Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Dunwich Dynamo, veganised

London Fields pre-Dynamo

There's a hill on my journey home from work I've never been able to cycle up. I can cycle down it no problem at 7.20am each morning, but up just never happens. Instead I grit my teeth and bear it, pushing my bike on foot.

Cycling is something I turned to after becoming vegan- I believe I wouldn't have chosen one without the other. Twelve months after becoming vegan in January 2012, this year I wanted to do something else that both scared and intrigued me, and that I knew would change my lifestyle for the better. When my boyfriend, K, first mentioned doing the Dunwich Dynamo, I hadn't even completed the seven mile one-way commute to my work. 120 miles overnight seemed like an impossible, all-out ludicrous thing to attempt. I wouldn't even say target, because in January, it just didn't seem do-able.

I didn't decide to do the Dunwich Dynamo until 7th June, when I read this article by the Guardian, and realised I wanted to achieve something from my new choices. Against people saying vegan diets are unsustainable, can't be healthy, and also don't lend themselves to an active lifestyle, I wanted to commit myself to something I would never have given a realistic thought to a few years ago, powered on vegan food.

The Dynamo, or Dun Run, takes riders from London Fields to Dunwich, in Suffolk, overnight in the weekend closest to a full moon in July. It's not a race. There's Brompton Bikes, penny farthings, even one year a Boris bike. There's a man with two spaniels that travel in the front basket of his bicycle, teenagers, couriers, an older man with an amazing billowing white shirt (the sight of which got me through an awful few miles at 4am) and, of course, a lot of lycra. I did it vegan.

On Saturday 20th July, at about 8.30pm, I set out to cycle 120 miles on the Dunwich Dynamo. I cycled with K, who has been cycling every day to work for two years and before that was obsessed with BMX. With us came two of our best mates who had completed the Dun Run a few times before- B, who works for a cycling charity, and J, who works in a bike shop. We were also joined by M, who works with J. Basically, a lot of very proficient riders plus me.

The thing that is impossible to downplay is how magic the Dunwich Dynamo is. It is enshrined in urban myths involving a group of couriers that set out for the sea one Saturday night and ended up in Dunwich. In reality, it was probably organised from the start, but no-one really thinks about that as you begin to set out. The blogs I read in preparation said villagers put out jam jars with tea lights to light up the route on the way. Again, in reality, this is the meticulous organisation of the mysterious organisers- members of the Southwark Cyclists; people no-one seems to know the specific names of but who everyone talks about in a hushed respect basically reserved for no-one else in the dry, cynical zone of cyclist humour.

(Me, plus a lot of flapjack...)

I made a lot of mistakes. The first major mistake I made was packing too much. I rode with panniers for the first time and literally could not lift my bike out of my flat when we set off to go. Pretty sure that the cafes and pubs we'd find on the way wouldn't be vegan-focused, I'd made 24 flapjacks to share around and two rounds of peanut butter and jam and marmite sandwiches for me and my boyfriend. Me and K also packed two litres of water between us. The flapjacks alone felt like a brick.

As we approached Hackney I began to see the roads fill up with hundreds of cyclists. More cyclists than I'd ever seen before in my life. The air was heavy from too long without rain. I was only when we rolled up to London Fields that I could appreciate just what we were heading out with: over two thousand cyclists making last minute checks, meeting friends, first pints of the night. There's no forms, race numbers, official starting point or time. So the spectacle of this word-of-mouth tradition is something to behold in itself.

B gave us each a nip of whiskey and we attached blue neon lights she'd found to our wheels so we could spot each other in the pitch black. These turned out to be so useful later on, when you couldn't even tell who was cycling next to you let alone behind.

We started out on what many people say is the worst part of the journey, through London Fields, up through Clapton and in to Walthamstow. I loved this part. Traffic at an absolute standstill as more than a thousand cyclists passed though streets we usually struggle to pick our way through. Buses letting twenty cyclists go at a time, van drivers furious. I told B I wished this was how rush hour was every day. I was already finding the load on my bike heavy but I decided to ignore it.

It got dark as we entered Epping Forest, which really throws you in at the deep end of the route. I soon realised if I had gone with just K, we wouldn't have been well equipped enough. We needed someone with knowledge of the route before and J's bike's lamp to light up the road. If we hadn't ridden with this we might have fallen in one of the pot holes like I sadly saw and heard other cyclists fall in to. I believe the Dun Run is harder than it has been billed in the past. I do not think you could safely do it alone without the experience of someone else that had done it before.

My other major mistake, and I mean this is one of those massive, so ridiculous mistakes that it went from serious to funny within a matter of seconds, is that I didn't realise I could change the gears on my bike. It became apparent somewhere near Epping that I had been commuting in the highest gear for four months. This is why I couldn't do hills, and this is why my legs had developed crazy muscles nothing like my boyfriend's. Yep, vegan muscles. Deal.

We arrived at our first stop, twenty miles in, and cycled up to the second pub in the village. I had a whiskey and coke, the others a mix of larger and Guinness. We started on the flapjack to try and lighten my bike. I couldn't believe we were only 20 miles in.

