Dunwich Dynamo 2011
How often have you turned up at a cycle event and thought to yourself “I just don’t belong here?”. This happens to me all of the time. At road races I stare enviously at the muscles, carbon, determined faces and support crews then realise this is probably not for me. Sportives have a similar effect, I cast my eyes over the plethora of timing instruments attached to bikes and wonder if anyone present is actually going to enjoy the ride rather than use it to measure their own performance. As I get older I find myself shying away from anything with an expectation concerning my cycling attire, performance or behaviour. Almost a full circle back to the spirit of my youth where we stuffed playing cards into our spokes and worked hard on creating the longest skid mark possible outside of our school.
However, I’ve never felt more at home in a group of cyclists than on Saturday 16th July 2011 as I leant on my bike in the middle of the melee that is the start of the Dunwich Dynamo.
You can’t enter the Dunwich Dynamo, there’s no entry fee. There’s no list of riders. There’s no timing, in fact there’s not even a start time. There’s no signed route and for the vast majority of the ride there’s no support. You’re on your own, but you’re not. Those that ride with you are your soigneurs. Fall, they’ll pick you up. Break something, help will be offered. No agenda, no expectation, no competition, just a single objective. Ride through the night to the seaside.
Apparently it all began in 1993, initiated by bike couriers who decided to flee London for the coast inviting all and sundry to come along for the ride. Eighteen years later the formula is unchanged. Turn up on whatever bike you feel like riding. Meet at the “Pub on the Park” in London Fields at around about 8pm. Get hold of a route sheet if you feel the need. Hang around for a while, maybe have a pint. Take in the eclectic mix of riders and bikes that surround you. Talk to others, dispel the myths you’ve heard, gain reassurance that no matter what, you’ll make it eventually. At some indeterminate time, decide you’re going to leave. Ride past the pub, under the bridge and continue for 112 miles until you reach the cafe on the beach at Dunwich.
2011 was my first Dunwich Dynamo. I’d read a little bit about it but didn’t really know what to expect and bike choice presented me with a quandary. I stood in the garage and interrogated each in turn. The lightweight titanium geared road bike put forward a compelling case including speed, comfort and previous performance on other distance rides. However, she slipped up in failing to convey any passion for the event. All she wanted to do was get the thing over with as fast as possible so that she could preen herself upon the beach. So I turned to the mountain bike, but it was currently off sick, squeaking and groaning in the brake area and struggling to hold air in the forks. My son’s Islabike was keen and enthusiastic, but sadly too young for a long night on the road.
This left the Pompino, a fixed geared do-most-things type of bike that only ever seems to come out when the weather is terrible. She raised her eyebrows when I told her of the distance and pointed at he current footwear, knobbly cyclocross tyres. I nodded at the four season slicks adorning the road bike and our pact was formed, cinderella shall go to the ball.
Bike quandary untangled, I focused on logistics. I live miles from London and had to get to the start. After the ride I had to get home. There is an organised coach service back to London from Dunwich. I’d left it too late to book and needed an alternative.
Simple, use the train. Well, it could have been simple but bikes appear to be about as welcome as a stray curry fueled fart on our modern locomotive network. “Without reservation, carriage of bicycles cannot be guaranteed”. I took on reservation websites, call centres, timetables and internet forums in an attempt to make this journey happen. I came out of the other end with a single reservation from Diss in Norfolk to Liverpool Street. Now the car would have to get involved. Long drive to Diss, train to London, long ride to Dunwich, ride to Diss, long drive home. I left a sleeping bag in the car.
Frustrations faded as the hour hand clicked closer to 8 on my watch. I stood twenty yards from the pub in the park, bike leant against my legs, eyes pulled in all directions by the menagerie of cyclists that surrounded me. I’ve never seen so many different people on different bikes. Every cycling creed was represented as was every race, gender, body shape, haircut and apparel. It was as if the organisers had made a clear attempt to cross match the two in every combination.
