I decided to do this year’s Dunwich Dynamo right after finishing last year’s, and booked my place on the return coach way back in December; just so I couldn’t change my mind. I bought the train tickets to London fairly early, too; partially for the same reason, partially to get the cheaper prices. Last year I trained for the ride with a few 70-80 milers in the preceding weeks. I didn’t have time this year, so I was experiencing some degree of trepidation as I hoped the daily 40 mile round-trip commute (not strictly daily as I’m not enough of a hair-shirt wearer to refuse a lift when offered one) was going to be sufficient. The other reason I was a bit nervous was because of the trip across London to the Cutty Sark; last year I had the company of the Booze Monkey, but he had decided he was too fat, unfit and lazy this year so I was going it alone.
As it turned out, the ride across London was fine. I found the cycle path through Hyde Park absolutely infuriating due to the preponderance of ponderous pedestrians: comprising mostly tourists, as far as I could tell, not to mention the horse-riders. They seemed completely incapable of associating the painted bicycle signs on the tarmac with the idea that it might be intended for cyclists. It’s not as if they didn’t have their own paths, either. It’s completely beyond me why some London cyclists praise these routes as a good transport alternative: perhaps next year I’ll try Oxford Circus and find out.
Experience from last year told me to aim for an earlier arrival in London to be sure of being able to get a train to Greenwich from Waterloo, and I arrived at the Cutty Sark with two hours to kill. I spent the time watching pirates on stilts and kids do stunts on bicycles and skateboards, using the street furniture. So much for the Playstation generation. Just goes to show all they need is the opportunity.
It was very nearly seven of the clock before any of the Greenwich Cyclists turned up, and most of us headed for the foot tunnel in an attempt to get through before the lift closed for the night. My companion and I made it for the down lift, but the attendant at the other end was packing up when we got there and would not be persuaded to make one more trip. Walking through the tunnel in Look cleats is bad enough; they made for a nerve-wracking portage up the narrow, winding steps. Then came the frankly terrifying four mile ride up the canal towpath to Hackney. Barry waxed lyrical about having the path, but I found the narrow, often lumpy path with its low bridges, obstructing anglers and occasional sphincter-squeezingly tight turns less than ideal. Four miles usually takes me a maximum of fifteen minutes. This took more like half an hour.
It was quite a relief to get to the pub having stayed out of the canal. I fortified myself with the obligatory pint and a barbequed veggie pitta, and picked up my coach ticket from Barry. There were a few familiar faces from last year, and a couple of familiar people with unfamiliar faces in the shape of Chris Land and Ron Strutt (the latter I must thank for the photos) from the Cycling Plus notice board. I got my route sheet from Patrick Field, bemused again by his habit of referring to the participants as "pilgrims", even though I still had one from the previous year. It’s part of the ritual. Not long after that people started leaving.
It’s an odd thing, the departure. There’s no call; no massed start. The time approached nine and people just started leaving, mainly in little groups. Chris, Ron and I joined several others including one of the many recumbent riders, turned on our lights and headed out under the blue bridge into the late evening London traffic.
Last year there was a burning car in Epping. This year our progress was hindered by a police roadblock that the PC on duty told us was a result of an RTA. A quick detour around the block was the result, and then we were back on track, sticking together until we hit the main road out towards Epping, whereupon I was overtaken by a Ratcatcher recumbent, my competitive instinct kicked in, and I pulled out to give chase, eyes fixed on the rapidly receding twinkling rear lights in the distance.
Ron stuck with me, bless him, and for the next forty miles I rode with him and Malcolm, an audax man using the ride as a training run for the Paris-Brest-Paris. I struggled with an unruly map-trap (the Rixen and Kaul variety) that was loose and kept flapping forwards every time I hit a slight bump. We stopped briefly to make various adjustments and for Ron to take a couple of photos, and brutal application of the 4mm allen key did the trick. It did the trick rather too well: a few miles further on I hit a deep pothole, very hard, and there was so little give in the map trap mount that the plastic trap smacked against the mount and sheared clean off, hitting me in the face. As I had forgotten to pack the Petzl Arctic helmet torch for which I had paid forty molluscs in preparation for the Dun Run this year, it was no great loss.
Shortly after that a rider approached from a group of others and I heard "Is that Sam?"
It was John, who had been a companion for the second half of the ride last year. He had recognised my rear lights. I joined his group without really noticing, gradually and unintentionally leaving Ron and Malcolm behind, just keeping up with the conversation. They ribbed me about the dynamo, so I found myself obliged to hit the lumicycles, just to make a point. It was nice riding in silence, without the hum of the generator. It reminded me that one of the beautiful things about cycling is the quiet, and on the traffic-poor, late-night roads our passage was practically noiseless — apart from the complaint of a single passing motorist, whose passenger chose to have a go at me for having bright lights (and that was only the 12 watt).
