'In England they ask, 'is it for charity'?
In Belgium, Flanders and la France profonde, they say 'what beautiful madness'.'
- London School of Cycling Dunwich Dynamo XXVI instructions
It is what The Independent refers to as 'a wonderfully pointless trip to a place that barely exists'. It is the Dunwich Dynamo.
Clocking in at anywhere between 112 and 120 miles, depending on who you ask (we measured 118.4), the Dunwich Dynamo is British eccentricity at its very best. For the past 26 years, on the closest Saturday to the July full moon, an ever increasing number of slightly batty bikers has congregated at Hackney's London Fields for an overnight odyssey to the Suffolk coast.
Folklore surrounding the event - now attended by two to three thousand - throws up several explanations as to how it started. Was it a few cycling couriers who had a couple of beers one evening and decided to cycle to the coast for an early morning swim? Or was it Patrick Field's trips to see friends in the Essex and Suffolk areas while the roads were quiet that got the wheels in motion? The mystery only adds to the magic.
The Dunwich Dynamo is for everyone and every bike; in 2009 it was completed on a penny farthing, in 2011 on a Boris bike, two of our 2018 team rode Bromptons (kudos to Ian and Anthony). It is 118 miles, though, so it's worth doing some preparation to give yourself the best chance of making it to the beach with enough in the tank to enjoy a celebratory swim.
A drone video filmed in 2017 gave a fresh perspective of not-so-fresh riders
We also have evidence to suggest that enjoyment of the ride increases proportionally to the number of gears on one's bike - do with that what you will!
For the Beeline team, preparation largely meant continuing with cycling commutes and throwing in some longer rides (45, 55 and 80 miles) to get the knees, thighs and calves used to the idea of keeping going for a while. We also threw in some poorly maintained canal paths and tracks through fields on the basis that, if we could manage that, cycling on tarmac would be a breeze!
Apart from that, the best preparation is enthusiastic eating for the last 48 hours and a long sleep the night before.
What to take
If it's your first time on the Dynamo it can be pretty hard to figure out exactly what to take and what definitely needs to be left behind. We would say that the bare necessities are:
- some spare inner tubes and a smattering of puncture repair kits across the group
- good lights! Riding in the dark, dark isn't much fun
- padded cycling shorts. Perhaps the single most important item on the list
- cash. The food along the route is delicious but they won't be taking Amex, and you won't pass a cash point either. We'd say that £40 is more than enough to satisfy any hunger and quench any thirst
- two water bottles. There are places to fill them up along the way but you might find that it's a bit of a stretch between them
- speedos. The water is pretty fine down in Dunwich and there is nothing more restorative for achy muscles than a cooling dip in salty water
- snacks. Don't go too overboard as there are plenty of places to refuel with everything from bacon butties, to burgers, to brownies and macaroni cheese available along the route and you'll want to save some room for those. Flapjacks and bananas are perennial favourites for some good energy and we'd also recommend an emergency bag of sweets to lift the spirits and energy levels over those never-ending final miles
- an extra layer. Yes, it's the middle of the summer...but this is England! Check the weather forecast but we think that it's pretty much always worth bring a jumper or jacket as you'll be so much happier when night falls
- a fresh t-shirt. Almost as restorative as the fry up at the end is swapping out the t-shirt or jersey you rode in for a fresh one. Definitely worth the extra few grams in the saddle bag!
- a power bank. Your phone and lights will definitely run out before you do. Bring a power pack for some pocket recharging
Leave behind locks, tupperware boxes, goggles, that fourth box of cereal bars, the tenth banana, and pets.
It's also definitely worth a pound for the London School of Cycling official directions sheet. You'll probably be able to get all the way to Dunwich by following the red tail lights in front of you but the sheet is a good back-up and is a nice momento if nothing else.
Fresh-faced and fully carb-loaded, the Beeline gang assembled at London Fields at around 7pm. Was something about to happen?
We waited with nervous anticipation for Mark, our co-founder and ride leader, to declare that the ride was underway and - the last of the stragglers in their saddles - we set off just after 8.
