Well, after yesterday’s disastrous ride… back into the office, and another day fighting the combined forces of evil and stupidity. My last customer of the day comes through as a “complaint” because one of my laziest colleagues can’t be bothered to talk to him, and I rapidly detect that his claim is not as simple as he would have me believe. He finishes the conversation somewhat abruptly, after accusing me of having carnal relations with both my hand and my mother.
So a good vigorous unicycle ride is in order. And am I going to let the Coker sit there in the corner and become An Issue, or am I going to give it another go?
I start at my usual place near the skateboard ramps. I mount first time, and set off. I hear a kid shout, “Hey, look at that man over there, look, he’s on a unicycle!” It’s not intended for me to hear (he’s made the common assumption that unicyclists are all deaf) and it’s an honest expression of surprise and excitement. Fair enough.
I swerve onto the narrow footpath that leads across the field. This path is tricky on the 700c, but the Coker soaks it up at a smooth and steady pace. Then I’m on the grit path beside the river, and cruising along.
Something feels wrong: maybe the seat’s a bit too low. It feels as if it’s tilted forwards, too. I’ve been used to the Miyata all summer, and the Viscount feels all wrong. I decide to keep going, and soon I make the tight turn into the footpath next to the sailing club. Bump bump over the two concrete strips, crunch across the ballast, swoop up the little tiny hill that used to be so huge, and I soon pop out onto the road.
Then it’s a short ride towards the Water Sports Centre, passing one silent jogger on the way. As I’m about ready to move over to the right (US readers: we ride on the left over here) I hear a clackity clackity thrum noise behind me. Something strange approaches. I make an assertive right hand signal, occupy the centre of the road, then turn onto the footpath near to the lake. The vehicle clackity thrums past - it turns out to be a vintage air cooled V-Dub camper van. Lovely!
It’s an easy ride up the zig zag ballast path, across the rough area of deep ballast, then across the tarmac. The 700c treats all these sections with caution, but the Coker hardly notices them! Then I surge up the mown grassy track opposite, and duck under the low tree branches to turn right towards the top of “scoreboard hill” where I once learned to grass ski. (Grass skiing did not appeal to me at all, but my brother and sister both got into it and were in the GB team for a year or two.)
The very last bit onto the top of the hill is a struggle, and as I pull hard on the front of the seat, my foot slips slightly on the pedal. Then I’m faced with a tricky descent - tricky because there’s a narrow ballast path across the bottom, and the change of surface and the very slight drop could be enough to trip me if I’m overconfident. I plodwaddle down the hill, unable to adjust the position of my foot without falling off, and unable to control the speed and direction of the uni properly without adjusting my foot.
(Conclusion: the best way to ride down the hill under control is to fall off. Er…)
From here, I swoop up onto the mown grass “landscaping”, ride under the arrows sculpture, and then along the skyline. This is all familiar, and presents no difficulties except that I’m a bit out of practice. I make the short drop down to the path by the canoe slalom course, then climb up the tricky gravel path to the top of the hill overlooking the course. All of these hills are small - only a few metres of elevation - but once a hill is big enough for you to lose your initial momentum, it’s the trickiness of the surface that matters, at least until you’re too tired to continue.
At the top of the hill, I dismount and look at the seat. It’s properly tilted on the seatpost, but I decide to raise it half an inch or so. I remount, and take the steepish descnet with care. Spinning out is not an option as at the bottom of the slope is the lake! I ride past a courting couple, surprising them mid snog, then up the next grassy slope, over the top, and down. Next comes a short bit of embankment, and as I approach it, a middle aged bloke on a mountainbike swoops up onto the top of the embankment. As I pass him in the opposite direction, atop but a single gargantuan wheel, he looks amusedly crestfallen.
After the embankment, the fisherman’s track alongside the river. Here the Coker is in its element, swooping along the trail ignoring the smaller bumps that would stop the 700c, and making more speed than a plodding MUni. Soon, I find the cut through to the parallel path. The cut through is grown over and would be a struggle on any of my other wheels. I make it fairly easily, then turn up the steepish grassy hill, surprising four wild rabbits which scatter in alarm.
There’s a nadgery bit between some trees next, but the wheel seems to remember the way. Then I burst out onto rough open ground and quickly make the short distance to the tarmac lakeside track. Here I pass a single bicyclist. Then I go down the ramp, across the grass, and across the little wooden slatted bridge. It’s not difficult, but it’s there and it has to be done.
So, how good am I feeling? Ahead of me is the most difficult hill on my old Coker route. It’s not steep, but it’s rough grass, and long enough for balance fatigue to set in. It was at the foot of this hill that I fell and chipped a bone in my hand a couple of years ago. I haven’t tried this section for months, but I decide to go for it, and make it most of the way up the hill easily. The last bit is a struggle and involves a bit of arm waving, but I stay on, and soon I am on top of the grassy hill overlooking the waterski lake. The descent rquires care, but I’m soon down, and carefully ridng past the ski lodge, clacking my wristguards together as a warning of my presence.
The next obstacle…
I don’t do skinnies. This obstacle is the nearest thing to a skinny I’ve ever ridden. It’s a railway sleeper used as a narrow footbridge over a steep sided ditch. Riding for a metre or so across a bridge as wide as a railway sleeper should be easy enough, but I’m always a bit nervous. From the seat of a Coker, the sleeper looks a long way down, and I really don’t want to imagine what would happen if the tyre slipped off the side of the bridge, and the crank or pedal caught the edge of the bridge, and I was pitched sideways, my head falling a total of about 10 feet into the wet and stony bed of the bridge, my arm taking the brunt of the fall, the shoulder dislocating, and me lying helplessly paralysed, stunned by the impact and unable to attract attention as the rising water from a sudden unseasonal storm sent its icy fingers down into my choking lungs.
So, in this positive frame of mind, I approach the bridge a little too cautiously, hit a bump in the grass (prob’ly an earthworm or something) and I do a flying dismount. I clear the ditch, but the uni doesn’t!
I retrieve the Coker, remount and make a second approach. Again, the bump, the rude word, the clump of feet on grass, the gasp of relief and the grinding of metal against timber.
Closer inspection reveals a cunningly placed wheeltrap - the surface of the grass is level, but the roots of the grass are down a cheeky little hole, a few inches before the start of the bridge. Armed with this knowledge, I try again, and make the crossing, celebrating with my trademark Tim Henman clench of the fist and a subvocalised “Yess!”
By this time, it is starting to get a little dusky. I find myself cruising at a gentle pace along the tarmac next to the lake. Algae is rotting along the water’s edge and the familar riverside smell is relaxing. (That should be algae are rotting, but that sounds wrong.) I spent much of my childhood cycling and walking by the river or the lakes, or canoeing, or just swimming, and I still love those familiar smells.
Cruising on the Coker, I guess I’m doing 10 mph (16 kmh) and a lazy seagull keeps pace with me for a while, flying slightly lower than my head height. The centre of the lake is filling with ducks and geese which congregate there away from any predators there might be on the bank.
I make good speed round to the canoe slalom course, diverting briefly beside the main lake to ride down onto one of the mooring pontoons, along its length and back up the ramp onto the shore. At the slalom course, I ride along the tops of the mown grass landscaping. I hear one or two "Look at that"s from the canoeists, but no comments directed at me until I hear the dreaded “Dit dit diddle iddle dit dit da da…” I respond with a casual bidigital salute and continue on my way.