What were you doing at three o’clock yesterday morning, then? If you had any sense, you’d have been sleeping. I wasn’t – I was on my bike, riding in a big group around Trafalgar Square. And having a brilliant time.
The Midsummer Madness cycle ride is something I always said I’d do if I got a bike. It’s very simple – it starts at 2am at Cutty Sark Gardens in Greenwich, and heads up to Primrose Hill for sunrise (4.43am) on the longest day of the year. It’s not a race, more of a slow procession through deserted streets. Even though we were bedevilled by drizzle and the clouds didn’t actually clear until around 5.45am, it was a rewarding experience to see the capital at dawn, surrounded by 57 other cyclists, assorted crusties, old hippies, and well-heeled NW1 types with deckchairs and wine.
There was a man missing from the ride, though – cycling campaigner Barry Mason, who died earlier this month while on holiday in Spain. He was due to lead the ride, as he’d done for many years in his role as co-ordinator of Southwark Cyclists. A much-loved figure in cycling circles, Barry also organised events like the Dunwich Dynamo, a 120-mile night ride from Hackney to the Suffolk coast. Many of the 23 cyclists who left Greenwich at seven minutes past two were riding to honour his memory, and to remember him at dawn.
A fellow rider told me a story about an earlier Midsummer Madness, about how a nosey policeman started asking questions about why so many cyclists were gathered at London Bridge at 2.30am.
Suspecting a paranoid copper would cause trouble for the group, Barry announced the party as “the Primrose Hill Cycling Club”. The policeman radioed back to base that these were nice, middle-class riders, and they’d be no harm at all…
It’s a joy to have the streets to yourself overnight, and it’s enormous fun to ride up in a big group through empty roads, lights flashing, getting odd looks from night bus passengers and swapping stories. One man had ridden from Southgate to Greenwich to join in, another had recently retired and travelled down from Oxfordshire. In good company, a bit of rain’s no bother at all.
At London Bridge, our numbers almost doubled as we met up with more riders before heading across the Thames, along Cannon Street and past St Paul’s, where the rain come down for a minute or two. A message from above? Along Fleet Street, stopping off at the Aldwych to get some much-needed chocolate before a chase down the Strand to catch up with the others at Trafalgar Square.
From there, it was up Charing Cross Road as the clubs kicked out, veering off into Soho and stopping at Bar Italia, where were joined by yet more people – including a man on a Boris bike. Hip-flasks appeared, expressos were downed, and then it was off again up Wardour Street before taking over Oxford Street.
Fifteen minutes later, we were in Regent’s Park (cue inquisitive police car), and it wasn’t far to the steep climb up Primrose Hill. I got to the top with a stitch, but also a great sense of satisfaction. Someone was playing a guitar, while dogs played on the hill. The birds in London Zoo’s aviary got louder as the sky got brighter. (Here’s some video.)
A Brazilian couple told how they’d taken the bus to see the sunrise, others had simply walked up the hill. Everyone on top of Primrose Hill had a story to tell – even if mine was only about cycling 13 miles from Charlton at 1.40am. I mean, that’s normal, isn’t it?
Then it was back again, via a deserted Oxford Street by daylight, where the sun made a brief appearance over the Thames at London Bridge – a taste of the fine Tuesday to come.
Then it was off a cafe in Southwark for a 6am breakfast stop. I didn’t stay for long, deciding to head back while the traffic was still relatively light, through Bermondsey and the Blue to Deptford, taking the riverside route through Millennium Quay at a time of day when it’s acceptable for strangers to say hello to each other. Through Greenwich Park, and back home at 7.40am, after 27 miles and six hours.
I had a great time – I met lots of interesting people, and it’s great to have the capital (almost) to yourself. For many, it was a chance to put names to faces from cycling forums, but for me this was my first ever group ride, and something I’d always wanted to do once I’d got a bike. Thanks to Colin from Southwark Cyclists for marshalling the ride – I think I’ll be back for more rides soon.