There are some things you do thinking, why? Others, why not? I cycled the 200km from London to Dunwich because it was a beautiful warm night, made for spinning under the stars: why not? A couple of thousand other people answered that question with the same satisfaction, by showing up in London Fields ready to roll.
When I got to the Suffolk coast I then turned around and cycled all the way back; fewer of us had that particular idea. In the following story I will try to answer the ‘why?’…
My saga began with a splendid piece of luck. Actually, no, it began with a piece of advice I wish I could send back in time to myself the Friday night before the ride: get some sleep! Seriously, do it! Unfortunately I'm an insomniac, so this is easier said than done. I managed about four fractured hours of unconsciousness in the hours between Friday morning and Saturday reckoning, but thanks to a shot of adrenaline I was feeling pretty good at the start.
After my usual wander through the crowd, assessing strengths and weaknesses (+1 for a basic, well-maintained bike, -5 for brakeless fixie, at least if you have to brag about it), I searched for the man with the plan, ie the route sheet. Unable to locate him, I stationed myself near the entrance to the Pub on the Park in the hope of spotting a surge in the crowd. As I was standing there I fell into conversation with a couple of riders who were after the same thing, though mostly as a souvenir as they had their own man with a plan and, more importantly, GPS.
We got on well enough to set off together shortly after, no souvenirs except those we would gather in the form of memories.
Riding with others – I don't mean 2,000 or so others, I mean just a handful or fewer – can be stressful. If your pace doesn't match, or your personalities don't mesh enough to withstand the initial flush of a new face, it's best you call it a night and carry on, perhaps in search of others to hook up with. Or perhaps not, as it's more difficult when you're on the road, where hooking up often means tagging along to see if you can keep up.
The three of them, Geoff, Terry and Andreas, were a team. Through the night I became more or less a part of that team; at first not necessarily waited for if I had to make a stop, but warmly welcomed back whenever we had our quorum again. I think it was around the food stop that it can be confidently stated we were all in this together.
I've done maybe five Dun Runs, I’ve lost count. This was my first since 2012. There used to be fewer pubs open, and the roads weren't quite so dense with cyclists at any given watering hole. You expect a critical mass at the start; not so much along the way.
There were more independent vendors, and there was a bike shop open, which was cool.
Our experience was typical for any rider who gets lucky. We enjoyed each other's company, helping the miles slip away easily. We arrived at intersections sometimes unsure which way to go (our man with the GPS wasn't always around), ending up as waymarkers for others. We saw many wonders, including what from a distance appeared to be extra tall Bromptons but turned out to be a troupe on ElliptiGo bikes. And of course we saw hundreds of different light shows – one of the signal charms of the Dynamo.
When we landed at Dunwich we congratulated each other on a journey well travelled. We were tired, naturally, but it's so exhilarating to be there you don't necessarily feel it. You don't even mind the queues for the food and toilets. Much.
I had no firm plans for how to get back again. The trains were booked solid. My first thought had been to try for the Cambridge line. (Actually, my first first thought had been to do a half Dun Run: to turn around at the food stop and follow the lights – white instead of red – back.) Then it was suggested the furthest station on the Central line was almost the same distance. I have no idea if this is truth or hopeful fiction; still high from the ride, I opted to believe.
I considered a nap on the beach, until I saw how chaotic it was. Besides, I wanted to capitalise on the fact that I wasn't asleep yet, make hay while the sun shone.
So we said our goodbyes and I headed out, immediate destination uknown.
I very quickly decided to simply do the official route in reverse, using those still on their way in – unDun if you will – as a guide.
Around five miles later I was passed by a man who would make all the difference to my chances of making it home without falling into a hedge from sleep deprivation (240 miles on four hours of Zs? Mad. I know veteran audaxers do this sort of thing all the time – still mad).
He was on a singlespeed, like me. Although his was freewheel, you wouldn't know it as he never stopped pedalling. I could keep up, just, so did.
We soon found ourselves at an intersection and struck up a brief conversation. He said he was on his way back, probably, would see how it went. This corresponded with my plans perfectly, so I asked if he minded if I tagged along. He sort of nodded then set off again, briefly stopping to check on a woman sitting by the side of the road with her head in her hands. She was shattered but not in pieces.
