John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Dunwich Dynamo

Last night was the 21st "Dunwich Dynamo": this is an overnight cycle ride from east London to Dunwich (on the Suffolk coast). Estimates of the distance vary, but the most common figure is 120 miles (200 km). Other people say that it's "only" 113 miles, but you may also need to allow a bit of extra distance to get to the start point. Technically, the distance gets slightly shorter each year, as the village gradually erodes into the sea. More info at the London School of Cycling and Southwark Cyclists.

The event runs each year, and The Guardian have written about it in their bike blog (2009, 2010, 2011). I've been thinking about doing this for a couple of years, but it would be the longest journey I've ever done; my previous record was 142 km (during my LEJOG attempt). Also, this would basically fill up the whole weekend. Still, this year I decided to give it a go. Based on past experience (i.e. my average touring speed), I predicted that it would take me about 12 hours to cover that distance.

I started cycle touring in 2010, when I went on holiday with Breton Bikes. That trip went well, although my subsequent trips have had a few problems, leading my friends to suggest that I'm cursed.

  • In 2011, I tried to cycle from Land's End to John O'Groats. However, I had to abandon the attempt in Manchester after someone stole my bike.

  • In 2012, I planned to cycle down to Portsmouth and do a lap of the Isle of Wight, then come home via the Southampton WNBR. However, when I emailed a campsite to check for spaces, they asked whether I'd seen the weather forecast; if they're trying to dissuade paying customers, that doesn't bode well! It pissed down with rain almost the whole time, and there were 30mph winds overnight. (On the plus side, my tent handled this very well; I could hear the outside whipping around, but the air was still and calm inside.) I also struggled with the extra weight of the tent, so I took a shortcut and went anti-clockwise between ferry ports on the island.

  • In 2013 (a couple of weeks ago), a group of us set off to cycle from London to Paris. At lunchtime on the first day, my Polar watch (linked to the bike sensors) stopped working, so I couldn't track my speed/distance. The following day, my rear wheel stopped freewheeling, so I had to keep pedalling rather than coasting, and I couldn't slow down unless I braked while pedalling (a bit like the film Speed). I had to take the train ahead to Paris, so I missed half of the trip.

Last weekend (on my way back from LARP), I heard an odd tinkling/rattling noise coming from the bike. My first thought was that I'd broken a spoke, since I was carrying a lot of weight. However, I checked all the spokes (twice!), and they were fine. I eventually realised that one of my bottle cages had snapped, so there was a loose end vibrating against the rest of it whenever I went over a bump in the road. It still worked ok (i.e. it held a bottle), but I replaced it anyway. This was pretty straightforward: I just needed to use a hex key to unscrew the bolts, then swap the cages.
Broken bottle cage Old/new bottle cages
In a case like this, I assume that it's really cumulative damage rather than one huge bump. Anyway, with that sorted out, I hoped that I'd averted the curse for this ride.

In preparation for the ride, I pumped my tyres, packed my panniers, and made some cheese/Marmite sandwiches. (Energy gel sachets? Pfah!) I also listened to the Rocky soundtrack, to help my motivation.

On my way to the start point, I saw a pedibus going over London Bridge:
I wondered whether they were doing the Dunwich Dynamo too; I've heard of people using a Boris Bike and a penny farthing in previous years. However, according to the website those bikes are just hired out by the hour for tours around central London, and it would cost a fortune to keep one out overnight.

A bit further on, I went over a bump in the road, then heard a thump from my bar bag. The idea is that this clips onto my handlebars, so I use it to store valuables (e.g. keys, wallet, phone) and I keep it with me all the time, whereas I might leave the panniers on the bike if I stop at a pub. (This bag is also exactly the right size to fit in Ordnance Survey maps, and I'm sure that's not a coincidence.) There's a fixing plate on one side of the bag, with 4 bolts that hold it in place. 1 of those bolts came out a couple of weeks ago, so that corner was a bit loose, but the other 3 bolts were still sufficient to hold it in place. Unfortunately, 2 more bolts came flying out after that bump, which just left me with 1. The bag stayed in place on the handlebars, but I wasn't at all confident that the sole remaining bolt would be able to support that weight, and I didn't want the bag to drop off while I was travelling at speed.
Broken bar bag
As with the bottle cage, I think that this is the result of cumulative strain rather than that specific bump. I'm not sure how to repair this; even if I had spare bolts, they aren't screwed in, so do I need to hammer them in somehow? I've now emailed Carradice for advice (which in hindsight I should have done as soon as the first bolt failed); it may come down to a choice between duct tape and replacing the bag.

I have a shoulder strap for the bag, which I often use when I'm off the bike. However, dangling it from 1 shoulder isn't practical when riding: the strap will slide down, and I'll wind up with it inside my elbow while the bag is down by my feet. Instead, I put the strap over my head, so that it was resting on the opposite shoulder. Unfortunately, this also meant that it was digging into the side of my neck. I tried to put the bag behind me, but it wouldn't stay there: it slid round to be above my right thigh, grinding the strap against my neck in the process. After a couple of attempts, I accepted that I'd have to leave it there, unless I wanted to ride 1-handed and hold the bag up. This led to the next snag: every time my right leg came up, I was "kneeing" the bag up too, then the bag would drop as I pushed the pedal back down. So, this caused a few physical problems:
  • My right leg was doing twice as much work as my left leg.

