Late Tuesday afternoon, it’s just above freezing, and it’s already dusk. It’s 5pm, the team emails and texts have circulated, and the meeting is set. The nights have drawn in and by this time in November the majority of the light-weight mountain bikers have already sprayed down there steeds with GT85 and are heading to another lame spinning class in some designer gym somewhere in the town.
But for a few slightly perverse and dedicated riders, the onset of the comfort-eating season brings with it a whole new game. Night Riding, for most committed cyclists owning a flashing red light and a headlight for their bike, is more to do with making sure some distracted commuter does not mow them down on their way to the pub, or a fly date with a mistress.
But for us, tonight, it’s the lumens that count. The brighter the better and by the time we are all assembled in the Glen Tress car park its already dark. Not just a wee bit dull, but black as a coal cellar. After the usual dicking about, fixing lights, wiggling loose connections and waiting for stragglers, we start spinning up the hill to the start of the single track. Night riding is quite peculiar; who would choose to ride at speed in a dark forest, past shoulder brushing trees, over jumps and down rock steps, sometimes covered in ice and wet pine needles? But it’s wonderfully addictive. The chat from the group is filled with edgy friendly banter, as those with the less powerful lights ride in the beams of the night riding technocrats.
If there was ever an arm of mountain biking that would appeal to the slightly detail orientated, socially dysfunctional, it is this. Discussions centre on wattage, beam angles, head mounted lights or handle bars, burn times and the all-important deal. Soon the rhythm of the climb falls into place, warm breath caught in the lights makes us look like a band of two wheeled dragons.
Centred on the column of light, the familiar trails become a new experience and little shadows become huge obstacles requiring a concentration never exercised when daylight riding. The dark places in the forest become magical hiding places for deer, foxes, badgers and childhood beasts of the imagination. Its sensory depravation of sorts but it leads to new heightened senses. The feel of the bike, the sounds under tyre, the reflected sheen of a tree root or wet rock. The cold too adds a dimension to the blue-beamed focus of the journey. A puncture or chain mishap becomes a communal experience. Everyone pitches in as to be abandoned alone in the forest with a mechanical issue is as isolating as it is dangerous. At the top of the climb, the first of us wait and switch off our lights so as to preserve the valuable battery life. Once all the lights are switched off, we are plunged into immediate and utter darkness. In the distance, the occasional shout is heard from the others in the raiding party and as they approach flashes of their lights flick through the tightly packed pine trees. Assembled at the summit of the climb it’s time to switch on the downhill brain, as well as the descending lights. With little margin for error on the fast descent, this is where night riding comes into its own. Like Alice down the rabbit hole we careen downhill, through our own long tubes of blue light.