187.3km, av. 19km/hr, max 40.9 km/hr, time on bike: 9hr 50 mins (includes short 30 min ride from New Cross to London Fields, about 8km).
I first heard about the Dunwich Dynamo perhaps three years ago. A colleague at work was raving about it – best group ride he’d ever taken part in; “It’s magical cycling by moonlight”, he said.
For the next two years I was away on holiday when it was happening, and I continued to miss out. This year, I put it in the diary nice and early – and then promptly forgot about it completely until a few weeks before. I was keen, but hadn’t booked transport back and didn’t really know anyone else doing it that I could ride with. I was resigned to missing out again.
Then, the fortune gods decide to do something about this sorry state of affairs. A friend has to pull out (not so fortunate for her, eek 😔), so I offer to take her place. Is this madness? Should I have been training for months?!?
It turns out that if you’re reasonably fit and a confident cyclist, you can cycle 100+ miles, even in the dark. Wow! This in itself is a bit of a revelation.
On event day – a warm, still evening, with plenty of cloud (and later, not much moon) – I load up on pre-ride carbs (Pizza AND Pasta you say?) and load the bike with plenty of snacks for the night ahead. I decorate Dave Dawes with fairy lights and, for good measure at the last minute, a PEACE sign saved from an anti-war demo. I tape the fairy lights around the sign, thinking this will look good at night, and also thinking I’d be one of many folk decorating my bike, bringing signs, flags, etc.
When I get to London Fields, it turns out I’m pretty much the only one who’s done this! I feel a little foolish, but decide to stick with it. I’ve been so used to group rides where not having a flag attached to your bike has made you stand out, but this is the opposite. Lots of MAMILs. But that’s OK, and I’m wearing padded cycle shorts and am pretty much a middle-aged man, so can hardly talk.
There’s also a distinct lack of glitter. Memo to DD 2018 riders: wear glitter and face paint!
Anyhow, after supping a pre-ride beer alone, I eventually find the crew that I’m meant to be riding with. I say hi and desperately try and remember everyone’s names. I remember one.
It’s 8 o’clock (ish) and PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY CYCLING OFF. There’s no starting gun, folks just drift off when they feel like it, and it makes for quite an odd spectacle. Bikes everywhere. Bemused tourists. Pissed off taxi drivers. It’s like being on a Critical Mass ride all over again.
The first couple of miles out of London are pretty slow, slightly hairy, and generally amusing, although concentration is needed to avoid a collision with the ten bikes that are very close to you on all sides. It’s pretty much impossible to stay in a group, and since I can’t remember what my new-found friends look like (or their names), I don’t even try. I figure we’ll pass each other again at some point.
Cycling out towards Enfield, the huge gaggle of bikes begins to thin out. Going over the M25 roundabout there’s a glorious, fiery sunset, which bodes well for the ride ahead. Darkness begins to fall and my solar fairy lights begin to flicker into action. Totally worth it.
It’s about this point, I guess 6 or 7 miles in, that I pass a young Japanese lady who is stopped by the roadside looking at her bike, so I check to see if she’s OK. She’s having trouble with the comfort of her bike and wants to adjust the saddle. Finally, my tool bag comes into use! I help adjust it with an alan key, which seems to cheer her up no end. I don’t see her again, but I really hope she made it to the sea.
I cycle on. It’s getting proper dark now. I’m glad I have a decent light (stuck to my helmet with tape) but am worried that its battery won’t last. It has a horrible habit of going dead with no warning, leading me to turn it off when I don’t think I need it, so I’m often riding in total darkness. Foolish? Yes. Dangerous? Probably.
I’m being passed more than I’m passing, but I’m cool with this. It’s definitely not a race. And anyway, they’re mostly on light-as-a-feather road bikes, while I’m on Dave. With a peace sign causing major drag.
After maybe 15 miles I roll into a small village which has been blessed with two pubs. The road is seething in bikes, lights and beer. It’s like an anarchic neon-lit carnival has rolled into town. I spot a few familiar faces here, gobble some food, then cycle on.
Gradually, it starts to thin out again and the reality of the ride dawns – that dawn is still several hours away and between now and then, all I gotta do is keep going.
Riding in darkness on country lanes is a totally different experience to daylight, urban riding. Once unseen pothole could take you down. You can’t wizz carefree down hills ringing your bell and whooping with delight. No, you have to concentrate. And concentrating when you’re tired is no easy task. I don’t know how the guys and girls whizzing past in pelotons are doing it.
Some time after midnight I realise I’m very tired. Tea is called for. As if by magic, I pass a roadside house where a local resident is yelling “tea, coffee, free water”, so I pull in for a pit-stop (annoyed with myself for not stopping at the previous stop where “free chips” where being offered). Cup of tea and a Mars Bar though? Yes please!
