As my original plans for Saturday came crashing down around me, I re-read Mikefule’s Dartmoor threads and the urge hit with a vengeance. Just under an hour later, having swapped the smoothness of the Big Apple tyre for some 29er knobbly goodness and changed to longer cranks, I set off for the Meldon Dam car park on the north east edge of Dartmoor.
In hindsight it wasn’t a very good starting point. The excellent views of the massive dam and an impressive railway viaduct visible to the north didn’t make up for the fact that this was one of the more remote corners of an already remote area, and what paths there were were very hard going. In the space of an hour I’d walked more than I’d ridden, up an unrideably bumpy, grassy and steep “track” which gradually faded into nothing, leaving me pushing the uni though tussocky grass up to Yes Tor. I discovered afterwards that this was the place that Mikefule mentioned turning back on reaching; a wise decision.
Finally I returned to civilisation - well, a half-decent track - at Yes Tor, and stopped to mentally regroup. Some malt loaf and a map check left me ready to find out whether bringing the 29er was a good move or not.
After the first hundred metres I was really missing the wider tyre of the muni. The track was grassy with huge rocks in; too many to ride round, and a little too large to ride over with the limited give of the 2.1" tyre. It was slow and exhausting guiding the 29er around every little bump, but then the track turned to drop into the valley and everything changed.
Here the grassy track stopped, to be replaced with a surface of small gritty rocks with larger lumps here and there. The 29er came into its own here; the large wheel ate up the smaller rocks, and the slalom course around the larger protruding rocks brought to life what would have been a rather dull descent on the muni.
The track swooped downhill to a fork where I turned south along an uphill track. The surface changed on a regular basis here; from small, bedded in rocks (glad I brought the 29er!) to large, loose ones (dammit, should have brought the 24…). Line choice was vital; stay on the smoother, hard-packed rocks or a UPD was only seconds away. The climb was mentally exhausting as well as hard on the legs.
The greater vulnerability of the rim on the 29er over the muni was apparent on the next descent. There were lines of rocks across the track to channel water; on the muni there would be little problem in ploughing over them, but on the 29er careful steering around the edges or between two rocks was vital. I missed one; aiming for a gap little wider than the tyre I misjudged, heard the rim go CLANG and was launched forward. No damage done, but I can imagine this place being good for pinch-flats and damaged rims.
The road turned from its southerly direction to the furthest point of my ride, and I headed down a track towards Oke Tor. The track dropped into a valley, crossed a ford then climbed out the other side; here a muni would have come into its own. The descent was fantastic; the track itself was smooth, but was littered with large rocks and different lines as it split into ruts at different heights. On the 29er the little drops were jarring and I never quite knew whether the next one would see the wheel fold underneath me, but it took no time at all to reach the ford at the bottom.
It took me a while to cross; a cow and calf were standing in the water on the far side. I couldn’t ride through in the hope that they would move; and every time I moved towards the stepping stones the cow looked a bit too defensive for my liking. Eventually they decided that the crazy man with the funny bike wasn’t going to leave them alone and they wandered off, leaving me free to continue. They’d proved their point; we all knew they weighed considerably more than I do, even after most of a malt loaf.
Aware of the growing complaints from my legs I dropped down to the military road and followed some fairly fast tracks northwards towards Okehampton. It had gotten busy since I set off; I didn’t hear a single “lost a wheel” comment but there were an awful lot of people in sheer disbelief that anyone would ride such a silly contraption out in the wilds.
The last few miles of the ride took me back to the car along the nice and flat cycle track next to the railway. This must be a popular spot for irregular cyclists to have a gentle pootle out in the country; even with 150mm cranks and tired legs I was the fastest thing moving. The downside of other cyclists is that chasing them is fun; but on passing them you’ve then got to keep going so they don’t catch you again. This means you catch the next lot a few hundred metres ahead, and then the next… my legs were screaming for me to stop and I had no more malt loaf to silence them, but my dumb ego kept me flying forwards.
My only proper ballistic crash of the day was, ironically, about three metres from the car. The car park was on quite a steep hill, and required a tight turn to get to the car; the loose gravel, sharp turn and too much speed saw the wheel slide away from under me, sending me flying through the air.
In actual fact the speed and surface had nothing to do with it; the real reason was the group of thirty or so people having a picnic in the middle of the carpark who had all turned to watch. Still, it could have been worse; had I not crashed I probably wouldn’t have got a sausage from their barbecue…
Cor blimey my legs ached the morning after. In the last few weeks I’ve only been out on the bike a couple of times; either the bike uses different muscles in the legs or unicycling is ten times the workout of the bike, because I haven’t felt this stiff for ages. What doesn’t help is that when climbing hills of that just-right gradient on the 29er it’s easier to go faster and keep going than on a bike, but they always get me back the next day.