After five minutes trying to convince a fellow worker in the buildings carpark that, yes, I was going to ride 200km to the coast overnight straight after work and yes, I was doing it alone, yes, on fixed, I set off into the Friday night traffic at about 6:30.
I was on my trusty/crappy steel Lemond fixie and in winter commuting mode it had all the attributes for the trip: mudguards, just enough brakes, dynamo lights front and back. I had a carradice stuffed full of warm clothes and bars, buns and caffeine gels – I knew where I was going there was no food available at night. The caffeine gels a recent find – SIS ran a sale on them recently and I tried some. Generally they taste fecking disgusting but the caffeine is a useful chisel in the Audax toolbox.
The first part of the route was my commute back towards Walthamstow from the city. It’s pretty much hard wired now: A brief life-threatening 150 years on the Aldgate and A12, then diving North up Brick Lane. On Friday night this is a random experience with pedestrians and workers on their way out for the evening, chatting to friends and generally ignoring the fact it’s actually an A road.
It’s pitch black already. The total amount of natural light I am going to get on this ride is nil. The forecast is good for riding though – heavy cloud keeping the heat in and the temperature is meant to stay over 10. And a light tail wind the whole way to the coast.
Turn right towards Victoria park, then over the Lee at Olympic park, past a busy Lee valley velodrome (the six day’s been on there all week) and then onto the Lea Bridge Road.
It’s Friday night so the road is rammed. I am not doing my usual child pick up ride, so I don’t need to make time, to cut any corners or take any risks. Still I am moving a lot faster than anyone else here. I catch little glimpses of East London life as I pass each car. Bored taxi drivers. Women putting on makeup and using the phone and driving. Every fifth car has the unmistakeable stink of skunk seeping out the doors. Clearly no one is bothered by the threat of prosecution – but all the more reason to be careful on the bike. After a couple of the usual chaotic overtaking moves by the in-out-whatever style of pizza boys I am over the A406 roundabout and onto the ‘fast escape’ route out of North London towards North Weald Basset.
It’s still all cars and lights and people wanting to get home now, and I have to remind myself to stay relaxed here. It’s busy all the way through Epping Forest, into Epping itself and it’s only when you get over the roundabout and onto the backroad to Moreton that I can breath and relax. Every North London rider will know that feeling, at that exact spot – thank god I have made it out of London alive again.
About half my route is on the Dunwich Dynamo track, so a lot of people will know the other feeling you get on the road to Moreton – Feck it’s dark. And usually the real temperature is felt here, away from the city. Tonight there is a very dense cloud cover. You can tell where all the satellite towns are by the orange discs in the sky. And it’s warm. I’m in shorts and a medium weight long-sleeved top and they’ll do me all night. I have a kilo and a half of extra warmth in the carradice, including a full down jacket and an emergency bivvy. I’ve been too cold at 3am to risk not taking these things when out on a ride like this.
I contemplated a thermos of coffee, but that’s really heavy and, as I’ll be stopping at The Compasses in Littely Green for a meal, I know I can get at least one warm drink tonight. The plan to is make the Sudbury 24hr McDonalds.
I’ve said on the yacf forum that I’ll be there for 8 or 8:30 but by the time I duck off the Dunmow road and into the narrow lands of Essex I am already running late. I’m riding well enough, but I obviously didn’t pay attention to the distance to the pub – it’s over 60k, not the 50 I had in my head.
In the end I arrive at The Compasses at 9. I walk in, glasses instantly steamed, and Tomsk tells me they waited for a while and hands me my small shiny medal. I don’t mind missing the presentation, I really should have set off earlier. Next year!
I order some food. There is a Gluten free option and, no surprises for a pub, it’s gammon egg and chips, one of my least favourite meals in the universe. Needs must! I grab a cider and sit down for an hour and a half of chat about bikes and routes and what-did-you-do-this-year and what-are-you-planning-the-next. Proper bike-nerd fun.
It’s essential time this. Most of our time with each other is either on a forum, riding beside or chatting at controls – it’s not often I just get to sit and talk to others with this strange hobby.
