Riding the Dawn Patrol on My Mountain Bike

It’s 31 degrees at 5 am. I walk out the door to a clear moonlit sky. Walking to the car, I see the fiery destruction of a meteorite as it streaks across the upper atmosphere, a shooting star. I look at the almost full moon which just started waning gibbous a day ago. Amazing how beautiful it is.

I start the quick 12-mile drive to the Bartram Trail at the Petersburg campground and I’m excited about heading onto the trail so early. The roads are almost deserted but just a few minutes into the drive, I find myself behind a truck pulling a bass boat. What crazy person would be going fishing at this time? Then my mind screams “hypocrite!” as I think about the fact that I’m heading to the same lake with my mountain bike. The more I think about it, most people would consider me the crazy one, especially if they saw how I was dressed: a pair of tan baggy shorts, a grey skull cap, riding glasses, homemade grey leg warmers, and a bright orange paddle jacket. I could be the poster child for PeopleOfWalmart.com with this get-up.

On the way in to the trailhead I notice a single truck on the west side of the road, most likely a hunter or two. My plan to ride west on the trail changes – not that I’m afraid of hunters or dislike them, but out of respect for their space. I believe hunters have as much right to enjoy the forest as I do, or hikers do, or any other group does. Let them have their time and I’ll go the other way in private solitude.

Finally, I pull into the lot, not surprised to find it empty. The first thing I do is turn on my bike light so I can unload my bike and get geared up. I guzzle the last of my coffee and jump on my bike. The forest is quiet. It takes me a few minutes to get into my rhythm. My fingers are cold – maybe I should have worn warmer gloves.

All of a sudden my worries of cold fingers disappear when I hear movement in the woods. Then I see three deer running ahead of me across the trail. What an awesome sight! I am energized and continue riding into the dark.

As I ride, I notice the sky ahead is grayish in color but the moon is behind me. Night is slowly turning to dawn. As I meander down the Lake Springs loop, I notice a sliver of dark, crimson red at the horizon – a new day has arrived. I slow down, not because I’m tired – far from it. I want to see the birth of a new day. I find a spot and take a few minutes to enjoy watching the sliver of crimson turning into a chasm of purples, reds and oranges. Off in the distance I hear, for the first time, motors of boats as fishermen head onto the Lake. Closer by, the forest is starting to wake up as I hear rustling in the branches and a few birds chirping.

Soon I am on my return trip. I still need my light under the canopy, but where the trail is in the open I can see the trail meandering ahead. The leaves are slowly changing from dark shades of grey to their bright autumn colors. Finally, I reach up and turn off the “tunnel of light” and pick up the pace. Unlike other times I ride, this type of riding allows me to go all out at the end. When it is dark I hold a little back, more cautious.

I manage to pull into the trailhead a few minutes late. Late? Yes late, I wanted to beat the sunrise. I load up the car, still alone at the trailhead, no evidence that I’ve even been here. Another successful Dawn Patrol!

Riding pre-dawn is just another way to do night riding. Here are a few reasons why I enjoy it.

1. When you have four kids, you ride when you can.

2. You usually get the trails to yourself.

3. Watching the forest wake up is amazing.

4. A least for me, I have more energy in the morning.

5. I am a morning person already. I wake up before dawn most days and I’m not a night owl.

6. In warmer times of the year, you do a service to other riders by clearing out cobwebs and spiders. You think they look scary during the day? Check them out in the dark!

7. If you have a breakdown or bad crash, you won’t have to spend the whole night out in the woods – just a few hours at most.

8. I get a killer ride and still have the whole day to spend with my wife and kids. In other words, I still get the rest of the day to do whatever I like, maybe even another ride.

9. Can you think of a better way to start the day? Neither can I.