Riding your bike for 120 miles in the dead of night doesn’t sound the easiest of tasks, but for Amy Fleuriot it’s obviously not quite hard enough, as she prefers to do the Dunwich Dynamo on her fixed gear bike. Here’s why she loves the annual city to coast night ride, which took place last weekend
Words by Amy Fleuriot
As I threw myself into the dawn-lit North Sea, icy cold water reinvigorating my tired muscles, I felt euphoria coursing through my body. I'd just cycled 120 miles through an entire night.
The Dunwich Dynamo was founded in June 1993 by a group of bicycle messengers, who headed out of London on their fixed gear bikes vowing not to stop until they hit the coast. They fetched up in Dunwich, Suffolk. The Dunwich Dynamo is now enjoyed every year by more than 1000 riders of all ages and abilities.
Fascinated by tales of fellow cyclists and always in the mood for adventure I embarked upon my first Dynamo in 2008. My choice of a fixed gear bike raised several eyebrows at the time.
How could I possibly cover the entire 120 undulating miles relentlessly pedalling a single gear?
Arriving at east London's Pub on the Park, the July full moon already visible in the evening sky, a fascinating spectacle presented itself. Hundreds of brightly-coloured road riders mingled with hybrid-straddling commuters and casually-clothed ladies on Pashleys, and there were even a few nervous-looking dogs in bike baskets. As the banter subsided and last dregs of ale were drained a colourful shoal of cyclists began to head east out of the city. A pound coin in the Southwark Cyclists donation box earned me a printout of the route. I hoped I wouldn't need it.
The east end of London proved relatively flat, but after several miles of heavy traffic it was a welcome relief to emerge onto the tree-lined roads of Epping Forest. There was a palpable buzz in the air as we left the city behind, racing down unlit roads in a mesmerising kaleidoscope of lycra and steel.
Somewhere around Laversham I had to rub my eyes at the sight of a thirtysomething plus lady wearing a deerstalker, vintage tweed and riding a penny farthing. Like many a fun ride the Dunwich Dynamo attracts its fair share of eccentrics. Last year's star was Leo Tong, who completed the ride on a 23kg London Cycle Hire 'Boris Bike'. My feelings when he overtook me are probably best kept to myself…
Like many a fun ride the Dunwich Dynamo attracts its fair share of eccentrics.
Cycling down crowd-lined country lanes and greeted by cheering locals on every corner it's easy to fantasise about being a top Tour de France rider.
Village pubs offer a tempting respite for many participants, though it’s important to keep well hydrated and eat little and often to prevent your energy levels from dipping. Electrolyte gels are a handy source of energy but I also take lots of healthy homemade carbohydrate and protein-filled snacks like flapjacks, pasta salad and nuts. My colleague Kamil, who builds custom bike frames for a living, swears by tins of sardines and slices of cooked ham.
At the seventy mile mark there's a volunteer-run rest stop providing soup, sandwiches and cups of tea. It's not always well signposted! After battling up a long hill last year we passed other riders coming back and realised we'd all missed the turning.
In recent years canny locals have set up their own front garden food stalls selling bacon butties and hot cuppas. As the sun rises they're a welcome sight.
There's something magical about riding through the night, guided by the twinkling bicycle lights of fellow riders. Despite mental and physical exhaustion the blackness somehow propels you forward.
By 3am darkness and lack of sleep can start to play tricks with your mind. Flashing bicycle lights cast eerie shapes and shadows onto the densely-hedged country lanes. After my first night ride I invested in a powerful pair of bike lights – these not only help you be seen but give a clear view of the road ahead on those fast downhill sprints.
As the sun rose over Suffolk farmland I felt my energy being recharged. The cycle computer hit a hundred miles, the signal to turn up the tempo for the final phase. Reaching into my rucksack I activated my secret weapon – a pair of ipod speakers. Bad 1990s house music propelled our pedals as we found ourselves joined by other riders seeking musical motivation.
Down a last hill and around a corner and suddenly a blissful sight materialised. Hundreds of brightly-coloured bikes glistening in the sunlight – stacked in piles or leaning on walls, their victorious owners milling amongst them. I joined a lengthy queue of tired but happy cyclists outside the sole beachfront cafe. The full English breakfast, hot chocolate and jam scones were worth the wait.
Now it was time for the final ritual.
Stripped to my bib shorts and vest I sprinted across the beach and threw myself into the waves. Submerging myself in the cool water I felt my muscles instantly relax. Around me fellow riders larked about in water fights but I was content to float in the ocean and stare at the horizon. The previous night's physical efforts had already receded and I found myself looking forward to next year's adventure.
And the fixed-gear question? I actually found it fine – the need to keep pedalling paradoxically stopped me coasting and getting tired. I've ridden it since on a road bike, and it's definitely doable on any reasonable machine – and a few unreasonable ones. Might give the penny farthing a miss though...
THINGS I’VE LEARNT…
Pack Light – 120 miles is quite a distance and will feel longer if you've a whole cycle shop on your back. If you have a rack or panniers let the bike take the weight. Saddle bags and handlebar bags are also handy.
Spare Socks – If you can only carry one spare piece of clothing make it your favourite pair of woolly socks, as nothing is worse than cold soggy feet on arrival!
Jump in the Sea – On my first Dunwich Dynamo I avoided the sea and suffered from aching muscles for days after. The past two years I've always treated myself to a long dip. The cold water helps squeeze out lactic acid and aids muscle recovery – it's the reason top sportsmen take regular ice baths. You should wake up the following day feeling fresh and ache-free.
Sunday Lunch – After indulging in the beachfront cafe's famous sugary buns head up to The Ship pub at the top of the hill and treat yourself to fish and chips. Delicious.
Getting Back – Southwark Cyclists run a coach service back to London for £14 in advance. Ensure your bicycle is wrapped in a blanket by the coach attendant if you’re precious about your paint job. Train services run every 1 to 2 hours from Dunwich station 5 miles away. Book you and your bicycle a place well in advance as they have a strict bike policy. Or Dunwich has some nice B&Bs where you can catch up on your missed night’s sleep. Moorside Lodge have secure cycle storage and a tasty continental breakfast.
And finally – If you have a helmet, wear it, and take good lights (Exposure Lights are best if you have cash to spare). Padded shorts will save you from a sore bum and can be worn discreetly under leggings, plus make sure your mobile is charged, your bike’s in good nick and you have the tools and ability to fix a puncture (or ride with someone who does!).
For more info head to southwarkcyclists.org.uk