And then, onwards. Cycling through Essex has its joys, but local boy-racers whizzing by yelling “Get a life, helmets” isn’t one of them. It’s in Essex that I have a near miss, as an oncoming car takes a mini-roundabout right across me just a moment before I cross over it. And it’s in Essex that some ‘friendly’ locals tell me to go straight on, when in fact I should have gone right. “Never trust advice from a bunch of people outside a pub at closing time” says a lady from Southwark Cyclists, who is helping people go the RIGHT way.
The Boathouse pub in Sudbury, on the River Stour, marks the halfway point, and I’m feeling not too bad, all things considered. I stop here briefly for food, before moving on only to realise that another pit-stop, Sudbury Fire Station, is just around the corner. Here, I’m reunited with the group, and we spend a while drinking coffee (tea just isn’t cutting it at 3am) and sharing our stories so far. Everyone’s loving it, and there are no major dramas to report.
It’s still dark.
Sometimes I’m riding with a new person who I’m just getting to know, through conversation; listening and learning. Sometimes I’m riding alone but I’m still having an internal conversation, learning stuff about myself. I’m not sure what I’d do these days without the time I spend on a bike just thinking about life – where am I headed, am I happy, how can I be a better person? I honestly don’t think there’s a better time or place to do this than on a country lane, riding a bike. But not necessarily at night!
Another time, I put on some music through my phone (NOT headphones!) Now, I’m not sure what the etiquette of playing music on your phone in the middle of the night is exactly, but I figure it won’t upset anyone, apart from maybe the family who’ve put a big sign up outside their house saying “Quiet please, children sleeping”. In fairness, I think I’m the only person who can hear the music.
Listening to Nobody’s Empire by Belle and Sebastian brings memories of cycling up proper massive hills in Vietnam and Laos flooding back. This is easy in comparison, right?
The next scheduled stop is ‘the lake’ as everyone’s calling it. Needham Lake, to give it a name. Between Fire Station and Lake, something amazing happens. Suffolk wakes up. The dawn chorus of a local blackbird gives the game away – dawn is just around the next corner, and so it turns out to be, as a chink of light in the sky suddenly appears, lifting the gloom.
Over the next 30 minutes or so, dawn gradually takes over, winning the battle against night. More birds join in the chorus (who knew wrens got up so early?) and by the time I hit the Lake, the sun is rising – beautifully – and it’s daylight again.
Having done their job, I pack away the solar fairy lights and finally discard the peace sign. Needham Lake will always be Peace Lake to me now. Friends and familiar faces from the night have all made it thus far, and there’s a communal sharing of final snacks, energy bars and encouragement before we mount our trusty steads for the Final Push.
Riding in daylight is so much easier – you don’t have to break as you go down hills, for starters, as you can see where you’re going – so the last leg isn’t as daunting as it might have been in darkness.
Overall, the ride isn’t too demanding in terms of hills (it’s pretty flat, with no long climbs at all), road traffic (it’s night), or navigation (just follow those hypnotic blinking red lights ahead), so you’ll probably never have a better shot at riding your first 100+ miles.
The road surfaces are mostly great too, although there’s one stretch, at around 3.30am, where road re-surfacing work has left a tricky amount of loose gravel which is VERY testing to steer safe passage through.
Kudos to the courier guys who came up with the route, and the crazy idea, all those years ago (25 to be exact).
Perhaps there’s less ‘camaraderie’ on the ride than I expected, but I guess you can’t say hi to every cyclist you pass, and there’s also a certain respect and understanding between the riders that if we’re not up for talking, it’s probably because we’re either in the zone, or lost in silent contemplation.
When I finally roll down to the beach at Dunwich some time around 9am (13 hours after setting off), the only thing that’s really hurting is my bum, but that may be TMI. Shoulda stocked up on chamois cream.
It’s super-exciting to see so many other riders on the beach, half of them in the sea. There really is no other choice after riding a bike all night but to GET IN THE SEA with them. It feels LUSH.
We made it! Too Easy!!
Oh… and then the exhaustion hits.
Suddenly I am lying down prone in a sunny pub garden and finding it very hard to get back up again. I manage to eventually, and then it’s over to the seaside cafe for a bacon roll (I’m sorry – there really are no suitable veggie options for someone who’s just cycled 108 miles) and an ill-advised beer, before crawling onto one of the many coaches laid on by the excellent folk at Southwark Cyclists. Dave Dawes is safely stowed away in a truck which will take him back to Canada Water in SE London (oooh, handy!)
Needless to say, the coach back to town is pretty subdued and sleepy. So much so that I’m worried the driver has fallen asleep too.
I’m so very happy to have been able to do this ride; it’s been both a learning curve and a brilliant experience. I made new friends and now feel like I can ride further and more confidently than ever before. I have even more faith in my legs!
When you’re doing something epic for the first time, it feels exhilarating and there’s a sense (for me at least) that it’s partly the not-knowing – and the adrenalin – which can get you through, just like running your first marathon.
I’ve not done a second marathon (yet) but I really hope to do a second Dunwich Dynamo.