Not for the first time that night, I found myself questioning my sanity. It was the early hours of the morning following my birthday; unlike most normal people, I wasn’t dancing in a dodgy nightclub somewhere, or sleeping off an evening’s drinking. No, I was on my bike, in the depths of south London, taking part in the Nightrider – a 100km sponsored cycle ride around the streets of London, starting just before midnight and finishing sometime around breakfast time.
When I’d signed up to do the ride, back in January, it had seemed like a really good idea. Challenge myself! Raise money for the MS Society! Do something different for my birthday! But as the date got closer, doubts crept in. It wasn’t so much the distance that bothered me – I’d cycled almost as far before, although admittedly not recently – so much as the fact that it was overnight. I don’t handle sleep deprivation very well at the best of times; to say I was a little concerned at how I’d cope with staying up all night and cycling was an understatement.
So, how did it go? Did I have to force myself to stay awake, pedalling with gritted teeth through the miles, the exhaustion and the aches and pains?
Actually, no. I surprised myself by not only staying awake, but also really enjoying it. Well, most of it. Yes, it was exhausting and yes, it hurt, but I was spurred on by a sense of occasion, of achievement and of camaraderie. When the aches and pains came, knowing that I was I was far from alone – there were around 4,000 other cyclists on the ride, including my work colleague Kate – made it, if not quite bearable, then certainly easier to deal with.
Our adventure began at the Ally Pally, up in north London – an uphill slog that started before we’d even got there and continued for a good couple of miles thereafter. It was only when I saw other cyclists getting off their bikes and walking them that I realised how used I’ve become to hills. Finally, a reason to be thankful for my daily commute.
After a loop around Hampstead Heath and down through Swiss Cottage, we headed into the West End. This was probably the most unnerving part of the ride for me. It’s not that I’m not used to riding in central London traffic – I am. But I’m used to knowing where I’m going, rather than looking for signs to tell me where I’m going. On a Saturday night, on roads crowded with buses and taxis and people on a night out – none of whom had any idea we were part of an organised ride, and not just a bunch of cyclists out for a nighttime jaunt – these were incredibly hard to spot.
I didn’t enjoy cycling up to a junction and not knowing until I’d reached it which way I was meant to be going. Nor did I enjoy having to focus my attention on trying to spot the signs, or what the other cyclists were doing, rather than the traffic around me. It all made me feel much more vulnerable than I like to feel when I’m on my bike.
I was very thankful once we left the West End behind. From there we headed into the quieter streets of Westminster and over into Lambeth, taking in some London landmarks along the way – Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye – and thence into the wilds of south London.
I don’t usually go south of the river, so I was expecting this to be one of my least favourite parts of the route. In reality it was the opposite. Because I had no idea where I was going, I had no expectations about how far I still had to go and what was coming up next. I simply followed the signs, which led me deeper and deeper into exploring whole new areas of this city of mine. All I had to focus on was on cycling.
By that time, it was the early hours of the morning. As we cycled through the sleeping suburban streets – through Crystal Palace, Lewisham and Greenwich – all was quiet except for chains whirring and the clatter of clipless pedals being fastened and unfastened at almost every junction, and the occasional early bird singing from the trees. We had the streets to ourselves – it was like our own magical pedalling world.
Reality – and daylight – reappeared at Tower Bridge. Before the ride started, I’d said I wanted to get there in time for sunrise, but didn’t really think I would manage it. Nonetheless, at 4.40am we pulled up to the rest point just by the bridge. Sunrise was scheduled for 4.45am. Sadly, while I kept my side of the bargain, the sun didn’t. It was completely hidden behind a bank of cloud.
Heading off from Tower Bridge, we had to do a circuitous loop through the City, before heading out to Canary Wharf via Wapping. This section provided one of Kate’s favourite moments of the whole ride. All night long we’d had boy (and the odd girl) racers whizz past us on their speedy road bikes. But their thin tyres and narrow saddles were no match for the cobbles of Wapping High Street; with a chorus of yelps many of them took to the pavements, while Kate and I ploughed through on our sturdy hybrids. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
The final part of the route, up through Hackney, was probably the hardest. After almost eight hours in the saddle, the constant pedalling and sleep deprivation were taking their toll. What had started as a slight ache in my left shoulder had become a constant stabbing pain between my shoulder blades and down my left arm. To balance things out, my right knee had started hurting – or at least it had been, until my legs started to go numb.
All I wanted was to go to bed, but that seemed like an impossible dream. To make matters worse, this last part of the route took me through very familiar territory. It even went past the end of my road.
This was when things started to get very surreal. I’d left my house in the dark of the evening before, and now there I was, cycling along the same streets – only it was daylight, and I hadn’t been to sleep. To say that I struggled would be an understatement. The final stretch was torturous. If the ride up to the Ally Pally had seemed difficult the night before, it was almost impossible after almost 100km and no sleep. Many, many people gave up and walked their bikes up that last stretch, but I was determined I was going to cycle every last metre, right up to the finish line.
I may have been in pain and exhausted, but I’d made it. I felt a real sense of achievement, not just for having cycled the whole 100km but also for having raised so much money for the MS Society – money that will help fund vital research into finding a cure for MS.
Sitting in the canteen at work a few days after the Nightrider, Kate and I were complaining to each other about how tired and achy we were feeling. We realised that how we were feeling was probably not that dissimilar to how someone with MS feels almost every day.
The difference, of course, is that we will recover, whereas someone with MS won’t. I hope that by having done the Nightrider, the day when someone will recover from MS is that little bit closer.
If you’d like to sponsor me, you can do so here: http://www.justgiving.com/Jude-Burke