Monday, December 21, 2009

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

As I write this some of my friends are out there riding their bicycles through the shortest night of the year. My wife persuasively argued that I get plenty of night riding on my commute and in the words of Brother Ray, "the night time is the right time to be with the one you love." But there is something special about night riding, something known to randonneurs and all-year, all-weather cycle commuters. Even though this time I chose to be home, to sleep and to write while others ride, I've been out there enough to know something of the draw of the darkness, the wonder of a world feared by many and loved by some.

Things easily taken for granted in the world of light, things like being warm and being able to see, are not free gifts in the night world. The night world is still the frontier, animals lurk in the darkness and may skitter across your path and what lies just beyond your headlight beam could be smooth pavement or a pothole. That edge, the limit of your vision and experience, draws you forward. You can not conquer the night, but you find, with practice, that you can explore it and you may find that you love to explore it.

The legendary randonneur Jack Eason, taught me the single most valuable thing I've ever learned about riding at night. Years ago, riding with Jack on a dark night in the Canadian Rockies, he noted, "you're looking where the light is pointed, don't do that. Look beyond, into the darkness. You'll see what's in the light anyway." Jack was right, he'd learned to navigate a blacked-out London in England's finest hours. And thanks to his lesson, I've had many fine hours on darkened roads, looking not at the light, but at the darkness.

In 1999 I rode Paris-Brest-Paris, alongside several hundred other Americans and thousands of folks from Europe and the rest of the world. In that time, before high-efficiency LED lights and commonly available quality generator hubs, rigging a bike light that would run all night was something of an art form. The American lights tended to be more powerful and we home-brewed battery packs with lots of cells and sent them ahead in drop bags. The French, in general, opted for dimmer solutions and at the time I joked that I expected to see some French fellow with two fireflies in a jar strapped to the front of his bike. But the French riders made it through the night and I think the difference is faith and experience. As a novice randonneur I was putting my faith in electrons and photons and was intent on doing my best to make the night into day. The French, instead, made peace with the night.

In the world of randonneuring the 400K brevet is the distance where most folks have to ride at night. On a couple of 400K rides, I've been riding next to someone who confesses as the sun is setting that they have "never ridden at night before." I always find this amazing. You don't get to the point where you attempt the 400K distance without some training and given the fact that (unless you live at an extremely northern or southern location) it gets dark every night of the year. Those nights are opportunities.

Now I know some folks, perhaps most folks, think it must be more dangerous to ride at night, but I've thought about this and considered the data and I think that while there certainly are some risks, there are other factors that can help to balance out those risks. At the end of the day, so to speak, we make our best choices. I ride at night and I actually think I may be safer riding at night than I am riding in daylight.

There is less traffic at night. It is like riding in a less populated world. Fewer drivers on the road translates into fewer chances for collision.

But what about those stats that show more accidents at night? David Smith's analysis of a couple of years of accident data shows that yes, unlit cyclists do die. But lights and reflective gear do a lot to make a cyclist visible. In the photo at the top of this post, I'm the guy whose helmet and sash are glowing in the reflected light. Over the years I've tried to enlighten folks (pun intended!) about the virtues of lights and reflective gear. This post is part of that continuing effort.

But there are drunk drivers at night, people say. Well, yes there are. And there are distracted drivers during the day. I do try to avoid the bar scene but some times, especially on brevets, you will encounter a drunk. My friend Jon, lit-up and well-reflected, had a memorable encounter with a gentleman lit-up in the other sense, on a brevet a few years ago. The fellow drove slowly past Jon, pulled his truck over and flagged Jon down. "What youse guys are doing, it's really dangerous man. I mean, I drink and drive. I shouldn't, but I do. But you guys, you shouldn't be here, 'cause it's dangerous. But youse guys, I can see you from a long ways off. So you're doing something really dangerous, but your doing it in pretty good way. But you should know guys like me are here."

Night is a time when we as riders stand out. In the bright light of day, even our bright clothes can blend into the busy background. At night, we stand out. One dark, rainy night I was stopped at a light (yeah, I do things like that, call me a rebel) and a lady in a SUV pulls up along side me. She rolls down her window and says "you're very well-lit, thank you." 'Thanks for not running me over," I reply. I never quite know what to say in those situations.

The night time is the right time to be with the one you love. But sometimes, by circumstance or choice, we ride at night. With some lights, some reflective gear and some practice, it can be wonderful.

Ride safe out there and keep 'em rolling,

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