Night Riding

© copyright July, 01 Stephen W. Medcroft (all rights reserved)

A version of this article first appeared in Silent Sports Magazine (published and distributed in Wisconsin) in 2001.

At night, on my mountain bike, I live in a twenty-foot bubble of light. The world disappears into blackness at its border. The trails are empty except for me. How far the next hill climbs is of no immediate relevance. Nothing exists beyond the reach of my headlamp. I could be a thousand miles from the rest of mankind or just around the corner – I don’t care. All that matters is the purity of the single track immediately before me, the sweep of the next turn, the rhythm of the climb, the wrench of a drop just out of view…

* * *

I remember the first time I showed up to the local shop for a night ride. I was apprehensive. I was signing up to ride behind a group of, what I figured, would be advanced riders, in darkness, on trails I was unfamiliar with, with only a flimsy headlamp to guide me.

The ride started at seven, beginning with a four mile road trek to the trail head. The diverse group of as many as 25 people was made up of two or three teenagers, a handful of women, and a tandem pair. One of the men was at least sixty, some were high-caliber racing types, one a former pro. In a comforting recognition though, I could see that most of the riders were at a more recreational development in their cycling career.

Immediately, there was a collegiate spirit to the group that made it comfortable to fall in with. Conversation was abundant. There was no rush to get the well thought-out and challenging route done. The guys out front, who seemed to pace off ahead seeking confirmation their cycling superiority, had no problem waiting patiently at prescribed break and re-grouping spots. They smiled and encouraged the rest of us as we struggled in their wakes. There wasn’t even a stink made about the couple of hold-ups for the replacing of flatted tubes.

Everyone I rode near was chatty, smiling, supportive, and stayed close enough to everyone else to keep the group together (in case someone encountered mechanical difficulty off the back). Without crowding me dangerously. And this didn’t have to be ordained or demanded of them by the shop owner or ride leader; it just happened.

The comfort of the group as a unit washed away any remaining insecurity and allowed me to focus on the ride itself; on the moment.

Night Ride

Night Ride

Soon, after reaching the trailhead, after following the stream of flashing-red rear lights up a snaking climb into a shallow canyon, after being bunched with ten or fifteen riders in our faster group on the switchback and listening to their cacophony of cursing and huffing (or was that me?), after breaking atop a switchback and falling into a fast, snaking, roller-coaster like trail system on the other side, there came a moment of pure cycling peace. I separated from the riders ahead and behind and found myself alone along a sweeping arc of hard-packed singletrack with just my breathing, my heart’s beat, and the thrum of my tires on the trail.

It made me think about the fact that most of our time in life we are surrounded by the world. There are people with us at work, on the roads, in our communities, in our homes many times. The same can be true with cycling (even during solo rides). On trails and roads, where we pedal away borrowed, stolen, or spare time, cars, people, and our communities surround us.

In this dark moment during my night ride though, this minute of true isolation, separated from all the world but for the connection to the earth through the knobs of my tires, I felt more connected to cycling than I can ever remember. A kind of mountain top serenity. A meditative expansion of awareness. As if by isolating my experience to such a quite, single moment, I feel my greatest connection to it all.

By the end of that first ride, I was hooked on night riding. I had just lived a moment in life I wanted to touch again. And I know I’m not alone. I have heard the words “that was the coolest ride I’ve ever done,” from more that a fistful of first-time night riders. And thanks to my weekly ride, it’s a moment I’ve been able to visit every week at seven PM on Wednesdays (earlier in Spring and fall).

* * *

It seems that this colony of night riding is universal. Mark Hirsch and his wife Denee host a Tuesday evening ride on their 187 acre farm near Plattsville, Wisconsin. “The people that I night ride with represent the full spectrum of riding skill and experience… We also have several women that join us on our rides and a wide range of ages.”

Riding mountain bikes at night is a surprisingly accessible expression of the sport of cycling. So besides the equipment you already have in hand (bike, tools, clothes, legs, lungs, and heart), what else do you need to get started?

Oh yes, light.

