Devon is wetter than most of the rest of England, and Dartmoor is wetter than the rest of Devon. Nestling in the middle of Dartmoor is Princetown: the wettest place of all. Dartmoor Muni Weekend is in a campsite at the moist end of Princetown, and starts part way through the wettest drought since records began.
Things are not looking good on Saturday morning as I paddle my tent down the field towards the toilet block and nearly capsize in the car park.
An hour or two later, already cold and slightly demoralized, I am on an island of high ground in the camping field, the waves gently lapping at my knees, and surrounded by young, tanned fit Muni gods. By way of contrast, I am a middle aged pasty-faced unfit Muni-owning atheist.
At last we set off, down across the wet grass, leaving deep rutted single-tyre tracks, then through the car park, through the gate, and onto the uphill path.
The important word there was “uphill”. It’s not steep, but it’s nearly too much for my sluggish morning legs. Already I fear being left for dead, stranded high on the lonely moor, while the others ride on at warp speed until they reach the pub and some kind soul remarks, “I wonder whatever happened to that Mike.”
But then someone else UPDs. I am not the first, and that is always good for morale - well, mine at least, if not necessarily theirs.
The first section of the ride is a fairly steady uphill on a rolled grit path with occasional rocky intrusions. Every 50 metres or so, a granite gully crosses the path to allow water to flow across (just in case, for example, it rains). These gullies are all slightly different and each presents a new challenge. Some are V shaped, others U shaped, and a few have little ramps up to them, making them M shaped. The map later told me we passed South Hessary Tor, but I’m blowed if I saw it.
My riding style is more foil than broadsword, and I pick my way delicately through or around each obstacle at low speed. Sometimes I hold back a little to allow the rider in front to clear the way, to give myself chance to plan my route, and to allow Joe to overtake me at high speed, and attack the obstacle with all the delicacy of a chainsaw. Others pause and hop (a skill I must learn). This is the first time for a long time that I have seen anyone else riding Muni, and I find I still have a lot to learn.
After about 2.5 km of this, I am starting to get into my stride. I’ve had maybe two UPDs and one PD, and don’t feel too out of my depth skills-wise. Speed and stamina may be a problem, but so far so good.
I reach the cross roads, and am directed to turn right down a long and rocky descent. A later glance at the map suggests that this descent is just shy of 200 metres over about 3.5 kilometres. The track is rough and rocky, with some loose rocks the size of house bricks, lots of loose gravelly stuff, puddles, and big fixed rocks. It is piddling with rain, and each rock is wet and slippery.
This is perhaps the most sustained technical challenge I have ever faced on a unicycle, and I am quite pleased with the progress I make. I reach the bottom with only two UPDs. The glory would be all the greater were it not for the fact that I am on a 24 x 3, and young Tom (aged 8) is riding it faster and better on his 20. When I fall, I swear; when he falls, he grins. The kid’s indestructible.
Part way down this section, a few of us pause to regroup, and we are overtaken by two downhill mountain bikers. We can hear their cold wet disc brakes squeaking as they approach, and they pick their way though at not much over walking pace. The Lord of the Flies mentality of a large group of young males takes over, and we tease them mercilessly with comments such as “What’s your other wheel?” One of the bikers misses the point entirely and remarks, “I bet you wish you had full suspension and a few gears now.” Yes, and maybe a Land Rover?
At the bottom of this long descent, we regroup on the edge of a road. This is a dark damp place, but oddly beautiful, with all the rocks and tree trunks soft with pale green moss. Sarah Miller meets us here with offers of lifts for any who wish to bale out. We realise we have lost a couple of riders, and Rob takes it upon himself to ride back up the hill to find them! You know: the hill that was the toughest sustained descent of my Muni career so far - he’s just going to “nip back up it”… on a bigger wheel than mine. With a remark that he will “catch us up,” he gives a cheery wave (insofar as a Goth can be cheery without breaking ranks) and disappears from view at high speed.
