Canal knowledge

The rare luxury of an entire day free, and a vague plan to ride 50 miles… but I run through the list of likely routes and decide that they would all involve too many main roads, or steep hills. Instead, I go into town.

Town is predictably boring, and I come home and decide to go for a ride after all.

I know a little car park next to the Grantham Canal - I used it a few times about four years ago - but I drive past the entrance before I see it. I take a few turns and end up parking next to the canal near to Cotgrave, about seven miles out from the River Trent at Nottingham

The Grantham Canal runs from Nottingham, near to the famous Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, to Grantham, birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton, and Margaret Thatcher. It is 33 miles (about 53 km) long and follows a fairly flat course through the Vale of Belvoir (pronounced “beaver”). It was completed in 1797 for a cost of just under £120,000. You can hardly buy a house for that now. It has been out of use for longer than I can remember.

I am on the 700c, with 102 mm cranks, and a new battery in the computer, which has been recalibrated for the smaller (28 mm) tyre. I mount and ride off along the crushed grit towpath. I can remember when this path was mud and grass, but the canal is now a “linear recreational facility” and has been tidied up quite a bit. This means I make good speed.

Every so often, there is a road to cross (the canal is culverted at these place) and there is a “wiggle gate” to stop motorcycles. I would just about be possible for me to ride through these, but I’d be bound to UPD at least one time in four, and as today’s project is to cover distance, I decide to use these wiggle gates as opportunities to dismount and take the pressure off my seat. Being a pedant, I carry the uni the short distance each time so that the computer doesn’t give a false reading. How sad is that?

For the first 13 miles (21 km) the route is almost perfectly flat, with a good rolled grit path. For much of the way, the canal is completely choked with reeds and bull rushes. Where the water is visible, it is the same colour as the stuff you get in an American hotel when you ask for a cup of tea. In places, there are mature willow trees growing in the centre of the dried up canal bed.

As I get further into the Vale of Belvoir, though, the sections of water become more prevalent, and I see swans, geese, ducks, coots and moorhens. I sometimes see small fish in the shallows, but fail to see any pike - they are probably lurking in the shade under the weed. The sun is shining (I forgot my sun cream) and there are dragonflies everywhere, some mating in flight - nice trick if you can do it. The hedge next to the towpath is full of hawthorn and elderberry, with occasional willows.

At one of the wiggle gates, there is a notice drawing my attention to an avenue of 184 poplar trees, planted after the Great War in memory of the local landowner’s son, and 183 members of his regiment who died in the battle of the Somme. Elsewhere, I see a pillbox (gun emplacement) from the next war, just over 20 years later.

After thirteen miles, I come to the end of the rolled grit path, and the towpath continues as unmown grass, without even a well-trodden footpath to follow. I decide to continue, but find it hard going. Conscious of the distance I intend to cover, I try to keep the speed up, and this results in three UPDs, and one failed freemount (oh, the shame!). At the next bridge, I bail out, deciding to ride on the road for a bit.

I ride about six miles of mainly narrow country lanes, with occasional wider faster roads. On the narrow country lanes, many of the cars fail to slow down, or even to pull over a little to pass me. It might be a compliment to my riding skills, but somehow I suspect it’s just arrogance. This is a part of the world where the Beautiful People live: gym membership, perfect teeth and tans, and big houses, and big gardens in small villages devoid of villagers. The farm workers can no longer afford to buy properties where they work. Meanwhile, the people who do live there travel to work in the city in their big (usually German) cars, and spend their weekends playing at country pursuits. In this context, “country pursuits” does include horse riding, driving a 4 wheel drive, and maybe a bit of shooting, but it doesn’t include back-breaking work in all weathers, starvation wages, and year after year without holidays.

Be that as it may, the last part of this section of the ride is a steepish climb up quite a busy road towards Belvoir Castle. This isn’t a real castle, which is why it looks so much like a castle ought to. I’ve put a link to the web site at the bottom of this post.

