With recent events in London it seemed the perfect time to head out of the big smoke and seek the quieter more relaxed setting of the Suffolk coast. Saturday night was as good a night as any, and what could be better than the chance to join over 500 other riders from the fringes of every cycling niche. Now in its 13th year, the Dunwich Dynamo is intentionally placed as close as possible to the nearest full moon. I hoped for clear skies and for moon-shadows to bathe the road, but it seemed unlikely. All day the sky had been an empty canvas of grey clouds and come five o’clock the heavens have opened. It doesn’t bode well for tonight’s ride. With just hours to go the skies already look like its nearing nighttime. Laughingly we discussed alternatives, most of which involved being holed up in a quiet local with good ale. Part of me wasn’t joking when I was suggesting this. The possibility of a deluge for the whole journey had moved through the peleton to challenge for yellow jersey.
8:30pm People have already started gathering at “The pub on the park” in Hackney. Even on the short ride here we’ve bumped into a couple of people on their way to the park. The dark clouds have broken up slightly and the last of the days blue sky can just about be seen in the fading sky. The air is buzzing with the sound of riders talking. Bravado and banter mixed with a last minute beer or some noodles. People are discussing where they’ve heard about the ride, or who they have come down here with. A sea of colours mark out the riders, even without their bikes. Cotton rugby shirts, old wool club jerseys or lycra team colours battle against each other. And next to each rider is their choice of bike for the night. These also mark out the intensions of the riders. The dented fixie with mismatched tires leaning next to the carbon T-mobile team replica, next to the early 90’s low-end mountain bike, still with its original plastic pedals.
Dropping a pound coin into the cardboard box I’m handed a photocopied route sheet that will be my guide into countryside. I’m kind of hoping I won’t really need to use it too much. Hoping that I’ll always be able to see others in front who know where they are going.
With no official start time some riders are already starting to leave. Tightening shoe straps and fiddling with brakes, the time has come. Riding away from the pub and through Hackney is an exercise in conflicting interests. Cars full of people wanting to get into town against cyclists who want to get out. The sight is strange enough from a rider’s point of view so I have no idea what it must look like for the unsuspecting drivers. Bemused locals and visitors beeping horns and staring incredulously as the river of bikes flow through the traffic like colourful water beginning its long journey to the sea.
It is still light enough to see clearly and the sight of so many cyclists seems to offer little in the way of comfort. Nervous energy and excitement makes the clogged junctions on the outskirts of London seem like a vulnerable place to be. It doesn’t feel like safety in numbers.
The first couple of miles melt past and the sensations slowly begin to change. Calming down, I begin to settle in for the long haul as buildings are replaced by trees. The initial swarm of riders has become a steady stream of small groups, easier to roll past as they move into single file. A long snake of flashing red that stretches off to the horizon tempting me to accelerate and keep trying to pass the next group in front. Tempting yes, but not the way to pace yourself for the long night ahead.
Epping is horrific. I’d been warned about how this town sticks out, acting as the final urban outpost before we escape. Blue neon lights up the interiors of bars – billboards for cheap champagne enticing punters. People stand outside shouting over banging music. Compared to the quietening roads and the contemplation we have it seems a loud and brash place. Although the amount of time and dedication spent on customising the cars that surround the pubs is not a million miles away from the time and dedication spent on a lot of the bikes we are riding.
10:15pm The light is fading pretty quickly and the temperature has plummeted considerably. Small banks of mist fill dips in the road and make the countryside look enchanting and mysterious.
Now that lights are necessary the selection that are on offer in the shops becomes visible. From standard LEDs to the world illuminating and credit-card melting Lupines and Light & Motions. Having passed through the heavily built up areas we were now moving into the beckoning darkness. Lights began to play strange tricks on the eye. Bizarre shadow puppets are cast onto the passing walls when you ride ahead of a bright light. The shapes morphing and twisting as the surface of the hedges and walls pass by.
