As a London cyclist I’ve been following the blog (and twitter feed) of The Bike Show for about a year or so now. Over the past few weeks on this and some other London cycling twitter feeds there’s been plenty of growing talk about something called the Dunwich Dynamo. More and more talk of this over recent days forced me on Friday evening into having a little more of a look into what the event is all about.
The website at Southwark Cyclists site describe it (in their excellent FAQ) as follows:
“Simple. A turn-up-and-go challenging slightly-scary free-entry overnight on-tarmac just under 120 mile bicycle ride to the lovely lonely Suffolk sea at Dunwich. It’s not a race. It’s unsupported. There’s no van following. It’s a long way for nearly all of us. There will be times when you wish you were tucked up in bed. But you’ll love it. The adrenalin buzz, the experience, the achievement, the smiles will cling forever. For a lot of us it’s almost the highlight of our bike year.”
The weather forecast for the weekend was generally pretty foul so I was fortunate enough to have been able to take advantage of the good weather on Friday and get a bike ride in down to Box Hill in Surrey. A solid 49 miles banked. That was my cycling plans for the weekend all sorted, so with Bushy parkrun 5k on Saturday I’d be able to do a long run on Sunday.
This was all before I learnt about the Dunwich Dynamo on Friday evening.
Come Saturday morning I was seriously considering doing the ride, but was concerned about the weather. I just wouldn’t commit to it! I ran Bushy parkrun in the morning in a good time of 18:02 (to finish 8th quickest out of 664). In the afternoon whilst I looked at weather forecasts and watched the Tour de France on television I prepared my bike lights (new batteries all round), found some energy gels and bars, found a GPS route for the ride for my cycle computer and generally got myself in a position to do the ride but without committing to the ride (well, there were some rain showers forecast and I didn’t fancy that at one in the morning!).
After a short (far too short) snooze of about 30 minutes I got myself ready and left home shortly before 7pm.
I cycled to Twickenham, then a train to Waterloo and a 4.5 mile ride to the start of the Dunwich Dynamo at the Pub On The Park at London Fields in Hackney.
When I arrived the place was buzzing. There were many hundreds of cyclists, on bikes ranging from road racing, mountain bikes, single speed ones, fold up bikes, recumbent and tandems.
I tracked down Simon, who was a chap I found on Facebook with a van who’d offered to give me a lift (along with a couple of others) back from the finish. Phew. This meant I didn’t have to worry about trains back to London in the morning (they do lay on coaches if you book in advance, but understandably 24 hours is not quite enough notice!).
Shortly after 8:30pm I set off with hundreds of other cyclists onto this 112 mile (that’s what my GPS route said it would be) overnight ride with a sense of apprehension. Not least for the first few miles in the hustle and, as the official route sheet said, “Bandit Country” of Hackney and Walthamstow. In previous years there have been reports of bike muggings and other bad things during this slow start to the ride. At each set of traffic lights there were about 20-40 cyclists with all their ‘bling’ (flashy bikes and flashing lights!).
At one set of lights a big 4x4 BMW type vehicle pulled alongside and the passenger said, ‘Oh mate, that’s a nice bike. Where you off to?’ My response was ‘Off to the seaside, and there’s much nicer bikes than mine’ (as I quietly moved away).
The first half an hour was very stop/start and through all the traffic I averaged just over 11mph. Surely in bandit country I should have just had my head down and raced to safety? Some poor chaps were seen within a mile or two of the start fixing punctures. How frustrating for them.
Once we headed into Epping Forest the roads got quieter and all you ever saw ahead of you was a constant stream of red flashing bike lights disappearing into the distance. It was quite a sight.
After a while things settled down and I got into a reasonable pace. I would cycle past quite a few people, and then some people would come flying past me. This continued pretty much for most of the miles to the feed station at 50 miles.
After leaving the big city we moved onto much smaller roads where were all completely unlit. The only light was the moon (a full moon was just starting to come up) and the thankfully clear night sky. Relying on the moon for ambient light and your bike lights for actual road vision made me grateful for having a fairly good set of lights (and brand new batteries).
