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 (or so). 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 true, but the thing is, if you think carefully about it you can tailor your ride to the lights you have. Lower speeds and easier terrain can still be ridden with less powerful lights so don't be shamed into not trying even if you could only grab a bargain from your local hardware store. I have had a lot of success with Chilli Technology Lights coming in at around £150 for a pair.
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. They're also not very environmentally friendly as they are difficult to recycle. Personally I sit in the middle ground although this is in the slightly dimmer ground admittedly.
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. I have one Amazon light bought for £30 which I tested and have never had a battery that powered any better than the red indicator light on the lamp itself (indicating the battery is on it's last legs usually) the claimed power was 5000 lumens (brighter than a car headlight) which was never going to be the case. It is bright though, but burns through batteries like nothing on earth. I keep it as an emergency light for clients now.
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 and reliability. This brings us to the quote above. 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, the lamp may be poorly sealed against water, may have iffy wiring (I have an unuseable lamp down to fulty wiring and broken wires internally) 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). It's still going now after nearly 8 years of use, and has a common connector so that when the battery eventually does give in I can replace it rather than having to replace the whole unit.
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 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 or spare battery, 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"
The recommended set-up would be a powerful but narrow spot light mounted to your helmet pointing where you look, and a less powerful but wider light on the bars (or under?) pointed with the lower edge of the beam just in front of the front wheel. This will help you see into holes, predict what's coming up and keep your peripheral vision fed with information so you don't need to stare right in front of the bike.
In a group you should think about some way of seeing eachother, but refrain from using a rear red light as modern ones are really bright and can be blinding or distracting. reflective strips on the back of helmets are pretty good. And - if your helmet light is fixed in place you will need another headtorch to see maps and mechanicals too.
Ideally you (or one of you in a group) will also be carrying a spare battery (for those of you not sporting the latest smart exposure lights claiming 5 hours of running time) just in case - to keep the fun dialled to 11.
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!).
on the road at night - be seen, be legal
In the UK you are required to have a steady red light at the back and recommended a front light. Front light should be pointed down, bike mounted and solid when on country roads, although flashing is acceptable in town. You can add to this as much as you like though.
Reflecting arm and ankle bands will make you appear larger to drivers and so may give you more room, and you can even get flashing armbands from Amazon (for runners) which really are the biz at keeping vehicles at bay at night. It might not be your ideal bit of ridewear, but it's effective (and removable on the trails)
NB Bikes have to be sold with reflectors by law, but those fitted don't have to be used on the road, so as long as you fulfil the above you can remove the reflectors from a new bike if you wish.
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!