I’ve not ridden for two weeks due to a combination of injury, commitments, holiday, and then illness. So today I was looking forward to a short rde to speed my recovery. I chose the Holy Roller and set off.
The Holy Roller is a Pashley Muni with a 26" Holy Roller tyre and 125mm cranks. A general purpose machine which has all the quirks and design features you would expect of a “Brit bike”.
So three quarters of a mile in, I reach the river bank, planning to turn right and follow one of my favourite local single tracks.
This path is great. It starts with a narrow ribbon of trodden earth with a wide band of grass at each side, then the trees and undergrowth close in until you are on a challenging narrow strip of mud between high and thick undergrowth.
In summer, it is usually baked hard, with small dips and bumps, and fossilised tyre tracks to trip the unwary. In winter those dips and bumps fill with water, and the mud turns to paste. For much of its distance, the track runs across the slope so that any loss of control leads to a sideslip and a wipeout - usually in the nettles.
In winter, it is a good ride on the Holy Roller or the KH 24, trudging through the mud. In spring, it can be ridden on a dry day on the Bacon Slicer, picking a route over and around the worst of the obstacles. On the 36, it is a special challenge with low boughs of willow hanging down to snag your Camelbak as you duck your head. With concentration I can ride it in one almost every time, but it is never a certainty.
To the right is a thick hedgerow, and chaffinches, greenfinches and sometimes red-splashed goldfinches flit across towards the willows that overhang the wide river to my left.
Through occasional gaps in the trees, you can see ducks, geese, sometimes swans, often herons, and in the small baylets where the water laps against the rushes electric blue dragonsflies hover and skim busily. The evening brings out the swallows swooping low over the water, whilst the martins soar high overhead feasting on the insects.
And all the time, the rider’s attention is drawn first this way then that: now to a tricky section of bumps, now to a sudden glimpse of wildlife across the river, now to a low branch, and now to the thick summer nettles and briars that reach and probe craftily for the patches of bare skin between leg guards and shorts.
This is a place where no one comes specifically to mountain bike, but people who own bikes enjoy a ride that offers some challenge. The few dog walkers are of the more solitary and inoffensive kind, and the anglers who come this far do so to get away from it all, content to angle away quietly with never a thought given to making a daft comment to a unicyclist.
This is unicycling paradise.
But today, to my horror, the path as been stolen.
In its place is a 1.5 metre wide strip of crushed ballast, safely constrained by two parallel wooden edges. To each side the grass and bushes have been cut back brutally.
As my wheel crunches disconsolately along a level featureless homogenous and uniform path, I see raw stumps where the overhanging willow branches have been sawn off.
This desolation extends for a kilometer or so, then the crushed grit stops. But the damage doesn’t end, for someone has used a mini digger to carve a wide scar across the river bank, and it is clear that within days, the whole length of the path will have been improved beyond recognition.
At the end of the completed bit, an edge of plastic sheeting protrudes a membrane to prevent any unhygienic vegetation from sprouting through and ruining the outdoor recreational amenity that will replace the near wilderness we used to enjoy.
On my way back, half an hour later, I reflect glumly that when they have finished, they will add a top dressing and use a roller to compact it - but they always do half a job, and the roller adds annoying corrugations to the surface - not enough to be a challenge, but too uneven to allow the unicyclist to relax completely.
I reach the end and decide to ride straight on towards the car, but what is this? “Footpath closed”! Well, bugger that, I’m not on foot.
I discover they are improving the path in this direction too. But what was wrong with this path? A well trodden single track on closely mown grass, overlooking riverboat moorings. Now it is half finished, and the half that is finished is rolled tarmac.
As I ride over the tarmac, my wheel rises and falls in the corrugations, making me feel just slightly seasick.
Seneca wrote that we should enjoy what we have, but be prepared for it to be taken away at any moment. Perhaps he was a unicyclist who lived in an area where the council had budget to waste.
I will be surprised if I see any significant number of people using the new track. If they do, it will be merely as a route to somewhere else. For me, it was a place to be.