On Saturday June the 18th 2016 is the Ride to the Sun. An annual cycling event starting from Carlisle, in the North of England, which takes in one hundred miles of moonlit roads and finishes across the border in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. Riders aim to finish at 4:30am just in time to watch the sun rise on the city’s Cramond Beach. This year is my first time riding the event and I am really looking forward to riding the route at night.
For most people cycling at night either involves the winter commute, that cold, wet grind to and from work where you just want to get it over with as quickly as possible, or riding home from the pub or a café in the evening where things are a bit more relaxed; particularly after a few cocktails. However, for some, night rides are something entirely different.
Night riding, for some of the more hardcore mountain bikers, is a short season of a few weeks you look forward to at the end of the summer. It occurs after the solstice when the evenings are growing shorter, but before winter starts and the ground gets icy after dark. Descending through the forest becomes a slower affair than during the day, yet feels so much faster because your visibility is restricted and obstacles are upon you so much faster. All the skills you have sharpened over the summer are called into action at lightning speed as your adrenaline levels rise sharply. When you and your friends emerge from the forest, at the bottom of the trail, you are whooping with delight and laughing excitedly whilst you giddily recall the close calls and epic manoeuvres you pulled off as you sent it down the hill. There is nothing quite like it and if you have never tried it, do it!!
For road cyclists the sensations are just as visceral, but not quite so adrenaline fuelled. Granted there are still the fast, descents into the dark, but there aren’t the same obstacles that our fat-tyred friends are facing. Unless you come across a patch of gravel whilst doing 60kmh down a steep hill that is. Roadies experience a more calming sensation. One of the major pitfalls of road cycling is motorists. Whilst I am both rider and driver; when out on the bike I hate traffic. Wherever possible I try to pick routes where I am away from traffic. The noise, emissions and fears of vehicles passing far too close when they are overtaking is something which can ruin a ride if you let it. When out on the road late at night the traffic magically disappears as most sensible people are cuddled up on the sofa watching television with their partner or already tucked up in bed. This is the time where the roadie rules. Save for the odd car driver on their way home or overnight truck driver, the road belongs to the rider. Bliss! The night cyclist enters a zone where it is them, their machine and the road. That and occasional wildlife straying into the road; also in their own place of peace as humans have retreated to their homes for the night.
For the purposes of this article I am focussing on cycling on the road at night. As a roadie and fan of long-distance riding I have come to enjoy riding at night and over the years have learned a thing or two about riding after dark.
1. See and Be Seen When Riding at Night
Probably the most obvious thing to consider when thinking about your first night ride is lights. However it’s not just a case of slapping on any old lights and riding off into the sunset. Here’s a few things to bear in mind.
Buy high power bicycle lights
Low power lights that get you noticed by drivers in the city will not be powerful enough when you leave the suburbs and the street lights end. You will quickly find that when things get dark your lights will not provide enough coverage to illuminate the road sufficiently. Particularly on fast descents when you need to be able to look further ahead to watch out for potential hazards like potholes. You really need a powerful front light, preferably over 1000 lumens and with separate battery pack that can be recharged. Those with integral batteries will be unlikely to provide prolonged use for rides of more than a couple of hours. Your more powerful light will also mean other road users will see you sooner. That’s a win-win!
Have a look at cycling website road.cc’s guide to the best front bike lights. They even have a tool to compare the beam of some of the leading manufacturer’s lights!
Seeing what’s in front of you is only solving half your lighting requirements. You also need to make sure you are highly visible from behind. This is something that a lot of cyclists neglect and is doubly important on unlit roads late at night. Drivers tend to be able to drive a bit faster than normal as there is less traffic on the roads. Therefore a mixture of plenty of rear lights and lots of reflective strips or panels on your clothing is extremely important. A reflective band around your ankles and on your wheels are highly effective at night because they are moving objects and help drivers identify you as a cyclist from a long way off.
2. What to Eat on the Bike at Night
If you are not used to riding in the middle of the night you will be unfamiliar with your nutritional requirements. Your body would normally be either asleep or slowing down in preparation for sleep and not expecting to be working hard. Therefore it is even more important to pay attention to your nutritional needs. It is very easy to forget to eat and drink at night when neither you or your body is used to being out and about and you are distracted by all the new sensations of night rides.
