July 31st, 2014
The Dunwich Dynamo – A Gran Fondo Story
To describe the Dunwich Dynamo as a group ride would be to sell it short. It’s more than that, but with no official organiser, no entry fee and no reason for its existence beyond being a “beautiful madness”, the English language is poorly equipped to define such an event. How do you properly describe what takes place each year on the Saturday night closest to July’s full-moon, with 2,000 riders making a moonlit pilgrimage from London to the coastal hamlet of Dunwich?
At root, the Dynamo is a kind of anarcho-gran-fondo for the masses, not just the mamils, the racers or the hardcore sportivistes. Covering 180 km, those groups are represented en masse, but so are other, less easily pigeon-holed interest groups, like elderly couples on tandems, messengers on fixies, families on hybrids and, bizarrely, gym bunnies on outdoor elliptical trainers. If any event epitomized the spirit of the Strava Gran Fondo series – of deviating from the normal routine and going on an adventure – the Dunwich Dynamo is it, and has been since it started back in the early 1990’s.
The riders meet on Saturday evening in London Fields, a small park in Hackney, just to the east of the the capital’s financial centre. People start to depart when the feeling takes them, but most leave it till at least 8pm to make the most of the atmosphere at the start. Bemused hipsters ask what’s going on and why?
“Why?” we wonder. Why not?
The route out from London takes riders along the route of this year’s Tour de France stage three in reverse, along the congested Lea Bridge Road and through Epping Forest to North Weald. Journalist Andy McGrath has just returned from the Tour, which he was covering for Rouleur magazine.
It was a bit of a culture shock from the Tour de France, but a very pleasant one”, he says. “The overwhelming camaraderie sweeps you along, that sense that you’re all in this together: not just you and your mates, but the hundreds or thousands doing the ride.
He rode to Dunwich in a mixed group of riders, including a recent convert to his mantra of ‘two wheels good': “One of my mates has just gotten into cycling; she rode a Kona single speed. They all really enjoyed it, though we were all knackered by the end. I think the brief low period was the middle of the night: it’s two in the morning, the body is still getting used to the fact it won’t be getting any sleep till Dunwich, it was still dark, and we were still several hours off the finish.”
The route itself is fantastic – quiet, easy to navigate roads, and flat enough to be accessible to anyone brave enough to ride through the night, with plenty of stops along the way, mostly laid on by entrepreneurial locals. We stopped three times at pubs that had stayed open late to cater for the huge number of riders passing their doors. Our final pub stop came after 130km in Needham Market, just outside Ipswich: we stopped to check directions, it was 2.30am and we had around 50km to go; the pub’s landlady came running over to us to ask if we wanted a drink. We were in no rush to get to the beach before the sun came up, so we obliged her with pints of locally brewed beer. The conversations we had with the drunken patrons of that pub kept us laughing for the final push into the dawn.
McGrath was impressed with the non-commercial aspect of the event. “I was surprised by the good-natured response once we got out of London too: plenty of pubs staying open late and offering encouragement to weary riders. I really liked how it hasn’t cashed in on popularity and maintains the homespun, DIY charm. Also, I didn’t see a single crash.”
Dani Fejer rode the Dunwich Dynamo for the first time in 2013 having never ridden more than 30 miles in one go. “I did it on a cheap single speed bike and found it relatively easy considering my lack of training”, she says, before admitting, “although we stopped a lot and did it at a relaxed pace.”
That’s one of the beauties of the Dynamo – there’s no point pushing on and getting there too early, before the cafe opens and before the first day light comes to warm cold bones.
We got to the pebble beach in Dunwich around 5am. The cafe had a queue snaking out into the car park, where we found another Andy, first timer Andy Matthews making coffee on his camp stove (he’d driven up the previous day, leaving his car at the finish – a good move).
I’m still buzzing from the whole thing”, he told us. “The trail of red lights blinking for miles through the misty, winding lanes is a sight I’ll never forget – eery and hypnotic. Everyone seemed so happy to be caught up in this strange, beautiful madness – it had the most incredible atmosphere of any ride I’ve ever been on, organised or otherwise.
That’s a view echoed by Dani Fejer: “I heard about it through a friend who was a casual Sunday rider kind of guy. His friend’s had done it previously and it sounded amazing – riding with a few hundred strangers through the night to some tiny, unheard of beach, all unorganised and with no sign up fee to worry about. It sounded like the best adventure.”
This year’s Fejer’s companions on the ride were mostly runners from the collective Run Dem Crew. “They’ve branched out and started doing Sunday rides to build up to the Dynamo”, she explains. “We were a group of seriously mixed abilities – the furthest we’d ridden as a group before hand was 60 miles to Brighton.”
Like many of us, Fejer found herself drawn back to Dunwich by the atmosphere of the ride: “I’ve looked into other rides and races was more drawn to the Dynamo for its free spirit. And especially all of the people who come together to help make it possible – like the pubs along the way, the candles at junctions and people cheering outside their houses. It gives you good feelings about the human race!”
The only formally organised element of the Dunwich Dynamo are the coaches that are laid on by Southwark Cyclists to take riders and bikes back to London. My group was too late in planning to join the ride to book tickets for the coach, so at 6am we hopped back on our bikes and rode the 50km back to Ipswich to take the train to London. Shortly after 10am we arrived back in the city, blinking into the daylight after sleeping all the way home. How strange it felt to think that 13 hours ago we were setting out on a great overnight adventure to the seaside. The Dunwich Dynamo is one of the best and most surreal experiences you can have on a bicycle, and even a few days later, having caught up on sleep, it’s an experience I’m struggling to put into words – and that’s a very good thing.
As a part of the Gran Fondo challenge, each month on the Strava blog, we’ll feature photos, quotes, videos and Gran Testimonies from athletes. We’ll also be giving away one jersey each month. We invite you to share your story from the saddle.