Around 21 miles in came across a lovely little country pub (the White Hart Inn in Moreton) where I pulled up and called Sharon to give her an update on progress. A few cyclists pulled over (I’m not sure how many were actually stopping for beer) and there was a couple sat at one of the benches right by the road watching as tens of cyclists flew past their local village pub.
Around 30-40 miles or so in my legs were aching a bit which was a little concerning. Perhaps it was a little residual tiredness from yesterdays 50 miler and this mornings 5k running time trial, or perhaps my fuelling of a bowl of muesli and a banana a few hours before wasn’t ideal. Either way I decided to ease off ever so slightly. Every now and then I’d take the opportunity of catching up with riders as a chance to just ease right off and relax for a bit. Then I’d sometimes push on ahead.
When you’re moving ahead off of the front of a pack you’re the only one lighting the road ahead and you’re just looking ahead to see where the next cyclist is (from their flashing red light). There were times when I was on my own for 5 or 10 minutes without seeing another bike. I’d then see a light in the distance and slowly it would come closer.
You ride through quiet villages. You pass a few houses where the residents have come to their front gates to clap and applaud the riders. You pass pubs that are busy. I went past one pub that was absolutely packed and I could hear a band playing inside. You go past parties and wedding receptions. People are outside pubs smoking and watching you fly by. It was surreal.
Shortly after 50 miles looking at my GPS map we were going to be doing a strange route around a village rather the going directly through it. I just followed the map and next thing I found myself at the feed station in Sible Hedingham. It was 11:50pm. I found somewhere to rest my bike, transferred some sports drink from my handheld bottled to the fixed one attached to my handlebars and headed inside. The hall inside was fairly busy (although no where near as busy as I’m sure it got later) and I bought a couple of flapjacks a large cup of coffee (with sugar) and then sat down and had a sandwich (cheese and marmite if you’re wondering) and a flapjack. I took a few photos and then filled my bottles up with water (and threw in some energy drink powder) and went back to my bike.
Quick techy bit… During this first stretch of cycling (3 hours 8 minutes of pedalling and 51.75 miles) my normalized power was a steady 189 watts and an average speed of 16.5 mph.
Just before I left I spotted the ‘Boris Bike’ (London Hire Bicycle) of Leo Tong who was riding to raise money for charity. Read more about his ride over atwww.justgiving.com/londoncyclehiretodunwich
“…Two other challenges are is making it to the beach in time before the coach leaves back for London without me and also making it without getting a puncture or breakdown - apparently I will need an electronics manual and welding kit for any on-the-spot repairs…”
I left the feed station at quarter past midnight and as I was leaving there was a mass of people arriving. Many thought they were going the wrong way as there were cyclists (such as myself) going in the other direction so I had to assure many that there was food and drink straight ahead. After heading out of the village I settled into things. After a 25 minute stop I was feeling a little cold and did think that I should have got my long legged cycling tights out of my bag but didn’t. Clothing wise I was wearing a base layer (one I use for winter running) and a gilet. Lower half was just cycling shorts and my regular ‘clippy’ shoes/pedals. Within about 5 minutes I was warm again and happy, so I didn’t put on an additional layer of clothing.
Although I thought a 25 minute stop was on the verge of excessive, I’m thinking that many other people stayed there much longer as the roads were much much quieter from here on. My legs were feeling fresh again and from here on in the time flew by. I kept drinking, ate some food (a couple of energy bars - saving my ‘apple strudel bar’ for later in the ride - pudding perhaps)…
At 60 miles in you head through (or rather round) the town of Sudbury. Although my GPS told me everything I needed to know there were some flashing signs and lights attached to a few of the road signs which were good to see.
At this time of night it was a really strange experience. I’ve never ridden my road (racing) bike in the dark before, let alone along unlit country lanes that I’m not familiar with. The only time I ever ride a bike in the dark is normally when I’m heading home on my mountain bike from the pub and I’ve got a few - but of course not too many ;) pints inside of me!
