaking, bikes are much faster than unicycles. Bicycles are much more mechanically efficient than unicycles which lets them reach a much higher top speed.
There are a number of factors that favor bicycles when it comes to speed – namely gears, stability, and harnessing kinetic energy.
Bicycles vs Unicycles For Speed
Let’s look at a few of the reasons why bicycle design has the edge over unicycles when it comes to speed.
BMX’s and fixed gear bikes aside, most bikes come with between 18 and 27 gears. How does that help with speed? Well, speed is determined by how fast the wheels are spinning. How fast the wheels spin depends on how fast you turn the pedals and how fast you can turn the pedals depends on how much effort is required which, in turn, varies on different terrains, wheel size, whether you are on an incline/decline etc.
This is where gears come in. Shifting up or down
So on a smooth, flat surface where you don’t need to change gears to make it easier to get going a unicycle should be able to match a bike right?
Not exactly. Pedaling efficiency is best when the rider maintains an optimal pedaling cadence (how quickly the pedals go round) and as you start moving faster and faster it gets easier and easier to pedal to the point where you can’t turn the pedals quick enough to have any further impact on your speed.
This is where you would shift up through the gears to keep the resistance on the pedals steady and maintain the same pedaling cadence while increasing your speed.
Of course, you can’t do that on a unicycle so at best, a unicycle will have one optimal speed based on the riders most efficient pedaling cadence, but a bike will have many. And as you cycle through the gears (pun intended), that optimal speed will get higher and higher with each gear shift.
And that brings us nicely on to the next bicycle advantage – using kinetic energy.
I’m sure we’ve all got fond childhood memories of pedaling up what felt like a never-ending hill, straining and struggling to inch our bicycle ever closer to the summit, questioning why we’re going through all this effort only to finally reach the top and look down with a feeling of accomplishment, awe and fear about what comes next.
You push off once more, only this time there is no straining and hard work, only the gentle roll of your wheels as they slowly, yet surely, start to turn faster and faster as you start to descend the great peak you spent so long summiting.
The longer and steeper the hill, the faster you go.
Faster and faster until you feel like you’re about to take off at any moment.
And all this without touching the pedals.
THAT is kinetic energy at work – You pedal, the bike moves. You pedal some more, the bike moves more. You stop pedaling, the bike keeps moving.
Now, compare that with a unicycle and its direct drive setup – you pedal, the unicycle moves. You pedal some more, the unicycle moves more. You stop pedaling, well, you’ll probably fall off if you stop pedaling straight away because if the pedals aren’t moving, neither is the unicycle.
Direct drive means the pedals rotate with the wheel. No coasting, no free-wheeling down a hill – the effort you put in to the pedals is what you get out of the wheel. Note – you can technically get freewheel unicycle hubs but they are certainly not common so I’m ignoring them for this discussion
This fundamental difference in how kinetic energy is used gives bicycles a major advantage in speed and endurance over a unicycle to the point that it’s not even really a competition anymore.
How Fast Can You Ride A Unicycle?
OK, so unicycles are slower than bicycles, that much we know for sure, but how fast can you ride a unicycle?
Well, just as you get bicycles with different setups to make them faster (road bikes), better suited for different terrains (mountain bikes), or performing tricks (BMX), unicycles come in a variety of flavors with different characteristics.
So as you would expect, there’s not just one speed for ‘unicycles’ in general any more than there’s a certain speed that ‘cars’ can drive at.
Most beginners will start on a 20-inch unicycle because they offer a decent mix of stability, maneuverability and speed. These smaller wheels do sacrifice speed for agility though, which is one reason they are favored by freestyle riders but not commonly used by commuters. You can expect to average around 5-6mph on a 20-inch unicycle and you’re likely to max out at around 10mph.
24-inch wheels are the next major jump in size and are generally seen as a good size for ‘cruising’ but less suitable for tricks. The bigger wheels lend themselves well to less forgiving terrain and you’ll often see 24 or 26-inch wheels on mountain unicycles for this reason. In terms of pure speed though, 24-inch wheels don’t give you much more than 20-inchers so you’re only likely to see a minor increase, potentially just a single mph, in your average speed.
People looking to cover more distance, or more distance quickly, on a unicycle usually opt for the biggest wheels they can find and this tends to be either 29″ or 36″. Larger diameter wheels cover more distance with a single turn so bigger wheels translate directly to higher speeds.
If you’re looking for pure speed on a flat, straight and relatively smooth route then 36-inch is the way to go and you could be looking at top speeds of more than 20mph with an average of 12-15mph.
Bigger wheels are more difficult to control though so if you’re likely to be riding over bumpy terrain or have a lot of hills and inclines on your route, a 29-inch wheel might be more forgiving. You’ll be giving up a few mph’s for more versatility but it’s not unheard of for riders to approach 20mph on a 29er and average more than 10mph.
So there we have it – in a straight up, winner takes all, maximum speed contest, a unicycle doesn’t really stand a chance against a bicycle.
That being said, unicycles are still no slouches and if you can commute to work at over 10mph, enjoying the fresh air while your colleagues are sitting in traffic, barely moving and slowly filling with rage, that sounds like a win to me!