The forecast looked about as good as it could possibly be for a ride from London by night to the Suffolk coast. Warm, but not too warm, dry and a touch of a tail wind. So, my final decision, always made on the day, was to ride.
However, had I not promised to lead a ride from Ladywell up to the start point I think I’d probably have crashed out at home after a much more difficult day than I’d originally planned.
Foolishly, I’d booked Lewisham Cyclists to do a Dr Bike earlier in the day. Which wouldn’t have been a problem as it was due to finish at 2pm. Then, I forgot the repair stands so had to ride the heavy bike with trailer back to my house to get them. Then back to Deptford. Then the trailer hitch snapped so the only thing securing trailer to bike frame was a toe strap. Bit stressful negotiating potholes on Creek Rd and Evelyn St.
Then Dr Bike over ran. The whole of Deptford seemed to suddenly need their bikes repairing. I spent ages rebuilding a brake system which had to be taken apart to remove a rack. Looked like a simple job. I forgot rule number 1. Beware of jobs that look simple. They often turn out to be the ones that become almost impossible.
Finally, the bikes were mended, the stock and tools stashed away and I cycled home to throw a few bits and pieces in a saddlebag, fill up my water bottles and stuff as much chocolate brownie as I could into a side pocket. Sorted. Then out the door to meet the other Lewisham Cyclists who said they would follow me up to Hackney Fields and then eastwards till we met the sea.
I felt terrible. Tired, stressed, my back was aching badly from bending over a bike for too long. I felt like I needed a hot bath and bed.
But, there’s nothing like a crowd of about twenty people standing with their bikes with big welcoming smiles on their faces, their excitement so intense you can almost feel it, to inspire you. Which was what greeted me at Ladywell, our usual ride meetpoint. I still wasn’t sure if I would leave London Fields with them though. A very good friend of mine was seated on one of the benches in Ladywell and listened quietly as I offloaded my day on to him. He smiled and said. “Sounds like you need a long ride.”
I led a slow, amiable pootle of maybe 20 riders through Ladywell Fields to Peckham, where we picked up Bob and Rachel, then ambled gently in a line along the Surrey Canal Path. From there we crossed the Old Kent Rd and then wiggled through to Tower Bridge Rd, on to Cable St then up through the East End, busy and tense on this early Saturday evening, with lots of drivers seemingly in a hurry to get places. I wasn’t in a hurry. It felt relaxing to turn the pedals slowly, chatting with folk beside me. Eventually, we were in Hackney on the crossing of Hackney Rd, just a short pootle past the bike counter on Goldsmiths Row, then Broadway Market and into the Fields.
Which seemed even more packed with cyclists than last year. Always hard to tell though. However, although I wandered round several times, I bumped into hardly anyone I knew. Which was strange. Usually, I meet a whole bunch of folk, faces I only ever catch up with once a year on this ride. Fewer old folk, perhaps, these days, like me.
I pushed my bike along the slightly parched grass. An area of the park was planted as meadow, delicate grasses with light hints of pink, purple, red and blue peeping through. And beyond that, achingly bright in comparison with the gentle wild flowers, the frontline of Lycra.
Nothing wrong with Lycra, but I do like to see a balance. Smart and scuzzy riding side by side is one of the good things about the DunRun. All the different cycling families riding the same ride, maybe not quite all in the same way, but in almost the same spirit. That got broken a bit a couple of times once or twice, briefly I know, when the race mentality began to dominate in the past. But, the worst offenders have been reminded by their clubs that the DunRun belongs to everyone. Race it yourself, by all means, if that’s the way you ride, but never forget it’s not a race, and hundreds of others may well be pootling along on BSO’s and they are as much a “real cyclist” as you. So, I was hoping that all this Lycra didn’t mean more of the club packs snaking at high speed down the Epping Rd, oblivious to anyone else.
In fact, Lycra abounded in the Fields but not club colours. A few club jerseys were spotted, but not the huge swathes clustered together like some previous years. Then, at last, a couple of familiar faces appeared out of the crowd, one without his bike this year to wave us off and another who’d come down from Scotland, having moved away from London a while back. My spirits were lifted by this. I still felt like I was at home on this ride after all, with the Lewisham Cyclist bunch and a few old friends.
