Getting Away With Something

03.2.2009 | 4:32 am

It’s getting dark earlier, and getting light later. Early morning rides aren’t as appealing, and early-early morning rides are right out. And by the time I’ve got the kids in bed, it’s totally dark. Which creates a tragic irony: Autumn is the best weather of the year for cycling, but there’s no light to go riding.

Unless you’ve got lights of your own.

How to be Smugly Self-Satisfied

You know how there are certain moments in your life that you can recall vividly at any given moment — just go back and relive them? My first night mountain bike ride is one of those moments. As usual, I was following in the footsteps of my cycling friends, spending an outrageous sum of money — around $150, I think — on a VistaLight setup: two halogen lights mounted on my handlebars (one pointing right in front of me, one pointing further ahead), and a third light mounted on my helmet, so I could see wherever my head turned. The whole setup probably added eight pounds to my bike, and my head lolled from side to side due to the extra weight on the helmet. To tell the truth, it seemed like a dorky idea, this “night riding” thing.

Then we went riding. It was up on “Frank,” the trail I have ridden more than every other trail combined. It was close to home and work, so I had ridden it literally hundreds of times. I knew it by heart.

And yet, riding at night, it was completely brand new. All I could see was the trail immediately ahead of me, a vague outline of the mountain’s profile, the lights of the guys riding ahead of me, and the sky. All the familiar landmarks were gone. Everything that made the trail familiar was erased. And all I could hear was my bike and my own breathing. It was the best kind of solitude.

As we rode up Frank’s seven steep pitches, I noticed I was riding much more “in the moment” than usual. When you can’t see what’s next, you stop worrying about it so much. I concentrated on what I could see, and enjoyed the ride.

We regrouped at the top, then began the first part of the downhill. It’s a fast, open stretch of singletrack, but I was much more cautious than usual. Not being able to see anything further than 20 feet away does have its drawbacks.

Just before the final descent, we regrouped at an overlook that has a pretty remarkable view of Utah County. “So,” Dug said, “You’re on the same trail, but it feels totally different. You’re out riding when everybody else thinks there’s nothing to do outside. Doesn’t it feel like you’re getting away with something?”

It sure did.

NiCad Sucks

NiCad batteries used to be pretty much your only option when night riding. And the problem with NiCad batteries is, as I mentioned in the above heading, they suck. Specifically, they’re finicky about how they’re charged, and if you recharge them before they’re fully discharged, they can poop out on you at an inconvenient moment.

For example, a large group of us went to Moab a few years ago, camping at Slickrock. We got there in the evening just as it was getting dark, suited up, set up our lights, and took off on the trail.

Now, the cool thing about Slickrock trail is that there’s a white dotted line painted on this endless sandstone terrain. Follow the white dotted line and you won’t get lost. And you won’t fall off a cliff. The painted dotted line reflects the light from a headlight very nicely too.

Until, of course, two of your three lights unexpectedly go out, and the third one’s kind of dim. Then you get to slowwwwly pick your way back to camp, scanning for the white line, wishing there were a full moon, getting off the bike frequently because you’re not sure whether up ahead is a minor little drop or 10 feet straight down. Or 100 feet straight down. Or more.

By the time I got back, I had promised myself that I would ebay my old VistaLight setup in favor of one of them new-fangled HID setups with Lithium-Ion batteries. And I didn’t care if it cost $400. And the fact that this setup is so bright that it comes with a warning not to shine it into people’s eyes because it will blind them, or not to shine it at anything too long because it will burst into flame? Well, that’s a bonus.

Look Up

The best argument for riding at night, though, is what happens when you get out on a remote ride. Every pair of glowing eyes is — at least momentarily — a mountain lion. And there is truly no sound.

And then you turn your lights off, and look up.

I did this somewhere between Rabbit Valley and Mack, CO, on the Kokopelli Trail, after having been on the bike for around 13 hours. I have never, ever, ever seen so many stars.

