Last weekend was the Dunwich Dynamo, that fun non-race where you cycle from London Fields overnight to mock the watery remains of an important 13th century port at some point the following morning. Or afternoon, if you’re particularly slow or unlucky. I wrote about the Dynamo last year for the Grauniad’s bike blog; I thought about writing about it again, but I couldn’t think of anything different enough (pitch: I did the Dynamo… again!). So I’m going to write about it here instead.
This guide will be brought to you in association with an assortment of underwhelming photographs
There are many ways to prepare for a 117 miles overnight cycle ride. One of them is to sleep craftily: a cheeky afternoon nap, perhaps, setting yourself up for the long night ahead.
Another option is to barely sleep, then play cricket in the hot sun all day, before rushing to a friend’s house to pump up your tyres, doze for twenty minutes, then cycle hurriedly to the start point in the opposite direction to the hundreds of cyclists already making their way to the sea. It’s one of the best moments of the Dynamo: the glee of convoying out of London surrounded by thousands of other like-minded bewheeled souls, feeling that statistically negligible but confidence-boosting safety in numbers, to the intense confusion of east London’s myriad car, lorry and taxi drivers. I enjoyed my unusual going-in-the-opposite-direction perspective of it, but was grumpy. Why was everyone setting off so early? This was cheating.
I went to the supermarket nearest to the departure park. It had been gnawed to the bones by thousands of ravenous Dynamoers, but I found enough discount chicken tikka wraps, bags of haribo, pork pies, eccles cakes and flapjacks to feel reasonably confident that I could survive the ride and/or nuclear war. My panniers were full to bursting. I was ready.
I made it to London Fields, and eventually caught up with my cycling chums, Narayani and Emma. Narayani was my cycle partner in crime for the previous two Dynamos; Emma was a Dynamo newbie.
The way the Dynamo works is you flit off whenever you feel ready, with most cyclists leaving at some point between 8 and 9pm, hence the sea of early starters.
By 9pm we were ready to go. We had waited for a couple on a tandem, and a university friend of Narayani’s called Marigold, riding on a single speed. We lost the tandem and Marigold almost immediately – the tandem in a graveyard, and Marigold shortly after we’d headed up the Lea Bridge Road, having also found time to have lost, and then found, Narayani once already.
After this, we got into a better rhythm, and made out way gradually out through London, past the occasional enthusiastic cockney, dancing a little jig of delight at the sheer joy of such a pageant, and the odd grumpy BMW driver. Soon enough we were tackling the gentle but incessant incline through Epping Forest, and reached the roundabout with that restaurant that Narayani tends to have a bit of a cry. This she did, and insisted that I go on ahead. But I was torn. True, Emma and Narayani’s pace was quite a lot slower than mine, and it’s hard to cycle when you’re not hitting your rhythm. But on the other hand, a rambling ten-hour long conversation with Narayani about life, love and imaginary animals was almost the defining purpose of the Dynamo. The cycling was almost incidental.
The difference this time, of course, being that Narayani had another friend, the excellent Emma, along for the ride this time. So the Dynamo Chat Dynamic (DCD for short) was going to be different anyway. After waiting for them at the traditional second village pub stop of the evening (pictured below), I got caught up staving off tiredness by following a group of MEN who were cycling at roughly the same speed as me. They were all on fancy bikes and had sophisticated kit, like lights strong enough to destroy night itself and fancy computers that told them how many Wimpy Quarterpounders they had burned off so far. And thrillingly I got a second wind, and realised I was faster than them – I overtook their leader, only to find myself approaching another group. I overtook them too. This was getting addictive, like those 1980s coin op games (Outrun, anyone?) where you have to reach the next checkpoint before your time runs out.
By the time I reached the third late night village pub, I had an inkling I was quite a long way ahead of N and E. I waited, enjoyed the mix of drunken locals and cyclists enjoying soft drinks or pints. I was sticking to orange juice and lemonade, my mind already fixed on the prize of a morning pint in Dunwich’s non-underwater pub. After a while, I decided to head on, as exhaustion was lurking at the back of my brain, and only pedalling and incessant sugar consumption could keep me coherent until dawn.
So I set off again, and the next few hours enjoyed silence, the moon, and the occasional company of strangers. The cyclists this year seemed notably more professional than the past few years. Sure there were the occasional fairy lights and terrible soundsystems, but not enough London hire bikes, crappy mountain bikes or penny farthings for my liking.
I met a woman from Yorkshire who had a head-mounted light, like miners of old. I had to shush her a little bit when we went through villages, as she explained that she was only doing the Dynamo to prove her boyfriend wrong. “He’s a proper cyclist, he did it last year and got to the beach by 6am,” she explained, puffing her way up a hill. I mentally advised her to ditch her boyfriend for his lack of encouragement. She was nice and a good conversationalist but I had to head on. Later I creeped out a man by following him for ages, before explaining that it was his light that I loved, not his personality. The early hours of the morning are a good time for meaningless conversations at the best of times, but when you’re whizzing through the countryside talking to people you’ll never see again you can say pretty much anything. But I defaulted to being myself, for the most part. Hello yes, I do have friends, I’m just cycling faster than them this year. Would you like some sweets?
A few miles before the half way point, there is a village. And inside that village is a hall. And inside that hall is the designated rest stop, where you can “put pasta in bread”, as Narayani put it, plus drink tea and go to the toilet and fill up your water bottles , these last three things at three entirely separate designated points. However I completely missed this hall, and its carbohydrates. I only realised when I passed through the village of Sudbury and spotted a TARDIS from a bridge. I thought: “that vehicle that defies the limits of time and space reminds me that I’ve been cycling for what feels like too long and too far for the rest stop.” There was a man with a beard stood on the bridge in the darkness. I asked him where the rest spot was. He said, “twelve miles further back. But don’t worry. It’s a waste of time, you’ve done well by accidentally avoiding it.”
To celebrate, I texted Narayani to say I had missed the rest stop, and ate a salad by the TARDIS. I resisted the urge to get inside it, and headed on.
Around the corner I came to a fire station, which was selling tea, coffee, bacon rolls and good cheer. I bought a cuppa. It was freezing cold. I went back, and got another cuppa. I went for a wee in the station, and enjoyed the opportunity to glance at all the helmets.
Back on the road. This was the hardest part of the trip, the bit where you start psychologically subtracting the last ten miles (because they “don’t count”) from your calculations. Only forty miles to go! Ish. That sort of thing. But then, the dawn had started, gloriously, to arrive, and this distracted me from the tiredness and the dangerously low number of cakes in my bag. The brutalist water towers that I’d fallen in love with the previous year loomed out at me in the early morning sun. An old cyclist was asleep in a ditch, and I met a woman lit up like a Christmas tree. Everything was getting increasingly surreal and glorious.
The final fifteen miles were harder going than I remembered. It was in the last few hours that I particularly missed human company, though I was still overtaking plenty of people. I wondered how my friends were getting on as I hit the beach, queued for my coach, and had a pint with a random Liverpudlian who wanted me to join him for future rides (if he reads this: sorry! On further reflection I don’t really do proper cycling).
I arrived at almost exactly 8am. And next year, I might even be brave enough to swim above the long-abandoned churches and abandoned foundations of old Dunwich port.
There’s always next year.