Lights on the trail

Mountain bike night rides

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A guest post by Laura Colbert of Loose Nuts Cycles in Atlanta, GA.

I am planning to do some mountain bike racing this spring and thus have been trying to get some extra miles on my mountain bike.  Living in the middle of Atlanta makes this difficult, especially during the week.  Luckily I’ve discovered a local Tuesday night no-drop trail ride.  I’ve ridden this ride a couple times recently and am pretty happy about the added miles that I’m getting without having to go too far or change my schedule too much.

I would like to say that when I first started riding a mountain bike, I thought that only insanity and a love of medical bills would cause someone to try this in the dark.  It was a challenge for me to make it through an entire ride in full sunshine, so why would someone make it harder by limiting what they can see?  As I’ve ridden more and mountain biking has become more intuitive for me, I’ve figured out why some cyclists choose to ride at night.  Night rides are great because:

  1. Winter days are short and dark.  Night rides provide the opportunity for mountain bike fun despite the short days.  Just make sure to bundle up, because the temperature gets colder the later into the night you ride.
  2. In the summer, when daytime temperatures are unbearable, riding at night decreases your chances of being disgustingly sweaty and getting  sunburned, thus increasing your chances of actually enjoying the ride.
  3. Weekends fill up quickly and 9-to-5 jobs leave little time for day time rides.  Night rides fit nicely into a busy schedule.  (I do get a little less sleep on night-ride nights.  I guess something has to give.)
  4. It’s a new challenge.  With just ambient light and a headlight to guide you, your brain has to adjust it’s depth perception and you have to react to the trail more quickly.  It requires you to step up your game.
  5. It’s fun to roam around in the dark woods.  It feels a little like being a high school hooligan (yep, I said hooligan), a little mischievous.
  6. (Don’t tell anyone that I said this, but it gives you the opportunity to ride trails that you might not be able to ride during the day–trails labeled “No bikes” or some private property trails.  Sshhhh…that’s a secret…I’m not saying it actually happens.  I’m just saying that it could hypothetically happen.)

I still consider myself a night-ride beginner, but every time I finish the Faster Mustache Tuesday night ride, I come home with new advice for myself, so I thought I might share some of that with those of you thinking about trying it.

  1. Plan ahead– I was planning on a night ride a couple weeks ago and got home to discover that I had forgotten to charge my headlight battery.  No light, no ride.  No plan, no ride.
  2. Be prepared–During a recent night ride I broke my derailleur hanger.  Luckily someone else had come prepared with zip ties and a chain breaker.  Otherwise, I would have had to walk the several miles home.  You should be fully prepared for every ride you go on, but the risk of walking home/back to the car in the dark and late at night underscores the importance of preparedness.
  3. Double check that your light is fully charged–Having ridden with a dying light before, I can tell you that it’s not fun.  Riding at night is already a challenge.  Not having a light makes it just plain dangerous.  Charge your light and if you think that your ride might outlast your light, bring an extra one.  I ride with the Niterider MiNewt Pro 750.  My night rides are about 3 hours and it hasn’t failed me yet.
  4. Know the trail or ride with a friend who knows the trail (and is the same speed as you)–I’m new to the in-town Atlanta night ride.  The other cyclists have generally ridden these trails hundreds of times or are pretty quick and can keep up with those who are familiar with the trails.  I am neither familiar or quick enough to keep up with the group (only girl on the ride usually…).  This makes for some frustrating moments sometimes.  I often get to trail intersections and have no idea which way to go.  I’ve discovered that I’m pretty good at either picking the wrong direction or not seeing the turn at all.  One of the guys usually comes to track me down or makes loud enough noises so that I can find my way back to the group.  I try to laugh about my adventures alone in the dark, but it can be frustrating.  That said, if you’re going to ride at night, pick a trail that you know pretty well or make sure your riding companions will ride at your pace or come find you when you get lost.
  5. Don’t give up after the first time–Night riding is hard.  Your brain will have to adjust its depth perception skills.  You can’t see as far ahead as you can in the daylight, so you have to react to the trail more quickly.  You might get lost at some point.  Don’t let those things convince you not to try it again.  Give it another shot.  It gets easier and more fun, I promise.
  6. Find a local late-night eatery–You know how hungry you are after every mountain bike ride? Night rides are no exception, so know where the closest late-night joint is located.  We always end our ride at a local pizza place and when we roll up at 11 pm, we’re always the last people in there.  A beer and some slices make the perfect midnight snack before we all split up to head home and go to bed.

For those of you who are night-ride experienced, did I miss anything?  What other advice do you have?