Tuesday, 12 June 2012

I'm a NightRider (asleep in the day)

[With apologies to AC/DC for nicking and sampling their song title]

So, first some history: way back in the winter months, I signed up for the Nightrider cycle ride. The ride is billed as "an exciting 100km moonlit ride past London’s iconic landmarks", but as soon as I had a start time of 00.35 from Alexandra Palace confirmed, it seemed more like it would be a terrifying 100km moonlit ride past the majority of London’s beered-up clubbers.

But still, it was for a good cause - namely the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. If my 15-month old daughter, Freya, had been born back in the 1960s – when I was, thank you for pointing that out - she would probably not have made it to her first birthday. The fact that the NHS has had to establish adult CF units in recent years, though, is testament to the hard work that the likes of the CF Trust undertake. Life expectancy is now 41 years and rising...

And so, six months later, and with the best-intentioned training plan well and truly out thrown out of a very high window, myself and my neighbour and cycling buddy Pete found ourselves donning our lycra, turning on our lights, and joining 3000 other cyclists for the ride of a nighttime!

Of course, they don’t set you all off from the same place in one go. There were two start and finish points – Crystal and Alexandra Palaces on opposite sides of London – with riders set off in semi-orderly groups of 75. This was probably dangerous enough to be honest. Not many people have cycled with more than a couple of mates at a time, and to suddenly find yourself pedalling along with 74 other people in hi-vis tops in the dark – never mind barrelling down a hill towards a crossroads and a set of lights in the first drop down from the start at Ally Pally – tends to concentrate the mind somewhat.

My cycling buddy, Pete, had kindly informed me that Highgate Hill was the highest part of London and therefore going to be an interesting part of the ride. What he hadn’t told me was that Highgate Hill was beside Alexandra Palace, so no sooner had we shwooshed down than we had to swoosh upwards again. Well, I say swoosh...I actually mean fumble desperately for granny gear and pant my way to the top while vowing not to, under any circumstances, get off and walk. I think it was about there that I noted that two training rides – one of 30k, one of 50k – was slightly under-preparing myself...not to mention that Pete seemed to be going uphill much, much easier than I was.

It was about one in the morning and London was quiet and sleepy – at least until we got to Camden, which was very much still in full swing with the pavements outside the pubs crowded with people that were having a significantly less energetic time than we were currently experiencing (unless metabolising vast amounts of Bacardi Breezers counts as energetic). Not much time or breath for long, shouted conversations beyond the ‘charity bike ride’ sort of explanation, but with several hundred of us having gone through already the message seemed to have got across and there was lots of shouted encouragement (slurred) and requests for high-fives (haphazard).

In fact, people were in general astoundingly good natured throughout. There’s probably the odd nightbus driver and taxi driver that would rather not see another group of cyclists wearing hi-vis vests and being all belligerent about their rights to their own piece of road for a while, but public support was out and about and in much evidence.

Cycling through Central London in a group was fantastic. Normally on this sort of thing you tend to string out and clump together again at the lights, where the massed sound of people clicking into their pedals almost drowns out the revving of the engines, but when the traffic gets bad you tend to look for safety in numbers and form a gaggle. This was kind of handy as the most traffic hazards I normally encounter up and about Rutland where I live involve sheep, so being able to tag along with people who are obviously experienced at cutting up and zooming past taxis/buses/cars/rickshaws/pedestrians was invaluable. It was probably all a bit dangerous, but it was also extremely exhilarating. They come up here, and I’ll return the favour: I can spot a slippery patch of sheep dung from 100 metres out.

Regent St was jammed, as was Shaftesbury Avenue, but then it all widened out and quietened down as we bombed over the Thames for the first of four crossings (I say bombed, stopped and took photos of the City and the Eye all lit up is more like it). Proving that, indeed, no one goes sarf of the river at this time of night, we loop silently down and past The Oval without much anyone else accompanying us, before heading back over the Thames and ghosting round Parliament Square as Big Ben strikes the half hour above us and the lone peace protester huddles under his blankets. Trafalgar Square, the back end of Buck House, Marble Arch...the landmarks get ticked off one by one, which is a good job too because, as soon as we get back over the Thames once more and start heading south seriously towards Crystal Palace there's bugger all of interest beyond an odd 3am traffic jam on Clapham Common.

The long drag up to the halfway point at Crystal Palace is long and dispiriting, but nothing compared to the haul from there in the dog hours of the morning before dawn back into London. Thighs burning, something pinged painfully in my right knee, and all of a sudden the only people going up the hills slower than me had actually dismounted and were walking it. Think even one of those overtook me at one point. So, sad to say that dawn finally breaking over the mists of Blackheath Common and lighting up a traditional, old school circus, all wood and garish paintwork, only seems fantastical in retrospect; while the descent through Greenwich and seeing the City lit up by the rising sun like a VFX supervisor's dream of a distant sci-fi landscape was most memorable for being on a steep, downhill slope.

Some people had already finished by now. In fact, while we wolfed down some food at Crystal Palace the first of the riders that had started there were coming home, around 3 hours and 20 minutes later, all lean, lycra-clad muscle, tanned legs, and nice bikes. By the time we got to end, we’d taken nearly eight hours to do the course. But we were leaner too...Pete’s endomondo tracking estimates that we burned through about 5000 calories all in all during the course of the night, so if anyone fancies a bit of an extreme diet programme...

A quick rest in the shadow of Tower Bridge and we were off again with 40k to go. The City was soulless – no surprises there – while as we rumbled through Bethnal Green the fryers were being turned on and breakfast was starting to be cooked (judging by the smells, you could put all the weight you’d lost on the ride on again in about three minutes flat). A loop down and through Canary Wharf felt like unnecessary cruelty, and then it was time to turn North for the long, shallow climb back to near the start (which was to be followed, inevitably, by a short, hideous climb back up to the start itself).

By this time my legs had got their second wind, but my arse felt like I’d watched the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy while sitting on a spike. So you quickly fall into a rhythm now and then of standing up and pedalling, then coasting, then pedalling a bit more, all to stop your poor pummelled perineum from having to make contact with the saddle again. Avoiding bumps in the road – and London roads have obviously been surfaced by a gang of moles – swiftly became a priority as first Mile End, then Hackney, then Highbury, then Harringay disappeared behind us.

And then there we were, at the base of the hill with Alexandra Palace up there somewhere, back where we started. The climb broke many, but I’d become familiar enough with granny gear by now that I engaged it early, dropped my eyes to about a metre in front of my tyres – sod the view, that could wait – and just kept the legs turning over. In the right mood you could go up Kilimanjaro like that, after 100k – well, actually 106k according to the GPS – it’s more a case of bloody mindedly keeping going because up there, somewhere, there’s a bacon sarnie with your name on it...

And then you get to stand up there in the full light of day and look back over the London Basin, checking off the landmarks that you’ve been past. One thing’s for certain, there was a lot of them...

Looking back on it a few days later, it seems slightly surreal that it happened at all. I mean, was I really part of that lycra-clad pack that swooped and soared and then struggled and cursed round London for all those hours? The gingerness with which I sit down and the happy £1000 sitting in the fundraising account for the CF Trust would suggest I was.

To paraphrase AC/DC once more;  I'm a NightRider, get out of my way...Shazbat. Nanoo nanoo.