“Black guy in jeans on fixed, check”.
“Fat white bloke spilling from lycra on tandem, check”
“Chic middle aged lady in woolens on shopper bike, check”
“Racing snake, pro-team kit on carbon TT bike, check”
“Bearded fellow, total clothing mismatch on recumbent, check”
The list would be as long as the riders attending. I’ve never seen such diversity at the start line of a cycle event before. I’m sure it happens elsewhere, but this was new to me. All sorts of thoughts traversed my mind.
“How is she going to keep that skirt out of her chain over the length of the ride?”
“Aren’t you supposed to have at least a front brake?”
“Surely that light’s going to be as much use as a cake candle when it gets properly dark?”
“Why the potted plant on the back?”
Thing is, the diversity made me feel properly at home. Any subconscious niggles about incorrect attire were dismissed by the smiling faces radiant above kit that pushed new levels of inappropriateness. My bike choice seemed sensible when compared to the bloke who was preparing to borrow a Boris bike for a little longer than the terms and conditions dictated. These weren’t racers, or tourists or fakengers or sportive baggers or clubmen or mountain bikers. They were a bunch of cyclists caught up in the event.
I could have stood there all evening, chatting, laughing, admiring and earwigging. In fact I probably would have until I realised that nobody was going to fire a gun and set us all off. You leave, when you’re ready. At about half past eight I decided I was feeling pretty ready and gently pushed my way through the crowd to begin my bike ride. Others were ready too. A line of flashing red light stretched away from the Pub in the Park. I took my place within the line and followed the light under the bridge away from the start.
The first few miles were about urban survival. Traffic seemed surprised to see us and our line was disrupted by buses, cars and taxis all piloted by quizzical looks. We stopped and started and halted and began and trackstood and weaved our way through the network of lights, junctions and city hazards. Our quest was punctuated by horns, shouts, occasional claps and questions.
“Eeer, what you lot doing then? This some sort of charity ride?”
“We’re heading for Dunwich”
“No idea where that is mate, farking good luck to yer anyway.”
The line held fast though, I had no need to navigate as the flashing red lights showed me the way. I was thankful of this, as urban riding saps the concentration from a country boy like me. Other riders seemed less concerned, a lady on a Hudson engrossed on her headphones tunefully singing along, two old friends catching up after a year apart, the recumbent rider at exhaust level holding his place in the traffic.
At Walthemstow the atmosphere dipped. I saw riders abused in the name of Saturday evening entertainment. Newspapers thrown from a bus at the cyclists, a car passenger spraying a rider with drink from a can, verbal abuse and pedestrian threats. But the line took it all in its stride, we rode on as the sun set behind us.
As the City began to fade from my back wheel, I began to establish a rhythm. Ride, chat, look up, swerve a bit, pass other riders, chat some more, ride, pass other riders. The fixed gear kept me at a fairly constant speed, I appeared to pass more than be passed. But who cares, nobody around me did. There was a complete absence of any kind of competitive urge, it seemed accepted that the elements of the flashing red line moved at a variety of speeds.
Soon it was late. Darkness enfolded the line and we’d shaken off most of the traffic. It was often hard to tell who’s light beams I was riding in, or what I was riding past. I think there might have been some forest, or houses, a bus shelter or a phone box. Shadows rose and died in front of us until we coursed into Epping and my hunger made itself known.
I’d completely forgotten to eat! My body had prioritised sensory overload in front of hunger. It took miles for my stomach to properly find its voice and remind the rest of the system that it hadn’t seen food since 5pm. Jersey pockets revealed sparse pickings a result of poor planning, so I left the line and dragged my bike through the door of a 24 hour garage. I emptied their shelves of flapjacks and filled my face with egg sandwich. Leaving the garage I was amazed to see the line intact. Looking up and down the high street it became clear that it went on for miles. I bet we riders dream of flashing rear lights for days beyond the completion of the ride.
