Monday, July 30, 2007

Trepid Explorer's Idea of the Perfect Night Out.

Le Depart

Hours of planning, pre-sleeping, driving and not so much training put us, finally, at Hackney Fields, North London at 7:45 on Saturday night along with about 200 other cyclists. There was more lycra and more fast bikes than you could shake a bicycle pump at, an over-riding hum of nervousness, a few pints being sipped at, a long line-up for the loo. A publican who didn't care if you were a customer or not - because your friends are. There were a few Bromptons, a few recumbents and quite a few fixed wheel single-speed bikes (one gear and no freewheeling) and, oddly, a Cannondale truck which everyone politely ignored except for a few groupies who feel the Dunwich Dynamo is something to be done at speed.

We saw Barry, Ian and Ten and had a nervous chat. Ten introduced himself as a bloke I once met at some traffic lights, riding back from the pub and then I recognised him. I already made new friends. Ten's friend had still-warm, sticky flapjack which I devoured a piece of, licking the sticky treacle off my fingers afterwards.

At 8:30 a gradual procession of cyclists started to roll out early. These are the ones who had heard about the hundred or so cyclists that didn't get any food at the feeding station last year because it was all gone. We left with them.

The contorted route they followed through Hackney had us off the route sheet already but we soon rejoined it as other cyclists passed us at the main-road crossing. Red flashy lights were switched on as the sky darkened and we began to head towards a greying cloudline.

The gentleman next to me said, "Is it me, or are we heading for that rain cloud?" I wondered if he'd actually checked the weather and reassured him he was going to get wet, just not torrentially wet, as the thickest bursts of rain were to head to the South of London Saturday night and disappear off to Kent into Sunday morning. I didn't see him again, though to be quite honest I wouldn't have recognised him in the dusk when many colours and shaddowed faces cease to mean anything.

Into the Epping Forest where the oncoming traffic included youths yelling obscenities out of the window. I assume they were obscenities but we joked how lovely it was of "those nice boys" to wish us well.

In Epping town, a man advised TSK and I - riding side by side - to watch out for other bikers, then proceeded to run a red light. I assume he was one of the strange people who derives some kind of pride from doing the Dunwich Dynamo faster than everyone else. It really isn't the point.

Between Epping and the feeding station it rained properly on and off but as we left the street-lit areas, it really wasn't apparent how much it was raining until a car came the other way and highlighted the issue. My waterproof jacket did the job of keeping my body dry, the helmet kept most of the rain away from my neck and though my legs were wet, they weren't apparently cold. Many riders passed us and we didn't really ride past anyone else but there were repeatedly groups stopped by the roadside and this pace evened everyone out. Some had punctures or other mechanical failures and were busily fixing things in the rain. I pitied them but was silently glad it wasn't me. Green could've done with new brakes but otherwise my only prep was spit 'n' polish on Friday night.

Just outside of Epping was a pub with bikes outside. Without sounding like a blanket that's been left out in the rain all night, I can't imagine how anyone with the intention of staying out all night operating a vehicle could consider making that an easier thing to do by drinking beer so I can only assume that those bikes belonged to people who realised 200km is a long way on a bike but they might as well have a pint before they head for home. Perhaps they were the bikes of people who try every year and get a little further each time. Perhaps they were the bikes of people who decided to get an evening meal along the way, before the midway food stop.

The pre-feeding station section of the ride didn't require any navigation. A constant stream of flashy lights stretched out across the Essex countryside, lighting the way ahead and gradually the stream of fast riders, slow riders and those who would have mechanical failures evened out and the numbers of big groups passing eachother subsided. At a few junctions the pack came to a screatchy halt but TSK had done this before and saw the candles set burning in jam-jars by the side of the road to indicate the way. Those candles were a blessing. No sooner did we start to worry we'd missed a turn, a candle would appear glowing yellow-orange like a tiger in the grass by the roadside.