Around this point we were joined by a rider who seemed to embody the spirit of the event. A spirit that I saw again and again in other groups and other riders. Russ had lost the friend he had begun the ride with but seemed to be riding at a similar pace to Andrew, Dean and I. We had already said hello and made small talk about a mile back, and he’d moved with us through the last couple of groups. I’d never met him before but we had the only thing in common that we needed. The oncoming challenge provided a bond that made conversation easy and he stayed with us from this point.
11:06 Cold enough for arm warmers now. We stop by a small roundabout in a non-descript new build village. It feels like we could be anywhere in the Country. Except for the pools of light that fall beneath the streetlamps darkness keeps everything else hidden. We’ve been passing the first people who have stopped for a bit to eat, or to put on another layer. Riders come towards us now, white dots emerging from the black long before any shape is visible. They pass us by, like we passed others by, this cycle will continue hour after hour. The traffic has thinned enough to make it possible to ride three or even four abreast. Headlights are visible long before the car appears and by then the group has squeezed back to one lane to make way for the speeding car to pass.
11:50 We stop to eat the first bit of food. Numerous other riders have taken advantage of the picnic tables outside “The Fox.” Despite last orders having long since passed there is the sound of loud conversation and drunken laughter coming from inside. Looking at the blurred people through the frosted glass its occurs to me that they might be the normal ones and we who are eating energy bars outside are the odd ones. My body is starting to tell me that we should be going to sleep soon. I’ve started yawning more and I feel lethargic as we head away from the pub.
We finally begin to see the famous jam-jar candles that I had been looking forward to seeing. They seem to sum up the spirit of this event as they offer a low-tech but heart-warming sign that you are still on the right course.
1:59 am. We have finally reached the feed station, a village hall in Monks Eleigh. I’ve been waiting for a fair while for this place. Riding past the burning torches that mark its arrival I feel a boost to my moral. On the couple of miles running up to here I’d been feeling a bit of a low. Waves of tiredness had been washing over me at the top of everything that resembled a slight incline. It didn’t help that a few miles back we found ourselves caught in a pretty fast group. We realised that if we could keep from being spat out of the back we could rocket along. The longer we could stay here, the sooner we’d be there. If I could have seen the scenery I’m sure it would have been a blur. We ate up the road as we sped along in the pack and my mind was filled with images of the peleton I’d been watching on television all week. The line of riders scarcely spoke as we gracefully swept around corners and along the road. Having arrived at the hall we could see shapes moving through steamy windows. Stepping into the warm and muggy village hall we were greeted by a bizarre sight. A half full hall with men and women wandering around in a shell-shocked state. Blinking heavily at the bright lights you could see people walking about with plates of pasta and rice, cleats clicking on the wooden floor as they found a place to sit. Steaming cups of very strong coffee washing down slabs of flapjack and slices of melon. And finally a chance to see the faces of those you’ve been riding with. Before now they have just been voices, bikes and cycle jerseys. Now they gain an identity.
We seem to have arrived at the right time as the queue has doubled by the time we left. All chairs have been filled and the floor space is disappearing rapidly. All the signs are telling us that it is time to go. Unfortunately my body had other ideas. It is dark and cold outside, and it is a good few miles till my body starts feeling human again. The comfort of the hall is obviously too much for a lot of people as the amount of folk out on the road has thinned out even further.
Moods rise and fall as we ride through the darkest part of the night. Villages become sparse and the moonless sky offers no hint of what is around the next bend. Small loops of song lyrics rattle around my head. Sentences repeat in a hypnotic manner as yet again “Forever Lost” by the Magic Numbers becomes almost mantra like as I pedal out a singlespeed forced cadence. As we can ride at full width the inane conversations still pipe up whenever silence gets too much. Things start to get very funny, funnier than they should be. We realise that we might be getting a little delusional but it’s impossible to stop laughing.
3:36 One of the riders in the group we’re currently riding in has taken a fall. It’s really dark now and junctions appear very quickly. As we stop to check directions he appears to have stumbled over himself. Probably disorientation and lack of concentration, thankfully its just a bit of grazing.
