I didn’t go to bed last night.
No, I wasn’t at an all night party – if such things still take place – but on a bike ride. While sensible people were tucked up in their beds or, at least, slumped in front of their televisions wondering how it’s possible to have 360 channels to choose from and still be unable to find anything worth watching at two in the morning, I, together with a fair number of others, was riding out from London, through the Essex countryside, on my way to Southend-on-Sea.
Let me introduce you to the Friday Night Ride to the Coast, an idea so simple that it’s hard to understand why nobody thought it years ago and so completely bonkers that it’s sometimes equally hard to understand how someone ever did come up with it.
This is what happens. At a little before midnight on a designated Friday night – like last night – a group of people gather, with their bikes, just by the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. At exactly midnight, they set off and cycle to somewhere on the coast, where they all have breakfast at a café or even a pub. Most then take a train back to London, in good time to get on with their weekends. A few will cycle back, in what’s informally known as the Saturday Morning Ride Back to London.
The rides are eminently sociable affairs, evidenced by the mix of participants and their bikes. Alongside racing snakes on their super lightweight frames, you’re likely to find middle-aged ladies on hybrids, hard-bitten Audax riders with steel frames and capacious saddlebags, a few fixed gear enthusiasts with calves of steel, the odd recumbent and, almost guaranteed, a contingent of Bromptons. And here’s the joy: nobody cares what you’re riding so long as it’s mechanically sound. FNRttCs are, without doubt, the most egalitarian rides I’ve ever joined.
About 18 months ago, not long after finishing a gruelling 1400km London-Edinburgh-London randonnee, I wrote that I had temporarily lost my enthusiasm for riding. It was a while before I got back on a bike for anything other than a local pootle and it was joining a FNRttC, to Shoreham, that reignited my love of cycling and gave me back my mojo. Yet, apart from the need for a decent set of lights, it’s hard to imagine anything further removed from Audax-style riding.
Most noticeable is that the pace is, to put it mildly, gentle. That’s not to say that there’s no scope for belting along country lanes by the light of the moon if that’s what you fancy, but the guiding principle of the FNRttC is that no one gets left behind and no one is allowed get lost. Each ride has a leader and a back marker (or Tail End Charlie, as the ride organisers describe the role). Golden rule number one is: never overtake the leader! Golden rule number two is: the Tail End Charlie never overtakes another rider.
If a rider has a mechanical problem, such as a puncture, the Tail End Charlie will wait with them until it is fixed. If the rider needs to pop into the bushes, as many do on long rides, the Tail End Charlie will wait with their bike until they are back on the road.
Inevitably, over time the ride will get stretched out. Some people will ride faster than others, and nobody minds that. Sometimes the ride leader can be two or three miles ahead of the Tail End Charlie, with riders strung out in clusters along the intermediate roads. To ensure no one misses a turn, at every junction, another rider will peel off from the front handful of riders and wait to direct every other rider until the Tail End Charlie appears, signalling that everyone is through.
It’s a beautifully simple and efficient system that helps to make the rides a real pleasure and a great introduction to overnight cycling for anyone who has not tried it before.
But what’s so special about cycling through the night, I hear you ask. Where do I start? Once you’ve left the city, busy roads evolve into peaceful ones, with the only human noise coming from the whirring of chains and the chatter of your fellow-riders. You become aware of the sound of night – the hooting of owls or the rush of air across their wings as they swoop across the road in front of you, animals rustling in the hedges, even occasionally the squeaking of bats or the snuffling of horses in a field. Occasionally there might be close encounter – a badger glimpsed lurking in thick grass at the side of a road; a hare bounding through an adjacent field. One memorable morning, just after dawn somewhere in Sussex, a bird of prey plucked a pigeon from the air just a few yards in front of me. For me, this is one of the most appealing aspects of riding overnight Audax events; the only difference on a FNRttC is that the pace is considerably more leisurely.
On a clear night, the starlight breaks through the upward haze of artificial light or the moon hangs over like a giant egg. As dawn comes, mist rises off the fields, giving the new light a hazy, dreamy quality.
Along the way there is always a food stop. At its worst this may be a 24-hour McDonalds, or similar. (Last night it was the Services on the M25 near Thurrock, which is probably about as bad as it gets.) At its best, such as on several of the rides down to the seaside towns of West Sussex or the popular run out to Whitstable, it’s a scout hut or church hall where volunteers have prepared food for sale, usually with proceeds going to a charity.
Then, finally, usually somewhere between 7 and 9 am, there’s the fun of riding into a seaside town as it starts to wake up for the day, with the breakfast destination in sight. For some, it’s time to dig deep to get through those last few miles. This may have been the longest bike ride they have ever done or the first time they have ridden through the night. What better company than The Fridays with whom to undertake such a challenge? For others, the old hands who have done this before and know that there’s a certain advantage in being one of the first to get the breakfast order in, it’s a chance to ramp up the speed a bit, and possibly even race past the ride leader. For all, breakfast is a sociable affair, reminiscing about the hours and miles that have just passed and, inevitably, talking about “the next one”.
Gradually, people drift away, to re-align their weekends with the rest of humanity, those who went to bed the night before and simply have no idea what they have been missing.
Another Friday night ride is over; here’s to the next one.
Not all Friday Night Rides to the Coast begin in London. For full details of all rides, and lots of other useful information, see The Fridays’ web site: https://www.fnrttc.org.uk