Cycled: The Dunwich Dynamo
Distance: 130 miles (from Dulwich)
Date: 13-14 July 2019
There’s an overnight bike ride that has an almost mystical status for England’s cyclists. I say ‘almost’ because while it’s far from a myth (thousands of us have ridden it, some people each and every year), the ride itself has a dreamlike quality, brought on, in part, by mass sleep deprivation.
The Dunwich Dynamo starts from London Fields Park in the London Borough of Hackney, and finishes some 120 miles later on the foreshore of Dunwich, a tiny hamlet of a place with a pebble beach and a great history as a major trading centre a mere 500-1,000 years ago (most evidence of the buildings from that era have long-since been reclaimed by the North Sea). It always takes place on the full moon weekend in July, with the ride starting gradually at around 8pm, groups of cyclists pouring out of the park and into the streets of east London, heading out into the country lanes of Essex via Epping Forest before (in my case, at around 2am in the morning) reaching the 60 mile half way point at the Suffolk border, in Sudbury.
The organisers of the ride describe it as being unsupported. In a fundamental way, it is: if something goes wrong with your bike, if you realise you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, or if you pick up an injury, that’s your problem. But in spirit, it’s far from unsupported. The occasional passing motorist with a pathological hatred of two-wheeled, person-powered transport occasionally shares an erudite commentary relating to certain parts of our bodies, or what we might like to do with them. But overall, it feels like the ride gets a lot of love and support from the communities it rides through. There were always locals in the Essex villages waiting outside their houses to cheer you on, kids in pyjamas, adults with a glass of booze in hand, clapping and whooping as their personal annual version of the Tour de France rides past their front doors. The pubs on the route do a thriving trade (mine was a lemonade, if you’re wondering). And now there are a host of ‘pop ups’ as well – people selling energy gels (ugh) or cake (now you’re talking) from the roadside.
Around midnight, things get quieter. The riders are focused, thinking of the hours left to ride, the miles still to cover. The locals have gone to bed for the night, and you’re left with the glow of the moon (it’s position shifting as you navigate the twisting country lanes), the front light from your bike revealing the road ahead, and the flicker of the red taillights of riders up ahead reassuring you that you’re either going in the right direction or that you won’t be lonely if you’re lost. An occasional bat flys past. This year there was huge fire (it turned out to be hay bales), close to Essex’s border with Suffolk, that lit up the sky.
The hours between 2am and 4pm were the hardest for me. I was wide awake mentally, but after 70 miles of riding I was tiring physically and longing for dawn. The day came gradually, the dark of the night giving way to a bruised purple then pinks of mauve, pink and grey. By the time I reached the 82 mile point at Needham Lake (a much needed toilet and food stop), morning had truly broken, and it made for a beautiful final 38 miles or so through a countryside empty of people at that early hour but full to bursting with corn, lavender, picture-postcard pretty villages… and even a peacock.
The last 10 miles were a blast, spirits high and my speed increasing as a restorative dip in the North Sea beckoned. I arrived (as I has ridden through the night) with my friend Alex, him on his beautiful vintage 80s racer, me on my Pashley Britannia, a bright red, five gear, 18kg bike with a wicker basket that I’d ridden through the night wearing a dress and sandals, just for the sheer hell of demonstrating what Alex described as ‘the art of the possible’. We got in at around 8.20am, around 12 hours after we’d left Hackney and celebrated with beer (remember, it was the end of a very long night) and a swim in the icy water that bordered on bliss.
Dunwich Dynamo is not a race, despite the predominance these days of lightweight racing bikes and team cycling jerseys. It’s not an endurance event, although a number of people find the energy to turn around and cycle back to London again. And it’s most definitely not a charity ride, although some people do raise funds while doing it. What it is, quite simply, is blast. A totally mad, bewitching experience that celebrates summer nights and the beauty of cycling. It’s the fourth time I’ve done it, and I have no intention for it to be the last. Although I may leave my Pashley at home next time!