Insane in the bike lane? James Ashford joins 1,399 other cyclists in a 120 mile night ride from London to Dunwich… and what could be more refreshing at the end of the journey than an early morning swim? 

I’m going to the pub tonight, specifically the Inn on the Park in London Fields. I’m going to ride my bike there, sink two or three pints and then, at about nine pm, point my bike north east and keep going until I reach the sea, somewhere past Ipswich. Then I’ll have another pint and maybe a fry up, as it’ll be early morning by then. Thankfully I won’t be the only one idiotic enough to do this, there’ll be over a thousand others doing exactly the same thing…

This is the Dunwich Dynamo and has been the cause of many a sleepless night and panic attacks for me of late. Legend has it that, in 1993 on a balmy Friday night in July, a group of cycle couriers went to the pub after work and decided to cycle to the sea. Since then it’s become a bit of an institution, with more and more cyclists joining in on the none-too-bright idea each year. At 120 miles it’s twice the distance of the ever popular London to Brighton bike ride with the added bonuses of:

· Taking place at night
· Having no backup or organisation whatsoever – you break down, you’re on your own
· Ending up in, err, Dunwich

Sounds great, right? For some reason, I’ve decided that this will be a ‘fun thing to do’ and ‘an experience’ – I then proceeded to mention it to everyone I knew so that I couldn’t chicken out without feeling a bit of a tit. I’ve done a bit of preparation. I cycle to work every day – about 10 miles each way, and I’ve bought a big bag of Haribo and a massive torch. The most I’ve ever cycled in one go is about 40 miles, and that was quite a while ago. Oh dear…

What could possibly go wrong?
What could possibly go wrong?

So, at about 5:30pm I bundle on to the train to Cannon Street and stand conspicuously opposite another guy with a bike. “You’re not going to Dunwich by any chance are you?” It turns out he was. David is a fellow commuter who had been egged to do it by his mates. He has a lot less stuff than me though. Just a tiny saddlebag with some tools, a water bottle and a couple of energy bars compared to my mountain bike with rack and rucksack containing a tonne of tools, food, drink, clothing and water. David is now worried that he’s under-prepared. I’m now worried that I’m over-prepared and lugging around a load of pointless weight. Not the best start.

We cycle from Cannon Street to London Fields (couple of wrong turns – this will become a bit of theme for the night), picking up a few more stray cyclists en route. Once we arrive, we all go our separate ways to meet our mates and settle in for a couple of warm-up beers. My crew consists of George, who arrives with his hybrid, Stuart who has a cyclocross bike that we all want to steal from him, and Justin and Suzanne, who have both turned up with proper bikes. Racing bikes. Quick bikes. Even before we start the rest of us make a decision not to bother trying to keep up with them. The simple fact of it definitely not being a race really does change the atmosphere of the Dynamo. Sure, there are the few super-fit nutters who’ll arrive on the beach at 2am, but the vast majority will get there when they get there.

Responsible pre-ride preparation
Responsible pre-ride preparation

The atmosphere in the park is great; hundreds of bikes and people in bright clothing sitting around, having a Lucozade/beer and filling their faces with bananas. A sneaky look around reveals that the majority are riding on racing bikes, with the rest being hybrids, mountain bikes on slick tyres and a few nutcases on fixies, Bromptons or rusting Halfords-specials with big knobbly off-road tyres. One guy is there with a sandwich delivery bike and a very excited spaniel in the front. Even if it’s not a race, he definitely wins in my opinion. There are people from all over taking part, including a cycle club who have ridden down from Cambridge, a couple from the south of France (why are they here when the Tour is on back home??) and Marco, an Italian guy who has booked a holiday around this. “It’s not too bad for me,” he explains, “once we get to Dunwich I don’t have to worry about getting back to London, I’m just going to carry on.” Marco is a nutter.

People start getting on their way at about 8:30pm, which catches me by surprise as I have to neck the remaining half in front of me and don’t have time for a pee break. Five minutes in, Stuart and George take a wrong turn, but they catch up a few minutes later. Although the photocopied route guide is pretty clear, reading it while cycling is a bit tricky and following the person in front doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to right way. Riding out of London is fun because of the oddness of being in such a huge group, but the traffic is a pain. As we start nearing the outskirts of the city, I start getting into a nice, steady rhythm, but I’m dying for a wee. First pub stop it is then. Justin and Suzanne carry on while we drain a cheeky Foster’s and buy some more Haribo. Back on the bike and as the sun starts to set, it feels like the ride really begins. This is what it’s all about, a big adventure in the dark. It’s nice to see the line of flashing red LEDs snaking off into the distance and people are now starting to be able to ride side by side and have a bit of a chat. Spirits are still high and everyone’s eager to get some miles behind them. I’d been warned about how dark the country lanes are, and that a decent light is essential, so am glad to have the powerful torch I’d strapped to my handlebars (even if it did keep switching itself into strobe mode). People flock to those with lights like moths, eager to avoid any potholes hidden in the shadows.