Our group waited in the park for quite a while as the exits were clogged with folk beginning to leave in larger numbers around 8pm, edging slowly forward in a tangled queue of bikes and riders. Then, finally, around 9, the crowd of people and bikes had thinned and just a few later starters left. Our little band rode out together and almost immediately, as usual, got split up!
We had arranged to regroup at the usual spots so it wasn’t really a problem. The first part of the ride, entitled Into The Woods on Patrick Fields route guide, as though it’s the beginning of some slightly scary fairy story, is a bit of a drag. Uphill to Epping. I don’t push myself here. Ever. And this year, still feeling sore and tired from my working day, I pushed myself even less, I think. It was a fairly unremarkable drag up to Epping this year. We tried to make sure that, even though the group had split, the new folk doing it for the first time were with a selection of people who knew the route. That seemed to work and by the time we all regrouped at the Shell garage, we had lost no one.
Off again, towards Epping itself. The clubs who had stirred up so much resentment in the last few years, due to their blasting down the road, oblivious to the presence of other riders, looked to have kept their promise. It was an easy glide, no close overtakes, no rudeness, no pushing to the side. Of course, we had left later than most, so maybe we just missed it!
Once through Epping, it’s not far before you hit the darker, more open countryside and then suddenly, our second regroup at Moreton. The Nags Head had opened up the garden and were selling coffee and snacks. Gradually we all rolled up and chatted,drank, munched our snacks, cast our eyes over the rest of the riders milling round the village, in my case looking for familiar faces. None this year.
It was apparent that the faster ones in the group were itching to open up and just go. Some left before we had all finished our coffee. Our next regroup was to be Finchingfield just over 20 miles further on. Our group had fragmented even more and now I was with a group of maybe four of us. As we rolled into Finchingfield, the fast ones were already there and again wanting to get back on the road with a few still yet to arrive.
This was my low point on the ride. Most folk get at least one low point. My back was still very painful, even more so when I got off the bike. My right shoulder had started to ache for some reason, probably due to my working position during the day, hunched over bikes. I felt tired and very miserable. I grumped about and moaned. Then I looked up at the sky into the glow of the moon, patches of light cloud and way more stars than you usually see in these light stained southern night skies, now thousands shimmering above us. I was reminded briefly of the star stuffed sky I had witnessed on New Years Eve in the north of Scotland, flushed with the green shimmering waves of the Northern Lights. That had been beautiful, but so was this Essex sky, glinting above me, a full moon’s light streaming brightly through thin streaks of dark cloud like scraps of spider web against the deep blue black. And the same beautiful stars. For some reason this lifted me a bit.
We hopped back on our bikes, the fast ones having already zoomed off. From here on, things felt a hundred times better. A few bats flew past my face and that warm night air stayed warm, never dipping into that just before dawn chill you usually get here, even on summer nights. Moths gently bumped against my cheeks. I heard a tawny owl somewhere in the distance. At times I was riding alone until I dropped back, or speeded up to rejoin my little subgroup. At one point, two of us started singing old Bob Dylan songs plus a few others we remembered. Another rider passed us, possibly tone deaf as he commented, “Lovely”
At Sudbury, the halfway point, I was with just two friends, the rest either in front or behind. We found a cafe open just outside the town. After a brief stop we were back on our way. We’d had a plan for a regroup at the fire station, which had opened up as the feed stop, but it was absolutely packed and we could see no one we knew and then I seemed to get separated from my two mates only to spot the rest of the bunch springing out of nowhere. We rode together again for a while. Then gradually, that group split in two again, the zippy bunch moving ahead into the distant dark, while a few dropped back behind me. I was soon riding alone again, in those hours before dawn.
I love this about the DunRun, moving easily between chatting in good company to riding peacefully alone for a few miles, enjoying the solitude, truly relaxing letting the stresses and strains of the working day wash away in the warm night air. Magic. Then, just when you begin to wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn, either a glint of red appears ahead, some spots flashing, some still and you catch up with a group of folk, chat a while, and discuss their bikes, some of which are pretty weird and wonderful. The quadruple tall tandem was probably the most unusual this year. Or, sometimes, the hum of tyres behind you brings a faster group up from behind who usually ask if you’re Ok as you are alone, and chat for a while before flicking up to their usual pace and waving goodbye. And, at least once or twice every year, when I really think I must have gone wrong somewhere as it seems ages since I saw any riders, one of those welcoming friendly night lights in a jam jar appears and marks out the junction. Thank you to those night light Dunwich fairies who put these out every year.