Ten thirty, time to go. Stepping outside I expect a chill and to have to reach for a jacket, but it’s still warm. I take a few turns out into the road, switch on the Garmin and wonder how long the next 140km will take. I have texted the family ahead and they’ll be welcoming me (if that’s the right phrase for opening the door to a tired, sweaty cyclist) sometime between five and six.
And so, no avoiding it now, riding through the night.
A few early animal sightings – a deer, rabbits, an owl and – a first – a badger tumbles across the road. It’s huge, slow, looking like a polar bear rolling through snow in the white of my headlight.
It’s never silent at night on a bike, there’s always the rush of wind over your ears, but it’s as close as can be. The only sensations are those peculiar to riding fixed – am I riding the bike or is the bike riding me? The wonderful sensation of being utterly in tune with the gear, and then having to muscle yourself up a small rise.
There are no cars now. One an hour up to midnight then, after that, nothing at all as I inch across Essex towards Suffolk. This has a lot to do with my route, which I have assembled on RidemyGPS to take the ride up to 210km. A ‘normal’ ride to the coast is about 185km (the Dynamo is not a 200!) so I find myself travelling in a high arc instead to a straight line to Sudbury, taking small roads that I might have ridden before. At night I can’t tell.
Around 1am I find myself coming into Sudbury from the north (!) and, as I hit yet another T junction my GPS suddenly starts to refuse to navigate my route. Turn-off, turn-on, Wait. ‘Recalculating’ sticks on 0%.
Sigh. This fecking thing (Touring Plus) has been driving me nuts all year. This is the third ride it has died on me (Hareward 300, PBP and now). Then it goes all right for a while and I think it’s sorted itself out. Technology seldom sorts itself out, have you noticed? I guess it’s the card or the software update. Whatever. I resist the urge to throw it on the ground and jump all over it.
This is one thing that makes night riding hard. You’re tired, things take a little longer to work out, your spirits stay down for just a bit longer. I did a ‘what do you have’ run down to keep myself calm. What I had was a GPS that showed me where I was and was still recording. I had a phone too with mapping on it. After a good few minutes looking at the Garmin I figured out that I was actually only about 2kn from the Sudbury 24 McDonalds. Ah! I could ride there, have a coffee and collect my thoughts.
Except, as I took the roundabout, all I could see of the 24hr McDonalds was an unlit sign. Not 24 hours then after all. Oh bother.
I pulled up behind a hedge and took my first breather since leaving The Compasses. Still warm, I didn’t feel the usual drop in core temperature so I was able to eat my one of two roll in comfort.
Momentarily I thought of bailing out. I did a search on the phone for a ‘prem’. No, hold on – I was right on the Dunwich route, a ride I have done 5 (or is it six?) times. There was zero traffic, I could probably string together the ride from memory on B roads. In fact, having a quick zoom around on my phone, there was a very clear route from Subdury to Needham Market, the Wickham Market and onto Aldeburgh via Snape.
The bummer of this is that I would be leaving my qualifying GPS track and I would invalidate my 200. But realistically there was no way I could remember my 200 route. My first attempt at an RRTY would be dead in the water. Double sigh.
Oh well. At least I could get to the coast and have the nice weekend with my family that waited for me there. It would still be a long ride. Overnight. Alone. On a fixed. I had nothing to be ashamed of!
My around the fields route to Sudbury meant I was on 120km, so only 80k or so miles to the coast – three and half hours riding, maybe 4 outside as I was slowing now. There wouldn’t be much in the way of stopping as there was nothing to stop for, so I would still be hitting my 5am target, as long as I didn’t get lost.
Having figured all this out, and loading my pockets with a couple of bars and that caffeine gel, I set off on the B roads towards the coast.
It all goes really well, I don’t get lost, in fact it’s easy on the empty roads, following the big signs. Around 2am I get an attack of the dozies and wonder if I need to find a ‘hotel’ but the caffeine gel does the magic here and I can keep myself above the danger zone of sleepy inattention.
