- You will find one deliberate factual error in the following. It is a "general knowledge" error - the sort of thing that a first time forum reader and non-unicyclist has every chance of spotting. It isn't an error of grammar or spelling, and it isn't anything to do with how many times I turn left or right or anything like that. If you spot the error and want to play, PM me with the answer. Results published Thursday.
New Year’s Day: a chance to set the tone of the year. I haven’t ridden since I hurt a rib on a MUni ride a couple of months ago. My fitness level has fallen to an all time low, and for the last two or three weeks, I’ve been coughing my lungs up. Which hasn’t helped.
It is a cold but bright morning. Gales have been sweeping much of the country, and the trees across the valley are still dancing vigorously. I’m still coughing, and feeling very lazy, but I persuade myself to ride.
My preference for a first ride after a long break would be to take the 700C “Bacon Slicer” along the river bank, but in this wind, a MUni ride in sheltered Sherwood Forest sounds wiser.
At the car park, I take a while to get ready. My joints are cold, and my muscles are no longer used to hard work. I bend and stretch a bit, put on my Camelbak, helmet, wrist guards and GPS, mount first time, and ride across the car park towards the forest. A cold wind is cutting through my T shirt. My bare legs have goose bumps.
I wiggle through a couple of gaps and soon I’m on a wide straight path between tall plantation pines. On the left, these soon give way to beeches. The low sun slants between the trees, leaving one side of each trunk in shadow, but lighting up the gold of the fallen leaves on the forest floor. I plod along at a steady pace, waiting for my muscles to warm up.
I turn left onto a narrower path with a slight uphill gradient. The ground here is varied. Where the grass has not worn too badly, riding is easy, but in other places, there are patches of black mud with the texture of face cream. Now and again, there is a puddle, and the mud is completely waterlogged. The knobbles of my tyre throw cold black streamers up the insides of my legs.
I gradually climb, then drop down a gain until I reach a wider track across my path. I turn right onto this and make good speed. A family of cyclists comes towards me, three very young children pedalling earnestly and steering randomly. I smile as I pass them; they look perplexed.
At the next opportunity, I turn left again, and soon I am climbing, splashing through occasional puddles, or carefully skirting mud patches, wary of a side slip. Then I’m back on a firmer track. To my left is a tall forbidding fence. Occasionally along its length is a locked gate, with sharp spikes across the top. What can be behind it, here in the forest? Then I see the dome of Center Parcs, the holiday gulag.
Right again, and then I come to what looks like a dead end. At the last moment, there is a right turn, and now I’m on the first winding track of the ride, undulating bumps carpeted with pine needles, and sharp turns beneath the low branches of a few small broad leafed trees. Then I find myself at a place I recognise: an area of several acres of pine stumps, cleared by the forestry people. It is rather bleak, but the atmosphere is lightened when a squirrel runs across my path, its grey fur with some slightly reddish or brownish shades.
It is ironic that this area is now denuded of pine trees. In Robin Hood’s time, all of this would have been broad leafed woodland, with oaks, beech, chestnut and birch trees, and there would have been few conifers at all.
At school we were told that in mediaeval times a squirrel could travel from London to Edinburgh from tree to tree without ever touching the ground. I don’t know whether this is true - but I can’t see many squirrels making the effort, unless they were doing it for charity to raise money for the Tufty Club or something. However, much of the oak forest was cut down to build ships for the King’s fleet in Elizabethan times, and when it was eventually replanted, centuries later, it was with fast growing conifers. Well, you can’t build a modern warship with pine - although perhaps they have nice stripped pine bathrooms to make the sailors feel comfortable.
Anyway, it’s not the nicest place to be riding, so I am glad when I am once again under cover, with trees to both sides. I weave my way through the forest, sometimes taking a track I recognise, sometimes following one specifically because I don’t recognise it. I’m riding well, but the legs are a bit weak, so I’m just covering distance, challenging myself with the different surfaces, rather than looking for difficult obstacles. When the first UPD comes, I have covered 2.85 miles (4.6 km) which is pretty respectable on this sort of terrain.