Off to the East someone notices a smudge of orange on the horizon. We know that we are well past anywhere big enough to give off that kind of light pollution, so it must be the dawn on its way. This makes for some of the hardest riding, as shapes begin to emerge from the darkness we’ve grown used to. What appears to be a road sign on a bend turns out to be a car parked outside a farmhouse. Eyes are easily tricked by the little bit of extra light we are now being given. We’ve still got the energy to move from one group to the next, but its just taking a little bit longer.
3:50 Our first forced stop as Dean gets a flat. While we watch him pulling off his back wheel we hear the first cock crowing.
The sun doesn’t rise beautifully, marking the start of a glorious summer day. Instead the daylight creeps in so slowly that you never even notice the that the LEDs that were recently so important are now redundant. Instead of following a flashing red spot you can see the full shape of the rider in front. And although it’s in no way connected with the distance covered, the light brings with it a sense of optimism. Not only can we read the route guide easily, but also we can see that the amount of landmarks on the card have hit single digits. A business like sense of purpose starts to kick in. Although I can feel there isn’t much left in my legs I can tell we aren’t too far away from the end. Looking around at the others I can see that they can also hear the coast calling.
Without anyone speaking a word the pace has increased. As the dozen strong group we’ve become move from country roads to long sand banked lanes the speed has gone up. The air has become saltier and those with anything left in their legs have turned the screw a little. Fully absorbed in keeping my place near the head of the pack I almost didn’t notice the effect the pace was having. Glancing back I see that the group is now down to six and I feel a little better about the fact that I’m so tired. The lack of gears means that any gradient we hit requires an out of the saddle grunt that usually puts Andrew and I at the front of our group. Not out of choice, just out of fear that we’d grind to a halt if we remained seated. Russ, the rider who joined us about 80 miles ago, was one of the riders who was dropped. With just a couple of miles to go, we know that we’ll see him soon enough at the end.
As we enter Dunwich we all realise there wont be a Champs Elysees for the final duel. After nearly 8 1/2 hours I’m happy with this, and as we speed into the cafe car park we are greeted by the first view of the sea. I shake hands with those who have been my riding companions for the last 20 or so miles. We smile and agree that however much fun it’s been, it’s good to be here after all this time. Its 5:25am and there are already about 50 riders who are either sitting in the cafe or queuing for breakfast. Some of them may well have been here for a fair bit, and I don’t want to think about how fast some have made it. For myself, though, I feel really pleased with the time we’ve made and how much I’ve enjoyed it.
Only now do I realise that the weather has held out all night and I can only imagine how much tougher the ride would have been if we had been riding on wet roads. I’m happy to have missed a beautiful sunrise in exchange for staying dry all night.
The scene of so many riders gathered here at this time of morning looks mildly ridiculous. Brightly clothed folk looking pasty and tired as they shuffle along the queue to collected bacon rolls and coffee. Russ appears at the same time as our food, and tells a tale of how he bonked on the last couple of little climbs. As the speed went up he found himself fully depleted of energy and in need of chocolate raisins to recover.
It seems odd that although it’s been light for a couple of hours now it is still very early. It’s still a few hours till I can call my girlfriend and speak self-righteously about how there can be few better ways to spend the weekend.
Everyone I speak to in the cafe, and everyone I spoke to en route, seems in agreement that this has been a great night out. How often do you get the chance to ride with so many riders on such a well thought out long distance route? The ride is unique in that all the riders are keen cyclists (you’d have to be to give up a Saturday night to ride over a hundred mile) yet there it is not a competition. With no prizes on offer the only reason to ride hard comes from within. In the dark of the night you can race away from the demons of modern living, or you can spin along in the company of new friends. The challenge you set yourself can be as brutal or easy as you want it be. And I’ve now got twelve months to decide whether I want to get there before 5:25 or whether or not I want to take it a little easier. The only thing that isn’t up for question is whether or not I’ll be riding