When I saw that Jeff LeBlanc was leading our ride, I knew that whatever he said was going to happen on the ride would be what would happen. Rare in group riding circles and reassuring, especially since this ride was at night, on mountain bikes, through twisty trail in the forest. While I’d done night rides before, this was a first for my 14-year-old stepson. The fewer surprises the better, and I knew from experience that LeBlanc, a retired Marine remained possessed of Corps discipline.
Years earlier, I had been vacationing at Emerald Isle over Memorial Day and saw that the Downeast Bicycle Club was holding a century ride. I had my road bike, I called the contact — LeBlanc — who told me what the ride would be like: moderate pace, about 18 mph average; single paceline riding; a 15-minute stop for lunch; and everyone riding together, period, except for a stretch at mile 80 when we would be set loose. After seven miles we would regroup at a gas station and finish the ride as one. Any questions?
I figured if the ride went even remotely as advertised, it would be good. It went exactly as advertised, and remains the best century ride I’ve done. Mountain biking is one of the many activities I have come to love doing in the dark. Let me rephrase that: One of the many activities I’m more accustomed to doing during daylight that I now love doing in the dark. I go for three- and four-hour hikes through local woods after dark. I walk the neighborhood after dark. I run after dark and I even road bike after dark. And I do it all with zero added concern for my safety. Thus, whereas I used to dread the end of Daylight Savings Time — which comes to a close Sunday morning at 2 a.m. — I now accept the absence of afterwork daylight and keep moving.
Over the next few weeks I’ll take a look at various activities that increasing numbers of people are doing under cover of darkness, and I’ll talk about how you can do them safely. First up: Mountain biking.
Not a decade ago, mountain biking after hours was the sport of daredevil twentysomething guys who would gather clandestinely, switch on their sketchy lighting systems (often homemade and composed of pvc pipe, a fistfull of A batteries and a halogen lightbulb), and careen through the forest. Bouncing off trees and getting occasionally getting impaled is no biggy in your immortal youth. It’s something altogether different once you get a mortgage. At Wednesday night’s right at Lake Crabtree County Park, at least half the riders were over 40, several of us past 50. There were women, and there was the aforementioned 14-year-old.
And there was no sneaking under a closed park gate; Lake Crabtree park manager Drew Cade greeted every rider (and had them sign a waiver). The main reason mountain biking at night has gone mainstream: advances in lighting systems. Gone are the schizo homemade lighting systems (although you may still see a diehard riding with one). In their place: A new generation of LED, HID (a k a metal halide) and Xenon helmet-mounted lights that create a cozy sphere of daylight letting you see a good 10 to 20 feet or more up the trail. Advances in battery technology mean burn times in the two- to five-hour range, more than sufficient to for the typical mountain bike ride. (And if it isn’t, special chargers can revive these batteries lickity split.) Here’s a good overview article on lighting systems to get you up to speed.
Most riders (based on conversations over the years) claim that riding at night is actually safer because you’re more focused. Instead of gazing off at a ridgeline 10 miles off, your field of vision is confined to the glow cast by your light. Fewer distractions, fewer forays into trail-hugging pines.
Despite the growth in mountain biking at night — night rides at Lake Crabtree typically draw 60 to 70 riders — it remains a fairly controlled activity. Most legal trail networks close at dusk; thus, most night rides are the work of local bike clubs making arrangements with land managers. The Lake Crabtree rides (there are two a month during Standard Time, on the first Tuesday and third Thursday) are the result of the Triangle Off-Road Cyclists working with Cade. TORC has a similar arrangement with Harris Lake County Park and is negotiating to hold night rides at Little River Regional Park and at the Beaverdam area of Falls Lake State Recreation Area.
That the majority of night riding is run by bike clubs is a good thing for riders new to riding at night. Thursday night’s ride at Lake Crabtree split into groups based on experience; We went with Jeff LeBlanc, who took out the beginners.
“I’ll be leading the ride,” he told us, “my son will be acting as sweep. No one will get dropped, which means that at every fork in the trail that we come to, we’ll wait until everyone catches up.”
I didn’t have to wonder whether our ride would unfold somewhat as advertised. I knew it would unfold exactly as advertised.
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Looking for a night ride?
Your best bet for tapping into local night rides is through your neighborhood bike club’s Web site. Here are some good ones to start with:
Greensboro Fat Tire Society (Dale Holder reports that night rides are generally held every Wednesday night week or two after Daylight Savings Time ends. He suggests checking in with biketriad.com or the club’s Facebook page for details.
Triangle Off-Road Cyclists. (Rides are held the first Tuesday and third Wednesday of every month at Lake Crabtree, and the second Thursday and fourth Tuesday at Harris Lake. More rides will likely be scheduled. Consult Triangle MTB for details. TORC’s Tim Lee, as noted below, says all the group’s organized rides, those in daylight as well as at night, are posted at the club’s Meetup site.