Well, it had to happen. After a successful career as a unicycle rider and ride report writer, I was reduced to producing a greatest hits album, then things tailed off. Other projects got in the way (for example, going to work, eating food, being ill) and it started to look suspiciously like I had gone into retirement. A career of embarrassing semi-coherent appearances on chat shows beckoned, followed by a final desperate bid to pay the bills by humiliating myself on reality TV.
But no! Today, those old favourites, Mikefule and Road Razor reunited for the first of what is hoped to be a long comeback tour.
This weekend’s plan, come what may, was to get a ride on the bloomin’ unicycle.
So, which one? Easy choice: my immune system is still engaged in house to house fighting, flushing out the last stragglers of the flu germs that annexed my body a fortnight ago, so the MUni is out. It’s blowing a gale (literally) and the Coker is too much like hard work into a head wind. So that leaves the 700c.
For those who don’t remember: that’s a 700c with a 28 mm, almost slick, high pressure tyre, and 110 mm cranks. The Road Razor.
So where’s my Camelbak? Ah, here, with all this fungus in it. Major job to strip that down and clean the bladder. Then I reinstall the bladder, try to fill it with water, and there’s a major flooding incident. I’ve put the bladder in all twisted!
Now, clothes? My cycling top is easy. My leggings? Ah, here they are, still dirty from my last ride on 3rd January. I really must get a wife to sort that sort of thing out. Shoes? One’s under the bed, the other’s in the cupboard. Tools? In the car, under the driver’s seat. Helmet? Fallen apart.
What? Yes, the cradle was held in place with Velcro discs, and the glue has dried out and the discs have fallen off. So, unwilling to ride for the first time in 3 months without the protection of a helmet, it looks like I’ll have to wear the full facer.
And that leaves only my wrist guards.
Aha! In the boot of the car. (US = trunk. So what do you call an elephant’s nose, then?)
So, pile everything into the car and off I go to the Water Sports Centre. Predictably, it starts to rain on the way, but I am not deterred. I am staunch, stubborn, stupid.
And I arrive in the car park, get all the kit out and find that the Camelbak has leaked water everywhere. The unicycle is bobbing about in the car boot like a ship at anchor. I never knew a 1.5 litre bladder could hold so much. (Apart from one occasion on a stag night many years ago.)
And the seat is twisted, so I have to find an Allen key…
But finally, I’m ready to mount up.
And nervous. Will I still enjoy it? Unicycling is hard work. It is a habit. Break the habit (as circumstances have forced me to do) and it may be difficult to get back into the swing of it.
Will I still be able to do it?
I freemount first time, and set off confidently, until 20 metres later I realise I am on the downside of a small kerb. Kerbs aren’t my strong point (I’m not sure what is) and the skinny hard tyre is not up to the job, but I find a bit of a ramp and overcome this first obstacle.
Then it’s the short slope with loose ballast - no problem on a MUni or Coker, but a challenge on the skinny hard tyre. Already, my confidence is flooding back, with muscle memories stirring. A slight shift of weight, a focusing of attention, and I’m over the tricky bit and onto the tarmac strip.
I’m riding in almost complete silence as the wind follows me, and the slick tyre makes virtually no noise on the smooth tarmac. There’s just the gentle slapping of the remaining water in my Camelbak, and the sound of the waves on the lake. The lake is about 2.5 km long, and with the wind blowing straight along it, the waves have built up, and some have white horses on them.
Round the head of the lake, and I find myself in a side wind. Then I turn to ride back up the other side and suddenly it all becomes hard work. The wind is so strong that I am leaning forwards into it and at times it takes an effort of will to keep the pedals moving past top dead centre. The sun is fairly low, and the rippled surface of the lake is dazzling.
Then I turn left, away from the lake (I suppose that last bit was obvious!) and up a short tarmac slope. Down the other side of the hill, there is a gate, with a narrow gap I can ride through. There is a bit of a dog walkers’ convention there with a rottweiller, a greyhound and a scruffy mongrel. I pick my moment and ride between them.