Egg sandwiches clearly make singlespeeds go. Rejuvenated I moved from grinding to windmilling, catching riders, sitting on their tail then passing to get to a comfortable pace. The weather system had delivered us a tailwind and with a route devoid of major hills good progress was available for those who wanted it. Past Epping we were out in the country and the line had fragmented into clusters of flashing red as groups formed to co-operate their way through the night.
I rode a few miles on my own, then with a group, then just me after a short climb fragmented us. One thing constant. My smile. I was in love with this ride. Two emotions banged a drum within my head. Adventure, we were out in the night, on our own, riding a hell of a long way on silly bikes for no purpose or reward. Belonging, I genuinely felt part of something, yet I’d never met these people before. Also, this was how I loved to ride, at my pace not a forced pace, riding and feeling great, a winning combination.
I lost myself for miles and miles. I struggle to recall the places I rode through, the riders I rode with or the terrain. The darkness focused my vision onto a small patch in front of my wheel, thoughts narrowed accordingly, I spent long distances with earworms. Forty miles and I was singularly lost in thought when a group of six come hammering by. I join it for company, but the pace was really fast. Really really fast. Windmilling became egg beating as I upped the cadence to hang on. After a few minutes I adapted to the rhythm and I look at the riders around me.
Sinewy legs, lean torsos, Marmotte jerseys, carbon bikes, concentration and speed. These guys aren’t out for a chat, they’ve got an objective and they’re working hard together to get to the sea as fast as they can. I ride with them further, it’s exciting. We pass small groups, we hammer through villages, we take turns on the front and regroup at the top of hills. Five miles pass, then eight, then ten. I look at my watch, twenty five minutes! I look at my speedo, we’re doing twenty three miles an hour! This isn’t really singlespeed pace. Forward projections tell me that seventy more miles of this will hurt too much. I make excuses and slip silently off the back into the darkness and solitude.
Sixty miles and Sudbury. I’m past my bedtime now and feeling the urge to sleep. The last ten miles have been ridden solo with few distractions. My pedaling and breathing are rhythmic, a lullaby effect. Drunken shapes stagger home either side of the road and I attract a wolf whistle. She blew it in irony, but it spurs me forward as I imagine myself a sleek co-ordinated riding sex object parting the night in front of me. In the dark even I can dream.
Sixty four, sixty eight, seventy three, seventy nine, wasn’t there a feed station on this ride? Bollocks I’ve missed it, bollocks bollocks and more bollocks I’m low on water. Plenty of flapjack, but no sodding water. Every streetlight offers some hope as I yearn for an open garage or 24 hour supermarket, but they’re all tucked up in bed. I consider ringing a doorbell and pleading for water and am steeling myself to the task when at eighty miles I spy a lit sign.
“Tea. Coffee. Bacon Rolls”
Surely this is a hallucination? I cannot quite believe that the lit tented serving area in the quiet cottage garden really exists. I test the mirage by getting off the bike and feeling for the gate. It’s real, as are the family who’ve done it before and understand the need. They get cash, I get a bacon roll and some tea. There’s water here as well with a suggested donation to the Air Ambulance. I drop the change in the bucket and my water problem has gone.
There’s other riders here, it’s the fast boys. Two of them are Italian, they stare in bemusement at my bike and its logo “Il Pompino”, look it up in an Italian dictionary. We joke for a while as only the fatigued can do but the cold is starting to nibble around my edges and I feel the need to ride. I make my excuses and leave. They’ll catch me soon and maybe I can ride with them to the end.