Belvoir Castle is closed (for a wedding) but at £10 admission, I hadn’t intended to go in anyway. I am disappointed to find that the shop is shut and there are no refreshments available. I feast on a Snickers and drink some water from my Camelbak. My computer shows I’ve ridden 19.96 miles in 2 hours and 6 minutes. That’s near enough to 10 miles an hour for me, given the section of unmown grassy towpath, and the steep climb at the end.

From the castle, I set off along a different road, climbing further, with beautiful beech woods to my left, the sun shining through onto a floor of dried golden leaves. This is England as it should be, with no braying youths in hoodie tops, no broken bus stops… as I reach the top of the climb, the view opens out, and I can see for miles across farmland.

Riding along the road at the top of the hill, I see three club bicyclists riding towards me. I am signalling to turn right across their path, so I hold back. I hear one shout, “How the f*** does he change gear on that?” This rather spoils the surprise when, 5 seconds later, he asks me, “How the bloody hell do you change gear on that?” Sigh! if only I had a Guni! He doesn’t wait for his answer, so I ride down the side road, past more woodland, until I see an enticing looking bridle way.

The bridle way is a mistake. Well, to be precise, attempting to ride it on a 700c x 28 road tyre is a mistake, because when I get to the deep wet mud, I lose all traction and have a number of messy falls. I decide to dismount for the wettest bits. I prefer to dismount neatly by stopping and stepping off the back, but when I do this, the wheel locks and the uni skids, nearly depositing me on my backside in the mud.

Even less wisely, I speculate that a steeper side path will be less muddy, and therefore easier to ride. It is less muddy, but the steepness of the descent makes traction even more of an issue… and there are roots as well.

I take the next wide track that follows the contour back towards the road. When I UPD, I invent a new mount: I like to do a static mount with a very slight push forwards. This allows me to put some weight on the back pedal. On this surface, and with this tyre, as soon as I put weight on the pedal, the wheel rotates - almost as if I were doing a rollback, but the uni doesn’t roll back, it just skids on the spot. The effect is that the pedal lowers me towards the seat somewhat quicker than expected. I invite you to share my pain.

Back on the road there is a long steep descent at about the limit of what I can manage on these 102 mm cranks. After that, it’s just a long slog along various lanes as I zigzag around the Vale of Belvoir trying to find access to the canal bank again.

By now, I’ve covered about 26 miles (41 km) and I’m starting to notice the seat rather too much. In fact, I’m in considerable pain, and worrying about whether I will make it back to the car in good health. It feels suspiciously like I’m developing blisters on my buttocks! I am also wearing my new BMX style shoes, and am noticing that the balls of my feet are tingling from prolonged contact with the pedals, and I have to keep scrunching my feet up to restore circulation. I reach the stage where I’m dismounting every couple of miles. This is bad.

Eventually, I find access to the canal again, and I realise I’m only about 5 miles from the car. I note with some disappointment that the computer only shows 30 miles, which means I will be far short of my planned 50 miles.

A mile or two along the canal bank, I stop at a bridge because a pain break is necessary. This is not like me.

At this point, I invite the ladies to avert their eyes for a few paragraphs.

Being of an analytical disposition, I tend to think in too much detail about everything (I wonder why that is) and many of you will have seen (and some will have read) my musings on everything from crank length to why people shout daft comments. Well, for the last few miles, I have been thinking very hard about the interface between my bum and the unicycle seat. Why is it hurting so much?

I have reached the conclusion that it is my new clothes - a pair of good quality padded Lycra shorts, and a pair of ridiculously expensive Lycra longs. The padding in the shorts is quite rubbery, and seems to be holding my buttocks firmly in place, instead of allowing them to find their natural position on the seat. The pain isn’t simply the pressure of my weight pushing down onto the thinly padded Miyata saddle; it’s the skin being held in place by the shorts, but then pinched and stretched as my weight and the saddle combine in a failed attempt to move it to a more suitable position.

The answer? I decide to remove my shorts. This involves a few seconds of displaying my dangly bits as I hastily drag the Lycra leggings back on, hoping that a party of middle aged lady hikers doesn’t suddenly appear.

I remount the unicycle, and find that everything slides into place much more comfortably. After a certain amount of manual adjustment, I feel ready to ride, and I continue on my way. Within a mile, I realise suddenly that I am in no pain at all!

