I cycle from my home in West Norwood to Crystal Palace Park. About ten minutes, most of it uphill. My legs never enjoy the uphill thing, but this time they somehow intuit that this is not a one-off, merely the prelude to a long night of activity. They chide me gently.
“Are you sure about this?”
“Too late now,” I reply. “We’re committed. Also, shut up.”
I think about dementia.
I think about cycling 100km through the night.
Mostly I think about breakfast, eight or so hours away.
Sign-in is rapid, if vaguely chaotic. Mind you, there are a lot of people knocking about the place.
They’ve run out of safety pins, so I ride without a number on my chest. Rebel.
I have in my panniers a bicycle pump, a large bag of Skittles, a spanner, some wet wipes, several maple-syrup-flavoured multigrain bars, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a bottle of water, a multitool, a first aid kit, cheese sandwiches, three tyre levers, and a banana.
It will turn out that the only things I really need out of that lot are the Skittles.
I have eschewed the puncture repair kit. Punctures and I don’t get along.
That’s a lie. Punctures love me, because I am the one person in the world who can be guaranteed to make them bigger and better at their job. Given that their job is to expel air from an inflated tube, what is good for them is bad for me. Much simpler, should the worst happen, to change the inner tube, regardless of the championship-quality swearing this will involve.
We join about fifty other riders at the start line and sweep out of Crystal Palace Park.
I am riding with my brother Step, whose idea this was. I have been kept going through my training by the thought that if anything bad happens I can blame him.
‘Training’ has consisted of doing more cycling than I usually would (up from about 20 miles a week to 60 or so), and by adding progressively longer rides. The longest ride I have done was 51 miles. This one is 62.5.
I fear the unknown, and those extra eleven and a half miles loom large in my easily-frightened subconscious, like the monster that I am still convinced lurked in the lavatory of my childhood, waiting until I flushed before it emerged with a roar and ripped the flesh off my eleven-year-old bones, then feasted with avid glee on my still-beating heart.
I may have over-estimated the difficulty of those last eleven and a half miles, but I doubt it.
We’ve been told to watch out for the black and yellow ‘Nightrider’ signs. I spot the first one, a left turn that takes us back past the south side of the park towards the wilds of Sydenham.
About thirty riders ahead of us miss it. They continue blithely towards West Wickham, the M25, and, eventually, Eastbourne, where they watch the sun rise while wondering what happened to all the other riders and why nobody’s ever told them that London has beaches.
Blackheath. A cyclist ahead of us goes the wrong way, changes direction at the last moment without looking and nearly perishes under the wheels of a Toyota Yaris.
And we wonder why cyclists have a bad name.
We stop briefly by the funfair for half a banana and a breather. Blackheath is windy. Blackheath is always windy. A group of fellow Nightriders pass us. One of them is playing 80s pop on a speaker strapped to his back. Fun idea or irritating punchmagnet? Only time will tell.
South London has been good. Hardly any hills and barely a heckle. I’d harboured fears of having to fend off aggressively drunken Rotherhithers hell bent on taking a couple of cyclists with them as they staggered towards a premature demise under the wheels of a night bus. But no. We’ve had nothing more than the odd ironic cheer and an ‘allez!’ or two. We reach our first official break without drama. But with traffic. Lots of it. London on a Saturday night. Awash with cars and alcohol. And cyclists.
We’re stuck in traffic. At half past one on a Sunday morning, just north of Tower Bridge. Stuck in bloody traffic. This isn’t what I signed up for.
A cab driver calls across.
“Why are you cycling round London at this time of night?”
Step, ever combative, replies.
“Why are you driving a cab round London at this time of night?”
I fear reprisals.
A silence, then:
“For charity, is it?”
The cabbie leans across and passes us a fiver. The traffic begins to move. There is a flurry of activity from the back of the cab. The cabbie’s fare is flapping a fiver at him. We just manage to make the exchange before we all have to move on. The cabbie has one last thing to say.
“I can’t stand cyclists!”
London, ladies and gentlemen. London.
Wapping to Canary Wharf. The least famous of the cobbled Classics.
Speaker Guy is back. Irritating punchmagnet.
Canary Wharf is weird. I’ve never been there before. Cycling through it at night is like being on the set of a futuristic 1980s dystopian sci-fi movie. Looming skyscrapers, empty office buildings, strange networks of walkways. Concrete and glass and steel. I fully expect to be confronted by an angry cyborg at any moment. Or a tsunami. Maybe both.
We make our escape and head for the midway break at the Lee Valley Velodrome.
Through the backstreets of Bow. A lull. No traffic, industrial estates, not much in the way of clubs and bars, but a few people who appear recently to have been inside them.
A BMW, cruising slowly, rear tinted windows partially open to reveal a backseat of youths. Not just any old youths, either. The kind of youths that a pair of wheezy middle-aged cyclists would do well to cross the continent to avoid, whatever the hour. At 2.30am in East London the choices are stark: hyperspace, invisibility cloak or furious but surreptitious pedalling.
We choose the latter.
Fifty yards further along, another youth, in no way inebriated no not at all no definitely not.