Remember to eat something every half hour or so, as you usually would during the day. Because most of us aren’t used to eating at night our metabolism slows down. Therefore eating small amounts regularly will be easier on your stomach than eating larger snacks which may make you feel queasy. This is particularly important if you’re on a longer endurance ride which began during the day. Don’t be tempted to stop and stuff your face no matter how good the chippy or pizza shop smells. If your stomach is too full your blood is diverted to your stomach to help digest all that food. This will make you feel lethargic. Your leg muscles will not have the same blood flow and you will it will have to work harder to maintain your pace. Stick to light snacks or smaller meals. Bananas, cereal bars and small cake bars are great. Pork pies and sausage rolls are good to if you want something a little more substantial as they offer carbohydrates and protein.
As the temperature drops after dark you will feel less inclined to want to eat or drink as much. However it is still as important to keep eating and drinking. You are still burning the same amount of calories, and some say even more so, when it’s cold.
3. Wear Layers as Cold At Night
In Northern Europe the temperature drops a fair amount at night. Particularly here in Scotland. Dress accordingly. A temperature variation of up to 10°c will feel quite considerable when you’re out on the bike. Make sure you are either carrying or wearing suitable clothing to deal with whatever variations of weather you are likely to be faced with.
Arm and leg warmers are a good opttion as they can be easily stored in your pockets, a saddle bag or small rucksack or Camelbak and go a long way to making you feel cosy when the temperature drops. A lightweight, windproof gilet or jacket is another valuable tool to have at your disposal and is just as easily packable. Don’t forget your fingers too. If the temperature is going to drop below 10°c you might want a pair of long finger gloves in your pocket.
Of course, keep an eye on the weather forecast. If it’s likely to be wet a waterproof jacket may be what you need. And not fogetting a peaked cap to put under your helmet. Or if it’s going to be cold when you set off do what you would normally do; put on your roubaix tights and long finger gloves.
4. Look After Your Eyes
Cyclists love their eyewear. It all started with skier-turned-cyclist Greg LeMond back in the 1980s when Oakley signed him as the face of their Eyeshade range. Now Geraint Thomas is a leading protagonist in the cyclists’ sunglasses marketing machine. Whilst I am not a fan of Oakley glasses; they simply don’t suit me; I do prefer to wear glasses on the bike.
Here in the UK there are a lot of flying insects in the Summer and the air is cold at night. Weaing eyewear on descents is advisable to stop bugs getting in your eyes and stop the cold air from making your eyes water. Both of these are enough to cause a crash if your pace is high.
Of course there are many more reasons to wear glasses; protecting you from flying debris off the rider in front’s tyres, reducing glare and ultra-violet light from the sun and keeping rain out of your eyes to name a few. But at night? Whilst eyewear is not so vital after dark, there are huge clouds of flying insects in the air at twighlight. Particularly where there are trees. Getting these in your eyes is both painful and distracting. So wearing glasses right up until it is fully dark is the best option.
Bear in mind that tinted lenses will severely impair your ability to see as the light fades. If you have interchangeable lenses, put in clear lenses. Yellow lenses are good when the sun is low in the sky and the shadows are long. They help reduce the contrast between light and shade, but still cut out some light. So when the light levels are low and the clouds of insects are large yellow lenses will still restrict your vision. Therefore clear lenses are your best option.
5. Check Your Speed When Cycling at Night
Even with a fantastic set of lights and your clear lensed glasses your vision is still not going to be 100% at night. This makes descents more dangerous. Therefore reducing your speed on fast descents is highly advisable.
A good set of lights will have a wide beam pattern, but this is usually not enough to see around corners. Also you are unlikely to be able to see as far ahead as you would during daylight. Not only that, but artificial light makes the road appear smoother than it actually is. Road debris and potholes are harder to spot and appear out of nowhere with little notice. Gravel is a particular hazard. It is harder to see on the road at night and can cause you to slide off the road on fast corners.
Beware of suicidal wildlife too. Rabbits, sheep and deer have a habit of running out of the verges in front of you at night. You make less noise than cars so animals are less likely to see you as a threat on the road.
Take extra care when riding at night. There are lots of hidden dangers; not just caused by the lack of light. Dress accordingly and remember to eat and drink regularly and you will have a great time. Riding at night is a real treat and adds a whole new dimension to cycling. Enjoy it!