Ready, set, cycle
LIKE so many legendary human endeavours, it began in a pub. A Fridaynight get-together of London bicycle couriers decided to ride to the east coast of England — all at once.
That was in 1993 and the Dunwich Dynamo has since become a British cycling institution. About 2000 participants turn up each year for the 190km overnight ride to Dunwich in Suffolk, East Anglia, a town that has been largely abandoned due to coastal erosion.
But here’s the thing — it just happens. There’s no entry fee, no insurance and no (official) T-shirt.
I turn up at Pub on the Park in the East End London suburb of Hackney at 7.30 on the appointed night. The scene is more like a mass migration than any bike race I’ve entered. Every tribe of the wheel has sent representatives. Grungy single-speed hipster types are in abundance, but so are shaven and whippet-thin road racers, wobbly beginners, beardy cyclo-tourists, sit-upand-beg tweed riders and middle-aged men in Lycra (like me). Yet we all share a pre-ride ritual — we order one or more pints of beer, then announce, ‘‘See you on the beach!’’
Shortly after 8pm, the first riders split from the pint-quaffing congregation that has taken over the street outside the pub. There’s no signal, just an implicit agreement that it would be bad form to go earlier. The chorus of cycling shoes clicking into pedals sounds like a flock of noisy starlings and so we begin, in waves, heading north through passageways and a church graveyard.
We pass a mosque and shops selling second-hand tyres as streets broaden into suburban roads. A sprint across a dauntingly broad roundabout brings us to the manicured wilderness of Epping Forest.
The pace lifts and I rediscover a familiar face. It’s Feargal from the bike-hire shop I’d visited a few hours earlier. He’s an urbane professional from Dublin who’s flown over for the event. His speed and fluid style give substance to his claims of doing a casual 120km through the Wicklow Mountains whenever he gets a chance.
He’s a good wheel to follow and amusing, too, as he declares in his refined brogue, ‘‘ These urban English have no idea how to descend, always on the feckin’ brakes.’’
Tonight, urban England ends at Epping Forest and soon we are winding along farm lanes through the Roding villages of Essex. Among ploughed fields, with London just a glow on the horizon, an Elizabethan woodenbeamed pub stands timelessly, as it did before Cromwell, the Spanish Armada and the Luftwaffe. Except tonight it has yielded to squadrons of Lycra-wearing invaders who have consumed the pub’s inventory of chocolate within minutes. A few rustic regulars stare, vastly puzzled, from dim corners.
Doing about 45km/h, I draft behind a tandem down roads no wider than a driveway. High hedges whistle past. The stoker, pedalling on the back, is strong, with a barrel-like torso, and I express my appreciation. ‘‘You guys are great . . . it’s like following a furniture truck.’’
After the midnight food stop, which is like a cross between the Tour de France and Tom Brown’s schooldays, and after the roadworks that prompt a good-natured mass outbreak of cyclocross, I experience real English gentility. I am in an impromptu bunch of six that has found a kind of magic. There’s an unspoken choreography between us, each rider moving to the front in proper order to do a hard turn on the pedals before retreating, recovering and relaunching.
Our chain gang is a well-oiled machine and we go for kilometres in a powerful trance until, around a corner, there’s a pop-up food stand offering ‘‘barbecued sausage and cup of tea’’ for just over a quid. Almost in unison the Englishmen stop and cry, ‘‘Don’t mind if we do!’’
I’m left pedalling alone as drizzle starts. It’s coming up to 3am, the darkest of hours. Feargal is long gone, which disappoints me. I’d like to have heard his opinion of the eager sausage-eaters.
Dawn comes an hour later near Framlingham, in what the ride guide describes as the ‘ ‘ Suffolk prairies’’. Everything is in a blue fog and I reckon I can almost smell the sea. I’ve hooked up with a bunch headed by a wiry Scotsman on a tiny bike. ‘‘Aye, go for it . . . we’re nearly there!’’ he says, the charge of war in his voice. And so we sprint for the pebbles and the brownish waves of Dunwich Beach, where a cafe is serving up what else but eggs and chips and cuppas.
A participant cycles through