By the time I met up with Hauling My Carcass, I was actually quite scared. For months, this day had been lurking in my subconcious and now it was here. I had trained and prepared and was as ready as I could be but still there was something daunting and unknown about a 200km bike ride in the dark from Hackney to Suffolk.
We met under a huge pub garden umbrella just by Blackfriars. So far, things had not gone well: the restaurant that I had booked for our pre-ride feast was closed and it was now pouring with rain. So hard that the rain was hitting the ground and bouncing back up. And we were huddled under an umbrella with just our bikes and backpacks for company for the rest of the weekend.
We ate some food from the pub and set off on our bikes to London Fields. By this time the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. If only the rain could stay away until 10am the following morning.
Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of 1000+ cyclists and their bikes completely filling the area around the start of the ride. The ride is free and is organised but not marshalled… even the organisers don’t know how many will participate and there is a sense of collective purpose and a little bit of chaos as we all wait for some sign that people are beginning to start the ride. It is not a race and people seem to wait for the arrival of the “Map Lady”, buy their route map and then head off. I stood chatting with someone who seemed to be travelling very light – his bike plus whatever he could stuff into the rear pockets of his lycra cycling top. I laughed and showed him my packed backpack… I explained that I was intending to be entirely self sufficient with enough food, water, tools and spare tubes to cope with every eventuality until I could get the coach home. He told me he was riding to Dunwich, turning round and riding back to London. Suddenly I felt like a complete amateur.
Soon there was movement in the crowd and people began to leave. We grabbed our bags and bikes, wished each other luck and set off, following the throng up Martello St and out into Hackney and then North East London. There is a sense of anticipation at the beginning, most people are in good spirits and are chatting to their friends. The first 15-20kms takes you out through London and Essex and there is a mixture of bemused looks, encouragement and abuse from drivers and passers-by.
Once out past Epping, the roads quieten and the sky begins to darken. This is one of the best bits of the ride as the pre-ride nerves have gone and everyone is looking forward to what lies ahead.
Before long, it is dark and you see for the first time the line of flashing red lights snaking off in front of you as far as the eye can see. It is a truly amazing sight and one that I imagine stays with you.
We had decided to break the ride up into 50km chunks and our first stop was outside a well lit garage. We were like moths to a flame, ate some of our food, added a few layers as the temperature was dropping and set off again.
The next 50k passed in a bit of a blur, the roads even quieter now as the route becomes more remote and most sensible people are tucked up in bed. The roads are quiet enough to ride side by side and chat, so we did. Our next stop was at just under 90kms… an “official” stop that was a village hall serving food and drinks. We wanted tea and coffee but the queues were so long we satisfied ourselves with more food and drink from our bags before setting off again. It was hard to get going again as it was now quite cold and sweaty cycling gear does not provide an enormous amount of warmth. Just as we were getting going, my worst nightmare happened. HMC swerved to avoid some glass in the road, hit a curb and punctured his tyre regardless… we now had to fix the puncture in the cold and dark at the side of the road. Fortunately. we had spare tubes so it was a relatively simple operation and we were back on the road after about 10 minutes. From this point, HMC entered his darkest hours. He was finding it tough going and I was surprised that I wasn’t suffering too. It turns out that my suffering was to come later…
It is now the darkest point of the ride, all banter stops and everyone seems to go into themselves and just concentrate on pushing the pedals. My bike had developed an annoying creak from one of the cranks so I kept myself going by singing to myself and using the incessant creak as a kind of annoying metronome. A female cyclist pulled alongside me, turned and said “That noise that your bike is making is how I feel”. Clearly she was suffering too.
The sun began to come up and HMC’s mood lifted. Mine plumetted. Suddenly I had no energy. Even slight inclines were an effort. I wasn’t having much fun any more. Another food stop and then the final push.
There is a signpost that points the way to Dunwich. It is much photographed. I imagine some people may actually kiss it. “Dunwich 7 miles”. Except some comedian had got creative with some black electical tape and turned it into “Dunwich 71 miles”. The end was in sight and we just went hell for leather to get there.
And suddenly it’s over. A long country road, a gravelly track and you are on the beach at Dunwich. We locked the bikes, shared the now customary post race man hug and then changed and joined the queue for food. Never underestimate the healing properties of a bread roll and a mug of tea.
The end is a mixture of exhaustion and elation and, once revitalised, the ability of speech returned and we were already discussing the arrangements for next year.
Speaking of which, HMC has written a blog about the ride here. His contains many lovely photographs and, crucially, a list of reminders which I shall refer back to prior to doing it again next year. It is tough, but not as tough as you imagine. You could do it with a little training. Why not join us?
Soundtrack to this post: Rain – The Cult