I’m off work all week, and with the weather so unreliable this summer, I’ve made no plans.
On Tuesday, the weather was good, and I took the KH24 to Sherwood Pines: a visitor centre on the edge of Sherwood Forest.
The KH24 is a few years old, but has recently been “upgraded” with 150mm cranks in place of the original 165s. The awful clicky Snafu pedals have been replaced with a pair of DMR pinned trapezoids from one of my other mounts.
It’s a hot day, and although it’s midweek, the main carpark is full and I have to use the overflow parking area. That means there will be solid masses of people within a half mile radius. As I get older I am getting less tolerant of the predictable stupid remarks. I have never got my head round why so many people feel entitled – even obliged – to shout comments at complete strangers. If I did that in the street, I would expect to be arrested, but somehow it’s OK if the target is doing a minority sport.
So after kitting up and setting the GPS, I skirt around the edge of the carpark and head away from the visitor centre. There are people high up in the trees on the “Go Ape” rope walks and swings and I hear a couple of shouts of “Look at him!” but nothing directed at me personally. The track here is wide enough for two cars to pass with care, but a family of three is managing to block it with their mountain bikes. They see me in time and step aside, and I can see that Dad is trying to think of something to say, but can’t.
And soon I am able to turn off the wide track onto something narrower. But no! It’s been “improved”. The little winding single track that darts though the trees with muddy dips and exposed roots, which has so often been the gateway to my day’s adventure, is now exactly as wide as a bulldozer, and makes an unpleasant scar, almost dead straight through to the next wide track. No doubt in a few weeks, it will be surfaced and signposted: commodified adventure in controlled conditions.
I turn left which takes me away from the main body of the forest, and I follow a flowing track with occasional mudbaths in a big anticlockwise loop. Around me is beautiful mixed woodland, and I have the place to myself. The uni is flowing well, and all’s right with the world.
I cross a tarmac access road, and then the path gets narrower. I pop out of the wood onto the main access road to the car park. Last time I was here on the 36, a motorist panicked when he saw me, locked the wheels and skidded – earning a volley of critique from me about his driving. I had timed my ride to pass behind him, having heard him approaching for the last 30 seconds, then his panic had resulted in him blocking my way and I nearly UPDed. This time, there is no traffic, and I quickly dive into the comfort of the wood on the other side of the road.
The next section is a gentle shady incline, and then I come out onto a wide grassy track which climbs more steeply. This requires a certain amount of care, and in the hot sun, I am starting to breathe heavily. Then it’s right onto a short section of tarmac access road, and a surreptitious scoot through some sort of a work depot used by the Forestry people, and I’m back into the main area of the forest, having avoided around 5,000 people and a dozen uninvited witticisms.
Another advantage of this route is that it brings me to the “wrong end” of one of my regular routes, so that I’m heading downhill away from the carpark, where usually I would be on the last leg of my ride (and on my own last legs!). One of the many beauties of the unicycle is that each path is completely different depending on the direction: the challenging climb becomes the swooping descent, or vice versa.
My leg armour is chafing and I stop to adjust it. I check my GPS: 2.1 miles (3.4 km) of mixed cross country without a UPD or rest. I decide to set up my camera. I take one picture of myself riding away from the camera, then the batteries are exhausted! (The picture is in the photos thread.)
The swooping descent is fun – nothing difficult, but the sort of riding where you feel you are dancing with the uni, rather than fighting it. I love this feeling.
Then all too soon, I reach the bottom of the hill, and find a mudbath of black slime, or possibly a slimebath of black mud. There are three ways through: the easy way, where bikes have compacted the mud; the really difficult way, where the mud is deep and gloopy; and the way I choose: delicately picking my way around the edge, with my left leg having to brush aside the undergrowth.
Imagine my surprise, gentle reader, when my left leg fails to brush aside a two inch thick dead branch that is concealed in the undergrowth. I UPD with one foot and one hand going in the gloopy mud. I swear, then laugh, then pick up the uni, and at that very moment meet the first bicyclists of the day. One splashes past with a “You’re braver than me!” and the other passes on a drier path, tutting to herself about my language.
I remount, and ride about five metres before I meet the next mud batch. It takes me three attempts to get through this. The mud is the texture of hot buttered baby oil (don’t ask me how I know) and there is a short sharp climb out of the mud. By the time I’ve made it, I am smiling, but exhausted.
