I never intended to cycle the Dunwich Dynamo. In fact when someone had mentioned its existence a few months before, I thought it sounded crazy. Why would I want to cycle nearly 200km through the night from London to the Suffolk Coast?
It sounded decidedly unpleasant and would probably rain.
Yet, somehow in late June when a friend mentioned he was cycling it, I found myself enthusiastically saying I’d join him. Astrid was going to be away that weekend and I thought it sounded like a solid (possibly type 2 fun) way to spend a Saturday night. I’d conveniently forgotten I didn’t actually own a road bike – only the green fairy; a well made steel framed touring bike with the heaviest rims on the planet, fat off road tyres plus front and rear steel racks. The ideal bike to tackle the dirt roads of Kyrgyzstan fully loaded – not so ideal to ride 200km through the night on tarmac with a bunch of people (mostly) on road bikes.
The Dunwich Dynamo or Dun Run (as the cool kids call it) began sometime in the 90’s – when a group of friends decided it would be fun to ride to the coast overnight. Since it’s humble beginning it has grown into one of the more obscure and fun things to do in London during the summer. No roads are closed – it’s not an organised event – part of it’s charm. And it’s also free. You just rock up and ride. Famously people have done it on a Boris bike and a unicycle. While some people probably take it seriously, most don’t. Pubs along the route stay open and some villages have pop up stalls selling food and drinks to weary cyclists.
Although I had hesitations after my initial enthusiasm I realised having a heavy bike wasn’t actually an excuse not to do this. Instead I recruited Ben to join me as well. He liked long bike rides after all.
The week before the ride I had a brief fantasy that I could make the Green Fairy lighter, less like riding a tractor. I pedalled over to the London Bike Kitchen (an awesome DIY space where you get helped to fix your own bike) and set about giving her a slight make over. This included finally changing my chainring after more than 30,000km, replacing the chain and swapping my fat off road tyres to slightly less fat (but still huge compared to road bikes) tyres. I also spent a frustrating hour trying to take off my rear and front racks which was an exercise in futility.
By the time Saturday evening rolled around I felt more or less ready. I had even bought a novelty shirt from a charity shop to wear, deciding that being a bit ridiculous was going to be my way of tackling 200km. I mean, cycling a long distance overnight is kind of crazy. I packed what I thought I needed (which included a flask of whiskey) into my handle bar bag and pedalled over to London Fields, collecting Ben on the way.
The park around Pub on the Park in London Fields was full of cyclists, milling about and sipping beer. I liked the vibe of the event already. After meeting up with Tony and his friends Lenny and Alex, it was time for us to also partake in the drinking of beer.
We milled around chatting and drinking beer until around 8.30pm when people began to move off. It was a bottle neck getting out of the park at London Fields but soon we were pedalling in a ramshackle group out of Hackney and north eastwards into the suburbs.
As we made our way along Lea Bridge Road I longingly thought about how my bed was currently 15 mins south of where we were. It would be a further 17 hours before I would see my bed again. I didn’t quite realise what the night had in store.
On the first bit I pushed a little hard, I wanted to keep up with the road bikes. I tried to ignore the fact that when they were coasting, I was still pedalling. Still, I felt good, the mood was light and we all intermitently chatted as the light faded from the sky.
Soon the suburbs gave way to the Essex countryside and it felt like we were really heading somewhere as the darkness enveloped us. The others went ahead and Ben stayed with me as we rode into the night. Eventually we reached a village which was full of cyclists spilling out from a pub. We couldn’t see the others so Ben and I rode on to the next village.
Turns out we had somehow missed Tony and his friends so we waited and partook in the drinking of whiskey and beer to pass the time (15 mins). To be honest I was beginning to get tired and worried about the road ahead. Ben mused that at the rate we were going we would reach Dunwich after midday (the idea is to make it for sunrise) and this instilled a quiet panic in me. We had barely done 50km and I was pretty shattered. The others soon arrived and after a quick break we rolled on. Our goal was the half way point at Sudbury, where the fire station puts on a feed.
The general mood began to plummet in our little group. We were all feeling it. I definitely did not have enough snacks and was running super low on energy. Plus I was cold and exhausted, the Green Fairy felt like a tractor and every undulation in the dark felt like a Kyrgyzstan style pass. Someone said it felt like a bad trip; we couldn’t figure out why everyone was having fun while we were all so miserable. My one consolation was, unlike all the guys in our group my saddle which was basically moulded to my bum was not causing me pain. I think everyone else was in utter agony. Tony looked like he was done. Ben was morosely silent. Someone talked of getting the train back from Ipswich.
Although at this point I felt utterly melancholic I had an inkling that things would get better. Perhaps it’s the 2.5 years spent traveling on the bike, but you soon learn that often after the most difficult times come the most rewarding. There is something powerful in being okay with discomfort.
