It happens so gradually you hardly notice it. A vague light blue at the edges of the sky that might be the reflected lights of the next town. Slowly the trees gain shape, and there are the suggestions of fields. It had almost reached the point where you question whether dawn will ever come. It has been dark for so many hours.
Then it starts. One bird first, chirping uncertainly into the half light. Another answers. Then another joins in, and soon they're all at it. Time to rise! A trilling, thrilling cacophony that grows and grows as the light spills across the sky.
The delirium starts about two hours after the dawn chorus. Things are happening at the edge of my field of vision. The road through the New Forest is long and straight and endless, the tarmac rumbling into a long straight endless hypnotising blur beneath my wheels.
What was that? Something behind the trees. The trunks themselves are moving. Birds dive from the sky as if to attack me. A man walks an invisible dog. I snap my head up, for a moment tipping over towards the delicious blanket of sleep. I blink. The daylight hurts my eyes.
Whoosh, roll, push. The green of the verge blurs into the grey of the asphalt and the tree trunks strobe past. I feel as though I will never get there. There’s a deer, standing in a clearing, fixing me with its eyes over its shoulder and its mouth opens and suddenly it’s talking to me. I snap my head up again. Pull over. Water, snack. Come on, Anna. Nearly there.
Did I really ride all night? Being on Chiswick High Road feels like another life, another ride. I exit the New Forest and come into the busy streets of Christchurch. It’s now 8am – a normal hour for normal people. They sit outside cafes, drinking their morning coffees.
It’s the last painful stretch, and I’m running on empty. I force myself to keep going, over the pretty humped bridge and past Christchurch castle, over the yacht-filled River Avon (not that one), and onwards to where I can at last freewheel down to Boscombe pier and the seafront. The horizon emerges as I come down the hill, long and wide and straight, the sea rippled with a light wind. This is what one pictures when imagining the Great British seaside: an expansive sea, a long wide sweep of coast and plenty of sand.
I’ve arranged to meet David by Bournemouth pier and he’s there, striding towards me as I roll to a stop. My voice is heavy with the ride, thick with tiredness.
“I’ve brought you a flask of tea, a banana and a chocolate bar.”
What wonderful words! We sit on the seafront chatting, sipping from our flasks. I am suddenly wide awake. As awake as David, who has had eight hours’ sleep.
On one of our previous overnight rides, to Felpham, we had raced towards the waves as soon as we got there, the only two to do so out of a group of maybe 30 riders. ‘What’s the point of riding to the sea if you're not going to go swimming?’ I had said to David. But the beach shelved too gradually and the others looked on in amusement as we crawled on our hands and knees, the water never more than knee deep. It wasn’t long before we gave up and joined them in having an early morning pint.
It’s not like that today. This is perfect. After a few steps it's over our knees, then our thighs. We wade slowly, adjusting to the cold, then duck under, and we’re in, floating in cool, clear, green water. The rise and fall of the waves is slow, the breakers gentle. We stay far longer than I had imagined, just chatting, floating, kicking, drifting. Our horizon is bordered by the chalk stacks of Old Harry Rocks in one direction and the orange helter-skelter on Bournemouth pier in the other. There is something so magical and compelling about the sea, I simply can’t get enough. We stay long after our fingers have turned white with cold.
It takes a certain amount of motivation to mount your bike for a 100-mile ride when others are heading to bed. But the experience, the sense of achievement, more than repay the effort. This ride will shine like a beacon in the year, and will remain in my memory for a long, long time. It’s why we push ourselves – it would have been easier to go to bed. But I chose the beach, and a morning swim, and I chose to earn it the hard way.
It’s David’s words that sum this up the best. After our ride to Burnham-on-Crouch, the ride that saw us hiding from the rain at 1AM in a chicken shop on the Barking Road, and fixing a puncture in the darkness beneath the M25, and where a petrol station in Basildon was the only place we could find 5AM shelter and fuel, he wrote, once the day had broken across the Essex fields and the clouds cleared away:
“The sun looks me in the eye and I swear to live: Why don’t I do this every night?”