An Ode to the Night: The Most Intense Time to Ride

In the beginning, the night was feared and forsaken… Most people have a favorite day of the year.  For many, especially the young, it’s Christmas, for others, their birthday, maybe an anniversary, or yet some other uniquely-important-to-them number out of the 365 which appear on the calendar.  For me, it was a day in spring, …

photo: Jay Buthman
photo: Jay Buthman

In the beginning, the night was feared and forsaken…

Most people have a favorite day of the year.  For many, especially the young, it’s Christmas, for others, their birthday, maybe an anniversary, or yet some other uniquely-important-to-them number out of the 365 which appear on the calendar.  For me, it was a day in spring, the actual number of which varies from year to year, but always signifies one thing: the return to Daylight Savings Time.  While others would moan about losing an hour of sleep on Saturday night, having their circadian rhythms disturbed, blah blah blah, I was beaming inside knowing that in the coming week I would once again be able to get in those marvelous after work bike rides.

Conversely, my least favorite day of the year was the flip side of the same coin: the day we’d go off of Daylight Savings Time.  While the extra hour of sleep was nice as the clocks would “fall back in the fall,” losing my evening rides and becoming quite literally relegated to the status of “weekend warrior” was a time of great lament.  I would console myself by pulling out my skis and giving them their pre-season tune in anticipation of the coming opening day at my favorite resort, but that was small consolation, especially since weekend skiing would take away from the little time I had left to ride.

Just what the doctor ordered to cure the lack of daylight blues!
Just what the doctor ordered to cure the lack of daylight blues!

Merry Christmas!

We’re not really big on gift giving at my house.  I have pretty much everything I could ever want in life, which makes me very difficult to buy for.  There’s no point in trying to be more creative than, say, picking up a pound of bacon and stuffing it in my stocking.  But one bright and cheerful Christmas morning as I was looking forward to nothing more than spending some quality time with my family, I received quite the surprise: a new set of bike lights!  I had never really considered getting any for myself for a variety of reasons, chief among them the desire to not add heavy and awkward appendages to my bike.  But my wife had found a local do-it-yourselfer who had come up with a brilliantly simple, compact, and lightweight design that still threw a very impressive amount of light.  There lay a couple impossibly-small lights, along with likewise impressively-small batteries, and some mounting hardware.  Before the sun set that evening I had mounted both of these delightful little luminaries–one on my handlebar and one on my helmet.


Everything Is New Again

Scarcely a quarter mile into my first nighttime singletrack, I was way beyond stoked.  Oh, my little luminaries, where have you been all my life?  How many seasons have I wasted?  Even though I was on the same old trail I’d ridden a hundred times or more, this was a completely new experience!  Everything looks different at the end of a single, narrowly-focused beam surrounded by the black of night.  Those ugly old leafless scrub oak bushes which are, during the day, little more than eyesores which serve only to remind you that the season is not the one you want, suddenly become fascinating visual companions to the ride.  The trail itself, which had become as tired as seeing a rerun of the same episode of Gilligan’s Island for the 20th time, was suddenly something to be explored anew.  Every rock, every root, every twist and turn, were all something to be beheld for the first time.  I could have ridden all night, and nearly did.  Had I not had to go to work early the next morning, I surely would have.

This Is Intense!

As I arrived home, flush with excitement, I tried to relax and reflect on what made that ride such an experience.  As I had already surmised, the perceived newness of the old environment was surely the cause… but it was more than just that.  Over the next few rides, as the newness wore off but the joy remained, I was able to hone in on the reasons behind this phenomenon.

In short, night riding makes everything more intense.  The trail is more intense.  The surroundings are more intense.  The sounds are more intense.  All one’s senses are heightened.  It can actually be a bit overwhelming, the rush of experience flooding in though all your non-visual sensory receptors.  We know that when the body loses sight, the other senses become more acute in an attempt to compensate for the loss.  It would appear this is what happens to the night rider.  While sight is not entirely lost, it does take a big dip.  In contrast, I hear things I might not otherwise hear, smell things I wouldn’t otherwise smell, and I feel things I wouldn’t otherwise feel.  I even taste the air to a degree I don’t when riding in the daytime.  It’s still riding, but it’s a very different sensory experience.

Just as night riding heightens the senses, it also heightens a sense of togetherness… or solitude.  Night group rides are an absolute blast.  The shared experience of penetrating the darkness adds to the togetherness.  Maybe this harkens back to the days when primitive man would stay together in tight, self-protecting groups any time they left the cave at night.  There’s something bonding about sharing that more intense atmosphere.

At the same time, venturing out at night certainly makes solo riding more intense.  Without that sense of shared security to help overcome the natural human fear of the dark, the dark can penetrate us more than we penetrate it.  The right frame of mind is absolutely essential to keep from being overwhelmed… but really good lights certainly help!

Hogback Riding at Night

But Fear Can Remain…

I grew up in a rural area in the mountains where I regularly saw deer, elk, eagles, hawks, porcupines, bobcats, coyotes, foxes… pretty much the whole gamut of North American wildlife.  It was definitely mountain lion country, but in all those years in the mountains I never saw one in the wild. The big cats are tremendously shy and notoriously stealthy, so sightings are rare.

For the last six years, I have lived in a suburban neighborhood adjacent to many open spaces, and the area is rich with wildlife of all types, including predators. Amazingly, within a week of moving into our house in the city, just after dark, I saw one of the big cats in a neighbor’s yard, a full mile from the nearest open space.  That was two years before I got my night lights.

However, that image of what some biologists call nature’s most perfect predator stalking my neighborhood is embedded firmly in my mind, and reappears every time I head out on the bike at dusk or later, especially if riding alone.  As my sense of hearing is heightened, I hear every rustle in the bushes, every twitch of a tree branch, and my first instinct is to think every one of these little disturbances is a big cat.  In reality, it’s never anything more threatening than a squirrel or small bird, and if it was a big cat with intent to attack, he’d have me long before I heard him, but the instinct remains.  In any case, this is yet another way night riding is more intense.


An Unexpected Benefit

One discovery I never would have predicted is how night riding could help my development as a technical rider.  Being limited to a beam thrown in front of the bike has two major benefits.  Anybody who’s ridden for a while or taken a skills class knows that you should look well ahead, not straight down in front of your front wheel.  While we all know it, we don’t always do it.  But when we mount our lights so that they throw their light well ahead, we have no choice but to look out there, where the light is, not into that dark abyss right below.

Second, that focus helps dictate line choice.  Freed from all the trailside distractions, or even multiple choices within the trail itself, our decision is made for us and we can put all our mental energy into riding the line rather than picking one.  It is counterintuitive to think something which seems restricting can actually be liberating, but that is often the nighttime riding experience.


The Season’s Upon Us

So we’ve just crossed that line into early darkness once again.  For some, families will come together for the holidays. For others, the skis or snowmobiles will replace the bikes. And for others, they will begin another cycle of relative hibernation. Thankfully, based on some very thoughtful relatives, I will not be limited to any of those fates. As I approach the next Christmas present, I will remain thankful for a present from a Christmas past, which continues to allow me to venture into the darkness and the unique experience it provides.