  • I was getting a sore patch against my lower ribcage, where the bag kept colliding with it.

  • I was getting a sore neck, both from the strap rubbing and from supporting the bag's weight when my leg was down.

  • I was getting a stiff back, since the bag stopped me from leaning forward in my normal cycling position.

If this had happened on my daily commute then it would be inconvenient, but not disastrous. I'd still be able to get home ok, and I could have transferred my items into other panniers for this trip. Since it happened at the start of a long ride, that's a bit more unfortunate, and I wondered at this point whether I should head back home. However, I don't like giving up, and I'm wary of "The Blerch" (as mentioned in the Oatmeal comic about long distance running); am I just seizing an excuse because it's easier to be lazy? So, I pressed on. There are a few bike shops along the route who stay open late specifically for this ride and I hoped that one of them might be able to help me.

The plan was for everyone to assemble outside the Pub on the Park. This is next to London Fields (a park), and when I arrived I was impressed by the atmosphere: lots of people were sitting around with bikes next to them, and some people had tents/BBQs. After I wandered around for a few minutes, I then realised that this was actually nothing to do with the Dunwich Dynamo; it was just a group of people who'd gone to the park to enjoy the warm weather, and some of them had happened to cycle there.

Looking ahead to the return journey, there are various ways to get back from Dunwich. Apparently a few people simply turn around and cycle back to London, but that was a bit too ambitious for me. Other people take the train (typically from Ipswich or Darsham). Southwark Cyclists organised a coach/lorry service: the idea is that they had removal vans set up to transport the bikes, while the riders would travel in a coach, and the two vehicles would come back to London in convoy. Someone else advertised a similar service via the Facebook group, which apparently included beer to drink on the way back. I paid £30 to Southwark Cyclists for their coach/lorry service, and they sent me an email with a barcode. I printed out the email and took it with me; when I arrived outside the pub, I joined a queue to exchange this printout for an actual ticket. I'm not sure why they did it this way, and it did introduce an extra delay. (I was queuing for 15 minutes.)

Meanwhile, I also needed to know the route. Several people asked for gpx files on Facebook, but the standard response was "There isn't one, because this isn't an official organised ride." I'm paraphrasing, but the idea is that this event is similar to Critical Mass (where people just turn up and go), rather than the BHF London to Brighton bike ride (where everyone wears race numbers and there are marshals to point the way). This approach means that it's free of charge to participate in the event. However, if this logic is correct then I trust nobody will be offended when I say that I found it very disorganised. Apparently there are people who go out on the day to recce the proposed route and check for any last minute problems (e.g. road closures). They then print out a route sheet, and sell these for £1 each, so the Facebook advice was that we should support their work by paying for the route rather than downloading a map in advance. Also, although I now have a satnav (a Memory Map device), the battery wouldn't last all night, so I wouldn't want to rely solely on a gpx file. Normally I plug the satnav into my hub dynamo, but that won't work while the front light is turned on.

Anyway, I can easily afford £1, and I'm happy to support the people who plan this ride. However, I couldn't find the person who was actually selling these route sheets. There were several volunteers wearing red "Southwark Cyclists" baseball caps, but none of them knew where the route person was either. Whenever I asked, I heard variants on a theme: "Yeah, they were around earlier, but I don't know where they are now." While I looked, riders kept leaving, and I eventually found a lady selling the route sheets. She didn't have one of the baseball caps on (possibly because she's from the London School of Cycling rather than from Southwark Cyclists) so there was nothing to identify her as being in this role. She said that I should follow all the red lights, but by this point there wasn't a crowd to follow. There were a few cyclists going past in groups of 2-3, but I didn't know whether they were anything to do with the Dynamo, or whether they were just random Hackney cyclists. If the latter, I didn't want to stalk them and wind up in the wrong place. So, I turned to the route.

The route sheet didn't actually include a map (i.e. a picture). One side had general information (e.g. "don't drop litter") and the other side had a list of directions.
Route sheet
It's split into 4 sections, so that you can fold it up and read it more easily. Breton Bikes gave me a similar route sheet when I was in Brittany, and I prepared my own sheets for my LEJOG attempt.

Normally I'd put this through the clear section on top of my bar bag. I couldn't do that last night, because the bag wasn't on my handlebars, so I had to hold it instead. (That's why it looks a bit scruffy now.) Also, my Polar watch is still in for repair, so I don't know how far I've gone between landmarks. However, that's just my problem, and nothing to do with the people who produced the route sheet.

