The Dunwich Dynamo has been on my to-do list for ages, ever since my mate Mike mentioned it a decade or so ago, but I only got round to finally riding it last weekend. It’s a night ride covering a hundred-and-fifteen-ish miles from London, across Suffolk, to the seaside at Dunwich, mostly via quiet back lanes. It’s not a race or a sportive or an officially sanctioned ‘personal challenge’ or anything like that. It’s just a really big night ride, loosely-organised by some generous-hearted types, which attracts thousands of people every year. You don’t get a number on your bike, or a timed result, or any real direction signage (although there are loads of candles in jam jars on the verge which serve to reassure you that you’re going the right way in the dark). The organisers hand out route cards at the start but the best way to do it is to find someone else who’s done it before and ride it with them, which is what I did – I spent most of the night with my mate Al, who has ridden it before and also had the route programmed into his Garmin in case he missed a turn in the dark at 3am.
When I say there are thousands of riders on the Dynamo, I’m not exaggerating. I’ve never ridden in a bigger group of people in my life. Loads of coaches and lorries are laid on at the end to ferry riders home (at a cost) and apparently they shift about 1,500 people and bikes, on top of which there is a significant number like us who make their own way back, along with those who get the train or camp nearby, and a final small minority of complete lunatics who ride all the way home again. I could easily believe there were more than a couple of thousand cyclists cluttering up London Fields when we arrived at the start. There were bikes and riders as far as the eye could see in every direction: skinny racing-whippet types, serious club-men and -women, Sky-kitted MAMILs, beardy tourists, fixie-riding hipster types, sensible commuters on hybrids, lunatic commuters on Bromptons, even completely normal-looking people who appeared to have dug the bike out of the back of the shed for the first time in years. All cycling humanity was there, milling about and trying to find their mates.
Not everyone sets off at the same time, fortunately, but even with the heavily staggered roll-out parts of the roads on the earlier sections of the route were inevitably taken over by bikes for the evening. It was a splendid experience riding out of Hackney in a constant stream of cyclists, forcing cars and vans to a standstill (politely) when we wanted them to stop, taking over the tarmac for a brief, beautiful moment. Even the road out through Epping, by all accounts usually blighted by boy racers and Saturday night binge-drinkers, was heckle-free, I didn’t see anyone get any grief at all. Once we had crossed the M25 the route switched from larger main roads to country lanes, and we had the big, dark world almost to ourselves, an endless ribbon of twinkling red lights streaming away in to the distance, and brighter white lights following if you looked behind. Riding at night in a big group is brilliant fun, and I barely noticed the headwind during the run out across Essex because we were able to draft along from group to group on the road, chatting and rolling into the dark towards our first stop.
After refuelling with a beer and some crisps (like I said, it’s a very relaxed event) we set off again. Al was motoring along happily on the bike, but every time we stopped his back went into spasm, so we pressed on ahead of the rest of our group, who took things a little steadier. It was cloudy, but warm enough for short sleeves even at midnight. We covered some rapid miles sharing work with a sturdy Iceni Velo rider whose only light was apparently a novelty keyring torch out of a cracker. With my hilarious overkill mountain-biking lights I sat on the front for the darkest bits, whilst he pulled us along when it was a bit brighter, and I think that must have been the fastest ten miles or so of the whole ride. The badger that ran out in front of us whilst we were doing about 25mph on a bit of a downhill gave us a scare but fortunately we didn’t hit him – fortunately for us, in badger-cyclist collisions the cyclist invariably comes off the worse. We got to the main semi-official feed stop at about 1 am or so, loaded up on pasta salad, drank some filthy instant coffee, topped up the water bottles and waited whilst Al lay on the concrete to try to persuade his spine back into a relatively normal shape.
We chatted with a few other riders and then pushed on again for another twenty-five or so miles until we reached the first of the pop-up refreshment stops that appear in the last third of the ride. We ended up hanging around for the best part of an hour here, waiting for the rest of our original group as promised, until we started to feel that we were seizing up completely. Upon starting off again we discovered that the clouds had decided that lowering ominously in the sky wasn’t enough, and we were now riding on through very damp mist. It didn’t feel like rain when we were stood still, but as soon as we picked up any speed the moisture condensed, soaking us thoroughly and making visibility through my specs very poor. I spent the last thirty miles or so wiping the lenses of my glasses every couple of minutes, but apart from that everything was great. We kept on rolling through the slowly brightening fog all the way to the finish, bar a quick stop for a banana. The last few miles were quiet, relatively speaking, the frequency with which we encountered fellow riders slowly falling as the kilometres increased.
Over the final stretch to the beach we passed some very tired looking people, some off the bike and pushing up the occasional hills, others wobbling unpredictably all over the road. Apparently one chap was taken out in an ambulance after hitting the tarmac on a gravelly corner. We also had to start looking out for riders going in the opposite direction, having already made it to the beach and turned around to ride back again. In the last mile we caught up with a chap on a penny-farthing; he didn’t look too impressed when I shouted “Badass!” at him but I don’t care, 115 night miles on an ordinary makes him one, whether he likes it or not.
At about 6.15am we rolled up to the beach, took a couple of photos to prove that we’d done it, and then retreated to hide from the drizzly wind, which could charitably be described as ‘bracing’. I was very glad I’d packed some warm clothes and given them to our chauffeur, Amy, to take out the night before. There was even a barbecue going, and bacon and sausage sandwiches were offered round to accompany the compulsory beers. We watched the coaches and trucks load up and waited for the various other passengers to arrive.
Even though this ride was by some distance the furthest I’ve covered in a single day (or night) I really didn’t feel at all bad at the finish (apart from a bout of Jelly Baby-fuelled heartburn which prevented me from finishing my beer) and I think I could probably have ridden quite a bit further if required. I certainly didn’t have any problem making my way across six or seven miles of North London later in the day in order to get back to our accommodation. The ride itself was smashing fun, both in terms of the roads, which were friendly and enjoyable to cycle on, and also in terms of the whole experience of riding in a huge group of similarly inclined people. It was refreshing to cover a long distance with a load of other people without the competition that you get in more organised ‘challenge’ events, and it reminded me of the happy times I spent riding with the local CTC group when I was a teenager. I had splendid fun on the Dunwich Dynamo, and I will definitely do it again if I get the chance.