I’ve been banging on about this for a few weeks now but last Saturday we finally went out and did “the double” or Dunwich and back / AKA Camberwell > Dunwich > Camberwell. The idea being that we would avoid having to leave a vehicle there or get the train back as well as complete my biggest ride to date. The previous biggest was the Oasts and Coasts audax which was a 300km event. It was also going to be a good training ride for the Manchester to London event in September but most of all it sounded like a slightly silly thing to do and a bit of a challenge.
I’ve been prepping for a while and looking at GPS options, charging / power, luggage and also getting the bike sorted with some kind assistance from Bowman Cycles. I managed to get hold of a brand new Pilgrims frameset with carbon forks and get it built up by Balfes Bikes in East Dulwich. I had a new set of wheels ready too but decided a 400k round trip was probably not the best way of breaking them in.
I managed to get it in time to do a decent ride or two round Kent to make sure it was comfortable and there weren’t any niggles and make sure the position was right. It felt great and really stable at speed yet not as racey as the Palace I have. I thought I was going slow on it but came back with lots of stupid little cups and a KOM so it’s clearly no slouch – even with 30mm tyres on! I also rode it to work all week although I was nervous about commuting and hypersensitive about someone crashing in to me. I carefully watched out for other people’s riding, watching the front wheels of cars for a hint of a left turn and so on and generally being so super careful. I always do this but felt like I was on
walking riding on eggshells trying to make sure I didn’t crash and miss the event as I’ve been looking forward to it so much since last year. I also skipped the Thursday chaingang for fear of a crash at speed round Regents Park.
Other prep included the most painful leg massage I’ve ever had thanks to Lisa at Camden Physio. She found two massive knots in my calves which could simply not be left alone following their discovery. This resulted with plenty of wincing and writhing on a massage table whilst listening to the sound of the Northern Line trains pass by every few minutes. Once they’ve found a knot in you they really don’t want to let it go it seems which result in even more pain. I’m sure it’s good for you though. Fortunately all the pain had gone by the time it was time to get going to Dunwich.
As usual Emma and I had a pasta meal at Caravaggios in Camberwell on the Friday to load up on carbs which was further topped up with delicious pizza in the sunshine on Sat lunchtime. It’s great being able to eat what you want to get ready for a big ride. I then laid all the kit out in the living room before packing it, adding all the lights, power for the Garmin and securing it in place with zip ties and electrical tape, adding the bottles to the frame before picking it up to check the weight. Hmm, a little heavy but should be ok once moving.
As last year I had aimed for a nap in the afternoon to make up for the lack of sleep. Sadly I was too wired / excited / nervous to sleep and dozed for a bit next to the cat before pacing round the house, getting into my kit early and watching the clock tick by. Finally it was time to go and meet Will and the others at Brixton Cycles.
We introduced ourselves to a few others who were joining us and then headed on up to London Fields. As we moved through the congested London traffic we gained more and more cyclists around us. It turned into an accidental feeder ride that some people organise to get to the main event as a group. A few nods, chats and more introductions were made to complete random people.
London was heaving with people all getting ready to go out for the night, especially round Liverpool Street, apart from us obviously. Pulling in to London Fields the park was again heaving with people. All pretty pissed after being in the sun all day drinking and barbecues still smoking away. Then the mass of cyclists became apparent crowding round the pub.
We met up with Paul and James who we rode with last year. As usual there was a great mix of people and bikes around. From stick thin roadies to elderly women on shopping bikes and everything in between. One of the nicest things is the variety of people it attracts. As usual there was a huge Dulwich Paragon presence who saw fit to block the entire road outside the pub in London Fields. Their presence wasn’t particularly welcome judging by some comments on the Facebook group. After seeing their riding on the Great Escape audax I was keen to stay clear of them too.
There was plenty of time to admire people’s bikes and just watch the spectacle of people setting off as well as guessing who was in the Dynamo and who was caught up in this lot by accident. It was surprisingly hard to tell at times.
