It’s been a long time coming this one. One of the last personal ambitions left since starting this little blog up all those years ago: a two-wheeled century. 100 miles on a pushbike. I’ve blogged about it, I’ve worried about it, I’ve put it off, I’ve blogged about it again. I’ve been rejected by ballots, I’ve had bikes stolen. I’ve gone back to running, I’ve got bored of running, I’ve got new bike(s) and began blogging about the century again. I’ve been rejected by another bloody ballot and so on the very day of this year’s rejection, I vowed to do a ton in 2015 by hook or by crook. And so on July 4th I did exactly that, and I enjoyed it more than you could possibly imagine.
Regular readers will know that I had been bit apprehensive about picking the Dunwich Dynamo as my first century, what with it being pretty much unsupported and all that. In stark contrast to my last sportive at the Tour de Yorkshire in May, with signed route, mechanical support, broom wagon, official feed stations, start line, finish line etc etc. This was little more than a grand expedition, the 23rd running of an event dating back to the early 90s when a group of London couriers decided to cycle through the night on their fixies to the lost town of Dunwich. Just for the sheer hell of it. As simple as that may sound though, it’s always been a bit of a worry when the bike you were planning on doing it on is over 25 years old and liable to fall apart with no notice at 2am in the middle of nowhere.
As it turns out, poor Claudette never even made it to the startline. I’d said that I needed a bit of luck with her reliability and sadly on her final training ride before the Dynamo, her ancient rear wheel popped its second spoke in a month and with no time or money for the full wheel rebuild or replacement that now required, I was left with a stark choice: pull out, or think outside the box.
After umming and ahhing all week, I finally made the decision to ride at around 3:30pm on the day of the ride. My accomplice had already pulled out a few days before, so if I did go for it I’d be flying solo. Buoyed by the weather forecast though, of no rain and a gentle tailwind all the way to the coast, I knew I may never get a better chance to do it. So, I grabbed the only bike I had available and headed for London.
Meet Dave, ladies and gentlemen. My 15th birthday present, sat in my parents’ garage for nearly 20 years with only light use every so often when my Dad fancies a weekend spin. Despite this he was in remarkably good shape and after a quick once over he was ready for the biggest adventure of his life. We both were. We’d never ridden more than 30 miles together before, barely a quarter of the distance I would be attempting here, and although the chunky tyres would likely prove a drag on the long road to the sea at least I’d hopefully have a bit of protection from punctures and potholes along the way.
The atmosphere in London Fields that evening was cracking. On one of the hottest days of the year, the smell of barbeques and the sound of music filled the air, and everyone seemed in great spirits. I met up with my sister and a few friends, including my erstwhile Dynamo compatriot, and asked him if he felt he was missing out by not taking part. With an icy cold pint in each hand, he proudly declared “no I fucking don’t”. As my own nerves were building ahead of this most daunting of challenges I found it hard to argue.
As is customary with the Dynamo, there is no designated start time, but as 8:30pm approached I noticed a distinct thinning in the number of bikes scattered around the park and decided it was finally time. I sank the last of my beer, bade my farewells and rolled out of the park. After months of preparation, setbacks, challenges, fears and nightmares, this was it. I was finally underway. The Dunwich Dynamo was on.
The best way to report on the next few hours is probably just to pick out the key points rather than drone on about everything that happened in exact order. No one needs to read all that; after all I was physically cycling for nearly eight hours and with pub and bacon breaks it was over ten all in. So, here are a few of the things that made my first century so bloody special.
The reaction from the general public, along the early stages especially, was pretty much complete and utter bemusement. What on earth were we all doing? Why? It was difficult to give an answer that didn’t make us all sound completely unhinged.
“Where are you all going?”
“To the sea!”
“What, now?! Why?”
“We just are!”
Several took pictures, one chap in particular with an SLR standing for ages snapping away while we waited at a junction. To be honest, I felt a bit special being part of this mad crowd as we weaved our way out of the city, even though not one of us could adequately explain exactly why we were doing it.
There were a few hardy souls further down the route and deeper into the night as well. The chap sat in the pitch dark on a sofa on the pavement shouting the directions to us before a roundabout, or the hammered fella on the bench in Sudbury at nearly 3am doing the same. Families stood clapping us as we rode past, and groups of little kids with arms outstretched waiting for low fives. It all helped, and it kinda made me wish I’d set off a little earlier in the hope of seeing a few more along the way.
Despite the stresses of getting out of London, mixing it with the heavy traffic and the odd abusive driver, there was (literally) light at the end of it all as crossing a bridge over the North Circular we were presented with the most stunning sunset. It was the perfect piece of timing; any earlier and it would have been hidden behind the capital’s architecture, any later and it would have been obscured by the trees of Epping Forest. I stood for a few seconds to admire it, knowing this was the beginning of the end. The next time I would see the sun would be some six hours and 75 miles later.
One of the best things about the Dunwich Dynamo is how much the spirit of a drink or two is embraced. Now I’m not suggesting by any means that it’s about getting as twatted as possible on the way; there are obvious safety considerations when riding in the dark, riding alongside traffic and people, trying to navigate etc etc. But for someone such as myself, whereby beer and bicycles are two of my absolute favourite pastimes, it was heaven. As a solo Dun Runner especially, the chance to chat to a few fellow participants over a cheeky half of a local brew every so often was thoroughly welcome.
The opportunities to stop were plentiful, with many boozers serving until 2am, although in the end I only drank in a couple after realising at the second stop around midnight that I was only a quarter of the way through the bloody thing and should probably get a bit of a wriggle on.
