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 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.
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.