The path now climbs for a while, and then there is a huge expanse of deep mud. Riding through this would be like riding through French onion soup, and I decide to divert and join the main track for a while so I can get my breath back. It’s a short walk between the trees, then I remount and ride some fairly easy stuff for a mile or so.
Then I’m at the bottom of the “push up trail” for the downhill course. It’s probably half a mile of gentle climb, with occasional patches of sand or gravel, and I’m annoyed with myself when I UPD for no good reason only a few yards from the top.
At the top of the downhill course is a wooden structure with a ramp up, a flat platform, and a ramp down. I guess the drop is around 10 feet (3 metres) and the slope is shallower than 45 degrees. However, the surface is pretty slippery (too slippery for me to walk up without using the handrail) and I’m worried that if I UPD half way down I could land badly. I think I could ride it, but I’ve done my hospital visit for this year and I’m not keen to repeat it. I compromise by mounting half way down the ramp, using the safety rail for support, and I practise a few times. The transition from the slope to the flat ground at the bottom is not too difficult. All I’m worried about now is the sudden transition from the flat platform to the steep ramp. I decide to leave that for next time.
I set off down the course, which offers several options. My first route takes me up a gentle ramp onto a “northshore” bridge which is a good metre wide, and no more than head height. The drop at the far end is far too steep (way over 45 degrees) so I dismount to turn round and ride back the way I came.
Soon there is another bit of wooden bridge, this time in the shape of a flattened M. I ride up it and as I am at the highest point, a young kid (about 5 years old) who is with his family looks up and says loudly, “What the f*ck?” I say sternly, “Excuse me?” but receive no response from child or parents.
Further down, my eye is drawn to what looks like an earthen ramp, where two young lads on BMXes are having fun. I make my way over, ride up the ramp and discover that the drop on the other side is about twice what I expected. I dismount clumsily and slide uni-less down the far side. The two lads laugh, but they’re friendly and comment that I’m braver than them. They ask a couple of intelligent questions and we chat for a while as I get my breath back.
I note that there is an easier route over the ramp, and I remount and ride that, to good natured cheers. With increased confidence, I climb back up and go for the big one – the drop that I had bottled the first time – and I do it with style. The tyre skids a bit on the steepest part, but the uni is always under control and I feel good.
And so, via various minor obstacles, to the bottom of the course, UPDing once on an obstacle that I can normally ride easily: an angled drop of about 18 inches (45 cm) from a log that is half buried in mud.
This time I make it up the push up track in one. I carry the uni to the top of the platform and prepare to do a bit more practice of the lower part of the ramp.
A mountain biker appears next to me and we exchange pleasantries. He is in no hurry to ride off, and we chat half heartedly. Scratching around for something to say, i tell him about the kid who just said, “What the f*ck?” At that moment, the kid arrives and says, “Hi, dad.” Dad looks a little embarrassed – and so do I.
I take a different route down this time, and find today’s objective: a steep slab of rock that mountainbikers use as a jump. I guess it’s a metre or so high, and steeper than 45 degrees. My brain tells me I can probably ride it, but I know that if I get it wrong it could hurt. As I arrive, a bunch of young kids arrives, and they cluster around me excitedly, asking questions. They demand to see me riding the uni, and doing bunny hops etc. It amazes me, because at that age I would never have made demands of an adult, and certainly not a stranger. However, I’m feeling benign, and I go along with it.
They want to know if I’m going to ride the rock slab and I say no, not today. Off they go, and I seize the moment and ride down the slab, the wheel skidding slightly. It’s more psychology than riding technique, but I’m pleased with myself.
Tired now, I head along familiar trails in the general direction of the car park.
As I reach a junction, I am accosted by a young chap on a mountain bike. He has two kids in tow, the younger of whom looks exhausted. Do I know the way back to the car park? This is a tricky one, because knowing the way is one thing, but describing it is another: “Turn left at the tree, then right at the tree, then you go past some trees…” I invite them to follow me.
As we get closer to the car park, it is increasingly obvious that the youngest of the party is very tired and morale is low. I wish to take one of the prettier routes through the trees, but I direct the family down a main track . Ten minutes later we meet at a junction; I’ve gone diagonally through the forest, and they’ve taken an easier but longer route around two sides of the triangle. The oldest one (big brother, rather than Dad?) thanks me as we go our separate ways to our cars. I imagine I will be the subject of a family legend in years to come. “Who was that masked man who came to save us?”