Ride Reflections from a couple of first-timers...
Our loose ensemble got off to a pitiful start when the pike list finally made itself known - Edwards, a self-styled deviant cycling raconteur of this parish, and his imaginary cycling partner 'Dave' withdrew at the last, decimating our cracked squad by 50% - less talk more action please gents...
More confusion in West London, home of Australian ex-pat Kean aka 'The Wizard of Odd', as he came to terms with having to single-handedly consume a four man cheeseboard he'd assembled in anticipation of some late-night-before-the-event chatter into the wee small hours.
I had decided that it made more logistical sense to take the camper from Manchester to Dunwich on the Saturday, then catch a train into 'town', as they call it, to meet up with our withering team. With the van parked on the shingle and a test cream scone and tea consumed, I 'warmed up' with a 10 mile roller to Saxmundham and waited for the train. On arrival the blobby guard was already shaking his head before alighting - his train was already "overloaded" with, get this, 8 bicycles and advised that I should ride to Ipswich to continue my journey.
With a shake of the head and a palpable sense of rejection, I found the A12 and entered what they call 'time trial' mode down a dismal dual carriageway. Expecting more of the same BR treatment there, I was surprised to find a more accepting approach by staff and was able to enjoy a cold can of Guiness once aboard the train, along with a few other about-to-be-Dunners. I repaired to LMNH after Liverpool Street, originally looking to enjoy a quality final feed whilst watching the Froomedog go about his business in France, but with the various delays it was now 1800 and we were very much into highlights mode on the big screen.
Kean arrived 1930, by which time I was hungry again, adrenalin seemingly munching through whatever was piped down to the stomach. Pfaffing with the Carradice took priority, as its poor design and counter-weight pendulum action had been exposed on my earlier 30 miles - bodged attempts to secure with zip ties made no difference but busied the mind.
We moved from Old Street and meandered through Hoxton's knowing denizens onto London Fields, where the Dunwich legions were gathering. Was an impressive sight - maybe 3,000 cyclists and relations excitedly preparing for the off under the last of the sun's rays. But what was 'off' became a matter of mass debate - a Dunwich characteristic is this lack of an official start, experienced Dunners just 'know'. As we weren't, we sampled the ambience and threaded through throngs and thongs to head out into the Saturday evening battlezone on the roads.
Despite numbers there was little safety - irate motorists gave vent to our very existence and wits had to be kept in check to avoid major incident. Bordering Essex scaled down the traffic but ramped up the altercations as the peloton went through some early selections, mostly based on whether you were riding carbon or not, and thinned to a long dual line of riders and outriders. Dusk gave way to proper darkness as we moved under the canopies of Epping's trees, the noises off changing to something even more eerie that those of London's backstreets.
The first of a few crashes took place around here, along with early punctures from urban potholing misadventures. Subtle inclines made me aware of heavier breathing and conversations grew less frequent, less excited and voluble - the task at hand sobering up the uninitiated. The advance in cycle lighting became an increasing source of irritation as the strength of contemporary Crees et al singed retinas and triggered latent epilepsy - enforced scrunching and blinking of the eyelids to try and rid myself of this flashing red snake in front of me used up more vital calories.
17 miles in was enough time to doubt that I had sufficient sustenance packed so we swung in to a cheap filling station to pick up a growler (aka a cheap pork pie) and then rejoin the blinking phalanx. 23 miles in was a more atmospheric and almost compulsory beer stop with riders and machinery blocking the narrowed road, all with beer in hand. Not ones to be so rude as to refuse the tacit invitation, we imbibed cooling liquid and studied the form - we noted the numbers of fixed, track and single speeders, in classic and 'interpreted' aesthetics; a welcome representation of female riders (thought to be making at least 20% of the total) and of course a fair few 'individuals' - more on them later.
