Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Prudential Ride London 2015

We seem to have done a lot this year - as one 'challenge' gets ticked off there's another looming. We did the Ride London event last year and almost drowned - then there was the constant problem of punctures every few miles. This year I was prepared; five spare inner tubes.

With the Bruges trip and Dunwich Dynamo we'd got enough miles in the legs - I knew we would be okay with the distance, however we had a couple of new accomplices this year - Barry the Bell and Dave the Damp. Barry has done quite a few challenges of his own - not least Lands End to John O Groats and being a retired 'man of leisure', has the time to spend training. Dave the Damp is fairly new to this though. He only started riding about a year ago and this will be his first properly long ride.

Barry the Bell, Dave the Damp?? - who are these people, what do the nicknames mean?

Barry is a bellringer - we know him from way back, and he's a regular on the Wednesday night beer rides. Dave has a building business, specialising in damp proofing (amongst other things) - he's been featured on Grand Designs and has worked for some famous clients, including Roman Abramovitch. He's a Villa supporter so he must be a decent chap?

We set off for London on Saturday morning, planning to detour to the ExCel Centre on the way to pick up our numbers and rider details. Traffic was okay and we found ourselves in a side street close to the ExCel with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately we had parked on the 'wrong side', we had to cross the railway and then traverse the ExCel Centre from one side to the other - Dave had been involved in building this place - but he had no clue when it came to finding the bit we needed. To make matters worse there was a conference taking place, 'Imagine Jesus', apparently something associated with Jehovah's Witnesses - the place was jammed and it took us a while to pick our way through the crowds.
Once we'd found the registration section it was plain sailing, we were through quite quickly and then back on the road to our hotel in Ilford. Barry the Bell was in a separate hotel, but only a mile or so further along the road - we all met up for an evening meal, last minute carb-loading and a few beers to settle the nerves. The rooms were okay - at least this year they had the foresight to leave a couple of fans to keep us cool overnight.

I was up at 5.00 for a breakfast of porridge and one of those instant pasta pots - except I knocked the porridge over in the darkness and had to spend 10 minutes cleaning up the mess. By 6.00am I was outside with my bike just checking it was okay after the journey down on the roof of Gary's car - everything seemed okay. Already there were people setting for off the start point at the Olympic Park. By 6.30 the four of us were on our way.

The organisation and logistical management at the Olympic Park is impressive - from every direction there is a constant flow of cyclists, all herded to a specific 'wave' start point, colour co-ordinated and timed to ensure that over 25,000 cyclists can arrive and depart in a totally controlled fashion. Every two minutes another 200 or so cyclists begin the 100 mile journey to the finish on the Mall.

I was Black Zone, wave H starting at 8.21am - the other three were Blue Zone, wave H starting two minutes before. We split up, having first arranged to meet a couple of miles up the road - then its an hour of standing around, gradually shuffling ever nearer to the off. Finally the start is in sight, there's a man playing music over a PA system and we are encouraged to countdown to our departure - 10...9...8.....7.....  Then we're off! - There's an adrenaline rush for the first few hundred yards as everyone sprints to the front - I hang back, happy to take it easy and make sure I don't miss the others waiting for me somewhere up the road.

After a couple of miles I hear a shout and see Gary, Baz and Dave on the other side of the dual carriageway - they clamber over the barrier and we're together as a group. We enjoy the steady, if pacey ride through central London, spotting the 'sites' as we go. With an event like this the roads are inevitably smothered with cyclists, all travelling at different speeds, some riding alone, some in groups that cover the width of the road. The trick is to be aware of what's in front and also what might be coming up behind - some people shout a warning as they approach from behind, 'On your right'....'Coming through'..... others simply whizz past. Any sudden change of direction to avoid someone in front has an equal and sometimes unfortunate consequence for those travelling behind. Soon there is evidence of people 'coming together' - cyclists sprawled out on the road with others avoiding them and causing further mayhem. There are a few people covered in blankets with ambulance crew in attendance, a bit worrying but thankfully we avoided all of that and made fast progress along fairly flat and smooth roads.

It was sunny and hot, so much different to the floods of last year - as we pass through Richmond Park I remembered the spot where, last year, the drain covers had been blown out and there was a fountain of sewage spurting a yard into the air. We stop at one of the regular hubs along the route, top up our bidons and grab a few bananas. Then we're off again heading towards the mid-section - the hills.

