What better way of spicing up a trail you know than switching the lights off? – With a small investment (more on that later) you can have yourself a mini adventure even on your most local of trails, and more importantly; it’s actually easier during the winter (not many things that you can say that about are there?)
If you’ve read the article on snow biking, then you know that Winter doesn’t bring the end of riding for its duration, but it merely changes the challenge, and offers a myriad of opportunities for a quality adventure out on the bike.
Much like biking in the Winter, night riding does hold a few more hazards, and does require a bit of forethought and dare I say it respect, but once out ‘dashing between the pines’ you’ll be totally engrossed and completely sold on the sheer barmyness of it.
Ready for fun
So, getting started, you have to think about your limitations a little. These begin with what lights you are carrying. If you’ve just gone to Tesco and bought some lights for £15, then the terrain and duration you might ride are different to that of the Hope 4 owner’s. The fun is still comparable, but you have to be realistic about the brightness of your light(s), the spread and ‘throw’ of the beam (Visibility and forewarning), and very importantly also the battery life, as well as, of course, how deep your pockets are.
A bike magazine article will tell you that you need to spend £120 for some basic lights, but if you’re getting serious, then you should consider upwards of £200 for a light. They’ll also tell you that you really need a helmet mounted light so it lights where you look (unless you don’t do corners), and a bar mounted light so it throws shadows and gives you some perspective. These are all relatively true, but the thing is, if you think carefully about it you can tailor your ride to the lights you have.
Now the big fly in the ointment in this whole argument is the ‘Chinese Lights’ (used as a general term round my parts). These are often Middle Eastern produced lights which retail on e-bay for a few pounds. One friend swears by these; “I buy two sets every year and I’ve still spent less on lights than everyone I know”, and it is true. In this statement though is what at present is a truth on these cheap imports. The build quality is a bit random and can be a bit suspect, you definitely do pay for quality.
So of the main factors concerning choice we have 3.
Can I afford it?
how well does it work? and
how long does it work for?
Almost all modern lights sold as bike specific (beyond the most basic) will have some kind of CREE L.E.D. in them, but the big differences come when you get to the electronics inside and the batteries. The electronics (and I’m not going to get specific) are about getting the most out of your light, and manufacturers will quote a wide range of numbers, lumens, candlepower etc at you, and here the magazine articles can help. What they can offer is a range of comparative photographs of different lights pointed down an alleyway near to the publisher’s office. This gives you an idea of the range and brightness of the light in comparison to others. One thing you will likely notice in these articles is that the claims of the manufacturer often don’t stand up against comparative reality. So for the everyday punter this means: try them out if you can, and if you are able; try then against them each other. Of course this means that you are probably at a retailer, looking at the more high end products, and importantly fending off someone who wants you to buy the ‘magadeth 3000’ guaranteed to melt a cat at 1000 paces, and only £5000…for a commission.
So there’s the cost and the effectiveness of the light, and so the final part is the length of service. This brings us to the quote above regarding length of life, but the final factor, which can be the crux for many, the reliability. These are all connected with the quality of the battery. In producing a cheap light set, a manufacturer can reduce their costs mostly in the charger and the battery itself. This means for you and I, that the battery may well have died during the year while it was in a box over the summer, it may have reduced life when in use, and most importantly (hence the last) may well have a dodgy charger. Google this any you may well see some horrific pictures and read scary stories regarding chargers and/or batteries setting alight to people’s houses while they were out. The bargain light owner coming home one winter’s night hoping to be able to see for miles by the light of their new bike light, and discovering that they can see the light of their burning kitchen from miles away (not really very funny).
So a bit of caution, and definitely a bit of care before splashing your cash on these things. In the review section I have recommended the light I’ve been using for the last few years. It falls into the middle (just over a hundred, but you can get it cheaper – even as low as £65!) ground – therefore in the ‘taking it seriously’ category, but while not having the life or beam of some of the much more expensive lights, it lasts long enough for me, lights up the trail, has been usable the next season, and may not melt cats, but does send badgers scurrying (in an environmentally sensitive way).
So, armed with some form of light emitting device strapped to some part of your body or bike (I’d go for head if you have only one (light, not head) and want to do some cross-country type of trail with bends, rather than towpaths), you then need to decide on the limitations and aspirations you have.
Definitely start out slowly/small. You definitely don’t want to have your light give out on you before you finish the ride, especially if you didn’t pack a head-torch, so can’t see the trail, or the map to try to navigate home (done that). Beyond that, it does take a little getting used to, and certainly the window of opportunity for getting caught out by the odd drop-off is much greater in the dark, but once you’re used to a slightly reduced amount of notice night riding really can be fun, exhilarating, and a great excuse to let the inner kid out.
In some ways, the tunnel you can now see down reduces the distractions, and helps focus you on the trail ahead, seeking to see as far forward as you can. In the same way as when you first started, you can now build your confidence on to more challenging terrain (as much as you want to), and push and develop your riding. In the same way that riding in the snow offers you the opportunity to develop your skills for your summer jaunts on dusty dry trails, night riding can offer a fun and rewarding opportunity to develop your reactions, and your vision, which is an important and much ‘overlooked’ (geddit) element of riding well. Check the “Nightride!” edit and watch the head light scanning ahead as the rider looks ahead of the bike.
"I thought you said you knew where we are"
Before I finish I should mention navigation. Even at a trail centre it’s pretty easy to take a random turning amongst all the ample signposting. Out on the trails, these ‘wrong turns’ can be much more serious; a kilometre downhill on the wrong trail can be a pain in the bum, but if you’re lacking ‘light-time’ then can take a serious turn, and can be really difficult to navigate out of. Of course these can be comedy gold too; I’m reminded of a group night ride where it rained so hard that two people did 50m down a burn before they realised they’d taken a wrong turn. Navigation is a serious part of the equation, and a skill that you should hone in a safe environment before sticking your neck out too far.
A few last thoughts before leaving; a white cloth to put ‘bits’ on is very useful if you need to do any nocturnal ‘mechanic-ing’ and want to find those loose bits again. It’s not a bad idea to break out the high vis clothing, so if you do have a spill, your mates can find you! I can recommend taking a spare light of some kind in case the worse happens; I usually carry a head-torch round my neck for close work and navigation. A pair of small ‘commuting’ lights can be useful if you end up on the road at some point (try the A9 at midnight without high vis and lights and you’ll be convinced!).
All this sounds a bit serious, and there is a danger that all the details can swamp all the fun, but in defence, once you’ve covered all the basics, it really is time to let the fun out, and with good preparation, it can be fantastic and rewarding fun, and you may well surprise yourself at what you are able to ride when you can barely see. There are even events with a nocturnal element; the No Fuss Relentless 24 and Strathpuffer endurance events, and even night enduros (see Muckmedden link) to add a bit of madness to your riding. Having said that, the terrain, and even the wildlife can add a bit of spice to the most ordinarily and mundane trail. Try razzing down a trail as a badger runs out in front of you for a thrilling experience, and a great tale for the pub.
So, whatever your lights, and whatever your aspirations, everyone should try it once; let the kid out, and stretch your biking even further into the winter; you might even shun the daylight!