One of the advantages of an overnight bike ride is the lack of other traffic. The drivers we did encounter were, in the vast majority of cases, extremely considerate; although one driver did feel the need to ask me, very loudly "Do you have a fucking death wish?!" He was gone before I could inform him that I had never experienced sexual fantasies about the Grim Reaper (not even when voiced by Christopher Lee). Nocturnal cycling can also arouse curiosity in innocent bystanders; on stopping with some others to check directions in a village where I took a wrong turn last year, our group disturbed someone in a nearby house. Perhaps he thought we might be burglars, but in any case a window was opened and an utterly astonished voice was heard to cry "There’s a bunch of bloody cyclists down there!"
There was a momentary panic caused by the feeding station being further towards the end of Great Walsingham than one might expect, leading to the horrifying idea we might have taken a wrong turn and be further away from a cup of tea than we wished to contemplate, and then there was light and tea and food and the chance to sit on something other than a saddle. Knowing I would feel miserable didn’t help as much as I would have liked, and I was plagued by the worry that I had started too quickly and would not have enough energy to make it to the end. While everyone else tucked into vast plates of rice and some spicy vegetarian concoction, I managed to down six cups of tea, half a protein bar, a banana and an apple. This year I did not torture myself by looking at the map on the wall, but made myself get ready to go before torpor set in too deeply. At about 3am, having donned tights and an extra layer against the morning chill, we were off again.
For the second half I rode with John, Ron and Tom, which is possibly the making of a great folk song. Ron started to fall into a slightly more leisurely pace at Needham Market, caught up for a while, and then fell back as John the Indefatigable pushed the pace. John had to get an early train back from Ipswich because he was due at a barbecue in Redhill at 1pm. That meant riding to the train station from Dunwich, a distance of some forty kilometres, and he needed to give himself time to get there.
We pushed on into the dawn, a cool start to what would be a scorching day, and I remembered what makes the Dynamo so good: nothing compares to the feeling of riding into the dawn, on empty roads in beautiful countryside, when everyone else is in bed or riding the same route. It has a beauty, a tranquillity, a peaceful joy that is all its own, with mist wreathing in hollows and muted fields and hedgerows passing by.
There were more hills than I remembered. We decided these must be figments of our imagination, and distracted ourselves by listing all the ways other people were ‘cheating’. Riding a tandem was cheating, as was riding a recumbent; maintaining a cadence of more than 100 for the whole ride; riding a stripped down road bike; riding a stripped down road bike even if it were fixed gear, although respect was due; leaving the pub before us; leaving the feeding station before us; not stopping; and basically going faster than us. On the approach to Sibsey Church John managed to tap into my reserves by pointing out another solo woman: no, it’s not race, but I can’t help it. We dropped Tom, who had been pushing bigger gears and honking up hills rather than spinning, and had thus tired out his legs more than we had.
Pushing on towards Dunwich and a cup of tea we rode through clouds of fairies; silver speckles hanging in swarms across the road. Between us we kept up our pace, even increasing our average speed, until we were into the back lanes past the cycle centre (interestingly pointless cycle path at the junction with the main road there), and wondering where the café was. Someone on a recumbent hailed us, heading off back the way we had come. There was a rumour he had got there, had breakfast and then turned to ride back to London, but that would be cheating (obviously!), so I prefer to think he had gone to catch a train.
On arrival, skidding to a stop in the dust, we were greeted with hoots of good-natured derision rather than the cheers and applause everyone else got. Don’t ask me why. Tea was duly ordered, I got breakfast in record time by making eyes at the not-unattractive lad behind the counter, and we took a well-earned sit down. John left for Ipswich, brave man, after a delayed fry-up, just as the couriers came in on dirty, unkempt looking machines that I suspect were hiding their glories under a patina of use.
I went for a swim this year, and can report that Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness was not as bad, although I couldn’t say whether these two facts are related. There was a small fuss getting the bike on the trailer as a chap called Gordon believed getting his only connection meant his bike deserved a place rather more than mine, even though, had I missed my train, I would have been stuck in London until pay day. Both bikes squeezed in to the trailer in the end. Fingal’s bar tape was ripped quite severely and the dynamo got broken – I think it was the wrestling to get him out – and that’s somewhat annoying as I only just replaced the dynamo and the Litespins are not cheap. Fingal got a bit vicious and bit me a couple of times, but I was back on the bike 2 days later and felt fine, and would even go as far as saying that I could have ridden home from the station in Exeter had I needed to.
I have replaced the bar tape with some frankly gorgeous Specialized PhatWrap, the dynamo has been replaced by a much quieter Opticube and the efforts of the riders on Le Tour put my modest efforts to shame. An hour faster than last year, with no training, and I kept up with John. First solo woman? Not sure, but it’s not a race, after all. I enjoyed my swim, discovered London cycle messenger are fitter than butcher’s dogs and obsessed with newspapers, really feel I’ve achieved something and want to ride more. All good things.
Am I doing it again next year? Just try to stop me.
With thanks to:
Barry Mason for the coach and the kiss;
John the Indefatigable for the pace and the conversation;
Ron Strutt for the photos and the company;
Chris Land for saying nice things;
Tom the Wessex 100 fan for pretending to be unfit and the Bramley apple;
Patrick Field for the route and the inspiration and calling everyone "pilgrim";
The Great Walsingham volunteer core for the tea; and
Disco and the Messengers for an entertaining coach trip.
Next year’s ride is Saturday, 31st July 2004. See you there.