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,



Eric Keller said...

I really like riding at night. Now that I've always got a dyno on my bike, I don't have to worry about getting back from a ride just because it's going to get dark. That theory never worked out for me anyway.

Anonymous said...

"some of my friends are out there riding their bicycles through the shortest night of the year."

I've got friends Down Under too!

Ron Cobb said...

"I've come to talk with you again"

Rolling at night can be so peaceful and at the same time exhilarating. Our magic carpet rides so much smoother and faster in the darkness. It's a dangerous drug if not respected. "And the gold rolled through his veins, like a thousand railroad trains..."

There are potential dangers lurking in the roads, and they hide at the edge of darkness. Effective night riding takes a dollop of faith that what should be in front of you actually is, seasoned with a healthy dash of apprehension about the fallen branches, pine cones, water filled pot holes, and piles of wet leaves that will suddenly appear in your path out of nowhere.

Ride safe my friends. Enjoy and respect the night as we pass through this season of darkness and the light begins to return once again.

Vincent Muoneke said...

Nothing like the cool of nite on a hot and long one.

Joe P said...

I was thinking of you. We rode through your town around 1:00 in the morning. We had ALL the lanes coming down from the highlands. Great night, indeed.

Bob said...

Hi Kent,

I know just what that lady meant when she congratulated you on being well-lit. A few months ago I passed a cyclist on the shoulder on my way to work (driving). He had no lights, no reflectors, a black messenger bag, and dark clothes. I would have been traumatized if I had hit him, but if I chose to pull over on the shoulder at that point I probably would not have seen him until it was too late to stop.


Errin said...

I love riding at night too. I've always thought that less cars on the road can't be a bad thing. Although your story of the drunken driver is pretty scary.

I think as long as you have decent lights, there is no difference. At least through the city, where the streets are lit up anyways. I'd imagine that in rural areas it can be a different story.

I'm planning to attempt my first brevet (200K) on Jan 2nd. There is alot of talk from the more experienced riders of finishing before the sun goes down. I am fully planning to finish in the dark though. I'm sure that my Dinottes will get me through safely.

Anonymous said...

Just by chance this evening, I happened upon a favorite nook of the city, that being Interlaken blvd. between Montlake and Capitol Hill in Seattle. There aren't many places in our town where I feel safe sans lights. Interlaken with just the light of the moon or a distant street lamp is pure pleasure for me. Good for the eyes I think. I takes a moment to adjust, and with deep ravine to the right, you often have only the faint contrast of the pavement to guide you through the twisty turns. Ahhhh.

Dan O said...

Cool post.

My dark commutes on the Burke-Gilman Trail is like having your own personal bike highway, since bike traffic is way down this time of year.

Seeing red blinking lights of fellow commuters up ahead - sometimes far ahead - draws me to ride faster and catch up, since there's little else to focus on. The dark rides are fun for awhile, then I can't wait for spring to return.

It's amazing how many lights are on the market now. I remember getting my first set up Nightsun lights in the early '90s. It was almost a novelty at the time and pretty expensive. A fellow riding pal tried rigging up his own lights, using RC car batteries and other hardware. We'd take bets to see how long it lasted - usually 15 minutes, then he'd follow me out of the woods. Fun times.

As I teenager, rode everywhere on my bike - dark nights included - no lights at all. Not exactly the safest thing to do, but a cool feeling cruising through the darkness.

I bought my 10 year old son some lights for Christmas. Will be fun to see him experience his first dark woods ride.

kfg said...

"And the gold rolled through his veins, like a thousand railroad trains..."

There's a hole in Daddy's light where all the money goes?

Maybe he should get one of those dynamos.

Anonymous said...

Errin mentioned some riders on an upcoming 200k wanting to finish before dark. At this time of year, the choice to finish before dark means starting in the dark, unless you're fast and plan on cranking out an 8h 30m 200k.

I'm nowhere near that fast, and the persistent rain this past weekend had me starting and finishing my 200k in the dark. Armed with a couple PBSF blinkies, my wired B&M Seculite, an Edelux and an E3 (if I need that much light all at once!) I never felt uncomfortable before the sun was up or after it was down again.

Ron Cobb said...

"There's a hole in Daddy's light where all the money goes?"

Ha ha, Good one! And how true it is. I was afraid my John Prine reference was a bit too obscure for the masses (or at least the younger set).

Rick @ Bicycle Fixation said...

Love night riding, always have. Wife and I often ride out after dark just to noodle around the neighborhoods here in mid-city Los Angeles. One headlight, one taillight each.

I've ridden without lights, too, but the last time I did that--thirty years ago, using moonlight--I startled a skunk who hadn't heard nor seen me coming, and he got in a direct hit.

And that's not a metaphorical skunk, either!

Parker said...

Good piece, Kent. In my almost 6 decades of cycling, it never occurred to me NOT to ride at night: it's an essential piece of transportation cycling. Great tip about "looking beyond the light into the darkness". I live just a few degrees of latitude south of you. Like you, I'm properly equipped and, when I can, I select routes not only for safety but also for the special magic of it. Rando on!

doc said...

If you drive a desk all day and aren't in a position to commute, getting in a ride after dark is the only option. Nothing beats finding a desolate patch of road where all you hear is tires spinning and your own breathing.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous (#2),
I was trying to work out that section too and of course that is the answer. ROFL Brilliant!

Gene in Tacoma

George Swain said...

I love to ride at night, too, Kent. There's nothing that compares to the the sounds and smells one encounters at night on a bicycle.

Apertome said...

I also enjoy night riding, although I wouldn't want to do it *all* the time.

Thanks for the tip about looking past the light, I will give that a shot. Your comment about trying to turn night into day really resonates with me, I enjoy mountain biking at night and while I do like to have adequate light, some guys go out and spend $400+ on a HID lighting setup, and suddenly it's just like riding during the day. There's something magical about riding at night, but I think that if you had that much light, you would miss out.

Doug said...

I think I learned to love my bike while riding the deserted streets of downtown Sacramento at four in the morning.

Six lanes all to ourselves in the summer-warm night....