There’s no traffic at all for three hours. I can ride just to the left of the centre line, out of the crap on the side of the road. I start taking roundabouts to the right, just because I can. The rises begin to hurt the legs a bit more and, without the luxury of gears, there’s nothing for it but to grunt up on my 44×16. It’s comfortable though, I am riding well inside the bonk zone. I don’t bother to track my speed, or average, there’s little point on a fixed – you know that you will doing somewhere between 25 and 28kph on the flat.
The only pressing lack is water. I take fifteen minutes in Monks Eleigh, then 15 more again in Needham Market cruising around looking for a tap. Nada. Well, without going around the back of properties at 4am – not a very nice thing to be doing. It’s quite pleasant never the less, just ambling around these towns that normally I would have me on guard against random acts of driving.
You can see those meanders on my track as little red knots. This does terrible things to my average speed too, but then I wasn’t really thinking about how the ride would look on Strava.
Another proper stop at Wickham Market to have my second roll. I am over the dozies, but there’s no denying a hot drink would be good about now, it’s still not cold and I am, surprisngly, wearing the same clothes as I left Aldgate in, bare shins and all. Things could be a lot worse. I think back to a Dynamo – was it about 2008 – which was seven hours of continual heavy rain. It was a fast ride because stopping would chill you instantly. I swore it off for a couple of years after that – and in my absence it became a significantly more popular and pleasant experience.
Onto the bike again and this time I know I will be riding to Aldeburgh – it’s not that far now. I am hoping there might be a faint flush of dawn over the sea. The sun isn’t meant to rise until after seven, but maybe there will be a blush of light? It would be nice to have something other than utter darkness.
Over the A12, through Campsea Ashe and then a decision to make. My original ride had me striking down to Orford before doubling back to Snape and Aldeburgh to make the 210km. Should I bother? I looked up at the sky. Still that dense clod of grey cloud above me. There wasn’t going to be any light over Orford Ness. I’d blown my 200 anyway, so I turned left and onto the sandy-sided road to Blaxhall and Snape. It’s the same thing on the Dynamo – you know you are near the end when you see sand beside the road.
Finally at Snape I found a tap. I had had empty bottles for over two hours. That would have been very difficult on a hot day. I was certainly thirsty, but not in trouble. I took a good long drink and filled one bottle and popped a Nunns tab in it.
One of those crazy late-night thoughts ran through my head ‘You know you’re an Audax rider when a Gin, tonic and Nunn’s seems like a good idea.’
It’s 5am now and I am overtaken my a couple of white vans as I take the A road into Aldeburgh. It’s a truly horrible road by day, so 5am is a good time to be on it. Soon enough I have taken the rollers up to the golf course and am dropping down onto the main street.
I ride to the seaward edge of town. What of this blush of dawn? Nothing there. Blackness rinsed with the hiss of small waves on gravel. Ten and half a hours of uniform dark. Still, no rain, no headwind, no cold. In England that’s pretty remarkable in itself. I say a quick thank you to the weather gods and turn back to find the rental my family are in.
An earlier txt had directed me to a small cottage. There were two families staying there, my one in ‘the room with the red book in the window’.
Aldeburgh is free of phone signal (probably, knowing the demographic of the people who live there, a deliberate exclusion of 21C life) so I found myself throwing pebbles at a cottage window at 5:30 am. I threw a whole brace and stopped just short of heaving a rock through the window. No reaction. Eventually flicking the exposure light at full beam across the curtains did the trick and I was in.
That cup of tea… heaven.
I had started the ride wondering about the wisdom of it. It was classic Audaxery. Like Bravery, but with a good dose of stupidity in it. In the end it was a comfortable ride with no particular challenges but also no particular highlights. I felt good that I could reel off a 200 fixed without any bother, and also good to have a night of solo riding under my belt – one in the bank for rule 5a. Rule 5a? Another post, but it’s my variation ‘Gentleman the fuck up’.
It would have been really good to get the 2 points and start that RRTY for the year, but hey, I’d had a nice meal with excellent company on the way and a tiny, shiny medal that showed me I had indulged in sufficient Audaxery to get an SR for the year.