Hello darkness, my old friend
Darkness holds no fears really,
the world is the same
just fewer colors
Growing up in Minneapolis, I had to get used to riding in the dark at an early age if I was to have any real fun. It started when I was a kid pushing the limits of long summer days, telling my mom I’d be back on two wheels before dark. At first I’d stay out just until the last yellow glow dipped beneath the horizon. But eventually I came to interpret “coming back before dark” as “before it’s pitch black out.”
As a kid, I didn’t have lights or reflective gear. Sure, it was a risk, but damn, it was fun. In the darkness, even the most well-used route became new. My friends and I would pretend we were exploring a new world. We’d cut through trees in yards, take alleys as much as possible, try to make it down the sledding hills without falling over and get home so exhausted we usually had to be carried into the tub (unless we jumped into the pool one last time and called that our “shower”).
When I got my first winter commuter bike at the age of 16 (I rarely actually used my mountain bike for trails, opting to pedal it over and into snowbanks instead), riding in the darkness became something different.
Then it meant I would commute home after my shifts as a barista, when what little light there was bounced off new snow. It was then I started to truly see what riding in the dark offered.
The hush was so soothing. After listening to milk steamers and coffee grinders for hours on end, nothing could top my silent six-mile ride home. I also loved the absence of a sense of speed or time. My way lit
by little more than street lights and the headlights of passing cars, I never knew if I was moving rapidly or just rolling along. It didn’t matter at night. Really, nothing mattered at night, except staying warm.
Commuting in the dark
Now I do most of my limited dark riding during the witching hour. Waking daily at 4:30 a.m. for work usually gets me on my steed by 5:30, so only during the longest days do I see the glowing globe.
During the fall and winter, the big dipper guides my way, and in the summer, the waking songbirds call on my commute. My favorite, however, has to be when the sky turns the deepest indigo for about 20 minutes prior to sunrise.
Half of my route is lit by street lights and half if completely dark. Honestly, I prefer the complete dark since I don’t have to constantly correct my vision in between the cast circles of light. My pupils dilate and my only concern, other than being seen by the few cars out that early, is making sure I avoid any debris in my path.
The darker the stretch, the more likely I am to run across owls, coyote and the shiny little pupils of raccoons. Other than my love for silence in the city, getting a close encounter with urban wildlife is one of the reasons I would never switch to driving to work. I am always amazed by what goes on around us when we aren’t looking.
Sometimes I’ll be dragged out at night, either to a bar, concert or a nocturnal gravel ride with friends. I doubt I’d have the energy to be social at night if I didn’t ride to them. Even a few miles always works better than coffee. My senses are almost always magnified after riding in the dark, making concerts that much more enjoyable.
At least once I a year I get a crazy idea (usually encouraged by nutty cycling friends) to ride all night, or at least most of it, on gravel. The rides will start anytime between twilight and midnight. After a couple hours, I completely lose all sense of time, place and direction. I either follow my cue sheets or follow friends who “think” they know where they’re going. If I’m on a trail, I just try to ride in a straight line and hope I don’t hit a rodent hole.
These loose events almost always bring out the kid in everyone involved. Even those who don’t feel comfortable riding in traffic in the dark will almost always settle into a rhythm on trail.
So if you’re new to riding in the dark, here are a few “bright” ideas. First, it’s just as important to be seen as to see. Don’t assume a motorist will be paying attention. Get yourself a very bright red tail light, reflective clothing (anything reflective on the legs or feet is perfect since it moves and is in direct line with most automobile headlights) and a headlight, preferably with 300 or more lumens. If you need a light to actually guide your way, 500 lumens or higher works best.
In most cities having your bike lit is legally required and you can be fined for not having proper lighting. For safety, I always make sure I have a spare light on me or extra batteries if I’m out for a long time. If you are looking for a brand to buy, I have always loved NiteRider.
Slowly ease yourself into riding in the dark. Start by riding at dawn and dusk and see how your eyes respond to limited light. Some folks just don’t have good night vision and feel blinded by the oncoming headlights of motor vehicles.
So it’s best to see how you do in diminished light before jumping into the
darkest of the dark. Knowing your route and making note of debris or potholes on it in the day time can greatly cut down on your chances of crashing in the dark. Make sure to behave predictably when changing your line of riding in case there are motorists in the vicinity.
Don’t hesitate to report potholes to city officials. It’s important they know how dangerous it can be out there for cyclists.
The next step
Once you’re comfortable riding a bit at night, you might want to take on a nighttime gravel, mountain bike or road ride. For these, I always suggest having a headlight which has 750 or more lumens or a hub generated headlight. Because you’ll be traveling at a faster pace, you don’t want to “outride your light” and be unable to see what’s coming before it arrives.
I always play it safe by not only recharging everything before one of these events, but having two headlights mounted on my bike, a spare in my bag and two taillights ready in case one burns out. During these events I periodically check to make sure my taillight is still on.
Once the initial fear is gone, you’ll find a whole different world opened up to you. No more hitting the trainer in the spring and fall because of fading light since you can just throw lights on your bike and go. No more driving to parties or concerts with the concern of driving back after one or two beers.
It comes down to having no excuses for not having more fun.
If you want to try some night events, check out Riverwest 24 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in late July; Powderhorn 24 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in mid-August; the Night Bison Gravel Nocturne in DeKalb, Illinois, on August 31; or any 24-hour mountain bike races, such as Pick Me Up at the Border on the Badger State Trail from Madison, Wisconsin, to the Illinois border and back in early September.
Or create your own event. The possibilities are as endless as the nights are long. I think you’ll fall in love with riding at night as I have.
Kierstin Kloeckner used to race bikes and now commutes by bike to work as a personal trainer and yoga/pilates instructor in Madison, Wisconsin. She blogs at twowheelsfromhome.blogspot.com.