Responsible refuelling
Responsible refuelling

We decided that we’d try and get another beer in before closing time, so when we see a country pub packed with cyclists emerging out of the night at 11:00pm, we pull over for our second stop and last bit of alcohol for the evening. Probably a good thing – if the pubs were open all night along the route, I doubt I’d get much more than half way. When we’re about a third of the way into the route, we stop on a village green and I tuck into the cheese sandwiches I’d brought along. They taste heavenly after all the bananas and sweets. The man with the dog is there and I feel faintly embarrassed that I’m not quicker than him, but then remember it’s not a race. I chat to a guy who has a nasty cut on the palm of his hand. He stacked it at the edge of the road, taking two others out with him. It’s the only accident that I heard about on the run thankfully – other than when I clipped my right foot out of my pedal and leaned to the left, falling straight on to a grass verge.

The next stop is about an hour down the road, the fabled feeding station at the half way point. Spurred on by the idea of a cup of coffee we head to the entrance, see the massive queue and have a lie down on the lawn instead. Elton, a friend of George’s sits with us, we bump into him quite a few times over the rest of the trip as he speeds off into the distance and we then catch him up. He has pick ‘n’ mix sweets, so quickly becomes my new best friend. It’s strange, even though there is estimated to be around 1,400 people doing the ride this year, we find ourselves passing the same people over and over again. As we leave we’re joined by a bloke who has done this before and feels the need to give us a running commentary. We go through a village about 10 miles later and he points out the town hall where last year’s food stop was. “So hang on, which one is half way then? This one, or the one we stopped at?” I asked worriedly. “This year’s is at 52 miles in,” is his crushing reply. I decide I don’t like him anymore and pull ahead.

The next few hours go by like a very surreal dream. It’s very dark as, even though there’s a full moon, the cloud cover is very thick. On the flipside, this means it’s pretty warm, so I’m still fine in shorts and a t-shirt. My left crank had started to develop a weird ticking noise – I wasn’t worried about it falling apart, but after an hour or so, my mind has warped this into a strange Richie Hawtin-style minimal techno track that I can’t not listen to. Top tip if you’re planning on doing something like this – make sure your bike has a tick, it really helps. “Hold on for the best downhill of the Dynamo,” a voice shouts out of the dark. A mad descent into a village for a few minutes really lifts my spirits. My computer clocks us at over 35mph. The lights turn red at the bottom of the hill. Bugger.

Hallelujah!
Hallelujah!

At some point around 5 o’clock it starts getting lighter. We’re three quarters of the way there and the sun is coming up. I’m feeling great, we’re so close that I can almost taste the fry up in the café. Oh, hang on, no we’re not, we’ve still got 30 miles to go, and that’s a good couple of hours in the saddle. It’s safe to say that the last part was the hardest for me. It was now daylight, so my mind thought we should’ve finished but we were still chasing down endless (albeit beautiful) country lanes. A smattering of people cheering us on from the roadside cheers me up immensely, but not as much as a sign saying ‘Dunwich Dynamo Bacon Rolls’ outside an enterprising family’s house – without a doubt the finest tasting plastic cup of tea I’ve had in my life. After a good rest, we press on with what now must be my tenth wind. Elton joins us for the remainder of the ride, having met up with us again at the bacon sandwich stop. I also see David again, his lack of luggage doesn’t seem to’ve hindered him, but then all the crap I’ve brought with me hasn’t bothered me too much either, so we both needn’t have worried.

Sand of hope and glory
Sand of hope and glory

A few short but fairly brutal hills later and we come across the sight I’ve been dreaming of for the last hour. A simple road sign stating ‘Dunwich 7’ – beautiful. I have a pee behind a bush to celebrate. The last miles fly by and soon we’re coasting down towards the sea. I count at last 40 people cycling back the other way – some are off to the train station to get home and others are cycling all the way back to London. I don’t even consider joining them, 120 miles is enough for me. We pull into the car park and collapse in a heap with Mars Bars and Red Bull. There’s a café and there’s a beach, other than that it’s just bikes and happy, tired people. We meet up with Justin and Suzanne who finished a good hour and a half before us, even though Suzanne had two punctures – I’m glad we didn’t try and keep up. The ride couldn’t have gone any better for us. Not one puncture and the only thing that snapped off was the left arm of my glasses. The weather was good and the wind was behind us the whole way.

The sea that launched a thousand bikes
The sea that launched a thousand bikes

We chuck our bikes into the furniture lorries and head down to the water. If you’re going to ride 120 miles to the seaside overnight, the least you can do is go in for a swim. The chap with the dog arrives and they both enjoy a splash about too. After a sleep on the beach, a fry up and a bottle of cider, we’re on the coach back to London. It’s all very efficient and we easily pick our bikes up at the other end, and have a chat with Barry, the man behind the whole thing. He’s pleased with how it went and isn’t worried about it becoming too popular and getting out of control, what with the ever increasing numbers taking part year on year. “Cycling makes people better. I don’t mean that in some gushy way, just that doing something like this makes a person brave. And if they’re brave they’ll be more respectful.” We strap our stuff back on our bikes, say our goodbyes and head off to our respective train stations. At London Bridge I’m welcomed with the news that there are engineering works on my line. Sod it, it’s only another 10 miles, and everyone knows commuting is quicker by bike…

More info on the Dunwich Dynamo, what to bring, how to prepare, tips and FAQs here: www.londonschoolofcycling.co.uk/dunwich.html

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