* * *

You can buy cycling specific lights made by a variety of manufacturers. And if you just ask a fellow night rider, you’ll discover no shortage of opinions on what works best (for them). But, as with most things about cycling, and even though the manufacturers would convince us that what they have made is the answer to all our lighting needs, the choice of what to buy is highly subjective. And since it is the single most important gear-related decision in night riding, consider these arguments before laying a credit card down on some lucky bike shop’s counter top:

Analog vs. digital

The difference between the two is in one systems superior ability to allow manipulation of the light. A digitally controlled lighting system can give a rider affective control over the power of the beam – to turn the light up when needed or to turn it down and conserve battery power. This control could be valuable. In full moonlight, you may only need a low-beam setting to see a safe thirty feet ahead of you, saving the high-beam setting for darker nights.

Digital systems also do a better job of displaying battery life, showing you just how much juice is left on a small display built into the control for the light. Some digital systems even allow you to strobe or send a Morse-code S. O. S. signals with your lights.

This all makes digitally controlled lights the be-all/end-all right? I’m not so sure. Don’t overlook analog lights yet. With simple on/off functionality do the basic job (lighting your way), which makes them just as practical as digital lights but (drum roll please) less expensive.

Headlamp vs. handlebar mount

Lights come with brackets which allow you to wear them on your helmet or handelbar. A handlebar-mounted lamp will provide a stable viewing field throughout the entire ride and a deeper shadow pattern (due to the lower-to-the-ground angle) resulting in better depth perception. A headlamp, with its steeper angle of light and the maneuverability that comes with it being mounted on your helmet, may be more comfortable for you.

Mark Hirsch suggests that the best setup of light for night riding is “a combination of handlebar mount with a headlamp as well. If you can only afford one light, would recommend a headlamp… Your handelbar mounted light isn’t shining onto the trail until after you have completed a turn.”

Ben Neff, leader of Chain Smokers Mountain Bike Team out of Madison Wisconsin, agrees. “Definitely helmet mounted headlamp because it shines where you look so you need a less powerful light.”

But again, with the light source coming at a level even with your eyes, you don’t always see shadows and can be fooled into colliding with features on the trail you don’t see without depth perception.

Single vs. dual

For more money, you can buy a headlamp with twin bulbs. The advantage is that you can turn one lamp on for low light conditions and longer battery life or turn both lamps on for higher visibility.

And dual-beam may not be the ultimate way to get ultra-bright light. Erik Angermeier, owner of the Slippery Pig Bike Shop in Phoenix, Arizona, runs a NiteRider Storm H.I.D. lighting system. This single-beam headlamp is based on the same sealed gas technology as those new, high-end, expensive automobile headlights that blind you from the oncoming lane nowadays (Metal Halide Arc). You know the kind – they put out an almost extra-terrestrial pure blue-white light that casts for ever. When Erik wears his headlamp, he can drown out my own light from fifteen feet behind me. The light is so blue-white it can throw a slash of daytime onto a night-darkened trail.

On the market today, there are a dozen lighting systems using the new lamp technology and, although expensive in purely comparative terms to other lighting systems, they are fast becoming the standard.

* * *

On last tip regarding lights — never go out on a night ride with one of those boxy, double-AA battery powered safety lights you can buy off the shelf at department stores such as Target. They don’t throw nearly enough light for a safe ride, cast odd patterns and shadows, and have unreliable use of their power source.

* * *

Okay, so the equipment issue is handled. All that’s left to question is why? Why night ride? Would you do it because it may be better than other types of cycling at allowing you to capture the soul of mountain biking? Does it offer a connection to our sport that’s unique from any other?

Or are you more practical than that? Do you need training for 24-hour endurance racing, for example.

Ben Neff rides “for fun, mostly.” Mark Hirsch says, “We ride most of our night rides in the fall after daylight savings time kicks in, somewhat out of necessity in order to continue to get in our Tuesday night rides. It also adds a new dimension to riding trails. The same trails take on a whole new feel at night. With the shadows that are cast by your headlight and the headlight of other riders, the quality of light will challenge you to clean those familiar stretches of single track.”

The shadows thrown by artificial light cause a concentration not necessary in normal trail riding. Some riders believe it helps crystallize their technical skills because of the adjustments they need to make for a shorter field of vision and the constantly changing and sometimes awkward patterns of shadow.

There are other reasons. I ride because it’s a great way to get in a mid-week workout, to tie the weekends together and keep the body in some kind of shape.

On hot days, riding in lower temperatures and out of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation keeps the body’s cooling system from working overtime.