The rest of us carry on along a fairly flat and very wet road that passes Burrator Reservoir. It is so foggy and wet that we can barely see the reservoir, which is only a few metres away on the right. On a clear day, it would be beautiful; in another life, so would I.
Then there is a long and steep road climb back up towards the moor. Here is the one place where my 24 should give me an advantage over the rest of the pack, who are on a mixture of mainly 26s and 29s - and some with shorter cranks. But it is not to be. You can do all the arithmetic you like, but there is no substitute for actually being able to ride well. Of the Four Esses of Unicycling (skill, speed, stamina and strength) I score moderately on the first, and pathetically low on the other three. I make it to the top with only one UPD, but although many of the others fall off a lot more often, they manage each time to remount and overtake me.
Comic moment of the ride: young Tom on his 20 is powering up the hill like a train on the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Tue decides to offer him some unasked-for paternal assistance, rides in front of him, takes his hand then immediately falls off. Tom shakes his hand free without losing control and rides on!
From the top of this climb, there is a long track across the moor. The weather has really closed in now, with visibility down to 10 metres or so. Rain and fog are blasting across the path horizontally. If you ride in this, you get tired; if you stop to rest you get cold. My emergency supply of Jaffa Cakes has run out, and I notice that all the more experienced riders have Soreen Malt Loaf, or Lyles Golden Syrup Cake. I still have much to learn!
The track is rough and rocky, with lots of loose stuff, and with just enough incline to make it very difficult indeed. The map shows about 5 km of this, with over 100 metres of climbing, and even the toughest riders walked most of the first half. It’s the sort of track where every turn of the cranks might lead to a UPD, and riding is often harder work and slower than walking.
The second half of this section is easier, with some nice challenges uphill and downhill. To our right, we pass the open pit of an ancient bronze mine, one of many such relics of Dartmoor’s bronze age past. On a nicer day, we might stop here and explore, maybe being rewarded with a small nugget of the pure bronze that can still be found washed out of the loose rock after the winter’s rain. However, today the mine is no more than an obstacle to be avoided as the path passes perilously close to the edge. And anyway, the winter’s rain hasn’t stopped yet!
We reach a crossroads that I recognise. To my left is the long descent from earlier in the ride. That means the campsite must be straight on, and not too far away. The rest of the group has strung out and with the fog so thick, I have no idea whether there is anyone behind me - although I have a good idea that there are several in front of me! I decide not to wait, but to ride on.
The descent to the campsite is far longer than I remember. The V, U and M shaped gullies are no easier than I remember, despite the fact that my general direction is down. The visibility has closed right in, and the wind is making sure that the water finds its way into every fold of my skin and every layer of my clothing. My left knee is starting to twinge, and my seat is chafing.
Morale hits a new low, and my mind turns depressively to the many cold wet and windy holidays I have had over the years - motorcycling, bicycling, tandeming, hiking, diving, boating, kayaking. And now add Muniing. Next year, a chavvy trip to the flesh pots of sunny Ibiza is looking good.
But at last, I reach the campsite, and find the others standing in a group chatting, so I can’t have been more than a couple of minutes off the pace. I repair straight to the car, where I huddle under a dry towel and recover my composure before making a break for the shower block.
Half an hour later, in the warm bar of the pub, we regroup. Who’s up for the afternoon ride? Crazy people!
I’m up for a veggie fry up in the Fox Tor Café, lots of coffee, and reading the paper. I’m not alone in this, but far from in the majority - several of the lads set off on another 10 mile ride!
From my new GPS:
Max speed 10.7 mph (17.2 km)
12.7 miles (20.43 km)
Average riding speed (excluding stops) 5.7 mph (9.17 kph)
I have included one deliberate error of “general knowledge” in there. Usual rules. If you want to play, PM me with your answers. If you don’t want to play, then please don’t spoil it for those who do by referring to the “error” in a reply.
The “deliberate error” is of the sort that a person with no specialist knowledge of unicycling could spot on his or her first ever visit to the forum.