From here I have two choices, and my confidence is high enough to take the difficult one: a section of unmade and rutted road. Ridges of rolled ballast and mud separate deep muddy puddles. On the Coker, I would take a straight line, make lots of splashes, and impress the passers by. On the 700c, it’s a different technique, picking the route between the puddles, avoiding steep side slopes, watching out for large lumps of ballast. The road becomes a puzzle, because it’s easy to miss each individual obstacle, but unless you read far enough ahead, you can end up trapped in a blind alley. And with a hard tyre and no grip, a slip or trip will immediately become a soggy-footed UPD.
A few hundred metres further on, I come to a locked gate, adorned with the territorial markings of an angling club. Is any creature more territorial than the coarse fisherman? I have to turn back. That presents me with the first tight 180 degree turn of the ride, on a slight slope, with a muddy surface. No problem, and already it feels like I’ve never been away.
Back along the rutted road, then onto rough tarmac, past a fishing lake, where a surprised fisherman nods a greeting. At the end of the tarmac, I have a choice, and take a shortcut across more mud and ballast and turn left along the private road.
I first rode the private road on a bicycle when I was eight - that’s er, thirty five years ago. At that time, it had a rough surface with deep puddles. Today, it has a very rough surface with deep puddles. For about five hundred metres or so, I pick my way along the narrow ridges between the deep muddy patches of water. Just as I near the end of the section, I meet a lone bicyclist coming the other way. He barely nods an acknowledgement.
Then I’m onto tarmac again, but still private road, and there are tarmac speed humps every few metres. I meet a car coming the other way. The middle aged woman driver sneers at me with obvious reflexive disapproval. She looks the sort of woman whose husband wonders if this is all there is to life.
Then I’m on the country lane that leads to Radcliffe on Trent. I can see the distinctive roof of the church tower in the distance. I make fairly good speed until I reach the village limits.
Bad timing: a small car with a loud exhaust, cheap alloys and five baseball-capped young men in it comes the other ways, then swings flamboyantly into the entrance of a side road. The driver winds down his window, releasing the doof doof music for all to enjoy. He looks at me and shouts, “What the f*ck?” I see his passenger lean over and I hear the inevitable, “Do you know you’ve lost a wheel?” I clutch my sides and mime laughter.
The car reverses from the side road and I hear it doof doof-ing slowly behind me. Here we go. Not for the first time in my life, I wish I had a claw hammer in my tool kit. Or maybe an axe. I brace myself for the abuse, and am alert for any attempt to knock me off. The car pulls up alongside me, and one of the passengers shouts, “That’s ace!” Surprised and relieved, I thank him, and the car pulls away.
A hundred metres later, I reach the main road, and decide to turn back and retrace my route. When I have crossed the unmade section of private road, I decide to take the wide smooth road past the gravel pits, rather than turning back into the Water Sports Centre. This gives me the chance to regain my confidence on a public road where I will meet a few cars in fairly safe circumstances.
Along this section, the hawthorn is already in blossom. The white flowers are a welcome relief after one of the grimmest greyest winters we’ve had for a few years. The sky is now blue, with a few white clouds, the blossom is out, and this is a good place to be. OK, so the seat could have a bit more padding, but you can’t have everything.
Then I see trail motorcycles bursting out of the hedge to my left. The first turns towards me and passes me in a cloud of blue smoke. The rider is about thirteen, but I can see he is no reckless young fool. He has taken all the safety precautions: his fleecy hood is pulled up to stop his ears getting cold, and he has no heavy protective gloves to hamper his control of the throttle.
Soon, I reach the main entrance of the Water Sports Centre. I have a choice: the short and easy route back to the car, or carry on to the river bank. My seat-interface is starting to be uncomfortable, and my feet are tingling a bit, but I decide to carry on. I swoop up and over the flood bank, and jiggle through the narrow footpath next to the sailing club. As I turn left onto the riverside path, my luck fails and I UPD.
In a way, it’s a relief, because my obsessive personality makes it difficult for me to stop for the first time on a long ride. I’ve been known to do 20 or more miles without a break. A UPD takes that pressure away. I now have an existential moment: do I choose to continue just for the sake of it, or take the short cut back to the car? I realise I am more tired than I had thought, and I don’t want to overdo my first ride after a long break, so I take the easy option.
Five minutes later, back at the car, I find my computer hasn’t been recording properly. It shows a max speed of 10 mph (16 kph) which is about right, but only 1.87 miles. I estimate I’ve done nearer to 6 miles.