Last year the two biggest climbs, Leith Hill and Box Hill were closed due to the weather conditions - so we were looking forward to becoming aquainted. The first challenge was Newlands Corner a longish rise but with a fairly easy incline for the most part - but kicking up sharply for the last half mile or so - there were plenty of people walking up the last part. On the way up there was an accident just in front of me, I saw a girl catapulted from here bike and landing awkwardly on the verge - she was unconscious lying face down but with a number of riders gathered around - I stopped at the first steward and informed him - he knew already and help was on its way - hope she was ok. At the top we managed to get split up - I carried on not realising that the other three had stopped at the hub. Before I realised what had happened I was a few miles down the road. I spoke to Gary on the phone and told him I'd wait at the next water stop. Before long I was there and I pulled in and filled my bidon. I stood around for 40 minutes and still no sign of them - I tried calling and texting but couldn't get through to Gaz - by now I could feel my muscles were stiffening up, getting cooler - I decided to press on - Leith Hill was next and I figured I'd just take it easy and let them catch up. When we got close to the Hill we were stopped by stewards, apparently there'd been an accident on Leith Hill and the route was closed - we had to make a detour and then rejoin the main route before Box Hill. This took 8 miles out of the course. But before long we were on the climb up Box Hill - I'd read about this, one of the most iconic cycle climbs in the UK - but not, as it turned out, particularly difficult. Still plenty of people walking up though and I saw someone throwing up at the roadside. Reaching the summit there's a café and exhibition, it's a National Trust site; there were hundreds of cyclists stopped and taking a rest, I paused for ten minutes or so but still no sign of the others and I couldn't contact Gary.

I carried on down the other side and up another short hill before a long, fast descent - there was a bad crash here and we were brought to a standing halt again - ambulances were in attendance and I saw two men both unconscious at the roadside. Scary stuff. We got going again, the worst of the ride is now over - its the fast roads back to the city now. I stopped at a hub in Esher and managed to get through to Gary - thankfully they weren't too far behind and within about 15 minutes we were joined again - about 20 miles to go to the finish.

The crowds were fantastic all day - every town we went through had enthusiastic people beating the barriers and shouting encouragement. It really was the closest experience to actually taking part in a big race. Soon we were back in the City - through Trafalgar Square and onto the Mall - there was the finish line at the end - we joined arms and crossed the line together, giving a final punch into the air at the last second. We had done it.

We met up with the girls, took photos and collected our medals and goodie bags - then the walk up to Marble Arch and across to Park Lane where we'd got the transport waiting. We loaded the bikes and set off as quick as possible - deciding to stop for a celebratory drink on the way home. We found a nice pub - The Fishery - or similar, close to Hemel Hempstead - a couple of pints of cold Peroni and a  bowl of chips and we were feeling great!

There is some bad news though - I just read that someone died on Leith Hill, that's what caused it to be closed just before we due to go up. Very sad.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Dunwich Dynamo - Done....

After the nightmare of the Bruges expedition our next challenge arrived with barely a chance for the wounds to heal. I’d muttered to Gary that I’d probably give it a miss – I was down and defeated after Bruges and didn’t feel strong enough to tackle another 100+ ride. My back is still sore, mentally I feel weak – I just wanted to have a rest, look into what I can do to help my back problem and ease off on the cycling for a while. But we’d booked accommodation in Southwold after the ride and I decided I might as well have a go – couldn’t be any worse than Bruges.
The Dunwich Dynamo is a 120 mile ride through the night from Hackney in London to the lost city of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. The story goes that, one night in the pub, some London bike couriers decided it would be good to ride through some countryside – they ended up watching the sunrise on the Suffolk coast and the Dynamo was born. It has been running since the early 90s I think, every year on the Saturday closest to full moon in July. Thousands of cyclists gather at London Fields and gradually set off for Dunwich – there’s no organisation; no support; no logical reason to do it. It’s a beautiful thing.

We loaded the car and drove down late on Saturday afternoon – our plan was to arrive at the ‘gathering’ point at around 7.00 and see what happened. When we arrived the streets and park were already teaming with cycles and cyclists of every description and denomination. The atmosphere was more like a pop festival than a cycle ride, the pub was rammed with queues for drinks spilling out onto the pavement. Already there were people drifting off in dribs and drabs, under the blue bridge and disappearing out of sight, like they’d passed into another dimension. Difficult to be accurate with numbers – as people set off more seem to arrive – I heard someone say that there were about 5000 riders this year – I wouldn’t dispute that.