It was also great to see my friend Mathew who having seen my Instagram feed that day knew I would be there so popped down to say hello. Again, people assumed he was riding it even though he was just in shorts and a T-shirt. It was great to see him and definitely appreciated his nice words of encouragement before setting off.
Sooner or later our group started getting itchy feet due to the number of people exiting. It’s not a rush but as soon as you see someone moving the tendency is to want to get going too.
Are we going then or what?
Obviously as soon as we all agreed to go everyone need to faff with something which gave me a chance to take a few more pictures. First I must get a picture in full BCC kit and with the Bowman and luggage.
The first bit wasn’t ideal as last year. Lots of traffic, lots of cyclists, the occasional aggro from drivers “fuuuuccccking wankers” and so on. It’s difficult to keep the group together through it all as you naturally want to go for little openings in the traffic but obviously then get strung out a bit. As we got out towards Epping things got a bit easier and we settled in to a nice pace. Clare and David seemed to shoot off and I had to avoid the temptation to chase them down and smash it out with them. It was more difficult making sure Paul and James were still with us as they weren’t in BCC kit.
We had a few cheers from passers by on the way through Epping, a couple of lads high fiving us and generally just a lovely atmosphere. Ideas of nerves and trepidation had long since faded and the bike felt great, even with the additional weight. Funnily enough the weight seemed to help. Get it up to speed and the inertia of it all seemed to just carry it along. I tried to keep a high cadence and avoid grinding away at the pedals knowing full well how much of this was still to come. This year I was a much more experienced cyclist and had totally got the whole working in a group thing. It always amazes me how much energy you save and how fast you can trundle along when you all work together. It always feels so damn good too.
After about 40km we stopped to regroup and have a chat at a pub. Rounds of orange juice and lemonade flowed and packets of crisps consumed. The landlord seemed unusually friendly towards our skintight lycra outfits. Time for a quick bottle refill, group photo and back on it.
As the sun went down we were treated to an incredible sunset over the surrounding countryside. It timed perfectly with the move through into the unlit countryside so the darkness was instantly felt. Lights on and keep going.
The rest of the night seemed to pass without event. A nice steady pace with a few more stops. At one picturesque village the pub had set up a barbecue by the road and was in full on party mode. Live band inside, home made flap jacks for sale and an efficient ordering system in place to make sure drinks were served in the fastest way possible. More OJ and lemonade, snacks, malt loaf and then back on it again.
We saw loads of bats and birds of prey flying around as well as other wildlife including more dead rabbits than I’ve ever seen on a stretch of road. Each time we stopped we got cold, put on layer and then promptly took them off within five mins of riding. It was lovely and warm although there were the usual warmer air pockets and cold patches in places. I always find it fascinating that there’s such a little microclimate around. Moving quickly on the bike you get to experience all of this and feel the air on your arms and legs as it changes, which you’d never know of wrapped in a metal box with wheels.
Another highlight was going past a guy with the largest calf muscles I’ve ever seen. We passed, then he passed and so so on for a while. I finally said to him “track sprinter by any chance” before he nodded and smiled. Each one of the rest of the group seemed equally transfixed by them. They were bigger than my thighs!
This year there seemed to be even more stalls at the side of the road than I remember from last. At about 2am we started to crave coffee so pulled over to a little blue tent and car that was swarmed with people. I reluctantly paid £1 for an instant coffee. You have to admire their enterprising spirit but I really do hate instant coffee. Still it was warm and slightly caffeinated and beggars can’t be choosers. Could they not have set up a few V60 drippers or something?
We continued into the night and the kms seems to fly by. Will and I ended up riding together for most of this last section just chatting away and waiting for the sun to rise. We had our own pace in mind so ended up just doing our own thing and then re-grouping every now and then.