I rode like this till dawn. Which was less spectacular than last year, but warm and welcoming, gentle golds and pinks pushing up from the horizon. At Needham Lakes the toilets were open. Hooray! And not too horrible! Hooray again.
After Needham Market, the time and the route always flies by for me. I felt a hundred times better than I had done at the start. I have learned to pace myself and take the first 30 miles of a 100 miler easy and often find I have more energy at the end. Unless it’s a really hilly route. Which the Dynamo isn’t. Despite my later start I was now passing riders who I had seen leaving about an hour or more before me. I slowed down on a short rise about 15 miles from Dunwich and chatted to a young girl climbing up very slowly. We discussed knee pain for a while. I think she may have been pushing too high a gear on the hills. We rode together for a while and then I pushed on a bit and she dropped behind, waving me goodbye. She decided to take it really slow. I do hope she made the last 15 miles or so.
At Framlingham I turned off the main route and rode up some rough lanes, past the castle, quite a fine building. In the fields alongside me I spotted a hare, sitting up, back straight, still huge ears pointing upwards, listening intently, still. A green woodpecker swept out of a large tree on my left and swooped across the fields to a small copse of oaks, its distinctive bobbing flight, up and down, up and down, unmistakeable even at a distance. I followed these quiet empty lanes as far as Bruisyard and shortly after, rejoined the main route.
Now, I began to spot the returning riders, those who’d already reached Dunwich, turned round and were on their way back, maybe to Ipswich for a train, or their own local home, or possibly, all the way to London. All this way, to the seaside, just to turn round and go home. Seems like a waste of a Sunday and a journey to the seaside to me. I have always looked forward to the sea and some serious beach time. I waved hello and goodbye to them all as they passed.
It wasn’t long before I passed the familiar Dunwich 7 miles signpost. No longer with an added digit after the seven. I forget what year some joker thought that would be amusing. And then, no time at all, sharing the swoop down to Dunwich itself with dozens of other riders, in the warm sun for a change. Then at the junction in the village, busier than ever these last few years even at 7am, with cars manoeuvring their way down to the beach to pick up weary riders, jostling for space with a steady stream of cyclists both going to and leaving the beach, I went right, beach wards thinking how much better it would be to park a couple of miles away from the beach and let them ride to you, if all you are doing is picking them up.
I headed straight for the beach, up past the cafe with its huge queue out the door. Off my bike, pushing it down the shingle, bikes and riders spread out all around. I dropped the bike, and just walked straight into the sea, fully clothed, sandalled feet protecting my tender toes from the hard pebbles.
Although I’ve done ten Dynamos, I’ve swum at the beach after less than half of those rides. It’s not often it’s both warm and sunny enough, for me anyway. This year it was both and the salty waves seemed to miraculously ease my aching back and shoulders. I dived below the surface several times and floated around for half an hour or so. When I emerged I spied one of my two most constant riding companions of the previous night and called out. I was soon reunited with the two of them, and over the next hour or so, spotted most of the Lewisham Cyclists group I had begun the ride with in London Fields.
Some of them were booked on to the coaches. We enjoyed some quality beach time with a drop of bubbly and smoked salmon bagels that one of our members brought along. She had driven down to give a lift back to some (no, she didn’t park in the beach car park!).
By now, the sun was pretty high in the sky and baking hot. Time for another swim! And then time to wave goodbye to folk who were taking their seats on the coaches. By 1pm, the beach was emptier and I was the last of the Lewisham contingent left there. I had waited this long to try and catch up with an old friend. However I had left my phone at work so had been unable to contact anyone all night and when I finally left at about 1.15, unable to wait any longer, I wasn’t to know that about 15 minutes later he would arrive on the beach.
And, as I rode off through the Suffolk countryside, navigating my way with a map borrowed from a Southwark Cyclist member who was working hard all that morning to get folks and their bikes sorted on to coaches home, (Thanks, Bob) to meet some friends from the area in a pub somewhere north of Dunwich, I wondered how long it would be before the next Dunwich Dynamo came along when I would be able to swim in my clothes and dry off in the sun on the beach afterwards. Not once but twice.
NB. I took none of these photos. My phone (also my camera) was at the bottom of a box of bike tools all weekend! I have to credit Fiona McKillop, Alex Raha, Sanjay Grover, Phil Thrower and Steven Edwards for these shots. Thanks for their generosity in allowing me to use them here.