Well, I did it: I completed London Nightrider on the weekend and I absolutely loved it.
The thought of cycling 100km, much of it in the dark, while most other sensible people were tucked up in bed — or out partying — might not be everyone’s idea of a fun night out. But for me it was a brilliant experience, and one that I will remember for the rest of my life.
London is my adopted city. I’ve lived here for almost 16 years and it’s really only in the past two or three years that I feel I know it relatively well. I can navigate much of it without really thinking about it. I no longer use a tube map and if I ever get momentarily lost above ground it usually doesn’t take me long to get my bearings.
The great thing about Saturday night’s event was seeing the city from an entirely new perspective. Many of the streets — particularly in and around the City, West End and Southwark — were familiar to me, not necessarily from the saddle of a bike, but by foot or bus, so I can’t say I saw anything to surprise me. But what was new was seeing it in the early hours of the morning, under my own steam, accompanied by hundreds of other cyclists.
Of course, there were bits I’d never cycled before — the stretch from Alexandra Palace to the West End, for instance — that made London feel exciting and new.
The worst bit was cycling up Piccadilly and through the gridlocked streets of the West End at 1am, because the roads were so congested with cars, buses, taxis, motorbikes — and the odd drunk pedestrian. I’ve never seen anything quite so chaotic and shambolic — even on my daily commute during rush hour. This meant the pace was really slow, even with cyclists pedalling in pelatons, so by the time I got to the first break point, at the Imperial War Museum, I was shocked to see it had taken 90 minutes to cycle just 10 miles.
I was keen to up the pace from there on in. But I was hampered by a couple of things: my bike computer wasn’t really playing ball so I had no real idea of distances and didn’t want to burn myself out, and even if I did want to cycle that bit quicker it was difficult, and sometimes dangerous, to pass cyclists travelling in groups who were cycling three or four abreast. Many of these groups would make random and unexpected stops to wait for friends that had dropped behind. But instead of pulling over to the side of the road, they’d suddenly stop directly in front of you. I narrowly missed about three accidents this way.
By the time I got to Crystal Palace, supposedly the half-way mark, I stopped for a supplied snack (a Danish pasty and a coffee), topped up my water bottle, went to the loo, and texted my Other Half, who was away on a trip of his own, to let him know I was OK and having fun.
It was then a lovely ride back into town — the sky was slowly getting lighter and the birds were starting the dawn chorus, such a magical thing to experience while on the back of a bike, I must say — and as I got closer to Greenwich, wending my way through the quiet traffic-free streets lined with Neo Classical buildings, I kept getting glimpses of the Canary Wharf skyscrapers across the water all lit up in pink and gold as dawn began to break. It was breathtakingly gorgeous.
But little did I know that I’d see an even more gorgeous sight when I got to Potters Field, in Southwark, just near City Hall. It was around 5am and Tower Bridge was backlit by the most extraordinary sunrise.
It was low tide on the Thames — in fact, the lowest I’d ever seen it — and the surface was so still it resembled a long ribbon of mirror stretching in both directions. The reflections of the buildings and the pink-streaked dawn sky were completely surreal: it was hard to tell which way was up.
I’d been cycling five hours (with two breaks) by the time I’d got there and I’d felt all my efforts had been rewarded by this spectacular sight. It was eerily quiet and so peaceful — not something you usually associate with one of the world’s busiest cities.
At this point there were another three hours of cycling to go, but seeing this while munching on a Tunnocks caramel wafer gave me such a “lift” I felt like I could keep cycling forever.
Before I knew it I was actually cycling the streets of Canary Wharf, swishing through canyons of glass and steel, before entering the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and buying myself a posh coffee at the break point outside the Olympic velodrome. It was now close to 7am.
From there it was time to head back to Alexandra Palace, which meant traversing East London (an area I don’t know particularly well) and up into North London. And then, at 8am, exactly eight hours after I’d started, I crossed the finish line and collected my medal.
I was tired, not so much from the exercise but from the lack of sleep, but elated!
Truth be told, I didn’t find the event as challenging as I thought it might be. I think all my walking and quite a bit of commuting over recent months had really strengthened my legs — they never felt tired and I astonished myself by continually overtaking other cyclists uphill. Perhaps it also helped that I’m more than a stone lighter than the last time I competed in a long-distance ride so was carrying a lot less ballast.
There were certainly a good few hills to climb, but nothing too testing (I never had to get off and walk, for instance), although the final 500m — up to the top of Alexandra Palace — was a challenge. I couldn’t help but think it was a bit cruel to make the last stretch of the route all up hill, especially when you’ve been cycling for almost 8 hours and haven’t had any sleep! But hey, it was worth it.
In the meantime, I’m delighted to say my efforts have raised more than £350 for Arthritis Research UK. Thanks to everyone who has been kind and generous enough to sponsor me. It’s not too late to add a contribution: my Virgin Money Fund-raising page will remain open for a couple more weeks yet. As an extra incentive, you could win a trio of Text Classics — simply follow the information on my book blog.