We had time for a bit more of a chat after stocking up on food and drink, where I learned he was from Munich. We didn’t exchange names, so he became The Man from Munich. He had arrived at Dunwich at 4am in the tailwind of a hell-for-leather peloton, then caught a few hours’ sleep before heading back.
The Man from Munich was, in my opinion, a cyclist's cyclist. While his bike was nondescript, he himself was a machine. Like a machine, he didn't wait up (at least at first). I was expected to keep up or be lost to my own devices. It worked. If I wanted to follow someone who looked like he knew where he was going, who could spur me along faster than my usual cruising speed – which always takes a big hit after the 100-mile mark – I had no choice but to grab on for dear life.
Although he didn't have a map, he did have the route sheet that my earlier compatriots were lacking, and he had the names of the villages in his head. I trusted him.
While I'm not so great with names, I'm a touch better with roads and landmarks. I remember this bend or that church. At one crossroads I convinced him he was headed in the wrong direction, a temporary reverse polarity of trust which cemented our pact. Nonetheless, our pact was based on speed. I knew that if I couldn't keep up, whatever bond we had would crumble.
One of my knees was aching, saddle soreness was steadily increasing, and I didn't know if I had the energy reserves to keep up: all the usual stuff. By far the worst problem was lack of sleep. Just about my only coherent thoughts were: Pedal. Keep Up. Consume energy to keep pedalling. DON’T FALL ASLEEP.
I took to imagining that each blink of the eye was a mini nap, and attempted to savour and appreciate the momentary respite, no matter how absurd this game. I took long blinks.
On a mission
The first test of my faith in the mission came in the form of a man with a van. He stopped during one of our few lulls and asked if we needed a lift. To where? I shouted, at least in my mind. He was headed to Stowmarket. Getting a lift to anywhere, even the wrong direction, was mighty tempting. It was an offer the Man from Munich could refuse.
We waved him off with thanks, me wondering if perhaps I could've hitched a ride from Stowmarket, see if it was thriving with a populace eager to accrue good karma for coming debts. After the driver left I admitted the weakness in my heart, a confession met with a smile.
Very occasionally I took the lead. I was unsure if he relinquished it to see how fast I could really go, or as a brilliant psychological ploy to make me go even faster to prove myself. That he kept oddly well behind made me think the latter.
Confident though I was that he could get me to London if I had what it took to follow him (even from the front), a serious leap of faith was required when he took us offroad. I was tired, but not so tired to have forgotten that none of the route veered off metalled lanes. He told me this was the only way back through this particular stretch. What could I do but believe?
Another cyclist we ran into had sworn off this track as he didn't have any spare tubes left in case of a puncture. How bad can it be? I wondered.
When we got there I was shocked to find that it was, in fact, worth any swear words thrown at it. This wasn’t some pleasantly rustic but essentially decent if bumpy byway through the countryside. Two parallel ruts in the earth calling themselves a track were flooded with flints and actual floody stuff, the water that the heavens had released.
Did I mention it had started raining? One of the most beautiful evenings of weather on record for a Dun Run, if not as clear as could be hoped for, was followed by a good drenching of us shivering mortals. I hadn't brought waterproofs.
This he had earlier taken as a sign that I needed waterproofs and given me his, opting for the warmth if not the water repelling properties of a gilet. When someone gives you something like that, at a time like that, you are struck dumb until you muster the courage to ask, “Are you sure?”
As I struggled over terrain I could scarcely accept I was subjecting my bike to (“I’m not a cross bike!” it would have screamed if I believed in nonsense like talking bikes), my sullen bike was quickly covered in the mud that dirt becomes when mixed with water.
The drivetrain began making alarming noises, the brakes grabbing rims covered in grit. A puncture loomed with every turn of the wheels. It got steep enough and soft enough in the middle, where I was trying to ride to avoid the worst of the flints, that, to my shame, I had to get off and walk for a bit. The Man from Munich had disappeared. I was highly confident he would be waiting for me.
When we met up after that fresh hell, I said, “Well, we didn’t get a puncture!”
“Not yet,” he replied.
When we reached the next village I practically ran into the shop as I was dying to buy a huge bottle of water to sluice over the whole mess, the Man from Munich laughing at the pure filthiness of it all.
It continued to rain, but at least I was no longer grinding grit into my cogs. The waterproof jacket was a wetsuit.