We went past the pub where Andy and friends had ensconced themselves with the locals, who were pretty pissed after a lock in, the year before. I was slightly sad to see it closed but smiled to myself imagining the guy who had stolen his Vicious Velo hat sitting at the bar with it on most evenings, completely out of its intended context at a bike event. We turned right whilst others went on. Fortunately we did take that turn as there was a great little coffee stop which was being served out of the back of a Smart Car. Whilst not the best coffee in the world it was a load better than the instant and actually had caffeine in! Zing, now we’re awake again!
The sun then started to gently rise over the horizon and I kind of panicked slightly. We hadn’t made it to the beach in time for the sunrise, we weren’t some of the first few like last year! But then I realised it wasn’t a race and I really didn’t care. We’d been taking plenty of breaks, making sure the group were all ok and generally having a good time.
The sunrise over Suffolk was incredible. The way the wisps of clouds layered with changing sunlight appeared and then changed second to second was magical. Last year had been overcast and murky but this year was clear and incredibly beautiful. Again that same sense of euphoria arrived having seen the sunset and sunrise in one bike ride. Strange to think what a simple effect it had but it really as stunning.
We made it round the final corner and made sure to regroup so that we could all ride that last long road down to the sea together. Seemed like the right thing to do really. The smiles say it all for me.
Next stop the beach. It was far busier than I remember last year but we’d got here a bit later. Perfect to get another few pictures before getting my kit off and going for a swim. This was the end for most people and we kind of got caught up in this excitement.
There were so many casualties around. Lots of people completely asleep in the foetal position just completely wiped out. James commented that me going swimming in my bib shorts looked like a very Victorian type of swimming costume. Soon enough I convinced the others to join us for a dip. It was surprisingly warm and felt incredible on my legs. I was slightly surprised at how few people wanted to go for a swim.
Back to Paul’s car, fresh kit on, brand new socks, coffee, sausages, eggs, rolls and a bit of a chat before getting my eyes closed for five minutes. We didn’t want to stay too long for the fear of seizing up and not being able to get going again. In hindsight I wish I’d had 30 mins kip! I was fairly cocky about it all really thinking about how many times I’d worked through the night for a deadline. Unfortunately I hadn’t factored in the whole exercise bit in there too.
I dumped as much kit as I could with Paul and James for their drive back. Again in hindsight I left too much. I accidentally left my jacket with them which I soon came to regret. It took ages to get into it again and there was a real sense of dread about the whole affair. We soon ran out of water and ended up stopping and asking for a refill from a lovely couple who were out doing their gardening. They couldn’t have been nicer and wished us well on our way.
The previous nights storms had brought down lots of branches and debris in general. Some of the quiet lanes I’d picked had obviously not had any traffic over them since and were strewn with it. In addition there was loads of loose sand which had presumably been washed in from the same storm. After both of us experienced both wheels sliding uncontrollably on it we vowed to give it more respect and less speed.
I really wasn’t feeling great at this point in many ways. Tiredness had set in an also the energy tabs I had been using had really not agreed with me. I was having to spend increasingly frequent amounts of time hidden behind hedges with nature. I’ll leave it at that but I really felt rotten and what was worse was that I couldn’t face any food which would give me the fuel I needed to continue. A bit of a dilemma really.
We ended up resting up at a local Co-Op store and both slumped outside on the path looking exhausted.
I even contemplated how much sleep I could get sitting there. I got some antacids and we convinced ourselves to get going again. Will had consumed a load of food, I had managed a sip of his coke and some water. As we set off it stared raining, heavily. This continued for an hour and a half and we were both soaked to the bone. I had no jacket and only a thin jersey and arm warmers. Keeping going was key to keep warm obviously but in the end both of us headed for a garage forecourt for some shelter and more food. By this point I managed a ham roll with crisps and although cold setting off felt the world better having eaten something. This is us completely soaked and feeling pretty miserable. Somehow Will still manages a smile! Or is it a grimace?
Setting off from that stop was the worst of the day. My teeth were chattering and I really had lost any sense of drive. Too late though, we were committed.