You wouldn't think that there's much to occupy the mind whilst riding in the dark but the people themselves became an amusing occupation. There was a group of riders I called the blue team. In the glow of white LEDs (quite a blue light) they stood out. One had a blue LED on his handlebars, another a blue bike and two were wearing blue jerseys. Repeatedly they swarmed past me on their fixed speed bikes like a train and repeatedly I saw them standing by the side of the road, resting or possibly repairing. Then there are the conversations to listen in on and wondering what people are carrying with them in two paniers full of stuff. You talk to your partner, you talk to strangers and you navigate your way around drain covers and potholes coming down hill and you concentrate on your gearing and cadence going up hill. And when you think it's all died down and it's just you and your neighbours, someone will zoom past on a fixed wheel lightweight bike or a recumbent and you'll be impressed because the likelihood is at 7am they'll already have reached the beach and be setting off for the ride home.

At about 2am I started to feel a little cold. I decided to change into my long, waterproof trousers and extra (merino wool) jumper at the food stop. I checked the instructions to see where we were, about 60 miles into the ride and therefore close to the food stop at 63 miles. I checked it against my cyclomputer - about 50 miles. There was a discrepancy! I realised both miles and kms were on the route sheet. The food-stop was not at 60 kms distance, it was at 80 kms distance, or 60 miles. The next 10 miles were long, and a little cold to say the least but fuelled by Bill catching us up. This is the first time Bill has done the dynamo and at 2am must have been feeling the same as me because Bill was also still in shorts but unlike me, was just in a teeshirt on top, a hint of builders' bum showing where his teeshirt was not-quite a proper cycling jersey (scalloped at the back bottom hem to keep you warm where it matters). My sudden moment of route-sheet checking paid off as we entered the town of Sudbury (one could describe it as sleepy but then it was 2:30am) and thankfully didn't miss the turn-off to the village where dinner awaited.

Thoughts of a steaming warm seat in a massive village hall were shattered only by the line of steamy cold cyclists queueing out the door. There was no avoiding the wait - everyone was as desperate as everyone else. I joined the line and TSK parked the bikes (in a heap on the grass - it is 2am) and switched out the lights. Soon we reached the doorway where the limits of personal space disappeared and everyone huddled ever-closer to the knees of the person in front, the tantalising warm breeze of a hundred steamy bodies drawing us in. Helmets - the small respite from the rain - came off, as did soalked-wet track mits which were squeezed-out over the sodden floor.

The lady behind me had reassured her mum there would be marshalls, I didn't remind mine that I was doing the ride this weekend so as not to worry her. We discussed how much further beyond half-way we were. With 63 miles under our belt and a total of 116 to do (not 120) we were much further beyond half way.

A happy bunch of volunteers organises the food for the ride. They are from a charity organisation, someone like FoE. I should find out who and credit them. Their soup was reassuringly hot and salty. The pasta salad vinegaretted (not mayo'ed thank god) and full of fresh veg and vatted into big blue storage boxes - of which there were reassuringly many. The tea was sweet (though that's thanks to TSK) and the coffee, though bulk, was served to TSK's request, with three teaspoons of Maxwell House in the cup.

Diner a deux heures et demi le matin

We stood to eat, swooping finally into a departing person's seat which we shared until another party vacated and we were joined by a couple heading homeward, discussing the virtues of a dry top to wear now over keeping it dry until the finishline.

Getting into my dry top and waterproof leggings (for warmth more than rain-proofing) I felt better, until I realised I still had to dig my soggy ass out to go to the loo. Once outside, we found it suddenly hoarishly cold and it took us a lot of grunting and half-hearted sprinting to warm-up again, particularly to warm my fingers, though my full finger fleeced gloves seemed a little over-the-top for July.