Oh, the ladies, can rejoin us now.

Within 3 or 4 miles, I am back at the car, but feeling fresh enough and comfortable enough to ride further. I look at the computer: 36 miles covered. That means 14 more to make the 50. Basic arithmetic tells me that if I ride 7 miles along the towpath towards Nottingham, then turn round and ride back, I will have done the 50 miles. I estimate that 7 miles will more or less bring me to the junction between the canal and the Trent. I decide to go for it.

Throughout the ride, I have met very few people. On the next seven miles, I meet many. There is a group of about 8 lads on bikes in front of me. The back one looks over his shoulder and sees me coming and shouts a warning. They all move to one side of the path but continue riding. As I overtake them, the lad at the back notices I’m on a unicycle. He shouts, “Hey! he’s only got one wheel!” It is a simple and honest statement of fact, made in a tone of genuine surprise, and intended to alert his friends to the novelty of the situation. Fair enough. Why can’t everyone be like that, instead of making a weak or offensive joke.

Later, I approach an elderly couple. They hear the crunch of my tyre on the grit, and move to one side. As I pass them, there’s a brief exchange:

Mikefule: “Thank you.”
Old lady: “No problem at… oh my word!”

Soon, I find myself nearly at the end of the canal, and have a choice between riding alongside some busy main road or cutting across the fields by my usual route. I go for the latter, and ride past the skateboard ramps. Someone shouts, “Hey, look, a unicycle!” and someone replies boredly, “Yes, we’ve seen him before. We know which way he’s going.”

As I reach the river, I draw on my Camelbak and find with alarm that it has run dry. This has only happened once before, and it makes me feel very exposed. It’s still hot, I’m tired, and haven’t eaten properly for hours, and I have about 7 miles to ride.

I decide to call in at either the kayak club or one of the three rowing clubs. They all see me riding past regularly, and I’m sure they’ll let me use their water supplies. Unfortunately, it is now early Saturday evening, and there are no canoeists or rowers to be seen. I continue as far as the suspension bridge, hoping to see an ice cream van. No luck. The kiosk by Trent Bridge is also shut. Plan D? The sailing club, but that’s almost at the Water Sports Centre. When I get there, there are no sailors. I continue in desperation to the Water Sports Centre and find the chuck wagon and the ice cream van closed. Fortunately, there is a vending machine and, at the second attempt, I persuade it to supply me with a half litre of isotonic drink.

Blessed relief!

Rested and refreshed, I follow the fast main road (“Regatta Way”) back as far as the canal, then ride back towards the car. I notice that my feet are no longer tingling. My backside is only mildly painful, and the removal of the shorts has made an enormous difference. (Lady readers who missed that section of the write up will be mystified by this comment, no doubt.)
In fact, I now know that I will reach 50 miles on this ride, and I find myself toying with the idea of putting an extra loop in! Another 5 miles will simply be 4 sections of just under 10 minutes. Should I go for 60 miles? The metric 100? That way, madness lies. I know that I have proved that, with suitable clothing, and on an easy surface, I can ride 50 miles, and could ride 60, or even a bit further. However, I have to consider how late it’s getting, the fact that I have yet to eat, and the fact that I may want to ride tomorrow.

I stop at one of the wiggle gates and look at the computer: I’m on exactly 50 miles! I decide to take a photo, and spend some time setting the camera up on self timer. I decide to pose balancing the unicycle on my chin (I am an incorrigible chin balancer, doing everything from chairs to pub umbrellas and tent poles). Unfortunately, my chin is sweaty, and so is the handle on the front of the unicycle seat. In my rush to get into the pose in few seconds allowed by the self timer, I let the uni slip, cutting my lip. The photo shows neither me nor the uni, and fortunately, the camera is a cheap one and doesn’t do sound files!

Another mile and a bit, and I’m back at the car. And more than I could wish for: a car pulls up and a chap gets out to go for a walk along the canal bank. He sees the unicycle, looks at my riding kit and asks, “How far have you been on that thing?”

“Oh, er… 51.7 miles,” I say, as nonchalantly as possible.