I’d spent months worrying about riding in the pitch black along unlit, unfamiliar roads, but once darkness had fallen it actually became brilliantly invigorating experience. The crisp smells of the great British outdoors in midsummer were almost intoxicating at times, away from the grimy urban air I’m used to riding in on my way to and from work. Every few hundred yards a different aroma; freshly cut grass, lush fields, dense forests, open water. Even the odd stinky cow shed. Perhaps my senses were heightened by having to concentrate so much, but everything smelt so much more potent than whenever I’ve been out riding in the countryside by day.
The visual changes in light as day became night, and then back again, were incredibly pronounced away from the city lights. Buildings and trees cast strange and beautiful shapes, huge imposing shadows against first the dusk, then the hazy moonlight, then the early dawn. It was a brilliantly bizarre experience and, coupled with the sleep deprivation as dawn began to break, totally unlike any ride I had ever done before.
The biggest fear about the whole thing? Getting lost. A long list of unfamiliar place names to aim for, on deserted roads, after being awake for a day and a half. Helpfully, the Dunwich “Faeries” had been out along the route long before us, and so at almost every junction there was a little tealight showing us the way, in the early stages anyway before they all went out.
Even better were the “confidence” lights on long stretches when you began to think “I’ve missed a turning here, haven’t I”, before catching a glimpse of a tiny flame flickering away on the side of the road to assure you everything was going to be OK, you’re doing great, kid. Whoever was responsible for these, as well as directions scrawled on the road closer to Dunwich, chapeau.
Or any kind of grilled meat, basically (sorry to the veggies amongst you). I’d packed plenty of grub with me for the journey, but after three or four hours of eating bananas, Soreen and gloopy carbohydrate gels it was time for a change. Queue the smell of burnt animal in the air, rolling into Sudbury at 2am around half distance. The local fire station had set up a BBQ and so I duly pitched up for a bacon roll and a cup of coffee. An odd experience, sat on the side of the road having “breakfast” in the pitch dark at 2am, but then nothing about this ride was particularly normal.
From then on, every 15 miles or so came the opportunity for more meat as enterprising locals had set up little stalls raising money for charity and whatnot, some even dishing out free tea and coffee. The stop at Needham Lakes (below) was particularly beautiful as dawn was breaking and I sat gazing out over the water, with ducks splashing around and the sky growing lighter by the second. After that, just the little matter of another 45 miles on the bike and I would be done. Simple as, er, that.
The photo speaks for itself here. After the mental strain of riding in the dark, following tiny blinking red lights in the distance for hours on end and praying we hadn’t all gone terribly wrong somewhere along the route, the first golden rays of one of the most welcome sunrises of my life was a thing of sheer, transcendent beauty. The brutal shadows were replaced by lush green fields, with mist hanging in the trees and a bright, blue sky overhead. Spirits were lifted, the worst was now behind us. The beach was getting ever closer.
And so all good things must come to an end. We began to see signs to Dunwich over the last 10 miles or so and I knew then that I’d achieved my first century, although my shattered mind couldn’t be sure exactly when I’d gone through the magic barrier. I duly rolled onto Dunwich beach a few minutes shy of 7am to the bizarre sight of hundreds of cyclists in varying state of disrepair strewn out across the pebbles.
Some were partying away, music blaring and cans of beer in hand. Some were flat out on the beach, absolutely KO’d from 112 miles and no sleep. I was halfway in between but after a quick dip in the sea I felt suitably invigorated and sat down to dry out, gazing out to sea and trying to comprehend exactly what I’d just done.
I had completed my first century, I had ridden the Dunwich Dynamo, and I’d done it on a mountain bike I got for my 15th birthday. Little did I know all the way back in 1996 that me and Dave would have this epic adventure together nearly 20 years down the line. I’d somehow ridden more than twice as far as I’d ever done in my entire life, and I’d done it overnight. All that was left was a quick congratulatory pint at The Ship Inn and then back on the bike to pedal three miles back to meet my absolute hero of a Dad who’d done a 200+ mile round trip just to take me back home. Job done.
Looking back, I still can’t quite believe I did it. As you’d probably expect it wasn’t all rosy and there were some dark times, both literally and figuratively. The third quarter was probably the hardest as dawn was slow to break and the mileage remaining still seemed incredibly daunting, knowing that despite already putting in a 70 mile shift, the distance I had still to do was roughly equal to my longest ever ride. I had a proper wobble after about 80 miles as my patented ale and bacon diet beginning to fail me, but then once the sun came up and I began to break the last quarter down into manageable chunks in my mind it was easier. And then just like that it was all over and I was splashing about in the sea at 7am on a Sunday morning with an enormous grin on my stupid massive face.
It had gone well. I was amazingly lucky with the weather, I met some great people (who I’ll never see again), I saw some weird and wonderful bikes (making my choice of steed seem somewhat conservative). I had a lot of meat. I visited a tonne of new places I’d never heard of before, saw some absolutely beautiful sights and some of the memories will be etched in my brain for years to come. Next time I’m pointlessly sweating up a massive hill, commuting in the torrential Mancunian rain in the dark or battling with a puncture in minus 10 degree weather I will look back and remember how bloody great the simple pleasures of riding my bicycle can be. The Dunwich Dynamo distills all those pleasures into a singular event: leave A, get to B. That’s it. It doesn’t matter how you get there; just get there if you can. And I am absolutely delighted to be able to sit here and say that, along with a couple of thousand other absolute nutcases, get there I did.