The 2.5 hours between the food stop and the start of sunrise seemed litterally to fly-by. I had a new chore to occupy me. Allegedly there are people who stop at the food stop until 6am then ride the rest of the route to the finish - entirely valid, so long as you don't want to get the bus back to London. There are obviously those who find the food station too hard to leave and phone for their mums, boyfriends, dads, wives etc. to come and rescue them. There are also those who take up residence for much longer than the time requried to repair and replenish. So the road beyond is less well populated and to be fair, it's a bit too much to expect the people who do the candles to set them up all the way to the beach. This makes routesheet reading essential, particularly so as not to miss the first turning which is warned to you in bold, "do not miss this remote turn".

A successful two hours of negotiating turns in the dark ensued and I am very proud. Trust me, reading a route-sheet and riding at the same time is one thing. Reading a route-sheet and riding in the dark has totally new balance issues. Doing it using an extremely powerful LED torch which blinds the eyes when reflected off white paper wrapped in see-through plastic and then looking back at the road illuminated by a partly-obscured LED torch is furthermore, unbelievable.

Then I came unstuck. I missed one instruction on the route sheet which had us (and five other guys who had lost their route sheet and decided to follow us) turning left instead of right. To my credit, I realised the mistake after about a mile and we dug the ever-soggier map out and retraced our steps, satisfied that there were no other groups making the same mistake. When we reached the next village, in my fatigued state, I was sure it was the village we had just assumed we'd come from. As I stopped to again check the map, a fleet of other riders came along and swept up my five followers who continued with a gracious, "Thanks for the help". Though I tried to feel bad for getting them lost, I knew we were all tired and they were at fault for relying on anyone else and could only feel good for recognising my mistake early.

As dawn reared at about 5 (reassuringly ahead of us in the East) we found a cosy place (sheltered) to stop and fix TSK's slow puncture, thankfully the only puncture we had. Around the corner we came across a country-park where there were toilets, blissful toilets, as I'd found it mighty-difficult to take a pee in the long-grass, down side roads, with 50-odd cyclists careering about with powerful torches (and probably with the same thing on their mind). Somehow, the cyclist sleeping underneath the sinks in the toilet block didn't worry me when I had my own cubicle. I even stopped to see if the gentleman was OK before I continued on my ride.

We made one more stop in honour of a casualty, an 18-year-old that I suspect had fallen asleep at the wheel and dropped himself head-first into something, potentially a ditch but possibly his own handlebars before hitting the road. He was a little cut across the face. As TSK asked, "did we bring the first aid kit?" I suddenly realised how rediculous it was that we hadn't. I rode along to try and find out if the road we were on had a name but finally the ambulance service agreed to use their brains to determine the location based on a description that came from a route-sheet and our slightly soggy map. He was patched-up and driven to the nearest train station by the kindly ambulance crew who, beyond stopping the bleeding could do nothing more to help.

Now that I could read my route-sheet in the daylight and our flashy red lights were switched off I was on a roll. Though the last 30 miles seemed to (did) roll past slower than any other, they were the easiest to navigate and an increasing band of riders joined us (or rode ahead and then waited for us) for the blissful assistance of my handlebar map bag and reasonably accurate cyclomputer which navigated us around tricky country-lanes, at one point flying through a TL,TR (turn left turn right) junction past the five doubters who had dropped us in the dark earlier.

As the sun rose further into the sky, I found myself leading a small group of routeless riders and the ultimate boost came to my self-confidence as a big man on a bike with TT flat-profile handlebars stopped at the top of a hill letting TSK and I - the hardened long distance riders - carry on whilst he rested his saddle-weary backside, a pained look on his face. (I also think this made me glad that I brought my sofa-of-a-bike instead of the lightweight, Red)

Finally, after hours of rain, the sun not only came up but it also came out and for the first time all night I started to feel tired as my eyelids closed to filter out the unfamiliar silvery surface that was suddenly the road in front of us (my sunglasses were waiting at the beach for me in order to save weight on the over-night ride).

There aren't so-much false-summits on the way to the beach, but a series of undulating valleys which gradually reduce the elevation all the way to the final descent, meaning that there's a number of climbs but also that suddenly, we were at the ruined abbey on the descent to the beach. I knew where I was and I could see the sea. Two corners and at 7:30am we were there, a hundred bikes again fighting for space to lean against walls or get piled in the sand.

