Theres something about saying ‘200 kilometers’ which causes my gut to flip. We’re going to ride all through the night until our bodies can take no more, then the sun will come up. And we will ride some more.
My teammates lights illuminate me from behind, throwing shadows of pumping calves onto the road. Cadence high, we plough into the night, four strong, towards the half way point tea stop. I drop back and let another take the lead, tucking in behind his back wheel and revelling in the silent vacuum of the draft.
Let me explain. Silence is something I’m not accustomed to. Since age 5, I’ve not left the house without a walkman/discman/MiniDisc/MP3 player and at least one spare set of batteries. The crowd in my head was so loud, the only way was to drown it out. The noise and the craziness in my head led me to some dark places in life, sitting homeless aged 14 with a needle in my vein, tasting oblivion in its rawest form. Even having got clean, it led me down a path of self destruction, over and over. Drugs, drink, sex, gambling, computer games. Over and over, I gathered myself and took a strained step forward, heavy with the guilt and shame of my past. I had to escape – but with each way of escape came a new low.
When, last August, I was looking for a new bike to replace the steel mountain bike I’d run into the ground, little did I know the changes it would bring with it. I was 17 stone 2 pounds, with zero self respect and a tendancy to think about throwing myself in front of buses. Things were not all good. Once again, I made a decision that things should change. And change they did.
I got up off my butt and started taking action. Therapy, a new sponsor in recovery, doing what was recommended for those in my situation. I got a temp job, and I needed to ride to work. Why I went for a road bike I don’t know, but once I’d got it home, I knew I was in love. Clips, cleats, helmets, lycra – this was all new to me. I’d stepped into a big bold new world, full of weird looking middle aged men, and I didn’t care. I’d found something I could enjoy. I rode to work. I rode to AA meetings. I rode to see friends. I rode everywhere I could ride. It wasn’t long before my boyfriend started to see the pounds shed. People commented on how ‘healthy’ I was looking. My legs went from things that sat under my desk to defined slabs of muscle.
Then, I did London to Brighton. The first time I’d ridden more than 15 miles in one go, and I cried in pain. But the pain was good. It was me, my music and the pain, and I kept going until I could go no further. Then I freewheeled the rest of the way into town. Riding in the open, out of the city, became my new favourite thing. I’d book tickets out to Reading, ride to Oxford and back and catch the train home. Then Cambridge, and then Brighton again. All the time, gaining in speed and distance and loving every minute of it.
The facebook group of the Dunwich Dynamo drew me in. It was some months away, it seemed fine to sign up to. I booked coach tickets, and then realised that I’d committed myself to the most physical exertion I’ve ever done. Anticipation, Fear, readiness to prove myself, a desire to succeed, so many emotions spent months going around my head. I was as ready as I would ever be. I was a healthy 12 stone, with quads capable of keeping going no matter what.
Somehow, on the night, I made it to London Fields. I didn’t know anyone and faced a night of lone riding. My fear of failure stirred. My ego is unfaltering in it’s desire to see me fail, to remind me of all the times where I’ve failed in my life. To tell me that I will never achieve anything. It was working full force that evening.
Suddenly, I hear someone call my name. Someone from the facebook group recognised me. The rest of the evening is complicated to explain, but involved a lot of waiting around for people. In the end, 6 of us set out from London Fields at about 9:30pm.
The ride out of London was hectic. Too busy to think, the only focus was on staying alive. When we gathered ourselves, we had lost two. Four rode on. Crossing the M25, we were surrounded by nature. Trees and fields as far as the eye could see. The sun setting, we stopped into a petrol station for a quick release of internal pressure, and we were off again.
I can’t pinpoint when it was, but something clicked and I flipped my headphones down around my neck and revelled in the sound of freewheels buzzing, of cranks pumping, the crackle of tyres on worn asphalt. Peace surrounded me as we rode on, cutting through the wind like a knife through warm butter. Eddies formed in my ears, the cool air an alien feeling, but the cans stayed off.
The simple pleasure of maintaining cadence and following the red lights took the internal noise away.
At some point shortly before Sudbury, we lose two more. Despite looking up and down, we can’t fine them. Two remained for the second half. We silently plough forward into the night.
I came to realise, this isn’t such a big deal. We ham it up, talking in kilometers to make ourselves sound like Gods of the road, to the uninitiated. We scare ourselves into jelly when all we need is the simple pleasure of pressing down with our calves and quads, over and over.
This is not a battle with the clock, or with the bike, or the road. It is a battle with ourselves. It is a battle with our fear. It is not a test of strength, endurance or ‘Rule 5’. It is a test of Courage, a test of resolve.
The Dynamo changed me before I even rode it. But having ridden it? I can laugh at anyone who says ‘you can’t do that’.
I can do anything.