It was somewhere around a church, that other repository of faith, that I realised we were being followed. We went by a man on a very creaky bike who refused to recede into the distance. Then he went by us. Then back and forth a few times until we finally said hello.
“Your bike is musical,” said the Man from Munich.
Although there was no formal arrangement, two then became three.
As before, it didn't feel necessary to exchange such pleasantries as names. I later learned he is a football coach, so it's obvious what I'll be calling him.
Coach was a strong rider, if not in the same class as the German dynamo, or perhaps even me, on a good day. He had diagnosed the creaking as a faulty bearing. The cranks were in such poor shape he was afraid to even get out of the saddle for long.
By the halfway mark my powers were fading alarmingly. I simply couldn't keep up on climbs that would normally rate a shrug. This worried me enough that at one point I offered to return the jacket to its owner, who I couldn’t thank enough for keeping me keeping on.
He merely said, “It’s too wet.”
Coach knew these roads well, so confidence was as high as it could be that I'd make it, if I could survive the lows. Occasionally, between long blinks, I would recognise someplace we'd been through on the way out, which was cheering enough to dripfeed more hope into my veins. Still, it was tough going. Whoever said the Dun Run is flat never rode it back to London.
Coach suggested another way. It involved a busier route, but promised less meandering. The Man from Munich looked doubtful, yet agreed it made sense. It was one of those tarmac wonders that propels you along rather than grudgingly giving up the miles.
Not long into our new direction there was a loud bang and three again became two.
It was more than a puncture this time; there had been a mini explosion in the sidewall.
“I don’t want to keep you,” said the Man from Munich. Coach and I were willing to be kept for as long as it took him to repair this, though without a boot patch I wasn’t sure how it was going to be possible.
He flipped over his bike.
“No, you go.”
It was said with enough finality that we couldn’t argue the point. I offered him one of my spare tubes, as he only had the one. He turned it down. Then I started taking off his jacket.
It was déjà vu. This is because, earlier, whether daydream or premonition (if only), an odd thought had struck my tired brain: he’s going to give me this jacket. Much as I wanted to keep it as a souvenir truly worth cherishing, I couldn’t take it.
“But you’re just wearing a T-shirt,” he said, which was true enough.
But it wasn’t raining any more and I had a fleece for backup. I handed it to him. He thanked me for his own jacket.
I insisted he take my tube, at least, and he thanked me for that too. “I may see you down the road,” he said.
Coach and I agreed that he well might, given his speed and assuming he could fashion a repair out of god knows what, possibly the last of a baguette he was carrying. We shook hands and said our goodbyes. I knew we wouldn’t be seeing him again. He wanted to get back on those lanes. Perhaps he just needed to be alone again. Whatever his motives for releasing us, as he passed out of my life I felt stronger than when he had passed into it.
I was like a baton. Coach was just the ticket for the last leg of my journey. He went at a speed I could match in my current state, and was an excellent guide, doling out capsule reviews so I knew what to expect.
“Bastard climb out of that village. Rolling hills ahead, each one short enough to get up enough speed for the next one. Flat bit there, very boring.” He looked relatively fresh but had been suffering the torments of his own hell before seeing us and grabbing on.
Hell is said to be a bespoke experience, some pushing boulders up hills like Sisyphus only to have them tumble back down, others forced to dine with their in-laws for all eternity. I don’t know exactly what it was for Coach, as he didn’t elaborate, but I’d guess it involved being confronted with the possibility of failure.
He was loquacious compared to the German, conversation the motor which helped keep him going. He had taken up cycling to lose weight, his enthusiam kindled by goals set, then accomplished: “My first ride was long, for me: 4km.” Now here he was riding back from Dunwich, his second attempt at the return trip after giving up last year (“Never again!” he had told himself, somehow meaning both no more Dun Runs and no more giving up). When we stopped for food he said he felt responsible and owed it to me as part of the team that had pulled him along. A chain of debt was being repaid.
It would be nice to report that the last miles were the easiest. When we finally rolled past the M25 I said to myself, well, I’ve kind of done it. But still we pedalled on, the miles shrinking and elongating at the same time.
When we got to his neck of the woods it was time to say goodbye.
“You could take the train the rest of the way,” he said, knowing full well I wouldn’t dare, then providing his usual excellent directions to give me the best landing into central London. “Maybe I’ll see you next year!”
I wish, I thought, but never again. Probably.