I rode all night

The light is already beginning to fade when I join the throng of cyclists on London Fields. The word is that this is the biggest ever turnout for the Dunwich Dynamo - a 193-km (116-mile) bike ride through the night from East London to Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. I’m a first-timer, and an apprehensive one at that – I’ve never cycled such a distance, let alone in the dead of night - but friends who have done the ‘Dun Run’ for the past few years assure me it’s a very special experience.

The ride is a far cry from the super-organised charity rides and sportives that dominate the cycling calendar. It began in 1993, when a group of cycle couriers made an impromptu post-pub excursion to the coast, ending up at Dunwich. Since then, the annual event has ebbed and flowed in popularity but has remained free, non-competitive and largely unorganised. There is no website, no registration procedure, no support vehicles and no route markers - but you can queue up, as I’m now doing, to pay £1 for the quirky set of directions on a single A4 sheet, produced by the London School of Cycling. And if you’re smart (or, in my case, well-informed) you’ll have already booked your place on one of the return coaches organised by Southwark Cyclists.

With no start gun or official start time, it’s hard to know what triggers the exodus, but like migrating birds, we seem to spontaneously take flight as one and, just before 9pm, the 17th Dunwich Dynamo is underway.

Route map or no route map, there’s no danger of getting lost over the first few miles, as our motley peleton – including road bikes, recumbents, mountain bikes and Bromptons – even the odd tandem and a penny wheeler -  snakes north-east out of London, bells tinging, lights blinking. Most, but not all, drivers are good-natured, if a little bemused, about our road domination. One boy racer barely gives us an inch as he revs the engine and overtakes. ‘It’s fuckin’ illegal,’ his dolled-up girlfriend shouts, hanging out the window.

The Dun Run always takes place on the Saturday in July closest to the full moon to give more light to ride by (and because this is when the inaugural event took place) but I’m taking no chances. My bike is lit up like the Blackpool Illuminations - two lights each, front and back (one solid, one flashing), reflective tape on my bike frame, rucksack and helmet and fluorescent yellow jacket and ankle straps. It feels like overkill on the well-lit, traffic-clogged Lea Bridge Road, but beyond Epping, the street lights peter out, and the extent of the darkness is revealed.

As the ride progresses, the pack stretches out. The number of cyclists whizzing past me is disconcerting but I hold my pace, and soon find myself riding along in silence.

I have no particular plan of where I’ll stop on the route, aside from the halfway point, but the congregation of riders outside the pub in the village of Moreton is such a welcome sight that I dismount without a second thought and unwrap a marmite sandwich.

After the buzz of the pub, the road beyond it feels all the lonelier. I concentrate on the small circle of tarmac lit up by my front beam, occasionally glancing up to look for the reassuring glow of red flashing rear lights further on.

I adopt a ‘little and often’ approach to stopping – ducking into the bushes for a wee, raiding my rucksack for a snack or checking I’m going the right way. The first traces of saddle soreness kick in after a couple of hours and it’s a relief to get off the bike, however briefly. I apply liberal amounts of Vaseline at Finchingfield and add ‘painkillers’ to the mental list I’m compiling of things I wish I’d brought (head torch, flask of coffee, woolly hat for stops).

In Castle Hedingham, I pass a drunken-looking lad wearing no trousers. He waves. It’s 1.25am. I’ve been riding for 4 hours and 40 minutes - way longer than the Sunday ride I intermittently drag myself out of bed for with my triathlon club.  I’m feeling decidedly weary, and worried that I haven’t even reached halfway yet.

But at 2.24am, my beam catches the welcome sight of a sign reading ‘Great Waldingfield.’ Sixty-four miles in, this marks the halfway stop, and hearteningly, is just across the Suffolk border. Each year, the village hall is opened to lay on food and drink for the riders – but with such a large turn-out, the queue is far too big to contemplate. I make do with my marmite sandwiches and potato scones – and gratefully accept a Snickers and coffee from Si, the photographer.

I feel far more human by the time I’ve rested and refuelled. Others don’t look like they are faring so well – some are flaked out on the concrete beside their bikes, others have curled up on the grass verge. I go off in search of the toilets and taps to refill my water bottles, and gratifyingly, find a queue outside the men’s and a completely vacant ladies loo. Conversations in the village hall are variations on the theme ‘It’s not my knees, it’s my back.’

I feel good for the first few miles back on the road – but as the night goes on I find myself slipping into a trance-like state, pushing the pedals round and round, staring at that grey circle of road... Clusters of red lights up ahead no longer look like cyclists stopping to check the route but like a gaily-lit up shed, or a stationary lorry, or a UFO landing.

It’s not long, though, before the first few patches of pink sky start to appear and I hear larksong. It’s quite something, I reflect, to have started riding before the sun went down and to still be riding as it rises. I repeat the phrase ‘up with the larks’ in my head, over and over like a mantra - as tired and wired as an all-night clubber.

With the first light, there’s an incredible stillness – as if it’s still too early for a field of corn to sway or a tree to rustle. It’s thrilling to see the world so fresh and untainted. A light rain begins to fall. The wisp of a rainbow appears.

I continue with my short, regular stop regime – but the length of time I feel good for after each break is getting shorter and shorter. There’s a comedy moment when I shout ‘car, back’ to the group ahead of me, who are zigzagging deliriously all over the road. One of them hesitates a moment too long and then, figuring he doesn’t have time to get back over to the left side of the road, throws himself into the hedgerow, still attached to his pedals.

But by 6.20am, I’m not laughing any more. I can’t find a comfortable position on my saddle, my knees ache, my wrists are numb, every morsel of food has been eaten and I just want to lie down. I sit under a tree, trying to summon up the energy to continue.

Just as I set off again, the rain returns in earnest. It runs in rivulets down my face and I have to blink incessantly to see where I’m going. Someone beside me cheers as we pass the first road sign marked ‘Dunwich’. ‘Nearly there,’ they say. I feel no sense of relief at all. Nearly there is only nearly there – it means nothing.

I reach Dunwich not with a bang but a whimper (the final instruction on the route map reads ’Stop. Salt Water ahead’). It’s 8am and the beach car park is filled with sleeping bodies, bikes, bags and queues. It looks like some kind of neon refugee camp.

The idea of running into the sea in celebration of the journey’s end now seems out of the question. Instead, I join the queue of bedraggled people waiting for space in Flora’s café for breakfast. In the ladies, there’s a woman asleep on the toilet with the door open.

By the time I’ve eaten (full English plus a scone with jam and cream), the rain has finally abated and I join hundreds of riders on the beach, awaiting the return coaches.  I lie down on the shingle, relishing the feeling of sun warming skin, and within minutes I’m out for the count. I wake up with sunburn and stiff limbs, but a sense of achievement is finally beginning to wash over me. ‘Never again,’ has been replaced by ‘maybe next year…’