London-Brighton-London in the dark - in February
Late Tuesday last week I received an email with the following subject:
“Thursday evening, moonlit run to the coast?”
I didn't really need to see who the sender was. I had a good hunch who might suggest an idea that, on the face of it, seemed completely crazy. Somehow though, my hand didn't push the computer mouse towards the delete button, nor did I pen a reply politely turning down the offer.
I duly accepted the offer. And so, on a rather cloudy and chilly Thursday evening I rolled up to Café St Germain in Crystal Palace to meet Rapha’s Graeme Raeburn, the mastermind behind this slightly barmy plan. Also there and kitted up with lights ready for the evening cycle ride were James and Ultan, also from Rapha.
We set off into the dark.
It’s an odd thing, to ride all the way from London to the coast, and back again, after a full day at work and in the dark. It’s a route that many cyclists, and I’ll include myself here, would only consider doing on a lovely spring Sunday, with a blue sky as a backdrop and the darkness a distant thought.
It’s a popular route for London cyclists, this one. There's surely no greater thrill than propelling yourself out of the congested and choked streets of the capital, through meandering country lanes and patchwork fields and to arrive at the pebble beach of Brighton with its glitzy pier attractions and the smell of fish and chips wafting down the boulevards.
But this wasn't a hazy day in late summer, with endless hours of available daylight and the whole day stretched out lazily ahead of us. Instead it's early February, each of us has had a busy 8-hours in our respective workplaces, and the temperature is a chilly 3 degrees. It's hardly the usual scenario for a 100 mile ride.
But that didn’t deter us. So we cycled out through south London, easing through the remnants of the rush hour traffic, people heading home for a hot dinner or heading to the cinema. We rolled through busy towns, congested streets but soon the horizon changed from one populated by high rise buildings and garages to one of trees and fields.
Into the countryside and away from the protection of the streetlights we turned our cycle lights up to maximum brightness, got our heads down and pushed on for Brighton. We covered the distance quickly. Damn quickly, in fact: every time I glance at my Garmin the indicated speed is in the low 40’s. Sure enough, we reach the top of Ditchling Beacon, a climb we ascend in a murky low cloud obscuring any chance of a view from the peak, in a little over two hours.
A fast blast down the hill into Brighton and a quick pause by the pier to scoff some food, followed by a quick coffee in Buddie’s all-night café and we saddle up for the return leg. We roll out of Brighton as everybody else, normal people I’ll call them, are rolling out of the pubs and staggering drunkenly home. The contrast between their chosen night out and our night out couldn’t be more stark. They must look at us with bewilderment.
We race home. Up the A23 and through the long rolling hills around West Sussex we make good time, and soon the red glow of London is visible in the distant. It’s calling us home. The pace is relentless, and it’s now taking its toll. A severe lack of miles over the winter period has left me lacking endurance and within 30 minutes of home my legs simply fall off. Every rise is just too much, there’s simply no strength left.
It’s hardly surprising; we’ve averaged nigh-on 20mph there and back in very cold conditions and been awake a long time. I make it home gone 2am with just over 5 hours of riding. And that’s 5 hours after a day at work, lest you forget. We’ve clocked 155km. I’m shattered, broken, depleted, exhausted, wiped-out, finished. My head hits the pillow and I pass out, falling instantly into a deep sleep.
Riding at night is a strange and surreal experience. At first, when you’re out past normal sociable hours it feels a bit odd. But soon that feeling is replaced by a warm glow that can only come when you know you’re out when everybody else is sat in front of the TV or whatever most normal people do of an evening.
My approach to riding has always been to grab the opportunities, and while I had reservations about this one, I’m glad I didn’t turn down the offer. And now, I’ve suddenly got a renewed interest in night time riding. So I’ll see you out there owning the night, to borrow a phrase from a certain lights manufacturer.