One of the nicest things about the DD is it’s total lack of organisation – no slick advertising campaign, no merchandise, no emails, no letters, nobody to question and no one to complain to. The whole thing works on tradition and word of mouth – you’re pretty much on your own on this one.

As we were hanging round deciding what to do a man with a camera asked us for an interview for a documentary he is making about the ride – this wasn’t a TV or film crew, just a lone individual, spending his time recording the event and the riders. Turned out that he’s done the ride four times anyway, this year his plan was to capture as many interviews and footage as he could. With that out of the way we ambled towards the unofficial ‘start line’ – the road from the pub to the blue bridge. And we were off.

The first miles are very urban – stop-start-stop-start – traffic lights, roundabouts, pelican crossings, lots of traffic – we picked our way through the masses, always it seemed, travelling a little quicker than those in front of us. Before long we are out of the tentacles of London and into the Essex countryside, the sun fades and the ride starts proper with twinkling lights fading into the distance and trees lurking in distinctively thrilling shapes. No need to worry about navigation on this ride – just follow the constant stream of riders and look out for the occasional jam-jar with a candle in it to indicate a turn off. We were going well, riding at a steady high pace and passing many, many riders. Every pub had a buzzing swarm of cyclists gathered outside eager for the nectar inside – we joined in at one pub, 11.00ish, sitting outside at a wooden table amazed at the neverending passage of blinking white and red lights. Apparently we pass through some beautiful countryside on this route – possibly – we couldn’t see much further than the few yards in front of us. We passed a few ‘pop-up’ stalls, set up by enterprising folk making a few quid on the side selling, drinks, food, innertubes, to support flagging riders. We even spotted a bike shop – open at about 3.30am! Somewhere or other we came across a firestation – turned over to a burger-bar with the firemen selling their wares for charity – the place is packed, there are queues for burgers from every direction, the grassy verges outside the station are strewn with bikes – there a number of riders curled up asleep – it all seems totally wacky.

In the dark I see a shape zoom past that I believe to be Gary – I chase after him, struggling to keep up as he gradually edges further into the gloomy murk. For some miles I pedal hard hoping to catch him – I pass a couple of pubs with crowds of cyclists strewn around, there are locals having a barbie, drinking and shouting encouragement as we pass – but still no sign of Gary?

After probably 10 miles I stop and try to reach him on the mobile – I cross to the opposite side of the road to make it easier to set off again afterwards – He picks up but then the signal is lost – next second my phone rings and I can see its Gary calling – I answer, at the same time turning to look across the road – there, underneath the lamppost is Gary calling me! – Turns out he wasn’t in front of me after all – he’d been trying to catch up with me!

The thing about the Dunwich Dynamo is gloriously without point, and times almost surreal. All of life on wheels is represented; club riders whooshing off into the distance, couples on tourers and tandems, their lives bundled up into their weighty panniers, pals from the pub out for a lark whose jocularity fades as dawn approaches… The question from querulous bystanders is ‘what is it for’ – a difficult question to answer really, but ‘for fun’ sums it up – or even ‘absolutely nothing’ But bemusement isn’t the only reaction, it is amazing how many people are still up in the early hours, clapping and cheering as we pass. In some cases we could hear them but not see them.

Suddenly its light again – we’ve cycled from London – we’re almost at the coast – My back is aching and Gary’s back wheel sounds like a cement mixer – but we’re okay. Another few miles and we’ve made it. We arrive at Dunwich and walk onto the beach. Cycles and cyclists are strewn about on the pebbles, some riders are fast asleep as if on expensive mattresses. The café is open and doing a roaring trade – its warm, there’s laughter and chit-chat waffling around, people are posing for celebratory selfies – I take off my shoes and take a paddle in the sea – there are a few people going the whole hog, totally stripped and swimming. We wander to the pub – already packed solid and serving breakfasts for £20 a pop. We opt for a couple of pints and a bag of crisps - its 5.00am.

We chat to a few people, drink another pint and then start thinking about carrying on our journey to meet with the girls and friends in Southwold. Strangely I don’t feel tired? – The adrenaline rush has left me elated, I feel high, The prospect of another 10 miles to Southwold doesn’t worry me – although I question the sanity of quite a number of riders who are setting off to cycle back to London! – One way is good enough for us.

Having ‘ticked off’ the Dynamo I’m amused by a description of the event from one of the websites….. it’s a traditional event, something like Christmas but with less eating and more travelling by bike.

This blog is out of sync - sorry - can't keep up with everything thats going on. Next up though, The Prudential Ride London 2015!