One of the roads I had plotted ended up on a private estate and I got the first of many punctures on a turn that would have seen us almost complete the section and get back onto a normal road. We got told off by a very unfriendly woman who proceeded to eyeball us from her kitchen window whilst we fixed the flat and got going. Will then got another puncture on the way out of this lane and I thoroughly regretted this part of the route.
By this point it had stopped raining and we were getting warmer and our clothes were starting to dry out. It wasn’t that bad after all! Then we ended up on a little disused railway section which was great fun although covered us completely in mud and grime. My box fresh socks I’d bought as a treat for the second part of the trip seemed utterly pointless by now.
Pushing on we ended up on more lanes with sand and loose material all over. I was riding along down one of these tight little lanes when suddenly there was a big bang. My front tube had exploded and torn itself in half and I lost control of the bike sending me down on my left side. I smacked my head on the road and slid along for a bit tearing open my jersey and shorts as well as cutting my hands and leg. I saw a few stars and the light went a bit funny and then tried to reassemble in my mind what had just happened. Will had turned round and was looking at me with a slightly concerned look. He later admitted he thought I had broken my collar bone. I was still clipped in and then untangled myself from my bike, got up, announced I was fine and then promptly fell over again before staggering around for a bit murmuring something.
Sure enough I finally got my shit together and put another tube in. I was really worried it was game over after that but the front wheel was fine. I had a load of blood over my hands and legs but it’s surprising what a relatively small cut or two can chuck out. A quick squirt with the bottle and it cleaned up ok. My hand was lacerated and really sore and made gripping the bars difficult but the priority now was to get to the Blue Egg for some food and then finish this bloody ride!
There was still 80km to go.
That’s almost three hours on a bike on good day.
It felt like a long way.
I don’t think I can do this.
For a while we barely said anything to each other, both of us slightly weary and with little energy to waste on chat. After a while I had to stop as I was feeling really, really weird! Sleep deprivation was kicking in and I was struggling to keep my eyes open on the bike. A quick rest under a tree and some sugary snacks got us through this bit though. I was so keen to get some proper food in me again.
Having gotten to the Blue Egg Will kindly ordered me some food and a hot chocolate whilst I sat in a chair looking slightly forlorn. People were looking at me funny although only one person said something who was another cyclist. I suddenly got a whiff of my own odour and winced slightly. The both of us were utterly stinking after all that rain and muck. We consumed our food and got back on the bikes after a quick clean up of my wounds and a few ibuprofen.
Somehow after feeling so utterly terrible a while back both Will and I utterly buried ourselves on that last bit back into town. We flew through Epping, each of us taking a turn on the front and keeping a pretty decent pace. We both were shocked by this and ensured we had one last garage stop for a Star Bar, Coke and water before pushing on to South London. My main concern now was that the traffic was heavier and that my reactions would be terrible. I was so, so desperate to finish this now. I really wanted to hit that magic 400km.
Do you still fancy a pint?
For a while it seemed like we would both just slope off home. Sure enough with our new found energy a trip to the pub was agreed. The first one went down like a dream. One more? Sure. That went down pretty well too. And of course we had to ask the couple next to us to take a picture of us. I couldn’t help a slight boast that we’d just ridden 400k and would they mind taking a picture of us?
After that all the pain was forgotten.
We’d done it!
We’d bloody done it!
I got home and Emma completely looked after me. A beer, a bath, ibuprofen, a big dinner and then I passed out in bed.
The bike was flawless, the tyres were terrible, the luggage was amazing, my nutrition was awful but the company was superb. Thanks to Will and Bowman Cycles for such incredible support. We’d also had so many amazing messages of encouragement on Instagram from various people which certainly helped in some of the darker moments of it all.
What an adventure. We left at 6.45pm and got back at 6.45pm. We’d done 400+ km in 24 hours and at an average speed of 27.5kph! It’s hard to explain the sense of euphoria I felt that next day but I know I want that feeling again!