It’s tight country lanes again, concentrate, concentrate. Fatigue has a real grip and I’m starting to make mistakes. I pep talk myself. “You’ve come this far Dave, don’t f**k it up”. Something’s not right at the back, please no .. not on the fixed! It’s a puncture. All my warmth, rhythm and a small portion of my sanity is lost as I stop and get out the spanners. I have to pep talk again. “Dave, slow down, do it right, you DON’T want to have to repeat the process up the road”. I really struggle for patience as the back wheel is fumbled off a reluctant chain. Thankfully the culprit is a thorn. Slowly, deliberately I reverse the process. The fast boys, speed past, offering assistance. I wave them on up the road, gutted, there goes my lift to the end!
Morale is re-inflated along with my tyre which stays up. It’s really bloody quiet, where are all the other riders? I get back on the bike and look at my watch. 1:44am and thirty miles to go. It’s possible, I could watch the sun rise from the beach. I’d gone to this ride with no objectives other than to finish, but a sunrise. Irresistible.
I spin up the legs and take full advantage of the new vigour. More miles disappear as I’m occupied by calculations. When do I think the sun will rise? How fast must I average? Bloody hell look at that moon!
A striking silhouette forces me to stop. A moonlit church looks benevolently down on the road. The moon hangs in clear skies and aches to be photographed. I park the objective for a few minutes and try desperately to do justice to the scene with a compact camera. I fail, this fatigue is not conducive to complex night photography. Simple tasks like pedalling a fixed gear bike are all that my brain can cope with, so I return to that.
More riding, more concentration then from nowhere a flash! I have no idea where but someone has taken my photograph and shouted something at me. I haven’t a clue who, or what, surely not a speed camera?
Less than ten miles to go and the roads have narrowed. Singletrack country lanes lead me closer and closer to the sea. I have to slow a bit as the surfaces vary, a pot hole here, some stray hedge there and a section of wet sand that the slick tyres are not at all happy about. Still no other riders? I’m concerned that I’ve gone wrong but tracks in the sand offer some reassurance.
Darsham, less than five miles to the sea. I’m overtaken by excitement. I can bloody walk five miles if I have to but there’s no question, I’m going to finish the ride. My systems have coped with over one hundred miles and they don’t shy from telling me. The objective wins the shouting match though. “Dave, get there before the sun, only five miles, I reckon you have it in you mate”.
Pedal pedal pedal pedal, Westleton, pedal pedal pedal pedal, Dunwich Heath sign, pedal pedal, Dunwich beach sign, pedal pedal, round a corner and there it is. A car park.
Hang on, it’s still dark, I squint and can see a beach. I look to my right and can see a huge great cafe, that’s open and has bikes leaning against it. I’ve ridden the Dunwich Dynamo, it’s still dark and I’ve achieved my secondary objective of watching the sunrise. In fact I’ve been a bit of a pillock really as there’s at least another hour to go until it comes up and I could have ambled along instead of riding like a loon.
The cafe is full of smiles, which is pretty unique seeing as it’s half past three in the morning. There’s a scattering of riders hunched over coffee and breakfast, they’re currently outnumbered by staff in preparation for the rest of the “line” who’ll all pay a visit in due course. I’m one of the first to arrive, purely down to the fast bunch who picked me up and dropped me off at a point that I would never have reached under my own steam.
We sit and reflect. There’s no talk of times, speeds, performance or averages. Instead we trade views of the moon, bat stories, traffic incidents, sandy road frustrations and interesting bikes spotted. I’m feeling more at home than ever. This ride has changed me and my outlook on the bike. I realise that my performance logs need a review. The columns with numbers in must be removed and replaced with “experiences”, because that is what the Dunwich Dynamo is. The ride is simply one huge great experience. The gathering of eclectic cyclists at the start, the twilight fight with the city, the line of flashing red lights, the quiet lanes in the dead of night, the distance and the way you decide to attack it and the early morning seaside ending replete with breakfast.
I left the cafe as the sun rose above the beach. I reached for my camera then pushed it back into my pocket. This experience was for the memory bank alone, the lens would capture the light, but leave the emotion outside. It could have been a long hard ride back to Diss, bit it wasn’t, I was giggling all the way.
18th July 2011