The first few miles out to Epping were largely uneventful. The hoards of Dynamoers and the London traffic kept proceedings to a very calm pace and Beeliners took the opportunity to get to know each other a little better. Incredulous pedestrians interrupted once in a while to ask, 'but where are you all going?', nodding at our response as though they had heard of Dunwich, and the drunk Saturday-night crowd lent out of the back of taxis to wish us 'luck for whatever we were doing'. Motorists waited so long at zebra crossings that they might as well have popped their feet on their dashboards and got stuck into a crossword puzzle or two.
Briefly stopping in a Shell forecourt to guzzle down some of Anthony's delicious homemade flapjacks, the light faded as we cycled through Epping Forest and it really began to feel like we were on an adventure. We got into our rhythms and lopped off 25 miles or so before stopping in Moreton for our first proper pit-stop at The Nag's Head, and then again for some caffeine at The Black Lion.
The next few hours are something of a blur, comprising mainly of the constant whirr of wheels, the blinking of lights and the odd 'twitt-twoo' of the owls in the trees. Bats buzzed our helmets a couple of times but apart from that and a couple of surprisingly steep climbs (it's easy to be surprised when you can't see far beyond your front wheel) there is nothing too much to report. We basked in the stillness of the night and the rush of the wind through the wheat fields and mulled over important questions like the future of craft beer and the correct ratios of flapjack ingredients.
Every so often, we came across supportive locals who - stood in their dressing gowns - cheered us on at key junctions shouts of 'well done' and 'that way'. Gardens propped up signs and candles to guide us onwards and some locals sat outside their houses offering free water. The spirit of the Dynamo!
And then, out of the darkness, sprung the Sudbury Fire Station. This stop is the largest 'feed station' of the ride and is hosted by firemen and women who grill burgers to raise money for the Firefighter's Charity. It would be rude, of course, not to support such a worthy cause so we all tucked into burgers and coffees and energy drinks with reckless abandon.
Post Sudbury Fire Station came the 'bosh out' part of the ride. The initial thrill of cycling in the dark had passed and, despite being past halfway, it was beginning to dawn on us all that we still had a good distance to cover. We got our heads down and pedalled. And slowly, surely, Suffolk woke up: farmers got their combines rolling, the owls fell into a silent slumber, and the Sun rose behind the clouds to herald the day.
Around 5.30am, just as the Sun fully lit the sky, we reassembled at Needham Lakes - the spot for double espressos and bacon butties. Mark also took the risk of downing his 39p energy drink from a corner shop in London Fields. Would it give him the energy he needed to get to Dunwich or sink him? Fortunately it was the former, and it was a quick stop there just to rally the troops and refill water bottles and then we were on our way, stopping only at the Brandeston Village Hall to wolf down some of their delicious macaroni, sausage rolls and brownies, before the beach.
There must be some psychological theory that proves that the final x% of a journey, no matter the distance, is tough. And the final 20 miles were tough. Perhaps this was down to overly optimistic expectations of where we were; perhaps due to some overly optimistic homemade signs ('Dunwich 12 miles!' was placed devastatingly far away from the actual 12 mile mark 6 miles later). In any case, we ploughed on aided fifty-fifty by the cheerful delirium of a crazy sleepless night and the sugar in Emily's ASDA sweet bag.
We rattled through small villages and counted down the Dunwich signs; 8, then 5, then 2 and a half and...finally...just after 8am...we spotted the sea. Relief and elation quietly overwhelmed each member of our weary team and cured every niggle of the preceeding few hours. We clambered out of our saddles and basked in the crunch of the shingle beneath our feet. We had made it!
There was no 'finish line', no medal, no official time, no winner and no Heather Small belting 'Proud' out of loudspeakers. But there was a pleasantly warm, if a little rough, North Sea, and a Full English Breakfast, and enough of a thrill at having conquered the course to turn the 'never again's of mile 107 into 'next year ...'s.
Back in the event's infancy, Peter Conchie from The Independent was one of the 272 finishers of the 1997 edition. Tony Blair was the fresh-faced newly elected Prime Minister, Oasis sat at the top of the charts, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone had just hit the shelves, and it cost £19.50 to take part in the Dunwich Dynamo. Apart from a tick at the checkpoints and a cup of tea at the beach, what did one get for their £19.50, he asked Patrick Field.
"Well, you get tea, breakfast, a swim in the sea....In the evening, you know that you can cycle to the Suffolk coast. You may never do it again, but you know that you could. That's the idea."