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November 26, 2015 2 comments

Bring on the Night

Correspondence Friends Monthly highlights Travel & Adventure Cycling
By Jack Thurston
Bring on the Night

Mid November is the time of year when we face up to the undeniable fact that winter has arrived. More than that, winter has no plans to go away anytime soon. In fact, it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. The freezing temperatures and the bad weather are hard enough, but the lack of daylight is the really big downer (quite literally, for sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD as it's appropriately known). There's no getting away from the fact that if you ride your bike through winter, you’ll be spending a lot of time riding in the dark.

[caption id="attachment_15758" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Night lights"] [/caption]

Over the past few years I've come to enjoy riding at night. What was once an occasional thrill has become a necessity as juggling work and looking after young kids means I don't often get to slip away on the bike until the little ones are tucked up in bed.

I'll admit night riding isn't much good for enjoying the landscape in the usual way because most of it is hidden under the cloak of darkness. But every landscape has its own nightscape which come with its own subtle pleasures. Night is a quiet, monochrome place and bereft of light with which to see we rely on our animal senses: tuning in to the sounds of the night, the smells that waft on the night air and the slightest changes in temperature and humidity. And for all that cannot be seen, the imagination is only to happy to fill in the gaps.

As a species, human beings have evolved to be afraid of the dark. Our lives are ever more illuminated and we get to experience less and less true darkness. This makes only makes the rare encounters with the night, such as on a night ride, all the more strange and, sometimes, unsettling. The hoots, cries and bellows of the nocturnal creatures we rarely, if ever, behold with our eyes, seem primal, wild and alien: the screech of an owl can curdle the blood. In the all encompassing darkness, our sleep-deprived minds play tricks on us. Shadows and silhouettes become goblins and ghouls and it's a rare night ride where I escape without an encounter with a giant form crouching by the roadside, limbs contorted into grotesque shapes and ready to snatch me up off the road. By day a harmless windblown hedge, by night a terrifying hedgemonster.

One good thing I've discovered about riding at night is that there are far fewer cars on the roads, particularly on the dark rural lanes where I tend to prefer riding. Sometimes it feel I am the only one out there (apart from all the ghostly carriages driven by headless horseman and braying packs of phantom hounds, obviously). When a car does appear, I'll see its headlights long before I would see it or hear its engine by day. Modern bike lights mean that my lights are every bit as bright as a car’s so there’s absolutely no chance I'll not be seen.

Though the perfect night ride probably does take place on a warm summer's night, with a long drawn out sunset, a balmy breeze, and not too many hours until dawn, long, cold winter nights do have their own appeal. For a start, you don't have to stay up so late to experience the darkness of the dead of night, as this begins at about 8pm. Then there’s the pleasure of wrapping up warm, working up a sweat and watching your breath billow into clouds in the cold night air. The night sky in winter is usually clearer and darker than during the summer months, and starry sky that much more spectacular. When the weather conditions are right (warmish days, cold nights, still air), fog forms in the river valleys and descending from a ridge road into a thick fog bank is like diving beneath the surface of a silvery sea.

Here are some of my tips for winter night rides:

  1. Wrap up warm, with layers if possible, and take particular care with your extremities. When it's really cold I wear a double thickness merino beanie hat and thin inner gloves inside my windproof gloves. Thick, neoprene overshoes keep out the wind and I've taken to wearing thick woollen socks and sheepskin insoles. If it gets really cold, I'll swap cycling shoes for thick leather boots.

  2. Have a good idea where you’re going. Wayfinding is harder at night as familiar landmarks can no longer be seen. It’s harder to read a map while the glow of a GPS device can be a bit distracting. I prefer to ride well known routes so I don’t need to stop to find my way. A familiar ride in the day can feel like a different ride altogether at night. If I am venturing into the unknown I prefer a handwritten cue sheet listing the most important turns and waypoints. A phone with a GPS app (and downloadable maps that work when you're out of signal range) is good for emergencies.

  3. Modern bike lights are astonishingly good, both for seeing and being seen. Dynamo lighting is more expensive and can’t easily be swapped from bike to bike but once installed it’s always ready to go and there’s no risk of running out of batteries. Carry spares: both a spare set of lights and spare batteries. I carry a small head torch, which helps if I have to fix a puncture. Reflective clothing can’t hurt. Ankle bands that move as you pedal help motorists identify that you’re riding a bike. Reflective wrist bands or gloves with reflective patches make turn indications easier for others to see.

  4. Pay attention to the moon, its phase and its time of rising. A full moon is best for seeing the land in the eerie silver glow while a new moon best for seeing stars and galaxies as there’s no moonlight. The further you can get away from the light pollution of large towns and cities, the more stars you'll see and you may even see see the sparkling river of the Milky Way.

  5. I get hungry faster in the cold than in warm weather. I sometimes plan a route via a village with a fish and chip shop - I’ll ride a long way on a cold night for a bag of steaming chips doused in salt and vinegar. Or I'll carry a snack with me. If it’s really cold then make up any drink you take with warm water, or the nozzle might freeze solid.

  6. Check the weather forecast before heading off into the night. If storms are forecast, I’ll stay at home as much more than a hour riding through the rain in the dark is truly miserable and wet and windy weather makes the roads more dangerous. If it's icy, I prefer to head off-road, where frozen conditions aren’t such a problem. Mist and fog add to the pleasure of night riding, so I seek them out just as much as clear skies.

Are you a two-wheeled creature of the night? Then share your own tips and tricks in the comments.
seasonal affective disorder http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Seasonal-affective-disorder/Pages/Introduction.aspx
peter May 23, 2016 at 7:41 PM
Quite right, much obliged. Duly noted and amended in the text.
Jack Thurston May 23, 2016 at 7:41 PM