By Andy Beach
It’s the middle of the week. The living’s easy because I’m riding hard with my crew, dubbed “Pelotronix.” We’re devouring some of the best trail on the San Francisco Bay Area mountain biking menu. Even tastier is the fact that we dine alone, having not seen a single rider since wheels went down—and we won’t for the rest of the ride, guaranteed. It’s just us and the woodland creatures because the Sun is not among the stars shining above. It’s around 10 p.m.
Unique riding conditions, to be sure, but this isn’t an uncommon outing for Pelotronix. The vast majority of our rides take place in the dark.
A decent question is, “What the hell for?” Well, we need too. But I don’t I say that in a pierced and tattooed-eyelid, adrenaline junky, “cuz we need to, brah” way. We’re definitely a strong group that rides hard and loves to take on the technical stuff, but we don’t ride in the dark because we’re thirsty for extra danger. Ironically, we ride at night because these days we’re kind of the opposite of live-on-the-edge types.
We’re what I refer to as “grown-ass men,” in our late 30s or early 40s. Like most grown-ass men, we’ve got grown-ass man obligations: careers, family, big bills, etc. One thing that isn’t in abundance is free time. And even more rock-blocking is that on the weekends, the time when riding is traditionally done by the employed, there are often family members and other loved ones who want to spend time with us. Hell, after working all week, we want to spend time with them. We’re not too old to ride, but in a way, we’re too grown up to ride—at least often.
For many, this can mean a decline in riding declines.
It’s no mystery, what I’m talking about. When one becomes a grown-ass man or woman, some of the activities that we love begin to take a back seat. For many, that back seat is covered in pulverized Cheerios and the crust of dried formula and has a child seat securely belted to it.
Next thing we know, the up-facing surfaces of our snowboard, mountain bike or other gear begins to gather dust. A little spider might even make a home up in the steerer tube during the two weeks…then three weeks…then five, that our once heavily used mountain bike sits, untouched, lonely and surrounded by toys. That little spider may even nest undisturbed long enough to have a family of her own.
It’s a tough spot. Compromises can be reached and rides can be had. But consistently? Every weekend? Probably not. And multiple rides per week, like the old days? Haa ha ha haaaaa! Ha.
But I’ve discovered that all is not lost for the grown-ass mountain biker. Night riding is a way to subvert all that wonderful, yet terrible, adult stuff and keep the dust and spiders off your whip.
The guy who started my now unstoppable night riding momentum is named Jeremy. He’s one of the Pelotronix crew. While talking at work one day, we discovered that we were both mountain bikers. Eventually, after coming to the conclusion that I was a serious rider, he tossed out, “You should come riding with me and my friends. We go riding every Wednesday night.”
“You ride at night?” I asked.
It’s a response that I would eventually get very familiar with hearing, myself. Three years, and probably over 100 night rides after Jeremy’s fateful invite, I’ve become a walking PSA about the benefits of night riding. I love to bring it up to guys who tell me, looking down at new girth, how bummed they are that they never get to ride anymore. But like I was, a lot of riders—even experienced ones—are in the dark about night riding.
“You ride at night?” they ask.
Unfortunately, most of the guys I talk to don’t make the leap and buy a light and start ripping it up after the day’s obligations are taken care of. I understand. For many reasons, some legit, some motivationally related, it’s not an easy leap to make. But I sure as hell did.
Although, I confess, I can’t exactly describe my first ride as “ripping it up.” Mostly because I didn’t do what I’d describe as, “buy a light.” Brainiac that I am, I figured that my cool little Mini Maglite would do the trick. Hell, it was small and really bright. I figured I could…you know…just hold it…sorta…next to my grip and shine it on the trail. Yeah, that’ll work! It didn’t work. Fortunately, it was the middle of the summer so the darkness didn’t reach a debilitating level until later in the ride. Also fortunate was that Jeremy, the guy who had invited this rookie dumbshit, had some extra lighting that strapped to my helmet as opposed to being lamely clung to, like my Mini Maglite. Jeremy’s loaner wasn’t the brightest light by bike light standards, but it was brighter than my ridiculous flashlight.