We didn't stay long at the pub and set off the minute everyone was ready. It was at this time the reality of what we were doing set in. The darkness took over. J stayed behind us as much as possible to light the way, but without J's light I couldn't see the two metres ahead of me that I had cycled in to. People overtook us only to stop ahead to say they were lost, and that they had been following us. The jam jars I read about lit our way through the endless stream of villages that ensued. Thank god for the organisers, I thought, as I spotted a lone jam jar while the others tried to work out where we were on the directions. The journey went on for what felt like eternity. Finally, we turned down a lane where a woman was telling us it was the wrong way. It was in fact the half way pit stop.

It was a surreal sight as we got off our bikes to come down the hill to the hall. It must have been four hundred cyclists laid out on the ground in a deserted village. The food and coffee ran out while we were there, the tea as we were leaving, as a man with a megaphone apologised. I ate a sandwich and tried to catch five minutes' sleep. K said I was being very quiet and asked me what was wrong, at 54 miles in to the trip and two in the morning, I think I was beginning to see just how hard the road ahead would be.

We pressed on, now passing the same people over and over, the headwind coming into its own entity. Damn headwind I would say as we approached the base of another hill, I hate you so much. Truly, go to hell. I got caught talking to the wind like this quite a few times- but I also heard the same swearing from the others we passed, choosing profanities to fuel their up-hill struggles.

Apart from swearing, it's the tiny red lights out in front that literally tail off for miles into the distance that power you through. Practically, you don't want to lose sight of them, and they also show you what's ahead. When they are at eye height, you know it's time to curse another hill. When they dip beneath the road it's time to stop peddling.

We cycled on through to daylight. This was another favourite part- I saw a light I hadn't seen since being 16 at camp outs and talking straight to sunrise. It's just before the sun is up and it lingers around the ditches and hedgerows of the fields, heavy on the horizon that now stretched out in front of us.

On we went, for another thirty miles. Now I was peddling for the promise of coffee and coffee alone. It was five in the morning when I think my problems started. I found myself having to push up every hill, while even flat lanes, the type I couldn't wait to hit when we were in Essex, now became virtually impossible. I'd had enough sugar, I'd had enough water, but it felt like I was getting near my breaking point. As someone who has never done anything as intense as the Dun Run, (I skipped every sports day) I had no idea where my will to succeed had to be balanced out by a sensible decision to stop. I didn't want to let anyone else down that I was cycling with, but I was beginning to feel really, really sick. We cycled through Needham market, 82 miles in, past a huge queue for coffee as we decided to stop at somewhere quieter instead of wasting time waiting for a drink.

Here, K pointed out that his house was only 3 miles down a country track off the route. As we hasn't booked coaches or trains in time we were set to hit Dunwich at 120 miles in, before turning back along the same route to this point, thirty miles away, to stay at K' s house, in other words 150 miles for us, in total. The rain set in, the headwind continued, and I carried on peddling, my stomach now churning with nausea as the others rode easily ahead. I did something I would never do on my commute: I hoped there was something wrong with my bike. Anything to give a reason to the physical wall I had hit that didn't seem possible.

It was just after six in the morning on a drizzling, freezing cold dual carriage way coming out of Needham Market, K suddenly asked me to cycle in front of him. "I just want to check something on your bike" he told me, as I overtook him beneath an underpass. It was only a few seconds before I heard those magic words: "You've got a flat."

I tried to shout for J, B and M, but they were way ahead, and at that point I decided it was better for us to make up the ground later. I didn't want them to feel like they had to stop. K and I cycled to the side of a road to fix the puncture. It didn't take long, but after ten minutes J and B came back up the road. It was half six in the morning by now, and I'd spent the last hour or so trying not to think about how much longer I'd be sat on a saddle that day. While our friends approached our curb-side spot, K told me I'd been cycling flat out, for what must have been the last two hours or so, with two full panniers and a flat tyre. No wonder I could barely stand.

B skidded to a stop in front of my deconstructed bike. "Guys, it's another seventy miles."

As we hadn't sorted transport home, the 35 miles plus the remaining 35 we still had to go, meant at least another 8 hours on bikes. There was no sun, the beach would be wet, miserable and endlessly grey. B said the one thing that actually hadn't crossed my mind since starting the Dun Run: she thought we should stop.

The minute she suggested it I realised it might be the only sensible thing to do. K's house was still only five miles away, and with it the promise of wholly exotic things like a kettle, a shower, a sofa. So we did something I would regret only a few hours later, we turned back to find that country lane, and cycled on to K's house.

At 90 miles in, that was the end of my Dun Run for 2013- incomplete and infuriatingly so, and not through anyone's fault but mine. But even on the meandering cycle to K's house, I realised I would be back on the ride next year, and I would know exactly what I was in for.

Before we set out from London Fields, B told me the Dun Run was like how she imagined childbirth- painful, a total ordeal, but shrouded in romanticism for the 364 days a year you aren't cycling it. At 2am on Sunday morning I'd rued the day that lost port's name had ever been mentioned to me. But by 11am the same day, I was ready for 2014.

I got back to London on Monday night, and Tuesday morning I cycled to work. I sped down the hill I suffered walking up for four months, switching into a higher gear for the descent. At 5.20pm I began the ascent. I put my bike in a low gear, worked up some speed before the approach, and took it steady. I managed it easily, barely breaking a sweat in the summer heat.

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