This morning dawned grey, overcast and drizzly. Drizzly enough to force a draw in the first Ashes test? Unlikely! Soon it cleared up a bit, and I decided to go for a ride.
It’s almost a year since I last rode in Sherwood Forest. Last summer, I spent many happy days there on the MUni, and a few on the Coker, but this year, it just hasn’t happened.
So… I park at then end of the long narrow lane called Deerdale, leave the glove box open, lock the car radio in the boot, and then spring lightly onto the 28. Of my three big unis (i.e. excluding the 20) this is perhaps the least appropriate for cross country riding in a forest, but, hey, that’s all part of the challenge.
Within 50 yards, I meet a couple of chaps who ask, “Is that difficult?” How on earth do you answer that without sounding silly or patronising? “It’s difficult to learn, but easy to do”? “Well, you have a go and judge for yourself”? I settle for the simpler, “It is, quite, yes.”
I have to dismount almost immediately for a gate. As I freemount (rather clumsily, with arms waving), one of the chaps says to the other, “It’s got a big wheel too.” That puts him in the top quartile for observation skills and intelligence, in my book.
I take it easy at first, spinning up the wide, hard packed forest road. The hill is steep enough to make me breathe hard, but there is no technical challenge. At the top of the hill, I’m already bored with easy, and I dive into the forest along a narrow single track. This is more like it: spinning along, but having to read the trail carefully. The 28 has a normal road tyre and 110 mm cranks, so it is very unforgiving. If you hit a dried pea at the wrong angle, it can cause a UPD. Fortunately, there are very few dried peas in Sherwood Forest.
What there is is soft shifting silvery sand, dry, powdery, and forming a thin layer over hard packed earth. That is enough to provoke a bit of a side slip and I UPD. Another UPD a few seconds later makes me pause to consider. I strip off my sweat shirt and strap it to my Camelbak. I get my breath back and ride on, more cautiously.
For an hour or so, I wander hither and thither through the forest, sometimes following broad well-made tracks, sometimes narrow single tracks with low branches that need to be fended off either with my arms, or by ducking my head and using my helmet. I follow the mountain bike down hill course (“Danger. Experienced riders only”! Ooer!) and I get good and tired and rather sweaty, but with a big grin on my face.
At one point, I see two mountain bikers plodding up a hill towards me. I can tell that one of them has a quip fermenting in his brain - you can see it in the eyes, you know - so I turn off onto what is obviously a difficult narrow track. His voice follows me: “Hey, chap! Do you know, you’ve only got half a bike?” I hate this fashionable new greeting, “chap”. I respond acerbically: “I don’t need the training wheel anymore.” Then I ride on, hoping my next UPD comes when I’m no longer in sight.
Later, I meet the same two cyclists. The other one catches my eye, looks a bit embarrassed, and says, “Respect!” I smile thinly and ask, “Don’t you find all those extra bits heavy?” I leave it to him to decide whether I mean the second wheel, handlebars, forks, gears, chain, brakes and mudguards, or the gut and the jowls.
Later still, I am plodding up a slight slope when a young lad on a mountain bike flies into view, having just taken off from a packed earth ramp. I recognise where I am, and turn towards him, riding over the ramp, and the next one, and the one after that. His mates part to let me past and one says, “Wow, man, that’s mint.” I thank him and continue on my way until I become embedded in a sand trap and dismount. I turn back and meet the same group of lads. One says, “Can you bunny hop on that?” I pause for a moment, stillstand, then hop about 4 inches. “Hey man, that’s so neat!” he says.
I’m starting to feel like a stranger to my own language here. I feel like responding, “Yes you cats, dig this crazy unicycling - it’s where it’s at, it’s the most on the coast, it’s the mostest,” but I guess they’d just look at me gone out.
On one section, I hear glass breaking somewhere in the forest. Is it a bottle, or a car window? There is nowhere to park legally nearby, but I’m not far from the notorious “Desert” where kids regularly burn out stolen cars. On my way back along this section, I smell burning rubber, and soon I see the distinctive plume of smoke from a torched car. I guess it’s the heat melting the insulation on the wiring that makes the horn start to sound mournfully. Are these the western values we’re fighting to defend? A total lack of respect for property and for the environment - or for the responsibility of bringing up the next generation? Or, to put it another way, give me an amnesty and one bullet a day, and I could make the world a better place.
Later, I find a lovely section of single track that winds up hill through a section of pine forest. Most of it is rideable - possibly all of it, section by section - but it’s at the limit of what I can achieve on this wheel and cranks. It’s really elegant riding, with the tyre almost silent on the carpet of pine needles.
Where the Coker just blasts through or over small obstacles, and the MUni plods and gets there, the 28 has to be guided, steered, nursed. I have to read the trail further ahead, treat it as a maze of obstacles. If I go left to avoid that sand trap, I’ll be badly lined up for that next rise; if I slow down for that steep sided dip, I’ll have no momentum for the next hump. I think it’s making me a better rider.
Soon, I arrive at the surprise café - it’s always a surprise to find it, because in the forest, everywhere looks almost the same, but none of it looks exactly the same as it did last time. I stop for coffee and a Snickers, and watch the bicyclists arriving and doing double takes when they see the uni in the bicycle rack. There are about 7 kids at the next table, and one of them goes over to the unicycle to look at it, but seems reluctant to approach it closely. He turns to his friends, half joking, half embarrassed and says, “It’s red.” I can’t say he’s wrong, either!
From here, I decide to head back to the car by the shortest way. In some ways I’ve been a little disappointed by the ride. The actual riding has been a rewarding technical challenge, but the best bits of the forest are inaccessible on this set up. The MUni is definitely the best because it lets me get right in among the trees, and it doesn’t stall in the dry sand. I’ve been too close to the general public, not seen much wildlife (a few pigeons and a squirrel) and I’ve had too many UPDs. Nothing serious, but it’s irritating, because they break the rhythm of the ride.
On the long straight trail back to the car, I come up behind two horses. One of them hears me approach, and turns, skittering to one side. The rider struggles to control it. I dismount and wait. She controls the horse (Dobbin of Sherwood?) and pulls over to the side of the trail. I ride past carefully, keeping as big a distance as I can.
And all too soon I arrive at the car. Something looks strange about the reflection in the door glass. Wait, I’ll work it out… yes, that’s it… there isn’t one! How can this be? Some latter day Robin Hood has smashed the door glass, broken into the car and stolen… er… nothing at all. So that’s a £60 policy excess to pay, and a couple of hours wasted later that afternoon waiting for the glass company to arrive and fit it. Still, I can see the funny side.
Do you know how humiliating it is when a thief doesn’t steal your CDs?