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Tis’ the Season to Ride (At Night)

It’s officially winter. That means that the days are pretty damn short. So by the time most of us get off work, it’s all ready dark outside. That leaves us only a few options: not ride, ride the trainer, or buck up and ride at night.

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There’s something eerie about riding at night. I think that’s why most riders shun the trail after dark. For some reason, I revel in the opportunity to ride. It’s more than just the added challenge of railing the trail after dark. Maybe it is about doing something you’re not supposed to do. We’ve all been told stories by our parents or friends of a boogieman that lingers in the shadows at night, waiting to catch us off guard. Now is the perfect time to set our fears aside and enjoy this new riding experience.

I remember the first time I tried riding at night. I was just getting into mountain biking and one of my co-workers at the Highroller Cyclery in Fayetteville, Arkansas invited me on a night ride. I didn’t have a light at the time, but I had access to decent deals since I worked at the bike shop. I picked out a NiteRider Owl halogen light. My 15-watt light had a burn time of around 2 1/2 hours. Perfect for what I had in mind. So after work we hooked up to ride the trails on the backside of Mt. Sequoyah in Fayetteville. For those of you who don’t know this trail, it is probably one of the more technical trails in Fayetteville. Gnarly rock gardens, huge ruts, exposed roots, and off-camber trail conspire to introduce you to the dirt in the most unpleasant ways possible. Most of the trails are poorly marked or not marked at all. Not exactly the best trail to ride at night, but I was young and stupid. I didn’t care how hard it was to ride. I was just jonesin’ to try something new and I was going stir crazy due to the short days of winter. I was willing to try anything to maintain my fitness and my sanity. Now riding in a group is definitely the way to start night riding. You not only get the added light on the trail, but you can learn to follow each other’s line in the dark. We started the ride with a road climb to the top of Mt. Sequoyah, and then the fun began. Our lights created a tunnel of light as we bombed down the singletrack descent. I kept my arms and legs relaxed in order to absorb any unseen obstacles in the trail. It felt like riding a totally new trail at night. There was no longer any distractions of normal riding in the woods.

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I could only focus on the short section of trail illuminated by our lights. The only thing that really freaked me out was the occasional bat that cruised through my peripheral vision hunting the insects attracted to our lights. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for me to get hooked on the adrenaline rush I got from riding at night. I began to relish the unexpected. I learned to be more relaxed on the bike, reacting and flowing with the trail as I rode. I was becoming a better rider with every pedal stroke. I definitely made a few mistakes, and I received the bruises and cuts to prove it. On one of the descents down a power line, I was nearly bucked off my bike, when I clipped a pedal on an unseen rock lurking in the dark. I emerged from the trail exhilarated and relieved that I had survived. I knew that this wasn’t the last time I’d ride at night. The rest is history and I’m no longer afraid of the dark. I’ve gone on to compete 12-hour races and 24-hour+ adventure races that have required me to tune my night riding skills to a fine art.

If I’ve sparked any interest for you, here are a few tips for riding after the sun goes down:

  1. Buy a good lighting system. This is not a place to skimp. The rule is the more light the better. Most riders like to have a bike mount and a helmet mount light system. If you only have one light, mount it to your helmet. This makes it easier to look around corners as you ride. LED lights are lightweight and have a longer burn time. I recently bought a Light & Motion Stella 200L, and I have been completely happy with the amount of illumination provided by this product. If you want the stadium light effect, try the Light & Motion Seca 700 Race or the NiteRider TriNewt LED Li-Ion. You won’t be disappointed.
  2. Stick with familiar trails. Riding a new trail at night is asking for trouble unless you’ve done a lot of night riding. As you become more relaxed on the trail after dark, you can test your newfound skills.
  3. Know how long your battery lasts. This may seem elementary, but it’s easy to forget. There’s not much worse than getting caught on the trail with a failing or dead light, and having to walk back to your vehicle by braille. Consider carrying a backup light source just in case your ride lasts a little longer than planned. If you ride in traffic, make sure to buy a rear, red flashing light.
  4. Don’t change the way you ride. Stay relaxed on the bike. If you tense up, you’ll be less likely to absorb any mistakes as you ride down the trail.
  5. Carry extra clothes. Temperatures will tend to drop as you ride, so bring an extra long sleeve synthetic shirt or jersey.
  6. Ride as often as possible. Your night vision will gradually improve as you spend more time on the trails. Who needs more excuses to ride more, when we usually come up reasons why we can’t ride.
  7. Consider riding during a full moon. You’d be surprised to see how much ambient light there is when the leaves are off the trees. Sometimes it’s so bright, you can ride in the dark without a light. This is only recommended for more experienced riders.