These are some of the things that I thought of as I pedalled those slow and grim kilometres through the darkness.
Eventually, after an eternity we seemed to be reaching a town. It was nearing 3 am, well passed the time I had calculated in my head that we should be at Sudbury, the half way point. Although the fire station was just ahead I stopped at an off licence that had remained open and bought a jar of peanut butter and some bread. I shoved some calories into my face and then set about trying to find the others.
I found them morosely discussing Ipswich and when the trains would start. Everyone looked as shattered as I felt. We limped on to the fire station to take a well earned break and to eat some food.
Disaster. The fireman nonchalantly informed us that they had run out of food two hours ago.
Devastated is probably an understatement.
I am not proud of this but a string of expletives left my mouth. Then I nearly cried. Looking over at the others I felt like they were in a similar headspace.
We were left with no choice but to eat the left over bread rolls with some left over HP sauce. Other cyclists were turning up all the time and being met with the same fate. It was probably the ultimate low of the night. The only thing that saved me was the fact that I had managed to shove some peanut butter and bread into my face before I got to the fire station. My mood despite the tragedy that is bread rolls, HP sauce and instant coffee, began to lift.
I think the break and the food (even if it was far from what we had hoped it would be) slowly began working their magic and eventually we all rolled out of Sudbury, towards Dunwich and the hint of dawn. Ipswich and it’s train station were forgotten.
We had been gifted with quite a mild summers night, and as we now cycled the light began to touch the sky, bathing the countryside in the most beautiful gold. The fields, hedgerows and woods we pedalled passed filled me with the pure joy of nature and my mood soared. It is hard to describe the utter delight the daylight brought. It felt more like a spiritual experience than a bike ride.
It was during this beautiful sunrise phase of the cycle that I gained the most important insight into a ride; I think in our modern life we spend a lot of time avoiding discomfort. Surrounded by modern conveniences in our daily lives we often don’t get very uncomfortable. We have cars and uber, takeaway delivery services, electricity, kettles, heating, soft beds, public transport, smart phones and fridges. Everything is designed to make our life easier. I mean when is the last time you collected wood to built a fire to cook a meal? We rarely in our modern, wealthy western existence get faced with real discomfort. And when we do it’s usually for short periods of time while we do exercise or perhaps are rammed on the tube with our face in someones arm pit.
To be honest, I’d forgotten what discomfort felt like. And that’s probably why in the end the ride meant so much more than just a novelty cycle to the coast. It reminded me of our cycle trip because travel, especially travel by bicycle makes you embrace discomfort; From pitching your tent in minus 10, to being soaked to your undies, or pushing your 50kg bike up a 3000m pass along something that more closely resembles a river bed then a road. Not to mention the countless times you are invited to stay with complete strangers, with whom you share no common language, or culture. These things, which happen almost everyday to some extent on a big cycle trip, push comfort zones.
And it is in these moments of discomfort that growth happens.
Obviously here on this bike ride I am talking about physical discomfort but it’s a metaphor really that you can apply to other parts of life. By embracing challenges; be it physical or emotional we force ourselves to reach somewhere beyond our comfort zone. It is precisely when we feel the most uncomfortable that we grow and push out our boundaries, making our world that little bit richer.
As the sun rose and wonderful pink hues coloured the sky my soul was reminded of this, and at the same time also filled with the utter delight of just being alive. It was one of those rare moments where I fully appreciated how amazing a sunrise is. How beautiful and perfect the trees and woods were and how everything just felt wonderful. Looking around at the others I felt like they were experiencing a similar high. It seemed we had all come out of the dark night of aches, pains and fatigue together. It now made sense to me why people do this ride. It is pretty bloody magical
We were still a long way from Dunwich though. As the high of sunrise slowly wore off I became a happy kind of fatigued. I knew we would all make it and I was tired but happy. We pedalled on, stopping a few more times at pop up stalls for a coffee and a bite to eat.
We rode on through undulating farmland and towards the Suffolk coast, eventually reaching heath land before at long last the coast. Ive often been tired after a bike ride but this was a special kind of exhausted. Some kind of combination of having just finished a night shift, an epic bike ride, and being on some kind of high. I was shattered but in a good way.
We walked onto the beach, enjoying the early morning sunshine and the pure elation of having made it. Tired cyclists had spread themselves all over the rocky shore, the place was a hive of activity. People arriving and leaving, excited conversations and murmurs of congratulations filled the air. It seemed almost everyone was in a place of happy exhaustion. After eating, I managed a swim in the sea (wonderful!) before piling onto a bus with the others back to London.
What can I say about the Dunwich Dynamo? It was difficult and amazing and to me much more than just a bike ride. It reminded my of life lessons I’d half forgotten and inspired me to keep pushing into the places that are that uncomfortable because they are often the most rewarding and inspiring.
Although next time I might bring more snacks.