I mentioned this hill in the forum a couple of years ago: it’s the climb up from Black Rocks to Middleton Top on the High Peak Trail in Derbyshire. That won’t mean much to most of you, except maybe some of the EMU lot, but the High Peak Trail is the trackbed of an old railway, now converted to be a long distance cycle path and footpath.
The incline up to Middleton Top is about half a mile long, and 1:7 or around 14% gradient. It is so steep that when the railway was working, they had a massive static steam engine at the top which winched the trains up. You can still see the big iron pulley wheel that the winch cable went round at the bottom of the incline.
In my early days as a “serious” unicyclist I had several goes at the incline and never managed more than about 1/3 of the climb without a UPD. I think I got the climb down to 3 sections once, or maybe 4. Not only was the climb long and steep, but there are kerb stones laid across it to divert water run off, and the surface is an uneven combination of ballast, grit, mud and exposed rocks.
Then I got the KH24 and a year or two ago, and I got sooooo close to doing the full climb in one go, stopped about 20 metres short of the summit by a group of people and dogs who crossed the track in front of me giving me nowhere to go.
So today, a long time after my last attempt, 20 pounds heavier, and far less fit, I decided to give it a go. This was not necessarily a wise decision: it’s a bank holiday weekend, and with decent weather, everyone who owns a bicycle, a dog or a pair of boots likes to go out and get in the way of those of us who try to do that sort of stuff all year round.
So I mount at the car park and ride the half mile or so of more or less flat track bed until I get to the big iron pulley and the bottom of the incline.
An immediate problem: a man on a mountain bike accompanied by his rather whiney son on a smaller mountain bike. The son appears to object to the fact that he has to pedal to get up the hill, and is putting more effort into complaining than pedalling. More to the point, he is zigzagging wildly.
I need to keep my momentum, so I nip past the boy at an opportune moment, hoping he is at least slightly embarrassed to be overtaken by a middle aged bloke on one wheel.
The father is slightly ahead of me, plodding away in low gear. He can obviously hear me behind him, my tyre crunching on the grit, because he starts to call me a “good lad” and tell me “well done”. Somewhat disingenuously, he tells me it’s not far to go!
Then as he turns his head to make a further encouraging remark, I creep into his peripheral vision, and he nearly falls off as he realises:
A bit of disappointment for me: the trail has been “improved” since I last rode it. I hate it when they improve trails because it always makes them so much worse. A thick layer of grit and ballast has been applied. The kerbs that cross the track no longer present significant obstacles, and the surface is generally more even and easier to ride.
Instead of picking my route carefully, planning little surges of speed to get over the worst bits, and using the slightly smoother sections as chances to conserve energy, I am faced with a fairly uniform slog, with just enough unevenness to prevent complacency.
I make it under the arched bridge, which used to go over the worst bit of surface of the whole incline, and I carry on. The bridge is a sort of threshhold, because it was where I always used to fall off when I started trying the climb all those years ago.
By now, my legs are burning. I am gasping for breath once every wheel revolution, and pumping wildly with my free arm to keep the rhythm and balance. I can just about ride seated, but this seems to transfer the same workload to a smaller set of muscles, so I revert to standing and “honking” my way up the hill.
Far ahead I can see the gate at the very top. I am not even half way there. First I have to get over the road bridge, where the incline seems a little steeper, and where there are some ever so slight changes in the surface that are magnified into lunar craters by my state of exhaustion.
My mind begins to play subversive tricks: does it really matter? If I stop now, it will stop hurting. Who will know? Who will care?
As my legs start to feel rubbery, and I am panting savagely, the internal debate starts: but I’ve driven 30 miles to do this; yes, but it’s only a game; but if I stop now, I’ve wasted the effort of climbing this far; so how does it make sense to hurt myself a bit more because of the pain I’ve already suffered? If I fell off now, it would all be over; but I’d only have to come back another day; but I’m 45 for crying out loud; last time I nearly made it and was blocked - what a waste - it could happen again; think of the Olympics - no one would win a medal if they thought like that; but this isn’t the Olympics…
And as the debate rages on, and my breathing gets harsher, and my legs get even more rubbery, I find myself a hundred metres from the top, and the finish line is in sight. So close… if I break down now…
An older chap comes down through the pedestrian gate towards me, steps slightly to one side and starts to frame a comment… oh no, not an idiot, please not now, of all times…
He starts to ask me a question, and it sounds like a serious attempt to engage me in discussion! I’m seconds from the finish line and I don’t need this.
Desperately, I bring my the index finger of my free hand up to my lips and make the loudest “Shhhhh!” imaginable. I hear myself bark, “CONCENTRATING!” at the top of my voice. He steps to one side with a mumbled apology. I have enough humanity left to shout “Sorry!” without turning my head.
The gate is a few wheel revolutions ahead, so close… and then I pass through it, and there’s just a tiny bit of climb left, a few metres at most. Old railway wagons stand on a section of preserved railway line to my left. There are people ahead of me.
I reach the flat, and I’ve made it, for the first time. I dismount without ceremony letting the uni fall to the floor and I almost collapse on the end of one of the railway sleepers.
It is a minute or two before I can even speak. A young family approaches me and engages me in unwanted conversation, but they are pleasant, and at least they provide me with a chance to validate what I have done by telling someone about it. They seem really impressed, and genuinely interested.
A few minutes later, I stand up, drunken legged, ready to ride back down. I owe someone an apology…
And who should come through the gate, but the father and son whom I had overtaken near to the bottom of the climb. Father smiles with recognition and says “Well done.” Son seems less impressed, and maybe just a little sulky.
I mount and start the descent. Half a mile of 14% gradient, with tired legs and no brake. I take it steady, exchanging nods and smiles with a few bicyclists who are making the climb. Not all of them are riding!
Most of the way down, I see the old chap ahead of me. I clear my throat to warn him of my presence, and as I approach, I say, “Excuse me, are you the person I just shouted at?”
He is most apologetic for having distracted me at such a crucial moment. He had not noticed that I was on a unicycle, or he would have said nothing. He had assumed I was on a bicycle. But the fact that it was a unicycle explained my strange arm movements which had prompted his comment.
We part as friends, with him thanking me for making the effort to find him, apologise and explain.
A little later, I overtake an elderly lady who is walking her dog. She strikes up a conversation, asking me if I’ve just ridden up the hill - she had seen someone on a unicycle but didn’t know if it was me. Yahay! Muni is now mainstream!
And at the bottom of the hill I turn off to a shady area near a disused quarry and sit down, my legs dangling over the edge. My heart is racing and my breathing is still fast. I sit in the shade of a beautiful ash tree, musing whether hanging from it for 9 days, and maybe poking one of my eyes out, would give me the wisdom not to try a trick like that again. Or would I need to buy a couple of ravens to get the full effect? Where would I keep them?
A bit later, I trundle back to the car. There’s nothing left in my legs at all, but after all these years - and with the aid of the unwanted “improvements” I’ve climbed my own personal Everest at last.
Half a mile of 1:7 doesn’t sound much, does it?