Twenty years ago they needed a legend… needed a myth… something to help get it off the ground. They said that London’s couriers had started it, drinking after work on a Friday night, daring one another to ride until they hit the water, until they reached the sea. They had cycled all through the night, and then, with the sun rising they had come to the water at Dunwich, 110 miles away on the Suffolk coast.
Like I said… they needed a legend, needed a myth… it’s not true. The guys responsible for the Dunwich Dynamo are not couriers, they never were… I’m proud to count a few of them as friends. They’re a group of guys with their hair starting to thin out on top, with no claim to rock and roll beyond knowing what’s good for the human spirit. They’re the sort of people who seek no credit for their idea, no credit beyond the desire that people enjoy themselves. It was twenty years ago that they created that courier myth… and although it still endures, there’s no need for it any longer… the Dynamo has a legend of its own now. It needs no embellishment.
As the dusk lands you leave London Fields, begin to pick your way out of the city. Don’t go too soon, it’s easier to follow others through those turnings in the night. You ride out, out through the north eastern sticks of the city, out through the trees of Epping Forest… all two thousand of you with the evening just falling and all the night ahead. At that point it’s just a ride, it’s still only a ride, pedalling through the coming grey, the stop-start traffic and receding concrete.
It’s the night, it’s the night that does it… the road comes alive… a dragon, a dragon takes up the road, and if there’s any one thing that any person riding Dunwich will always remember it’s the trail of lights, that flashing red that winds away in front of you, blinking and flickering and glowing as the darkness comes down. They light lanterns… those friends who started it all two decades ago… they go out in front, leave London hours before the rest of us, tiny jam jars with candles inside of them, glowing yellow, glowing white within the night to mark the turnings you should take, the flame guttering as the wind pushes over the rim of the glass, blowing a sound into the silence. It pushes you on… invisible hand style… the wind is always favourable it seems, coming up from the south and blowing you on along the road. In cycling they say that there is no such thing as tailwinds… only headwinds and good days. Riding to Dunwich happens mostly on good days.
We ride… we all ride… all together, you’re never alone on that road, a whole legion of strangers that you’ve got all the right things in common with. You hear their snippets of conversation as the bats flutter frantically above the road, their serrated wings cutting at the moonlight as you hear the conversation. The bicycle… it sure brings out the best in people… “the thing to do is toast the mustard seeds in a dry pan for a few minutes before you get started” … “it’s really interesting the way the road slopes like that”. Cyclists, people riding bicycles… whatever you want to call them… they sure pay attention to the little things, the tiny bits of nonsense that make a life worth living.
The road comes to you, takes you under the crumbling, crestfallen towers of old churches, takes you down through the hills and into the village of Sible Hedingham. Each year the village hall stays open all through the night, the villagers serving up soup and flapjacks… flapjacks… damn, but after Dunwich you don’t want to see another flapjack for a long time. The hall is packed, lycra and waterproofs from wall to wall, some of it crawling inside a sleeping bag, others hunched over a styrofoam cup of soup… you get in the queue, wait your turn, wait your turn… get to the front, the flavours are red or yellow… they call it minestrone or vegetable but the reality is that it just tastes bad, pick your favourite colour and enjoy the warmth on its way down the throat.
After the hall it changes… the sleep comes… comes to take you away, off of the road and into some space above the tarmac… the stars float by above you, tearing the sky apart as they trail like tiny comets back down the road. The other riders they pass you by, packs of them, the road crews… real chain gangs, skintighter than tight… they ride in enfilade, jaws rolling above the handlebars and you hear them coming, the deep rims that dust themselves free of the night like a broom upon a stone step. You hear the hum, the purr of the tyres, and looking down there move your feetyourfeetyourfeet… the wheel ahead and the road rolling under it as the night looms ever onwards in front of you. It takes all kinds… Dunwich draws us all in, every type of rider… each year there’s a man with a large Labrador and an even larger basket… the Labrador curls in the basket and the man drives him through the night, the dog turning round on itself every now and then, sometimes sitting up to yap at the passing bats. You see a girl, a pair of denim shorts and riding a pink Pashley with a wicker basket… her boyfriend puts his hand to her back and pushes her into the incline that’s hanging over us. Let me tell you… if you meet a girl on the Dynamo, or if you ever find one that’ll ride it with you… keep hold of her… she’s special.
It’s the sleep, the sleep is what does it… you don’t get tired in the legs so much as in the head, you start swimming… the lids get heavier and the vision melts. Some of us break from the road, crawl onto a soft lawn of Suffolk and sleep under a tree. I stay awake for the silhouettes… always the silhouettes… I’m a real sucker for the silhouettes, the white moonlight that cuts black shapes from the high stalks of dandelions, cow parsley and bramble thicket… I could look at silhouettes all night long, and as the dawn starts to break and the sky cheers from black to blue it gets better still. You pass out of the final woods, the guard of honour formed by the trees, cracking their branches together like quarter staffs above your head. The countryside opens, opens wide… lets out a yawn and then… and then… there it is, glowing at the end of the road, a giant, warbling ball of red, crimson, warbling and turning like a baby’s mouth screaming at being woken for the new day. The sun screams down the road, flashes by the trail of flickering red so that the chill of the darkness passes and there comes the warmth of the day to takes its place.
Hours of half-light pass slowly, the lanes of Suffolk begin to twist, a central reservation of dusty gravel, kicked up by the tyres ahead so that your eyes sting once with fatigue and twice with the mist of debris that you move through. The day rises, grows bright, and there you see the sun shining through the flowers that line the walls of those roads, high banks of mud cut directly from the hills… cut directly from the hills and lined perfectly with poppies and poppies and poppies, the sun coming through those petals as the flickering lights of the cyclists are switched off and instead we follow that trail of poppies to the sea. The heather of the heath is last of all, that pale purple, the same colour as those burst veins in the legs of the middle-aged cyclist, snaking like Alpine switchbacks about the calf and down into the ankle. You move over the heath, the wind dropping for the coming day, a warm smile resting somewhere just behind your lips.
In time it comes. You reach Dunwich a whole lot faster if you set out simply to ride through the night. You just keep riding, that’s all you have to do, forget about the 110 miles and just ride in the company of friends, or in the company of yourself. The beach comes, shingle pulled from the seabed and thrown back down, crashing over on itself as the sun glints off of rims and reflectors and spokes all thrown down on the beach… a sea of bicycles washed ashore from some better place, the tired limbs of all those cyclists stretched out and resting upon the stones. You take off your clothes, step down to the waters, stones pressing on your soles. You jump in… you have to… you have to jump otherwise you’ll never go past the waist. Cold is a state of mind… it’s not cold, it’s euphoria… and beneath those waves, somewhere just above the shingle with your head beneath the waters… right there all life is waiting for you.