Looking up at that sky, I had to sit down. It’s the only time in my life I’ve experienced vertigo.

PS: This post rescued from my Spaces archive. Originally published 9/20/05.


  1. Comment by jon | 03.2.2009 | 6:16 am

    You nailed it. Riding in the dark can actually make you better!

    Most stars seen: lying on a houseboat in the middle of lake powell… also, meteors every minute not even during a meteor shower.

  2. Comment by Biking Badger | 03.2.2009 | 6:40 am

    that first night ride is amazing. I remember it so clearly. Everything is magnified. You seem to focus just on those few feet. Brilliant.

  3. Comment by Erik | 03.2.2009 | 7:46 am

    Riding at night on the road is wonderful a well. I haven’t ridden enough on a mountain bike to attempt anything more tricky than light snow – but lately I’ve been heading out after my daughter goes to bed, lights, to climb in and out of the Ohio river valley. It is pure joy.

  4. Comment by WheelDancer | 03.2.2009 | 8:05 am

    Night mountain bike riding is as close to pure Zen as I have ever experienced!

  5. Comment by Aaron | 03.2.2009 | 9:28 am

    Living in AZ, night riding is just about the only way we can ride in the summer. Unless you want to get up at 4am for a morning ride. But I need my beauty sleep, trust me. And you’re right, night riding DOES make you feel like you’re getting away with something. While others are sitting on the couch, watching American Idol. You’re out having fun.

  6. Comment by Fuzzy | 03.2.2009 | 9:48 am

    Nice post Fatty :-)

    I’ll say again how lucky you Americans are. There isn’t anywhere in my part of the world where I can escape light pollution to get that ‘Star Filled Sky’ moment. I do the lying down and looking a lot when I’m over there though.

    Luv ‘n Stuff.

    Fuzzy from the UK

  7. Comment by Kathleen | 03.2.2009 | 10:45 am

    I love star-generated vertigo…it’s only happened to me once – also in Colorado. Priceless.

    Love the post…I clearly have much to learn.

  8. Comment by Big Boned | 03.2.2009 | 11:15 am

    Jill’s off. You can track her through her website.

  9. Comment by DZ Scientist | 03.2.2009 | 11:25 am

    Favorite ride at night is Clarks Trail in corner canyon. Red light on the back flashing to scare mountain lions (no data to prove this works). The eyes on the back of my helmet probably cannot be seen. Fatty, you need to make glow in the dark rear eyes. It is surprising the instinctive horror felt when a pair of retinas glows back at you. Dear=mountain lion for 1 second. Adrenalin for 10 min.

  10. Comment by Clydesteve | 03.2.2009 | 2:20 pm

    I’ll bet Jill is escaping light pollution about now!

    I had this same getting away with something feeling the first time I did a night SCUBA dive in the Phillipines. It was magical.

  11. Comment by MikeonHisBike | 03.2.2009 | 5:53 pm

    Night riding rocks. I haven’t done it much but it’s really fun. By the way, I’ve thrown down a weight loss challenge for next week on my blog. If you’re interested in participating swing on over. All losers will be donating to LAF. If you aren’t interested no big deal.

  12. Comment by Evan | 03.2.2009 | 6:54 pm

    I love night riding. Especially in the early morning hours when most of the town is asleep.

  13. Comment by Stevenson | 03.4.2009 | 12:25 pm

    Nice night ridin’ , riding in the trail with a full moon and stars are the bomb. but lack of lights for the trail ride makes it difficult for us but no one beats the camaraderie and jokes with ride buddies.

  14. Comment by Angie | 02.21.2011 | 9:03 am

    I love night riding. It means that nothing has to stop me from riding except conditions where I could freeze. (mainly deep snow or rain on cold days). Because of night riding, I was able to keep in biking shape all winter and come into the next season already strong. Plus, it’s so cool to be doing something that few others do. With good bright lights, I can go almost as fast as I do during the day.


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