Every now and then we stumble upon something that makes us giddy like little kids in a candy store. We hoot and holler. We squeal with delight. Our hearts race. For me, this was discovering mountain biking at night.
When I first started venturing out after dark it was a fairly lonely experience. Night riding wasn’t a terribly popular way to enjoy two-wheeled exploits amongst my group of friends. It’s not because I was a trendsetter, it’s that I was just crazy enough to wander into the darkness alone, or with my dog. It was a 45-minute drive from my house in Seattle to the trails. It was cold. It was often rainy. But it was usually just what I needed.
There’s something magical about the respite provided by losing yourself in the night. Riding in the dark requires a type of hyper-focus that I’ve not really experienced any other time on my bike. Even climbing a mundane fire road is transformed into an eerie, if not whimsical tunnel of the unknown. Perhaps this is what I like best about night riding. Everything just feels so different, even on the most familiar trail. It’s like riding a bike for the first time again. The thrill that comes with riding in the dark is similar to that feeling that enveloped you when you first discovered your balance. It’s a different type of freedom.
These days we tend to mourn daylight savings time for numerous reasons, including the fact that it often cuts into our already precious riding time. In the spirit of loving the dark I encourage you to try night riding. Maybe you’ll love it. Maybe you won’t – and that’s ok too. But if nothing else, it can open up an entire different type of exploration that you’ve never experienced.
If you’re new to night riding here are a few tips that have really helped me become comfortable in the dark.
Lights- When it comes to lights, I’ve found you pay for what you get. There are a multitude of good brands out there, but there are a few companies that have been in the night game for a really long time and have created really lightweight and amazingly bright products. My experience has taught me that it’s great to run two lights: one on your helmet, and one on your handlebars. This is important for a couple reasons. If one light should die, it’s pretty critical to have a back up. Secondly, running a beam solely on your bars provides false accuracy of the trail. Your bars don’t look around corners before you turn. Your head does. If you’re only running a light on your bar, you’re going to be completely unprepared for what’s around the bend. Additionally, having a light on your bars is a great supplement to a lonely beam on your head.
Look for running around a minimum of 1200 lumen on your headlamp. I run 1600 and find it to be completely sufficient and often don’t use the beam at full blast. On the bars I run around 300 lumen, making me a seriously bright creature of the night. When positioning your headlamp, you’ll need to tinker with the angle. It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it thing. Because terrain varies, you’ll need to figure out the angle that works best for you on the type of terrain you ride. Also, beware of your visor. Helmet visors will inhibit lights set too low.
Brands worth checking out: NiteRider, Light & Motion, and Lyzene.
Safety first! Perhaps there’s irony in safety first when night riding, as it’s an inherently dangerous activity. There are a few things you can do to help ensure you’re being as safe as possible. I’d encourage first timers to ride with an experienced friend, as those woods can be spooky at night! It’s not uncommon to turn your head into the trees and have eyes staring back at you. Hopefully it’s just Bambi or a raccoon. But, in the event you’ve got scarier nocturnal predators in your area find out what their habits are and learn how to avoid them when possible.
If you do decide to ride alone make sure you tell someone your route. The trails aren’t nearly as busy during the night and if you knock yourself senseless, the chances are good no one is going to find you for a while. If you’re someone who likes to listen to music while riding, consider leaving the ear buds at home on your night rides. The dark silence is equal parts a blessing and frightening. Different creatures roam at night, and it may not be such a bad thing to hear that shuffle in the woods. If anything, it might make you ride faster.
Lastly, try a trail you’re very comfortable with during the day for your first night ride. This is probably the most important thing to emphasize: everything is different at night. Everything. That little jump that you can throw shapes on without thought suddenly seems like the third hit on Crabapple. Learning to jump in the dark takes a bit of practice as your shadows obviously cast in different ways depending on the angle of your light. Nothing in the daytime mimics this, so just take it one step at a time.
Follow these steps and your first night ride is sure to be slightly less terrifying. Be sure to stop and take in the night sounds and the cooler air. And remember, a little fear is a good thing. It keeps us alive.
words and pics: Lacy Kemp