“Hey, gonna take a drugs test, Neil Armstrong?”
Tempted though we are to make his acquaintance, we have an appointment to meet, and we hurry along again. Shame. Seemed like a nice young man.
A small statistic.
My highest speed on this ride, attained down a steep hill in Hampstead, while adopting a feeble imitation of an ‘aero tuck’ and pedalling like billy-o, was 34.9mph, a shade over the speed Bradley Wiggins maintained for an hour when he took to the boards at Lee Valley Velodrome just over fifteen hours after we stopped there for a cuppa and a sarnie.
Yes I know: professional Tour-de-France-and-multiple-Gold-medal-winning elite athlete with £££s of technology, a rigorous full-time training regime, dedicated backup staff, and a once-in-a-generation capacity for single-minded focus vs occasional trundler out for a fundraising pootle on a 7-gear hybrid, fuelled by cashew nuts and a banana.
But still. The man is a freak.
A couple, walking along a residential North London road, talk quietly. He pulls away, body language defensive.
“There’s no need to be like that about it.”
He’s wounded, not angry. She walks on. He falls in step five paces behind her.
Overtired, I think. And they’re not alone.
We’ve been going for four and half hours now. Deduct an hour or so for breaks and it’s still several hours longer than a sane person spends cycling late on a Saturday night.
Two climbs loom.
I’ve got better at climbs. Not faster, just better. Better in the sense that I can now climb a moderate hill on my bike and not feel as if I’ve earned the rest of the year off; better in the sense that hills that six months ago would have elicited a mirthless bark of laughter and a ‘Really? Me? Cycle up that?’ I now regard as mere foothills; better in the sense that I am now more likely to go forwards up a hill than backwards or sideways.
And proper steep will always do me in.
Inky-palmed dawn has been hinting at an appearance, and the earliest birds have been a-twitter, for half an hour now. My mind is on other things.
Pedal. Pedal. Pedal. Pedal.
Up the hill to Ally Pally.
I make it sound so easy.
Breather. Photos. Drink.
Down the hill to Crouch End. Wheeeeeeee.
Up the hill to Highgate.
Pedal. Pedal. Pedal. Pedal.
Cycling is easier when you know where you’re going, how far there is to go.
“Ok, it’s ten minutes to x, and then another five to y, and just ten more to z. And then w is just along there. I can do that.”
I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know how far there is to go. All I know is that there is hill in front of me. And more hill.
I pass someone who has decided to get off and walk. His bike looks as if it cost about £3k.
A bit further on, a sturdy-looking chap is pedalling faster than I could ever manage, but because of his gearing he’s making as much progress as a beetle tugging an oil tanker up Mont Ventoux. It’s a comical sight and I feel I have earned the right to laugh at him ever so slightly, though not audibly, as I zoom past him.
Well, it feels like zooming.
It is now dawn proper. The birds of North London are giving it large and then some, and I feel able to appreciate it as we coast through leafy Highgate to the next break point.
North London is bigger than I think or want. It is also peaceful, beautiful and cyclistempty.
Hello Baker Street. I could hop on a number 2 bus and it would take me all the way home.
There is no number 2 bus.
Pedal. Pedal. Pedal. Pedal.
There is a moment on a Sunday morning when the people going home after a night out rub shoulders with those who have, for whatever reason, risen early and are striding out for the day.
It’s not difficult to distinguish one from the other.
A girl, pallor personified, hangs insensible from the shoulder of her beau. They have the air of a couple who have partied not wisely, but well.
Another girl, on the other side of the road. Mini skirt, sheer white stockings, blue and white wig. She talks urgently and quietly. She might be talking through a micro-receiver to The Master Ship, coordinating the first wave of attacks. She might be talking to herself. I favour the latter.
Two pedestrians wait politely to cross the road as a dozen of our cycling colleagues ignore a red light. We wait, let them cross, and apologise. I have never felt more British.
We can see Waterloo Bridge. Cyclists have stopped and are looking at the view.
“Quick stop there or do we not do that kind of thing because we live here?”
Step gives me a look.
But when we see what they’re looking at we both stop.
It’s a magic moment worthy of Perry Como himself, the magic only intensified and enhanced by rigorous exercise and lack of sleep.
Fifty hot air balloons? Cool.
Fifty hot air balloons viewed from Waterloo Bridge as morning breaks over the Thames? Strikingly beautiful.
Fifty hot air balloons viewed from Waterloo Bridge as morning breaks over the Thames after you’ve cycled around London through the night and are close to physical collapse? Well then.
We’ve had a longish break at the Imperial War Museum. Too long, I realise as I try to force my protesting right leg back over the saddle and into action.
“You sure about this?”
“I refer the honourable leg to the answer I gave some hours ago.”
19km to go. Child’s play.
I’ve cycled up Fountain Drive dozens of times. The first time, it took me about a fortnight.
Today I don’t have that kind of time on my hands. I’ve got a breakfast to get to.
* * * * * *
I reached my ‘target’, but we all know that there is no real target, so please consider giving what you can afford. Thanks.