First reaction is not to throw yourself into the ocean as a frivilous finale to the journey, but rather to head straight for the café for food. The option of breakfast of any kind of greasiness was not instantly appealing to me, but watching TSK chowing down on full English as I nibbled at my brown scone, I was tempted into veggie goodness and large volumes of tea.


Next stop was the beach and stripping off to just shorts and jersey, a brisk brief swim with a bloke who'd completed the ride in a kilt and was now swimming commando and ladies with green and pink hair. Very refreshing and I believe, despite the colour of the water, I felt much cleaner than I had done 10 minutes earlier. More food and tea then crawling into the back of the Vanu, ready equipped with a matress, sleeping bags and pillows whilst others chose the more hardy option of a silver blanket on the beach.

Had it not been for a lovely noisy family pitching up in the vehicle next to us and someone playing Radio 3 at full blast (what? Radio 3 asbos?) I think I might've slept longer than 1pm but my body begged to be emptied and refilled so we watched three coach-loads of weary bikers head off from the car park back to London then set off on our own journey back to the Fenlands.

The Dunwich Dynamo was an experience, not a race. The distance is one thing (though I've done that once before) but on top is finding out if it's possible over night, sharing the experience with a (few) hundred others and the joy of riding into the sunrise and the thrill of the sea at the end.

Notes on the Dunwich Dynamo:
  • It's entirely free and you don't need to register. It's not organised by anyone and as such is unsupported. You need to be prepared to call a friend for help, get a taxi or a train or sleep under a bush until daylight when you can figure out what to do next. Except for the coaches from the finish point back to London there is no sag waggon.
  • Your best chances of getting your bike to finish the route rest on a well-maintained bike with tyres at the right pressure and knowing how to fix minor problems, including punctures
  • Your best chances of getting your body to finish the route rest on training, some long distance rides as practice and carrying high energy food to keep you going outside the food stop (remember shops are shut). Each of us consumed a bag of nuts and dried fruit added to by a cup of soup, roll and plate of pasta salad at the food stop, a banana each at 5am and I ate 5 dextrose tabs to get me over the last rolling valleys.
  • Your best chance of getting your mind to finish the route rests with... well, rest and a bit of adjustment. We kind of practiced as we were up late moving vehicles around the country on Friday night so we could leave the Vanu in Dunwich then drive to London. We slept in until 10am on Saturday morning then went for a big breakfast, had a walk and went back to bed to sleep from 1pm until 3pm. We ate some pasta and did very little until leaving the house at 7 to start the ride. People suggest steering clear of alcohol in the week leading up to the ride (which we did) and I'd recommend avoiding it during the ride to avoid falling asleep on the way.
Ever present, the credits.
  • To Jo - for putting us up when the rail services let us down.
  • To the volunteers - friendly happy people at the food station and those who help hundreds of cyclists discover and complete the route and get home again afterwards.
  • To mother nature for putting the sun out so I felt like a swim in the morning
  • To TSK for knowing I could do it (someone had to)
  • To my brane - for surprising me with your versatility
  • To my parents - for bringing me up to think it's a reasonable thing to achieve.
  • To the public - for not waking up, or if you did, for ignoring us and going back to sleep (not forgetting the naked bloke in his living room who gave us a laugh at about 1.30am)
  • To the staff at the Dunwich café - for serving with a smile, shouting loud enough to wake up customers who've ordered then fallen asleep and clearing up after very tired very sweaty people.
  • To the riders - those who finished safely and those who had a go - because it's nice to know there's so many other people out there that are prepared to break the mould.
See you next year? (because last night I didn't think I'd do it again but this morning I've changed my mind).

Le plan après la route
And if you can't read the bit at the bottom, it says,

"In England - Where there has to be a product - they ask, 'Is it for charity?'"
"In Flanders, Italy, Spain or Rural France - where lunacy is celebrated they say, "
"'What Beautiful Madness'"

No comments: