Friday, June 13, 2014

In the Dead of Night

In the dead of night, moonlit country lanes are nothing more than a grey ribbon floating between the silhouetted branches of trees, tied at each end to orange orbs surrounding sleeping villages and towns. In the dead of night only your bike’s wheels whir as conversation dries up, the Garmin registers one mile intervals with ever decreasing frequency and any rattling sound goes increasingly unnoticed.

When you have undertaken a sponsored ride, like London to Brighton, in order to raise money for your students you realise that, in order to get money again, you have to try something bigger the following year. So it was, inspired by the feat of four Dutch riders, I decided on a simple concept: ride from my current home in Walthamstow, London to my hometown of Warwick on a Saturday in March, in one go, overnight, starting at 10pm and arriving in time for breakfast.

Two lights, two bidons, waiting for departure at 10pm in Walthamstow, London.
The response was overwhelming. Not only was enough money raised to help two deserving west London students take part in the college's visit to Uganda, but enough money was also raised to pay sponsorship for a couple of Ugandan students through the charity All Our Children. There was no going back now.

Armed with as many bicycle lights as possible, a backpack full of food, bidons of electrolyte drink, additional layers of clothing, spares, multi-tools and the route pre-loaded onto our Garmin GPS devices, we headed out of Walthamstow along the Lea Bridge Road, navigating the traffic around Clapton and Finsbury Park, ascending Crouch Hill and onto the Archway Road.

At this point, humanity is a strange blur of orange streetlights, red brake lights, white headlights, girls in short skirts and heels, men in their new shirts from River Island, all sinuously moving around me and my long-suffering cycling buddy Jonesy as we moved through Finchley and Barnet. The passing-by of cars at speed is the primary soundtrack between moments of ludicrous singing and chit-chat.

After Barnet, our route takes us down a dark road before reaching a footbridge that lifts us over the A1 Barnet by-pass and suddenly civilisation deserts us at 27km into our ride. Heading up Holmshill Lane, lights cutting weakly through the darkness ahead, I look back to see central London and what looks like the BT Tower – all just a bubble of light in the distance.

Looking forward once more is the reality of the night ahead; a night of weaving through gently undulating country lanes, lit intermittently by the bright moon in the clear March sky.

There is no doubt that the moment you leave the ‘pollution bubble’ of London, the temperature plummets. Every effort up the smallest of climbs is met with a cloud of warm vapour rushing from your mouth with every exhalation of breath on the way into Shenley and then London Colney.

Reaching St Albans around midnight means we are greeted by zig-zagging students, revellers and pensioners making their ways from the pub to home, or from bar to club, or maybe just in search of a kebab shop. Despite their noise, and our incongruity to the rest of the surrounding nightlife, we continue on, kicked out of St Albans at speed and out into the blackness of night once more.

No glamour: At the side of a roundabout near Buckingham at around 3am.
There are no cars now and there is none of the traffic of life. The climbs around the edge of the Chilterns, with their views over towards Luton, are conducted in silence. Legs are hurting by now and there is the need to refuel at some point after another terrifying and chilly decent down a hill into the murkiness, with every dip in the road unsighted and the awful scratching sound of Sasha’s rear wheel bearings becoming louder and louder, despite another service at Caballo earlier that week – once more the mechanic trying his best to resuscitate the damaged rear wheel.

In the near silence, the Garmin GPS device seems to fall silent and stay static. A strange mania rises up in my mind between the hours of 2am and 3am whereby, every time I look down to see the miles covered and the miles remaining, the distance seems not to have moved foward at all. At first this is just mildly concerning, but eventually I begin pressing the scroll button just to check that the battery is still alive.

After a pause on the edge of Buckingham, resting at the side of a roundabout on the bypass, I give myself a silent rebuke for my stupidity and continue on, resolving not to look at my Garmin except on the approach to a road junction to avoid getting lost.

Destroyed: Jonesy looking distressed at the roadside in Buckinghamshire.
Jonesy is a broken man. The endless miles of metronomically tapping out a rhythm on the pedals in the cold of the night have left him almost for dead psychologically. Whereas my demons concern a fear of my chain snapping or of a GPS unit that counts backwards, Jonesy’s demons revolve around hydration and warmth.

Around seven and half hours in, the sky has begun to lighten and over the barren fields the sun is threatening to come up. By the time of reaching the small village of Cropredy, it is peering over the hedgerows as the road starts to climb higher for one last time, building up to the beacon at Burton Dassett with eventually the sunlight flooding across the flat Warwickshire countryside in front of us. The end is literally in sight.

After a small amount of rolling along flat country lanes, overtaking tractors taking hay to the fields for livestock and waving to sensible cyclists emerging for a morning ride, we reach Royal Leamington Spa and then Warwick. We're out of liquid, out of energy gels and glad to back on home turf.

A reward: Sun rising on the approach to Burton Dassett.
Jones is too far gone for any breakfast and limps off to his aunt’s. I ride flat out for the last half a mile, using every last bit of remaining energy to reach my parents’ house where the food is already cooking.

Whilst waiting for breakfast my father tries to show me photos of a recent trip to Malta, but I am completely unable to provide any meaningful response. I eat. I sleep. I eat again. And then I sleep again safe in the knowledge that at least in the dead of this night I won't be rattling down a rural road for eight hours.

For the Strava workout data: http://www.strava.com/activities/121054317

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