Well, Christmas and new year: too many mince pies, too much clotted cream, not enough exercise, and I’m almost back up to the weight I was two years ago. The scales say 11 stone 6 (160 pounds) and I should be nearer to 10 stone 6. The waistband of my trousers is digging in when I lean forwards. I need to burn off calories - and it’s cold, and it’s miserable, and by the time I get home from work, it’s well and truly dark.
Which uni? For a first night ride in months (over a year) the Coker is too high. The MUni is too slow, so that leaves the trusty Road Razor: the 700c with the almost slick 28 mm high pressure tyre, and the 110 mm cranks. That’s possibly the most unforgiving set up for riding in any conditions, let alone in the dark.
Lights? The uni has a front white LED mounted above the forks, and a red LED mounted on the seat post. They are to be seen with, but don’t help me to see. To see with, I have a head torch with three super-bright LEDs. The helmet has some of the “hooky” Velcro discs stuck on the outside. The elastic strap of the head torch stretches round the shell of the helmet, and the hooks sort of hold it in place.
So I drive down to the usual place, near to the skateboard ramps. It is almost pitch dark, and I have a moment of doubt before setting up the uni, pulling on my wrist guards and adjusting my helmet and the head torch. It is cold and damp and I am wearing a fluorescent green waterproof and windproof cycling jacket over my short -sleeved cycling shirt. The cold Nylon of the jacket is clammy against my forearms.
I mount first time, although it’s a bit wobbly, and it takes me a few pedal strokes to get my right foot properly on the pedal. Then I slowly accelerate along the rolled grit path towards the river, with the deserted skateboard ramps to my left in the darkness. To my right is the open field.
From the skateboard ramp, a teenage girl hidden in the darkness shouts, “Whoo whoo whoo!” It is a friendly “Whoo whoo whoo.”
From the same direction, I hear the voice of the teenage boy who hopes he’ll be having sex with her later. Or if not later, one day. And failing that, with someone, one day. “It’s a yoooonicycle,” he explains, hoping no doubt to impress her not only with his wit and repartee, but also to educate her, because women like that, don’t they? It’s bitterly cold and may rain later, but it doesn’t take a meteorologist to estimate the youth’s chances tonight as low.
So, leaving this young skater-lass and her swain behind me, I make steady-ish progress down as far as the river. Here, the path diverges. I can bear left, then make a tricky right turn, or bear right, across mud and slime. I have been each way easily in daylight, but by the unsteady light of the head torch, the decision is a big one. I bear right, and stand up a little as the uni slithers and squirms along the short section of muddy single track. As I reach the end, I turn to the right onto the rolled grit path, the wheel squirms one last time, and I wave my arms desperately. The left sleeve of my jacket passes in front of my face, exploding in a blaze of fluorescent green in the torch beam, dazzling me, just as my night vision was starting to develop.
The ride now is fairly easy: a rolled grit path about a metre and a half wide, more or less straight, with the river to my left. Bitter woodsmoke from a bonfire across the river lights up in a white-grey cone in front of my head torch. Above, there is patchy cloud, but in occasional furtive glances, I see part of Orion, and the distinctive fingerprint smudge of Plaeides. Out on the river, I hear the short “Dab!” of a moorhen. Then I hit an unexpected slope - it’s only short, but totally unforeseen, and there is a moment when I nearly UPD off the back.
Concentrating again, I make may way at a steady pace towards the sailing club. Nearly there, my head torch just about picks out a shape ahead of me - pedestrian? I slow down, and see a startled jogger, running on the spot in the long grass to keep his rhythm going as I pass him. I thank him. His face looks confused in the white circle of my head torch, then he is behind me.
At the sailing club, I dismount and open the gate. The next obstacle is the mown grass apron leading down from the sailing club club house to the concrete jetty. I mount reasonably well, but my right instep is too central on the pedal. The grass is soggy-wet, and the tyre offers almost no traction. I stand on the pedals, keep close contact with the seat with my inner thighs, and hold the handle lightly for feedback. On the Coker, I have stormed across this grass apron many times, and on the 28 is is virtually no obstacle in daylight in the dry. Tonight it is an achievement to make it to the continuation of the path, only 100 metres further on. The light of the head torch allows me to see big obstacles - for example, a bollard, lake or bus - but it gives me virtually no clues about the condition of the ground.
Back on the path, I continue with the river to my left. I hear the swish of oars, and two single sculls pass in the opposite direction, the rowers wearing red and green LEDs for safety. Rowing in the dark close in to the river bank, with the ducks and geese far out in the middle of the river, and lit only by the crescent moon and the reflections of the distant city lights - it’s not often I envy rowers, but I can see the attraction right now.
Soon, I am on tarmac, and then wriggling between bollards and tiptoeing up a loose ballast slope, relying on feedback through the pedals and handle to tell me what is happening in the darkness two metres below me. I make it without incident, and then there is the steady tarmac slope down to the edge of the main rowing course.
The main lake at the Water Sports Centre is a rowing course, wide enough for about eight or ten boats to row side by side. The marked course is 2,000 metres long, and I have always assumed a lap to be around 5 kilometres. There is a tarmac road around the lake, almost dead level (it rises maybe a metre and a half over the length of the lake) with a wide smooth surface. This is easy riding, even in the dark, although there is the occasional puddle, or uneven repair to trip the overconfident unicyclist.
I maintain a steady speed, leaving more in reserve than I would in daylight. The skinny tyre is at its best now, smooth and almost silent beneath me. I hear the gentle slop of the water in my Camelbak. In the distance is the drone of traffic; out on the lake, the occasional cackle of a goose. I can see them silhouetted, floating in big groups in the middle of the lake to avoid predators.
I see two joggers ahead, running side by side with a dog that is travelling twice as far because it is zig zagging. I am still planning my tactics for overtaking when one of them notices the white flash of my head torch on the ground in front of him. He turns, does a double-take, and stops in my path. The dog is here there and every where. I slow right down, speak kindly to the dog, thank the jogger for his “help” and wriggle through the gap. The jogger remarks, “I knew it was higher than usual, but I couldn’t work out why.”
Soon I am near to the end of the lake. On the far side in the far distance is an industrial estate, floodlit so wastefully that the reflections of the floodlights reach across the lake towards me in bright stripes. As I ride, the reflections follow me, always pointing towards me, appearing to skim fast over the rippled lake surface.
Then I round the head of the lake and I’m on the long gradual down-slope, with the lake to my right, and the distant lights from the boat house shining in the distance. Deprived of visual information, I hear more. I can hear the two joggers although they are a couple of hundred metres away. The water is lapping gently. A goose honks.
To my right is the rowing lake. To my left is the waterski lake, which is usually almost invisible from here. However, with the trees naked for winter, and the light reflecting of the water, the waterski lake looks very close, and the road stretches ahead of me between the two lakes, narrow and straight like a causeway.
A movement to my right catches my attention. Something is taking off. For a moment, I wonder if it is a cormorant, which we sometimes get along the river. (Unlike our friend back at the skateboard ramp, I don’t think there’s much chance of seeing a shag tonight) However it turns out to be a heron, which ghosts into view across the reflection of one of the lights across the lake, then disappears into the gloom.