From here on in it was quiet. Most of the ‘slower’ riders (you know, the social ones just out for a fun ride and challenging themselves on a distance perhaps never ridden before) were long gone so catching up with riders ahead took a lot longer. In fact there were times when I wouldn’t see another cyclist for maybe 5 or 10 miles. You feel very alone, but not in a bad way.
You could say that riding in the dark of night is a great time to think about things. In fact all I could think about was concentrating really hard on where I was going. My bike light was the only thing illuminating the road ahead and you have to keep a constant watch of whats ahead of you so you can avoid any holes in the road or large manhole covers. A lot of concentration was required.
I did have a few near misses though on route…
- At one point right in front of me was a large duck walking across the road. As it was so quite I could hear its feet flapping on the road surface. With only my lights providing visibility I didn’t have too much time to get onto the brakes and avoid it!
- Going round a sharp bend at speed in the dark when your lights are fixed to the handlebars can be difficult to see what’s ahead of you. A powerful head-torch may have been useful. Coming round one such corner a large white coloured animal (probably a cat) ran right in front of me. I was so close to hitting it! That got the heart rate going, that’s for sure.
- I almost hit a hedgehog! I just saw in the nick of time a light coloured ‘ball’ in the middle of a road. I was able to gently swerve out of the way as it didn’t seem to be travelling too quickly.
70/80 miles in and I was feeling good, didn’t feel at all tired or worn out and was riding at a steady comfortable pace. I wasn’t at all racing (as it is not a race) but was riding steadily and getting some good endurance training out of the ride. At about 85 miles I caught up with four guys who were riding pretty well. We all pushed the pace and at one turn where they were unsure exactly of which way to turn and I shouted out ‘right - that’s the way’ they realised I had a GPS. This was a sign for them to ‘push’ me to the front of the group to lead the way - as I was the only one with GPS. There were no hills, just a few (and quite a few) undulations. The road surface for most of the ride (meaning all of it other than in Hackney at the start) was very good indeed and no real potholes (at least I didn’t hit any).
I pushed on, didn’t bother flicking-the-elbow to get them to come forward on push on as I ‘knew’ the way ahead. We were a group of riders, we didn’t really say a word to one another and just rode strongly with us all as a collective lighting up the road (read very quite country lane in the middle of nowhere) at 2:30 in the morning racing our bikes. A truly strange experience. One thing I had to do a lot of was tap a button (any button) on my GPS for it to light up and show the current map. This would tell me if there were any sharp bends or turns coming up ahead so I didn’t get any surprises (other than crazy wildlife running out on me!).
Just before 95 miles in I drifted ahead of the group and the faded into the distance. I continued on into and through the town of Framlingham. There was a sign here that said “Dunwich 16 miles. Food 0.7 miles” or similar. Nice. This would be a fine opportunity to stop and say hello to whoever was kind enough to stay up all night to support the cyclists.
I could see a house in the distance with a string of coloured lights along what I guess was its guttering. As I got close by I saw a gazebo outside and also a chap standing in the middle of the road. I pulled up and next thing there was a large flash of light! That’ll be his camera then!
Photo (left) copyright www.nearthecoast.com.
Although I had plenty of food and water with me I didn’t need to buy anything but I stopped to have a chat with the food chap and also the photographer. They said that a police car had been past and asked them what they were up to. The police had never heard of the Dunwich Dynamo ride and were initially concerned that there was a ‘peleton’ of 1500 cyclists heading in one large group through ‘their turf!’ This was not to be the case as people would be drifting to the finish over a period of quite a few hours.
During our conversation I said that I’d hardly seen any bikes for the past couple of hours. I was then told that only six other cyclists had been past them (who hadn’t stopped) and I was the first one to stop.
A small report on the nearthecoast.com website said that the last riders went “through around 10:30am, all the cooked food went and he (and his family) served over 500 drinks not counting water from the hose!”
I had arrived at 2:50am and left just under ten minutes later. A number of photos from the feed station have been posted on Facebook and I’m in the first few photos.