Probably a good time to mention that a good lighting system is obviously a must. These days, thanks to technology getting cheaper, you can get a really good light for not much over $100, which was unheard of just a couple years ago. I recommend you get two: one for the helmet, one for the handlebar. I rode with one light for a couple years before getting a second light. My speed and comfort (and enjoyment) level went way up.
Potentially disastrous as my first attempt at night riding was, I lived and, goddamn, did I love. I was immediately hooked on the whole scene. For one, I knew that once I got my shit together on the lighting thing, it was going to be a great time. And later it occurred to me that consistent riding—the Holy Grail for the grown-ass mountain biker—was going to be much easier to come by if I started joining these guys on their weekly rides.
I was right on both points. Now that I have lighting, it is a blast. And, excluding the rainy season, rarely does a week pass without a ride. (Yes, I live in California, so cold isn’t the issue it is, well, pretty much everywhere else. I realize night riding may lead to a broken- off nose in many parts of the country.) If I didn’t night ride, I’d get in maybe two to three rides a month, which was just too lame for a guy who has as much of a thing for mountain biking as I do.
It was an adjustment at first, to be sure. But we humans are the most adaptable of all creatures. I won’t go as far as saying I’m as confident at 9 p.m. as I am at 9 a.m., but it’s close enough, especially now that I’m not using a Mini Maglite.
Another reason I was hooked was that night riding was a thrilling new experience. It was kind of like learning to ride a mountain bike in a whole new way. One must develop what I call “night legs.” Balance is a very different skill when vision is limited. Your awareness of the trail and your reaction time has to be just that much better. It’s made me a much better rider, overall. It’s almost like training at high altitudes or growing up on Krypton.
Then there’s the fact that, save the occasional skunk, the trails become our personal playground. It’s nice not having any of you people around.
But at night, the only things I’m going to run into on those trails are the usual obstacles—a slick root, a low branch or other weapons of choice of the ever-present enemy of the rider, Crashboomzilla. And if there does happen to be a hiker out there enjoying an evening walk, a row of 300-lumen lights approaching in pitch dark tend to take the surprise out of any encounter. Everyone sees what’s coming from a mile away, sometimes literally. Plus, in the case of the crew I ride with, you can also factor in auditory alarms in the form of our random howls of joy.
Empty trail is a freedom that’s impossible to obtain during the day around here. At night, less-than-full illumination may slow you down a little bit, but less-than-abandoned trail won’t slow you down at all. The lack of other trail users makes up for the lack of light. Who needs the sun when you have the benefits of its absence?
Some tips on night riding that have nothing to do with your bike
Now, I know it’s easier said than done to rally after a full day at work (and if you live far from your favorite trail, it may even be impossible and this story may be moot, but please, enjoy the rest of the article anyway. You’re almost at the end). But would you be into mountain biking in the first place if you didn’t have some drive?
Let me give you a few tips on motivation. First, don’t get bogged down by the thought, “Wow, I’ve just had the most exhausting, shitty day at work. I just can’t ride.” C’mon. What better time to ride? Riding is joy. Riding is freedom.
Riding cures bad-day-at-work hangovers. As easy as it may seem at the time, you just can’t use the “tired from work” excuse, ever. You’ll certainly regret it. I mean, have you ever had the thought, “Damn, I wish hadn’t gone for that ride.” Of course not! Yet we feel regret pretty much every time we decide to bail out on a planned ride. I’ll end this section of my lecture with this truth: going to bed physically tired from a ride beats the hell out of going to bed mentally exhausted from a rough day at work, every time. Trust a guy who does both damn near every week.
Another tip I’ll give you isn’t just for motivation, but for safety: rally some buddies. Pelotronix has an email list of about 15. Of those, there’s a core group of about seven or so that go regularly, so on average, we have five riders a week. I draw strength from the email chatter that starts every week before the ride. I live in San Francisco, and our main stomping grounds are on the other side of the bay. The drive is a pain in the ass. But I love the guys and I want to ride with them. That’s just as big a motivation as the riding.