This morning dawned misty, damp and grey and it took some effort to persuade myself to go for a ride. However, “winter drawers on, Mrs. Thingy,” and I thought I’d better make the most of a free day before the weather gets even worse.
So I drive up to Sherwood Pines Visitor Centre, about 13 miles from home. Here, if I pay £2, I can have the privilege of parking my car and probably not having it broken into during my ride.
The Muni is enjoying a new lease of life, ever since I fitted the Maxxis Holy Roller 26 x 2.4" tyre to it. Instead of a plodding “tractor”, I have come to think of it as a fun unicycle. And just as Cokers are named after their tyres, I’m starting to think of the MUni as The Holy Roller.
It’s a cold morning so I do a few half-hearted stretches to loosen up before riding, just to be on the safe side, then I mount and set off at what counts as high speed for me. The predictable steering of the Holy Roller, compared to the previous tyre (Gazzaloddi 2.3") invites me to spin the cranks as fast as I can, rather than holding something in reserve.
So maybe I set off too fast, because when I reach the first obstacle, a wiggle gate, my balance circuits haven’t warmed up, and as soon as I slow down, I UPD - most embarrassing.
Then there’s a short section of rough but wide track, with grass and mud, and I feel like I’m “in the zone” as the tyre hoovers it up. This is the life! Until I get tot he cross roads, slow down… and wallop! Another UPD.
I remount and ride a little more slowly for a while, zigzagging a bit and looking for puddles and uneven bits of ground until I feel that all my brain’s gyroscopes have started to spin properly.
I then speed up and ride fast and straight along a wide forest road, making easy work of a couple of small hills before becoming bored and diving off into the forest. Here, the tracks are narrower, sometimes muddy, sometimes blocked by deep muddy puddles, and often crossed by tree roots. Now I really am in the zone, and I make faster progress than I would have thought possible a few weeks ago. It’s late morning on a cold damp Saturday when most people are probably shopping or watching TV, so I have the forest to myself.
The trail I’m following spits me out next to a gate, and I suddenly recognise where I am: the place where I often used to park my car until it got broken into a few weeks ago. I cross the tarmac lane and pass through a gate onto another wide forest road. This is a side of the forest that offers lots of good riding, some challenging hills, and fewer people, but somehow I seldom ride here. I think it’s because the very first section is a long uphill, and when I used to park here, my wheel naturally turned towards the easier track at the start of the ride.
I pass a couple of surprised mountain bikers. They look like the sort who put their bikes into top gear, pedal three for three strokes then coast for a bit before stopping to regroup, never break sweat, and go home thinking they’ve been doing an extreme sport. Still, it’s a free country, and it’s certainly not my place to shout unsolicited comments at people with strange hobbies, so I nod a greeting and continue up the hill.
At the top of the hill, the track turns to the right and becomes level. I make a conscious effort to slow down, hoping to see some deer. No luck. I guess they were all shot and eaten by a legendary outlaw in the time of King John. Either that or they’re just elsewhere in the forest. Anyway, I get my breath back then turn off the easy track again for a short climb to meet one of the best fun tracks I know.
This track is wide enough for a Land Rover, but appears never to be used by anyone except the occasional horse rider or unicyclist. There are logs strewn across the trail in places, and I practise riding over these - nothing thicker than about 3 or 4 inches. The mud and sand of the path is carpeted with golden autumn leaves, stuck together in a soggy mess, and concealing all manner of unexpected wheel traps.
The trees in this part of the forest are mainly chestnut, horse chestnut and beech, all of which have spiky seed cases and I can hear these falling around me as I ride. I’m wearing a helmet, and I cast my mind back to the last helmet debate in this forum. Does the helmet make it more likely that my head will be hit by a falling conker, or just more likely that it will hurt me if it does hit me? I never did follow that debate properly.
I turn a corner and there’s a short steep incline with mud, sand and gravel, I lose traction and step off. This is an opportunity to rest and get my breath back. I sit and watch the vapour of my sweat forming clouds and drifting in the light breeze - these are rare weather conditions indeed. I also watch a squirrel, busy clambering up and down a tree and hiding nuts in the ground. The forest is silent except for the occasional rattle and thud of a conker falling through the leaves and landing on the forest floor, the drip drip of earlier rain falling from the leaves, the distant songs of birds… and the chainsaw-rasp of 2 stroke motorbikes on the nearby railway embankment.
A few minutes later, I’m up on the railway embankment, and the bikers have moved on. The embankment no longer has a railway track on it, and the surface has subsided unevenly, leaving a long sequence of humps and hollows. Each hollow is full of dirty water. I ride along, hitting the puddles at reasonable speed so that my momentum carries me through. I can roughly judge the depth of the water from the width of the puddle, but sometimes I am taken by surprise, or the bottom of the puddle is particularly slimy. However, I make it without a dismount until I reach a bit where the water is so wide and deep it would be foolish to try. I find a way past this and then I’m on a wide barren area of rutted ground and slimy puddles.
I ride for a bit, with no clear sense of purpose, and decide that this area is not a nice place to be. I toy with the idea of riding down the side of the embankment. As I am considering this, I see a little Suzuki jeep full of youths appears from the direction that I’ve just come from. This decides me, and I launch over the edge of the embankment onto a steep and rutted sand and gravel slope. A few pedal strokes down, I sideslip and step off.
I pause to regroup, and the jeep appears at the top of the hill behind me. I invite the driver to overtake, but he smiles and tells me to go ahead. The pressure is on, and I freemount, and spin and slide down the long sandy slope, arms waving frantically, and make it to the bottom in one. Boy! That must’ve looked good! The jeep follows me down and turns in the opposite direction at the bottom of the slope, the driver giving a cheery wave.
A little later, I am at the edge of The Desert. This is a wide expanse of sand and gravel on former quarry land, and is a regular meeting place for young men with dirt bikes, quads and jeeps. I’ve ridden on here before, and it isn’t easy. So I set off up a gravel path that climbs up to a platform that overlooks the desert. I make the whole climb in one go then, tired, UPD at the very top. I’m probably 20 metres or so higher than the desert, and I have a commanding view of the motorbikers in one direction, and the treetops in the other.
Breath fully recovered, I ride on until I find a chance to descend. I choose a steep sand and gravel slope that I’ve never successfully ridden down before. I feel like I trust the Holy Roller more than I trusted the Gazz, and I start the descent, carefully at first, then allowing the uni to speed up until I spin out on the very last bit. This is a tactic I would never have risked before, and my reward is my first ever successful descent by this route.
A few minutes later, I am riding across The Desert itself. In places the sand is hard packed, and bound together by moisture. The tyre sinks in ever so slightly, but control is easy. In other places, motorbikes have broken the surface and stirred the mixture of sand and gravel leaving it unstable. These sections are tiring work, and I am aware of a distant audience of youths on motorbikes - and that they might at any moment choose to become a nearby audience. I UPD once, but not badly, then walk a short distance to some packed sand and remount.
I hear the bikes roaring towards me from behind. I have no idea whether they just happen to be coming this way, or whether they are riding over to chat, or to be hostile. This is an area where I would not like to fall foul of the local youth population. I keep riding until, hitting a patch of deep sand, I fall, landing on all fours. I check the seat, remount and ride on. I’m aware of the bikes stopping a short distance behind me, but nothing is said. Perhaps fortunately, from the credibility point of view, the next part of my route is a short series of humps, bumps and a narrow muddy ridge, and I ride it all in one.