Night Rider: Tips for Cycling Safely in the Dark

By Richard Jones

It is the week of Halloween, the clocks having gone back a few days previously, and darkness has crept over an unwary landscape. The silence is broken by the groaning and wheezing of a figure, emerging from the tree cover onto the brow of the hill. Two pairs of piercing lights shine out, scanning the land ahead like the hunting eyes of a nocturnal beast. The immediate landscape ahead is lit up, and steam rises from the silhouetted shape, captured in the surrounding glow. As it sets off once more, a badger dashes out into the beam and runs ahead as the figure gathers speed behind, before it disappears off the trail into a ditch, as the figure glides past into the distance, a flashing red light trailing behind like the lanterne rouge on the rear of a goods train, slowly disappearing into the distance.

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The sudden onset of these dark nights could be the sign to pack away the mountain bike in the garage until fairer weather returns next spring, but that would just be missing out on the different world that exists when riding at night. Trails that may be only too familiar in daylight hours become a very different proposition after dark; climbs seem so much more difficult and obstacles that would barely register a flicker of interest can suddenly appear, presenting a challenge to navigate.

My first foray into night riding was about a decade ago, having been invited to join a team entering the 24-hour Mountain Mayhem event. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, but bought a set of lights — which arrived in time for the event but not in time to practice with them. So my first go was at approximately 10.45pm on the Saturday night and, having already completed a couple of laps, I felt I knew what to expect. However, the reality was very different. Despite lights on my helmet and bars, being only able to see into that direct beam ahead through the darkness was a completely different experience. Fast-approaching trees, stumps and bushes appeared suddenly, as I slalomed between them, trying to maintain the lap-speed of the others in the team. I loved it, and even more so on my second night lap as I rode into a beautiful dawn.

Soon afterwards, I joined up with a local MTB club for their regular mid-week evening rides and rode in a few more 24-hour events — a great way to have a social ride and meet new, like-minded people. After moving up to the Peak District and with a wealth of trails right on my doorstep, it gave the perfect opportunity to get out into the darkness — I’ve ridden through a herd of deer at Chatsworth House — their LED-like eyes picked out by my lights as they stared at me — sped behind a badger on more than one occasion and been buzzed by an owl descending from Birchover. I even followed a muntjac while tootling back to the car on an evening excursion to Worcestershire’s Wyre Forest.

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Now with Contours, I am in the very fortunate position of being able to commute to work by road or dirt, and with the dark nights well and truly here, I’m out there lit up like a Christmas tree having a great time. Motivation may be difficult to muster when looking out as the dark skies encroach, but once you’re out there it’s well worth it!

There are plenty of tips out there for night-riding, but for what it’s worth here are mine:

  • Get a decent, reliable set of lights — one on the bars to light up the way ahead and one on the helmet so you can see the way you are looking, which may well be a different direction.
  • Make sure those lights are charged up before setting out and make sure you have at least one rear light — check it from time to time to make sure it’s not obscured by dirt.
  • Carry extra layers and a waterproof — it can be colder and wetter at night, so be prepared — it’s also worth investing in a windproof layer and outer layers with reflective detailing.
  • Make sure someone knows where you’re going if riding on your own — some people will advise against riding alone and group rides are great, but the solitude of riding alone is something special.
  • Don’t take risks — avoid jumps and steep, rocky descents that might make you stop and think in daytime — night riding can bring what are usually much less demanding trails back to life.
  • Keep your eyes open — there is a wealth of wildlife out there that you may come across that you’d never otherwise see.
  • And if you do come across someone else, try to remember that if you’re looking directly at them then you’re probably blinding them! The same goes with car drivers.

Originally published 30/11/18

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