I set off just as another cyclist appeared and although he/she was behind me for a while within a few minutes they were gone. I’ve no idea if they were just slower or didn’t follow the route.
The last few 15 or so miles flew by and took some crazy little country lanes. There were a couple of roads I was flying down going 20 odd miles an hour. It was pitch black as I was under heavy tree cover so I couldn’t see anything other than what my lights were illuminating. Additionally, they were such country lanes that you couldn’t really cross the middle of them because there was (I assume) grass/twigs/gravel so I had to stick to the edges. This kind of thing really keeps you on your toes.
One lovely sight was seeing a sign that said Dunwich - 7 Miles. I had to stop and take a photo of it (under the power of my bike light).
A little while later my GPS showed the finish on the map and also the sea. I was getting close. The sky was starting to get lighter although no sign of sunrise. The moon was also now starting to get hidden by cloud cover.
The final road is a long straight one direct to the beach. It was just before 3:50am as I was heading to the finish - and more importantly the cafe by the beach! I noticed that coming up from behind me were two cars. Probably people who work at the cafe. As the first one came past it slowed down alongside me, the lady wound down her window and shouted “You’re nearly there. WooHoo!!!” I said something like “Oh Yeahhhhhh” in return. She shouted, I shouted. Brilliant.
One final stop to get a photo of the ‘Welcome To Dunwich’ sign (see facebook link at the end of this report) and then I cruised along to the cafe. I stopped the clock and it said 3:54am. 6 hours 36 of cycling, 113.3 miles. Total elapsed time of 7 hours 23. My normalised power for the entire ride was 202 watts.
The second ‘half’ of the ride - 3 hours 38 of cycling and 61.5 miles gave me a normalised power output of 212 watts. Not bad for being in the middle of the night, almost entirely on my own, on roads I don’t know and on very little sleep. A great test of endurance.
After parking my bike I walked into the cafe by the beach and the first thing that hit me was the light - I was really bright in there (well, it seemed really bright). I took a seat (there were a few other riders in there), took my rucksack off and ordered the full English breakfast and a cup of coffee. Lovely.
From here on it I just sat around, chatting to other people who came and went. I wandered to the beach to watch the crazy people swimming (and some sleeping) and just generally hanging around.
I actually ended up hanging around for a good four-plus hours waiting for my lift back to London but it was actually quite pleasant. I ate a little, drank a little (non-alcoholic although some people were on the beer) sat around and generally didn’t ride anywhere on my bike. It was great to see people heading in to the finish and the look of relief and satisfaction on their faces having made it.
Shortly before packing up and leaving I saw both the Boris Bike arrive and also a chap called Chris who I’d seen many hours before and had ridden a cargo bike with two dogs sat in a box in the front. Check out the photo and find out more at his JustGiving web page.
Although I didn’t walk through the front door until about 2pm on Sunday afternoon - some 18 hours or so since leaving home (and without any sleep, not to mention being up from about 6am on the Saturday morning) it was a very enjoyable and different way to spend a Saturday night.
Although there was very much a sociable side to the ride, I ended up using the ride as a good training session and although this was quite a jump in distance for me (my longest ride this year was 75 miles at the start of June) and before that a 60 miler in April. The last time I rode this kind of distance was at Challenge Roth Ironman distance race last July.
Once I’d got to the finish I could have happily put some running shoes on and clocked up a few miles on foot but alas I didn’t have any other shoes with me. Later in the year I’ll need to do similar ride (but closer to home and in daylight) with a run at the end - part and parcel of Ironman training…
Would I do the event again - yes. Would I recommend it - yes. Would I have done anything differently - no. I did think that a small head-torch would have been useful - especially if having to make any kind of repair to the bike in the dark but thankfully I didn’t have any mechanical issues whatsoever.
Those who didn’t bail out before the ride because of the weather forecast were treated with a great night out in ideal riding conditions - clear sky, tailwind, a good temperature and a lovely breakfast at the end.
The Dunwich Dynamo 2011 gets top marks from me.
Finally, Monday morning and I was up and about for a 5k run and a good swim at the local pool. #legsfeelfine