The first to two such stops did much to thin out the dual lines into single file through the country lanes as riders focused on the job at hand to make the halfway halt at Sible Hedingham. Here a village hall had been acquired by time-served volunteers dishing out a, by now, paltry cold pasta with random vegetables - apparently the good soup, bananas and flapjack had been set aside for the competitive carbon set, who by now were almost certainly reaching Dunwich.
Those of a more modest ambition and talent concentrated on steeling flimsy bodies and marshalling the doubt as to whether they were capable of completion. I closed my eyes and told myself all the years of clubbing-related sleep debt were about to pay back, as the early hours session loomed large. It was an effort then, to leave this modest sanctuary, the first twinges of aching limbs and tenderised posteriors confirming that this wasn't a typical Saturday night's endeavour.
By the time we crossed the A14 and genuinely 'east' we were 83 miles in and natural light was making its presence felt. An increasing headwind was its unwelcome companion and the scanty 'hot weather' clothing selection was further found out by the onset of a fine drizzle. Heads were lowered and the seriousness of cycling the only truth - Kean leading on the grinds, I recovering ground on the flat, we tandemed the hard miles through dawn, passing ever-increasing clots of wayside casualties pausing for breath or inspiration. Confusingly, new lady-riders on barely adequate machinery always seemed to be in front of us, despite what we thought was good pace, redoubtedly pedalling on in flimsy summerwear.
Approaching Framlingham at 95 miles we were genuinely alone for what seemed the first time. Lights were extinguished and concentration lapses the order of the new day. A missed turn adding unknown extra mileage, weariness made any frustration seem a pointless use of any remaining energy. Resigned, we trudged in search of other riders and were rewarded soon enough. Another characteristic of this ride is the lack of a route map, which tests your resolve and judgement if merely following the groups in front. Occasional referencing of the list of villages is your only insurance as web-tied gadgetry is unwelcome or ineffective the further east one travels.
The much anticipated 100 mile mark was akin to crossing the Equator by ship - was it going to happen or had it just? Disappointed that there was no convenient white-painted line of demarkation, we made sure by riding at least two miles on, then pulled over to celebrate with fancy chocolate biscuits and a sweet, sweet sherry from the hipflask under the dripping leaves. Discussions over some curious earlier sightings including a man pedalling a bakfiets furiously up a steep incline, with two wobbling Spaniels in the front box. Why indeed
. Average age profile was considered to be about half my age (52) and rather encouraging for the growth of urban cycling. The plethora of fixed riders ceased to be noteworthy, however their speed this far into the ride was seriously impressive. By now I was using the full range of gears available to me, which, due to the onset of new cable stretch, had reduced to 10.
The last few villages took an age to knock off before the welcome descent into Dunwich. The first coaches of early arrivals were preparing to leave the carpark, the nodding, lolling heads of already unconscious cyclists pressed up against the glass. We made immediately to the campervan and urgently pulled two fine ales from the fridge to toast our sense of achievement - Kean's first century and my new record of cycling miles in 24 hours upped to 145. Our blackbox flight recorder said 11 hours plus of riding along with 114 miles distance and an average speed of 9.7mph (including stoppages) - our whingeing bodies said it was twice that...
Ensconced in the van, preparations engaged for a veritable feast of fried goods on the minimalist stove (provisions-wise, four into two = gluttony), sluiced with decent coffee, juice and of course a modest cheeseboard - this in contrast and preference to the much lauded and traditional dip in the sea, not made a sane option by the chilly onshore breeze and distinct lack of sun.
Kean partly restored went off to load his crossed country steed onto a lorry and himself onto a coach, I disgorged the foul results of a night on energy gels and powdered water and set the campervan into sleep mode, before considering heading west back to Manchester. Further sleepovers at various motorway services and lay-bys were required before reaching my destination around 9pm, about the same time as the organised coach service had got Kean back to London.
A very characterful, very-British ride not to be underestimated in length and endurance and one that was rightfully on my bucket list - highly recommended as an alternative to more competitive sportifs and suchlike.