Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Gifts of Distance and Darkness

Of all the gifts I've received over the years, among my most treasured are a couple of lessons I learned from the many kind people in the randonneuring community, especially my friends in the Seattle International Randonneurs. The first lesson is simply this: Any Distance is Biking Distance. All the rules, paperwork, time limits and shiny medals are mechanisms to bring riders together so they can learn this simple lesson from one another. While the main lesson is a simple one, the details of pacing, equipment, nutrition, lore, history and so on are things learned slowly and repeatedly. The details get tested on the road, in every ride and brevet.

Randonneurs have been described as "riders who enjoy riding so much they don't want to stop" and as the distances get longer, randonneurs outride the daylight. If you do a Google search or ask around you will find plenty of opinions that riding a bicycle at night is incredibly dangerous. In fact, there are thousands of bicycles sold with stickers boldly stating "DO NOT RIDE AT NIGHT." And people will tell you "There are drunks on the road!" and "You can't see where you're going!" and the always persuasive "It's just crazy to ride at night!"

Despite the persistent rumor, randonneurs aren't crazy. (Maybe some are, but you don't HAVE to be crazy to be a randonneur.) Because randonneurs ride at night, they know things about riding at night. They know what lights work and how to see where they are going. They know that unfortunately some people do drink and drive and they can also tell you when the bars close and what the traffic patterns are. They can also tell you what mini-marts are open in Stanwood, Washington at 3:00 AM.

And they'll tell you this: It is beautiful at night. It is a quieter, more tranquil, less-populated world. You will see more animals and fewer people. There are far fewer cars on the road. I honestly believe that with good lights and reflective gear, a rider on a bicycle is at a lower risk riding at night than during the busy hours of the day. My rando pals recently rode a couple of overnight Solstice Rides (one on the weekend and one on the true solstice). People can ride their bikes in the darkness and not only survive, but thrive.

These days I'm mostly working on the weekends when the randos ride and I've got more than enough control cards and rando pins in my collection. The medals are just metal, but the lessons learned on darkened roads and the 4:00 AM conversations with my friends are priceless treasures.

You don't have to be a randonneur to ride at night. I just got back from a short, lovely bicycle ride around my neighborhood. The streets were quiet and mostly empty. The few cars I encountered were going the speed limit and their drivers did not seem stressed or distracted by a cluttered, noisy and busy world. I did not feel endangered or threatened or fearful. I felt relaxed and happy. My rando friends showed me this world, a gift we are given every night of the year.

Happy Holidays, everyone. We're given gifts every day and night and the best gifts are those that remind us of how very much we have.

Keep 'em rolling, day and night.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Mark Vande Kamp said...

Great post. Riding at night is has created many of my best memories. It is so much better than can be described, but this is a nice attempt.

That "Major Award" picture is awesome! I truly hope that it exists in your town and isn't a frame grab from the movie.

Kent Peterson said...


The well-lit house with the "Major Award" in the window is just down the street from me. Swing by some night and I'll show you.

BTW as our big family gift this year Christine, the boys and I are going to see the musical version of "A Christmas Story" at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.

I hope nobody shoots their eye out or gets their tongue stuck to a flag pole...

Joe P said...

So Kent,
We were thinking of you as the two solstice rides went right past your house. I gave a little wave.

We had some colorful characters chat us up at the gas station on the corner.

Word on the street was you got a bit too busy to join us. Perhaps next year for the third annual version.

Johann Rissik said...

Yet another great piece, thanks Kent. And thanks for all your blogging, if I look back at they year, your blog is front of mind".

Anonymous said...

Riding singletrack (especially snow-covered singletrack) in the woods at night with lights is an absolutely magical experience. As long as you bring good lights, clothes, a cell phone, and common sense it can be quite safe.

Nocturnal Pedaler

Anonymous said...

great blog kennet hope all is well with you and your family! i miss the oregon team rides.


kfg said...

I didn't go out for a long ride on the solstice, too damned cold (bearing in mind that I don't start to use the word cold until it's under 20F), but I did go out for a bit of light display viewing.

I love riding in the dark. On a warm June night I'll take a fixed gear and for hours just ghost through the areas where the red winged blackbirds hang out in the daytime and listen to the chorus of a bazillion frogs.

Or just run down the main drag in town enjoying being damned near the only one on it.

I'm not afraid of the dark, and besides, I leave a night light on. Not that I believe in the boogeyman or anything, but it never hurts to be careful.

Bob said...

Thank you and Happy Holidays, Kent.


Anonymous said...

Heck, at this time of year all it takes to be a night rider is to be a commuter. Getting off work at 5:30 PM means that every ride home is a ride in the dark. Yay? Val

Nick said...

How are things? I've recently moved 10 miles from town which often requires riding at night on WV hilly, winding 2-lane. I got a good helmet-mounted light and using a reliable bike and good common sense have found it to be nothing but a pure joy. Thanks for this post, it was good to hear it from someone else. Here in WV there aren't many people condoning night riding, even the club and racing riders.
Nick Hein

Dr Codfish said...

At every pause I was thiking I had something to add, but then in the next paragraph you covered it.

My experience conforms: I never considered a long ride through the night until it was required to get to the next controle. and then, along the way I discovered a new and wonderful way to see the world.

Thanks for reminding me.

Yr Pal Dr C

Susan Tomlinson said...

Interesting. I've never thought about riding at night this way. Maybe I'll try it.

Rick @ Bicycle Fixation said...

Hear hear! I love night riding, in fact I dote on it. Short rides or long, doesn't matter. Good lights make you more visible than in the daytime, I agree. I love riding at night in the rain, as well.

Everything looks different, light and shadows give new shapes to the city (I ride in Los Angeles), the air feels and smells different. Lighted windows give you more sense of the human life around you than daytime walls do. Away from busy streets you hear animals in foliage, smell the night-blooming flowers, hear different birds....

Last night I rode back from Santa Monica to our home in the Miracle Mile, about 12 or 14 part of the day!

Cranky Mule said...

I discovered the joys of night riding years ago when I started to commute home from midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn after my late night shift. I now live in Atlanta longer work many late nights so I find myself inventing reasons to stay out late so I can have the roads to myself.

Eric Shalit said...

Another great article. I've got a lot of back-reading to do on your blog to catch up. So much great information.

Kelli said...

There are many joys of riding at night. I was just talking with my mom about how I ride my bike at night. She told me that worries her, but really, I feel safe on calm roads. I also love to follow the phases of the moon and feel the joy of solitude as I ride alone at night.

Although, I avoid riding my bike right around bar close...crash at your friends or ride home in the very wee hours of the morning!

Leedo said...

I commute a lot from Redmond to Sammamish and this time of year that is 100% in the dark (both ways). Two of my most memorable commute were in the dark-
1. Around Christmas 2010 I was riding home on my favorite "trails and backroads" route when the battery on my big light ran out (forgot to charge it maybe?). I switched over to my little "be seen" light but it was not very bright at all. After a few minutes IT WENT OUT TOO! I was without any non-red illumination. As my eyes adjusted I found my saving grace: Christmas lights! Many houses along my route were lit up for the holidays which made it much easier to get home. Any other time of year it would have been a VERY slow ride home.

2. I was at work one day when we had a big emergency and I was forced to stay until 1:30 am. When I rode home I actually decided to stay on the busier arterials in case I had any issues with my bike. The ride home was surreal! Not a car in sight for the entire ride home. No, not a single one. I did nearly 10 miles on East Lake Sammamish PKWY, SR202, and Sahalee Way. What an amazing night! The stars and moon were out, even though it was pretty chilly.