Riding Through Shadows

The seasonal changes are all part of the fun of mountain biking, giving us something new to look forward to as we keep the pedals turning. In the Southeast, the summer is blazing hot, but we can ride until about 9pm before darkness takes over the forest.  As fall moves in, the temperatures drop, and the sun sets earlier and earlier every day.  An after work ride might start in the daylight, but it will likely end in the dark.  Then the time changes – ‘tis the season for night riding.

My local bike shop hosts a mountain bike ride every Wednesday night, all year round.  Folks drop by when they get off work, while the sun sits low in the sky and throws long shadows across the pavement.  We change clothes, fill up bottles and bladders, check tire pressure, put some lube on the chain, and swap ride stories.  At 5:30 the sun sets, and the shadows take over.  At 6pm the shop closes, and 30 minutes later we roll our bikes out the door onto the sidewalk.

It's warm in there.

We stand around for a minute or so waiting to go, everyone making their final adjustments–lots of familiar sounds.  Helmet buckles clicking closed, GPS and smartphones beep and buzz.  Some riders are calm and chat casually, others seem a bit nervous.  Ready to go.  Not sure what the night will bring.  How’s the trail, is it dry and fast, or wet and slick, or too dry and loose?  Is this going to be an easy group ride or a hammer fest?  Will I get left behind?  What else is out there in the woods, in the dark?  It’s cold, just standing around in the dark like this–I always wonder what drivers passing by think of us. LED lights come to life.

Finally someone says, “lets go.” Click click click click go the many feet clipping in, followed by the buzz of knobby tires on pavement, and the snap of shifters and ka-chunk of derailleurs moving chains down cassettes as we pick up speed.  We roll 50 yards down the sidewalk, across the railroad tracks, then cut across a parking lot and spin up onto the canal levee.  We follow the levee trail pretty much all the way to the singletrack, usually in a fairly tight group.  But tonight I’m on my single speed, and the gear ratio isn’t suited to this flat, fast riding, I have to spin fast to keep up.

The ride to the trail is a perfect warmup.  We regroup at the southern entrance to the singletrack.  These woods are thick, and the trail is narrow and twisty.  It’s dark.  We figure out what day it is, and which direction to ride.  Everyone here?  Time to go.

See that big black hole just beyond the riders? That's the singletrack.

The faster guys go first.  Sometimes I take the lead and play the rabbit, but usually I’m not the fastest rider in attendance, so I do some chasing.  We cross the railroad tracks and drop into the darkness.

Night riding in a group is a weird mix of tunnel vision and sensory overload.  Your light pierces the dark in front of you, but doesn’t get very far thanks to all the trees.  The light from the riders behind you all add more light, but coming from different places than your own light they throw weird shadows. Since everyone is moving, the shadows are constantly moving and shifting as well.  The trail flows through your tunnel of light, and lots of shadows cross, follow, and dance in your light on the trail ahead of you, courtesy of the lights behind you.  It plays with your eyes and your mind.  Is that a root or a shadow from that little tree in the apex of that last corner?  Did Bigfoot just leap off the trail into the brush or was that my own shadow?  Sometimes you catch the reflection of eyes looking back at you.  Probably just a deer.

Probably.

Familiar trails feel completely different in the dark.

We reach the main trailhead, out of breath, legs on fire.  Looks like tonight, like most nights, is a hammer fest for some of us, for a lap or two at least, until our legs say “no more.”  We’ll wait here for everyone to regroup.  Lights are turned off to save battery power and to keep from blinding everyone else.  While everyone catches their breath, sentences are kept short.

“That was fast.”

“Trail is grippy.”

“Ben crashed.”

The 3 mile loop is perfect for fun, social rides like this.  The fastest guys never get more than 7 or 8 minutes ahead of the slowest riders.  It takes both fitness and good bike handling skills to really ride this trail fast.  Lights move through the trees, and one by one riders pull into the trailhead.  Steam rises off some of them.

Chillin' at the trailhead. No really, it's cold just sitting around.

Everyone is here.  We all got past Bigfoot, yet again.  “It’s getting cold, anyone ready to go yet?”

“You go first.”  Someone’s light comes on, then the tale-tale click, click of their pedals, and off they go into the trail.  More lights blaze on, more cleats click into pedals, and we take off after them.  Here we go again.  It’s just another Wednesday night, riding through the shadows.

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