(Let’s not forget the social benefit. Think of the veil of reverence your co-workers, friends, and family will view you through when you tell them what you were up to last night. “You rode your bike up that mountain?” (Demure laugh.) “You’re crazy.”)

Maybe this qualifies as a practical benefit as well: There is that social pull to night riding that draws me back week after week. Mark Hirsch backs me up on this. “On our daylight rides, it’s always a kind of race approach. There isn’t much conversation because everyone is training for races. The group gets pretty spread out based on riding skill level. On our night rides, the group stays together with lots of conversation. We also take care not to leave an stragglers too far behind. It makes for a more friendly ride.”

(PS: Mark Hirsh and friends host an event at their Plattesville farm called the annual “Blockhouse Roll and Burrito Blowout.” This year’s event will be held September 29th. Check local Madison bike shops for info.)

* * *

It’s Wednesday night again and another awesome night ride is behind me, deposited in the Bank of My Legs, awaiting withdrawl at the upcoming 24-hours of Adrenalin in Fountain Hills, AZ. Back at the shop after our ride, we gather for a half hour or so. A couple of bikes go up on the racks – for investigation into various slippage’s and creaks and rattles. Someone raids the shop fridge and the last Hard Cider and a few left-over Fat Tire Amber Ales are passed out.

I cherish this time in the company of others of my kind. In that social moment, I ask for advice to give to those who were thinking about trying night riding for the first time, who might be striving to the place we found ourselves – that almost sexual post-ride depletion, mental release, and spiritual squishiness. We came up with these final tips:

Always ride with a group. For safety, of course. So there’s a buddy to help you pack out the pieces of a broken bike. (Can you imagine riding at night alone anyway? I can’t walk my house in the dark if the rest of my family is out of town without queasiness.)

It is highly recommended that at least one person intimately know the trail system you are riding. It is amazing how different the same route can be without the cozy spotlight of the sun to show you the way.

From Mark Hirsch: “Don’t ride the wheel of the rider in front of you. Headlight riding reduces your perception of depth. It can also affect your reaction time since it’s harder to see any obstacles that may cause the rider in front of you to hit the brakes.”

With a group of significant size (five or more), be sure to assign a specific ride leader and sweeper. The leader rides up front and points the way. The sweeper stays behind the last rider. Both assignees, of course, must know the trail.

Regroup at regular intervals and count up your group. A good soldier never leaves a comrade lying alone in the field of battle.


SIDEBAR – Finding a night ride and packing for success.

This all sound like fun? It’s easier than it may seem to find a local night ride:

Call your local shops or clubs like Mark Hirsch’s. “We have a very active club, the Chain Reaction Bicycle Club, that organizes many of the larger group rides. We also have three very active shops that put together rides. If your local shop doesn’t organize rides, they should be able to connect you with other riders and you can organize your own.”

If your efforts fail to find an organized ride, don’t stay home. Just “grab your friends,” recommends Ben Neff. “Email your club members and go.” Haunt your favorite trail. The rewards of the experience return more than the effort spent. Just keep these thoughts in mind when you call:

  • Set the ground rules. Minimum necessary lighting standards. Spare tubes, food, and water rules. Helmet mandatory. Ride leaders and sweepers assigned.
  • Choose a common spot. Ask your local shop to allow you to use them as a starting point. They’ll sell a lot of lights. You’ll gain a consistent meeting place and a regular ride route (essential for successful night riding).
  • Follow the safety recommendations of the article in this magazine.
  • Have fun.

We know you need light, your bike, and someone who knows where the hell they’re going. But don’t forget to be sure these essentials can be found within your group before setting off:

  • Spare tubes (multiple. Someone will always forget theirs. (pack plenty of tubes especially because of rides like when Tom, our local shop mechanic, suffered five flats before we finished one ride.)
  • Tool kit. I’ve seen pivot bolts come loose, cranks slip, spokes pop, seat posts fall, hangers bend, deraileurs derail.
  • Food and water. Enough and then some. It may be dark but it can still be hot and dry.
  • Flash Light. Mark Hirsch recommends that you “throw a small, inexpensive flashlight in your Camelbak in case your batteries die in your riding lights.”
  • Two-way radios. Like Motorolla’s talk-abouts. We use them to either communicate between the fast and slow groups (so we know where to reconvene for the ride back to the shop) or to keep the head of the group connected to the tail.
  • Cell phone. Just in case.
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