The bigger problem is that the route wasn't accurate. In particular, it referred to a road by the wrong name!
Section of route sheet
According to that, I should follow Mare Street under the bridge, then turn right onto Narrow Way. However, Narrow Way doesn't actually exist, so I wasted a lot of time trying to find it. I'd deliberately left my London A-Z at home to cut down on weight (some people online even advocated removing unused pannier racks), so I couldn't refer to that. After about 15 minutes, I turned to my satnav, since I have a digital copy of the London A-Z on there. It doesn't have an index, but I zoomed in so that I could read the road names, then I looked for the next road on the route sheet (Lower Clapton Road) and worked out my own way to get there. So, it took me 30 minutes to cover the first mile of the route:
The red line is where I was supposed to go, and the blue line is where I actually went. (The road I was supposed to take is also called Mare Street, like the road I was leaving; the main road changes name to Amhurst Road.) Also, the route says "pass 'No Entry except cycles'". Looking on Google StreetView, the road curves right, and there's a side road straight ahead with that sign. So, does that instruction mean "Go past that sign while following the road" or "Turn left off the main road onto the side road"? It should be the latter, but that's not clear (or at least not clear to me), and I only know it by studying the map.

The ride isn't a race, so I could take as long as I liked; my only real deadline was that the last coach would leave at 13:00 on Sunday afternoon. However, this put me an hour behind my own schedule already (it was now 22:10), which didn't bode well. There were no other Dynamo cyclists in sight, so I wasn't getting the camaraderie of a group ride. Again, I considered giving up. If I'm riding alone and planning my own route, why do it at night, or on this particular night?

As far as I could tell, here are the advantages of a night ride:
  • It's unusual.

  • I could avoid the baking heat.

  • There might be less traffic on the roads.

And here are the disadvantages:
  • I can't see as far ahead, even with my lights on (e.g. to avoid potholes or identify landmarks).

  • I can't read the route unless I stop. Even if I had my Polar watch, the screen isn't normally illuminated, so I'd either need to ride one-handed (to push the "light" button) while looking away from the road to track my distance or I'd need to keep stopping.

  • More drunk people around.

I'd already paid out for my coach ticket home, and that money wasn't refundable. However, I treated that as a "sunk cost": that money was gone, and I wouldn't get it back whether I continued or not, so it shouldn't affect my decision.

I decided to press on. Now that I was on the route, hopefully I'd catch up with some of the other riders. Once I got onto the A104 it became a lot easier to follow the route, so I think it would be useful to print a map of the start section. When I went past a pub, a guy outside cheered; presumably he'd already seen everyone else go past ahead of me. That was nice, and I wouldn't have got that reaction if I'd just been doing this solo.

About 19 km into the route (near Epping), there's a 24 hour garage, so I suspected that people would stop there to "refuel" (i.e. buying food/drink). By the time I arrived there was 1 other Dynamo cyclist riding behind me. There were a group of 2-3 cyclists who left just as I arrived, and another group of 3 cyclists who looked as if they were going to stay for a while. At this point I decided to turn back. More precisely, I continued a bit further (just so that I could get outside the M25) then turned around. If these problems had cropped up outside London then I probably would have carried on, since it would be easier to go forward than back, but at Epping it was still feasible to get home. I gave the other Dynamo cyclist my coach ticket (he'd already made arrangements, but he might be able to pass it to someone else). I made it to Victoria just in time to catch the 02:00 train, and got back home at about 02:45. Overall, I cycled about 72 km.

I mentioned some of this on Facebook, and another rider said: "Part of the fun of the event is finding a route sheet. Any more organised and peoples expectations would become too high. It's fine as it is." I think that he and I have different ideas about what's fun. I can understand the idea of dealing with unforeseen problems as part of the adventure, e.g. plotting a new route on the fly if a road is closed. However, the key word there is "unforeseen". I don't know when the route was finalised, but they clearly had enough time to type it up and print it out, so they could have put it online at the same time. I'd be happy to make a donation via PayPal, or drop some cash into a collection tin at the start, but I don't want to play hide and seek with an unidentifiable non-organiser. I realise that nobody pays to take part, so everyone who helps out is a volunteer, but equally I'd be quite happy to print out extra copies of the route sheet if that would be helpful.

The route sheet reminds me of the CTC's information pack for LEJOG. They describe a route, and I used that as a starting point, but I definitely wouldn't try to navigate the whole way just relying on that. I used that to create my own route sheet, so that I could annotate it ("pass through village X") and clarify any ambiguous points ("make a sharp left turn as soon as you cross over the bridge"). Similarly, I'll hang onto this sheet and use it in my own future plans, but I don't think it's good enough on its own.

As it stands, I think that the ride suffers from mixed messages:
  • "It's not a race, so go at your own pace."

  • "We won't give out the route in advance, because it isn't an official organised event."

  • "If you get left behind, you're screwed."

I've mentioned the British Cycle Quest before: this is effectively a scavenger hunt, to visit various locations by bike. There are a few BCQ checkpoints between London and Dunwich, but I doubt that I would have spotted them in the dark. So, I think I'll have another go at this route sometime, but I'll do it in daylight and plan it out on my own. Without any crowds, there shouldn't be any trouble bringing my bike back on the train afterwards. I doubt that I'll try the "real" version again, but it is a popular event, so hopefully my experiences were atypical. If anyone else wants to try it then good luck to you, but make sure that you go in with your eyes open.
Tags: cycling

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