07 October 2012

Build us an Ark!: Friday Night Ride to Whitstable

Alberto and I are fond of saying "never cancel a ride because of the forecast." Certainly not in the UK. On Friday, we learned that sometimes weather forecasts can be very accurate.

Last summer, Friday Night Rides to the Coast was one of our favourite ways to spend an evening. This year, we had only managed one FNRttC, way back in March, so when the Whitstable ride came up and we didn't have other plans, we signed up right away.

Earlier in the week, the weather forecast was looking iffy. But this is England, forecasts change by the hour, so we remained optimistic. But the forecast never improved. Still, last summer Alberto backed out of a ride to Whitstable in which heavy rain was forecast, and then later heard that they hadn't seen even a drop. We decided not to back out. On the way home from work on Friday evening, it had already started to rain and we both got soaked. We considered staying home, but pure stubbornness led us to pull on our waterproofs and leave home at 11:20pm, heading for Hyde Park Corner.

We arrived to see a smaller than usual band of cyclists. Everyone had a different take on exactly how many layers, and how much waterproofing, was necessary. We each had on long-sleeved base layers, long-sleeved jerseys, and our waterproof jackets (I had a wool buff as well). On the bottom we just sported cycling tights (longs). We wore non-waterpoof socks, overshoes, and non-waterproof gloves. In Alberto's pannier we carried our Sealskinz waterproof socks, waterproof gloves (which we had deemed to warm to wear at first), and a set of civilian clothes to change into in Whitstable, where we would be visiting a friend. It turned out to be a relatively good choice of clothing, though I regretted not wearing waterproof trousers as well.

Intrepid cyclists gather beneath the arch at Hyde Park Corner
We set off through the streets of London, as usual, and headed out to the southeast, via Surrey Quays and Greenwich. Twice in the suburbs of greater London we encountered some drunk kids who thought it would be fun to run around in the road in front of us, which wasn't very fun. We had to stop multiple times for members of the group who had punctured, not a surprise given the wet conditions. It wasn't a particularly cold night, but since all of us were quickly drenched, each time we stopped the cold started to seep in.

Riding out through southeast London is relatively urban for a long time, giving us the feeling that we were still within striking distance of home. Alberto and I entertained a few thoughts of turning around, but again, we were just too stubborn. So we just kept going.

On the way into Strood my back light became waterlogged and started spontaneously switching between its many flashing modes -- or perhaps it even invented new ones. Apparently this was very annoying to ride behind, as I noticed large gaps in the group forming behind me. Fortunately I had a second back light that I was able to switch to in Strood so as not to annoy my companions for the rest of the journey.

The halfway stop in Strood was like a refugee camp. As we arrived, a queue formed to get into the building as each cyclist stopped to squeeze water out of their gloves and clothing before stepping through the threshold. We took off most of our out items and strew them over every available surface. We ate our sandwiches, cakes, and tea, and Simon, the ride leader, asked for a show of hands as to who would be continuing on. About ten of the group decided to ride to the station in Rochester, a mere 2km away, and catch a train back to London. Part of me wanted to join them, but another part of me knew I wanted to finish this ride. After more than four hours in the rain, to go home then would leave me having wasted a night (and day as I'd be exhausted) on a miserable ride. But if I continued on, I knew I could at least have the satisfaction of finishing to balance out the misery of the experience. So on we went, having changed into our dry gloves after the stop (but saving our dry socks for the finish!).

The ride started to come into its own after Strood, with lovely lanes and, as the sun evenually started to come up, lovely views of the Thames estuary. We trudged on, through puddles several inches deep and up a few welcome hills which got our temperatures up a bit. Soon we were closing in on Whitstable, just as the clouds began to clear. When we reached our destination, a cafe by the waterside, we were greeted with sunshine.

Clouds breaking up as we reach our destination.
After a quick hot drink with the group, we made our way to Alberto's friend Carol's house. As we changed into dry clothes, Carol made breakfast. I don't think I've ever been so well taken care of or so grateful for someone's hospitality. We had always planned to visit Carol when we arrived in Whitstable, we just didn't know how much we'd appreciate it once we got there! A few hours later, and after a quick exploration of the harbor, we caught the train back to sunny London. Had we waited until morning, we could have enjoyed a beautiful sunny day on the bikes. But then we wouldn't have had such a story to tell!

Blue skies a few hours later as we explore Whitstable's harbor

Still smiling after all that rain!
Harbor in the sunshine

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