The next UPD happens when I get stymied, trying to find a way between low branches and a steep-sided muddy rut. Fearing a side slip that will put my eyes too close to some sharp broken branches, I lose my nerve and step off. A few yards later, I am at one of the BMX areas. Here we are, on a bank holiday, a few days after Christmas, and you can just imagine how many kids are here trying out their new bikes. That’s right: none at all. I have the place to myself.
I ride a couple of the obstacles, but quickly become aware that the legs have no power in them. I stall halfway up stuff that I can normally ride, and I even miss a freemount because of fatigue. I know the sensible thing already is to point the unicycle in the general direction of the car.
I swoop down the two consecutive steep slopes from the BMX area. each time I ride these slopes they get a little bit smaller. Either I’m causing too much erosion or I’m gaining in confidence!
Then I tootle along, splashing though mud baths and deep puddles, mainly following familiar tracks until I reach a place where everything looks wrong. There has been some extensive groundwork for cycle trails - it looks like someone has driven one of those mini bulldozers randomly down the hill a few times, leaving a series of paths of uniform width. It’s horrible because they have paid no attention to the natural lie of the land, and the tracks don’t follow the “logic” of paths that have sprung up through “natural route selection”.
Furthermore, the ground is not yet compacted, so I am riding over ridged broken soil. It’s irritating, and unpleasant. But then, I don’t suppose it speaks highly of me.
Then I come to some serious obstacles, far to serious for me to ride in my present state of poor fitness and lack of practice - especially as the bottoms of all the hollows are flooded. I find a challenging route between them and then find myself on another of the ugly new tracks. Ahead and to my right is an ugly new bare earth bank. Suddenly I recognise where I am. The earth bank has been thrown up right across one of my favourite little ascents, not only ruining part of my ride, but spoiling the lie of a particularly pretty little bit of forest.
But as long as it suits the estimated seven mountain bikers a year who actually stray off the broad firm straight forest tracks, I suppose that’s OK.
By now, I am starting to flag quite badly. An ascent I managed on my last ride stops me half way today. I do rather better on a long gradually ascent through gravel, sand and large pebbles. Then I take the easy way for a bit. Although I’ve worked up a sweat, I don’t feel warm because the wind is cold and sharp. The ride is less than unmitigated joy, although I am glad to be back on the uni at last after such a long enforced break.
I find the observation tower, and climb it, more for reasons of tradition than anything else. As always, there is nothing to observe, so I climb back down and continue on my way.
Half a mile from the end of the ride, I am on a narrow, bumpy, muddy path when, in a moment’s loss of concentration, I UPD like someone falling over in a Chaplin movie. One moment, vertical; the next moment, horizontal - as if the film had run at double speed for a few frames. I curse loudly, and remount.
Then as I ride that last section of gritted footpath towards the café and car park, I see a couple ahead of me, with three loose dogs. The dogs are the little wire-haired yappy sort that people tend to dress in tartan waistcoats and bows. Here we are, within 150 metres of a children’s play area, 200 metres of an outdoor seating area near the café 300 metres of a cycle hire facility, with children and cyclists everywhere, and all three dogs are off the lead. Clearly, their owners have confidence that the little angels are well trained.
I have no such confidence. Following my rule of never riding between a dog and its owner, I swerve onto the grass and give them several metres’ berth. This display of caution and courtesy is as nothing as the three little fiends appear in front of me, barking excitedly and blocking my way. I shout, but to no avail, then I dismount and find nasty little teeth very close to my ankle. Thinking quickly, I clearly explain the consequences of it biting me, emphasising the ferocity of my intended counter strike.
The owners ineffectually call the dogs over, grab their collars and make a fuss. I remount and the little sods chase me again. This time, I regret to say, I resort to blunt language. The woman gathers her pet in her arms and turns her back on me. “An apology would be nice,” says the unicyclist. “I said sorry,” mutters the dog owner, unconvincingly.
And minutes later, I’m back at the car. Just over 5 miles covered, just over an hour’s riding time, not counting stops. Not the best ride ever, but it’s just good to be back on one wheel.