Nightrider – 100km of London by bike by starlight
At some point in the last 6 months it seemed to me a good idea not only to sign up to a 10k open water swim, but to also sign up to a 100km bike ride.
That’s vaguely like doing two marathons in a week, except in two different disciplines.
The Nightrider event appealed on many levels — an opportunity to do a long distance bike ride in my beloved city, and to see some of London’s landmarks, and lesser known (to me anyway) areas, with quiet roads.
And to see the sun rise from the hill at Alexandra Palace, with views across the city.
Only… it didn’t really work out like that.
Huge let down
I don’t quite know where to start with how and why the Nightrider turned out to be so different to my expectations.
It actually started very well with a fabulous atmosphere at the start line, up at a Alexandra Palace.
Organisation was efficient but relaxed. We were starting in 5-minute waves across 2 hours. I set off at 23:35 with the hope of averaging around 25km/hour for much of it, maybe slower allowing for breaks and fatigue, and getting back at or soon after 04:00.
In reality, my average speed for the first hour was 16km. I knew then that I was in for a long one…
Why so slow?
Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I was naive but I suppose I had pictured that busier roads would be closed and that we wouldn’t be bound by usual road regulations (red lights) and traffic. That wasn’t the case though: we were sharing London’s roads with everyone else, like any normal day or night.
Also, in the first hour, even though you’d think it would all be downhill from Ally Pally, we took in a couple of enormous (up)hills through Highgate on our way down to Regents Park. After that we hit the west end. Have you ever been in the West End at midnight on a Saturday? – it was like Piccadilly Circus! Arf.
Jokes aside, it really was RAMMED when we hit theatreland, meaning my slow speed of 16km/h was reduced to about 1km/h for about 10 minutes, and the car-dodging, in huge packs of cyclists (which weren’t very popular with motorists), was less fun than usual (and it’s not usually fun).
Oh, before we go much further it might help you to visualise the route. Here it is. We went (to my surprise) anti-clockwise, starting at marker 11:
I remain baffled as to why the route is done in an anti-clockwise direction, meaning that we hit the west end in rush-hour equivalent traffic instead of at peaceful dawn, and instead see the sun rising across unprepossessing Mile End.
One of the other niggles was soon to follow. Namely, the snaking in and out of roads, crossing the river back and forth instead of just pressing on with forward momentum.
This is very hard psychologically. Having crossed the river, you get in your head that you’re on the next leg of the journey. Only to find yourself crossing a different bridge 5 mins later and cycling aimlessly around Westminster for another 20 minutes.
I opted to miss the first stop at Imperial War Museum (20km) in favour of pressing on. This proved an error.
The next stop, at Crystal Palace – the half way point (but in reality 40km) – at the top of a whacking great hill, I MISSED! I don’t know how. The route wasn’t very well stewarded, but there were usually stewards outside the break points.
So that really hurt – it was 60km before I had my first break!
In the meantime, I enjoyed passing several historical landmarks (many of which I’m lucky enough to cycle past often, just going about my daily business) as well as a few with only personal relevance including a number of pubs and former residential areas of friends from over the years.
This was surely one of the highlights, as indeed it is generally of living in London, turning a corner and finding yourself on a familiar street, next to St Paul’s Cathedral or opposite a favourite pub, having only a moment ago felt completely lost!
That said, it was interesting that for at least half of the ride, I knew exactly where I was and could have, for example, got myself to the nearest tube unaided in minutes.
Different story once I got past Crystal Palce, where I was on much more unfamiliar ground. There were still the occasional reference points, notably drinking establishments in Crofton Park and Ladywell, introduced to me by Anna Grady, together with many a sign to Brockley, where many a friend now lives.
Sydenham and Forest Hill were revelations – with some truly beautiful tree-lined avenues for us to cycle down, to connect us to Greenwich.
The route to Greenwich took me past my other highlight – the breath-taking Blackheath. I didn’t get much chance to take it in other than to admire its villagy high-street and then the vast, flat expanses of the heath which had a particular magic about them at approaching 3am. But I look forward to returning for a proper exploration one day.
Then to one of the more dispiriting features of the route. Crossing Tower Bridge onto the north of the river, I was feeling like we must be on the home straight. But no — we were only here to snake around the roads of the City before being sent south/north/south/north across the bridges.
It was at this point, where I realise that I am indeed blessed to live in this great city and experience this stuff often.
Don’t get me wrong, I never, simply NEVER, take for granted being able to walk and cycle past some of the world’s finest monuments any day of the week. More often than not, I take the time to breathe them in, and really appreciate their splendour.
And perhaps this event is for those people who cannot normally do that.
From here we took in an area that I don’t know at all: the docklands. Starting at Wapping, heading for Canary Wharf and Blackwall, it was hard to tell which side of the Thames we were. In actually fact, the whole of that route was north of the river, but we crossed so many bridges connecting the network of quays and wharfs in the area, I lost track.
At this point, the night sky gave way to light (no sun alas though), and my heart sank when I saw the time: 4am, and still not even at our last break point, which meant there was more than 20km still to go. 5am finish? 5.30? Good grief.
The final leg. As we worked our way through north east London, our accidental spectators changed from nightclub stragglers to morning larks, looking considerably more refreshed than us, with a night’s sleep behind them and setting out for a day’s activity. How I envied them.
Despite there being hundreds if not a couple of thousand participants, it was easy to get separated and cycle long distances with no one in sight. After Hackney, around Stoke Newington, I was lost. I realised after a few minutes that I hadn’t seen any signs (hard to spot at the best of times) for quite some time and that I must have gone off-piste. I got my Google Map app out and navigated myself back to the route, by this point the last few kilometres and the long slow climb back up to Alexandra Palace.
I clocked back in to HQ at 05:31. There is no chip time (because, emphatically, this is not a race – according to the organisers) but by my watch that was a 5 hour and 54 minute cycle, with two breaks amounting to about 15 minutes.
No wonder I was (and still am) tired!
All credit to the kitchens at Ally Pally – they laid on an incredible bacon roll for our arrival.
Sarnie inhaled, and slug of tea knocked back, there was only one thing left to do: cycle home. Sigh…