Ride stats:
Distance: 51.7 miles (83.19 km)
Riding time 5:32.37
Average riding speed: 9.33 mph (15 kmh)
Max recorded speed: 13 mph (20.9 kph)
Rest stops: around an hour.
Unicycle: Nimbus 1, 28 inch (700c x 28 mm) with 102 mm cranks.

Weight lost during the day: around 3 pounds (1.36 kg)


Here’s a photo of me on a random section of canal bank:


Here’s me, not quite balanced in time for the self-timer:


And finally, a picture showing a bit of the beautiful vale:


its nice to have a face to put with poster


This was a thread title in the waiting for one of your great write ups :slight_smile: I wish I had more time to go riding around the countryside in Notts, I’d have to drag you along though if there was to be a good write up of them.

A lovely cycle round the countryside before I head off for Turkey (with my Greek flag).
See you soon.

Masterly! A joy to read. And an impressive riding distance.

Thanks for the kind comments.

Actually, I was disappointed with the write up as it came out. On a long ride, there is sometimes too much detail to include, and too much to miss out, just to keep it within a reasonable length to read.

Legs are OK today, and apart from some chaffing at the, er… points of contact with the edges of the seat… I’m impressed with how well I survived. Nevertheless, today has been designated a Vespa day, rather than the Coker day I’d had in mind.

One reason I like reading your write-ups Mikefule, is that they contain much detailed information from your impressions along the route. This is a very needed reminder to us all to throw out a (mental) drag-anchor in order to slow things down and start observing what we are doing instead of pondering or i-podering our minds to distant places.

I think a natural evolution of your writings would be to delve even further into the small and subtle sensations that passes your mind. I think that is more important than actually covering the whole ride.

Anyway, please keep writing.

{1} Interesting. I post because the feedback suggests it’s appreciated, but I often wonder why it is.

{2} Interesting because I have considered buying an iPod, but even in the worst section of yesterday’s long ride, when my backside was sore, and the road stretched ahead with a long slow climb, and nothing to divert my attention, I knew I wouldn’t appreciate the unicycle experience as much if I were simply pedalling to the beat. I doubt I’ll buy an iPod.

{3} Interesting. I try to keep it uni related, otherwise I might as well be posting my musings in the fencing forum. Part of my intention is to encourage newer riders to get out and enjoy this great sport as much as I do. The philosophy, sociology and satire are only there because I see the world through a rather distorted lens.
There’s no great pleasure to riding big distances per se. I could have done 16 laps of the rowing lake to cover 50 miles. I love the way the uni takes me to places I probably wouldn’t bother to visit by foot or bicycle. I could have written twice as much about yesterday’s ride, with the wildlife, the sky, the old abandoned buildings, the stupid notices, the restoration work on the locks… but they’ll be there for a later ride, I’m sure.

The unicycle can be seen as a metaphor for a wandering mind.


“I’m the Urban Spaceman” by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band

I’m the Urban Spaceman, baby, I’ve got speed,
I’ve got everything I need.

I’m the Urban Spaceman, baby, I can fly,
I’m a supersonic guy.

I don’t need pleasure, I don’t feel pain,
If you were to knock me down, I’d just get up again.

I’m the Urban Spaceman, baby, I’m making out,
I’m all about.

I wake up every morning with a smile upon my face,
My natural exhuberance spills out all over the place.

I’m the Urban Spaceman, I’m intelligent and clean,
Know what I mean?

I’m the Urban Spaceman, as a lover second to none,
It’s alot of fun.

I never let my friends down, I never made a boob,
I’m a glossy magazine, an advert in the tube.

I’m the Urban Spaceman, baby, here comes the twist,
I don’t exist.

If we’re quoting song lyrics:

One wheel on my wagon, and I’m still rolling along…

Such a good writeup. Well done Mike. I hope to read more from you again.

One of these days you could compile all these writups into a small book. I’d buy it.

and so say all of us…

Maybe a book of the routes you have ridden? Like a cycle touring book, but for unicycling. I’d buy at least one…



A small book would require carnivorous editing. Leave them as is and compile them into a LARGE book. Please.

We like the pictures too.

Damn, i thought the thread title said Carnal knowledge.

i’m waiting for