Night moves: mountain biking

In September, made the transition from telling you what you can do to showing you: we started GetHiking! Triangle, which leads weekly hikes in the Triangle and beyond. Our target audience: newcomers to hiking and established hikers interested in learning new trails. The initial response has exceeded our expectations. We currently have 344 members and have attracted more than 50 people to our hikes.

But what’s been most surprising is the response to our night hikes. We’ve held two so far, which have attracted 31 and 26 people respectively. A lot of those folks are newcomers to hiking who are still adjusting to the challenges of hiking in bright, broad daylight. We thought they might have some reservations about navigating a rocky, rooty, twisty, turny trail with only the a narrow beam of light to guide them. That’s hardly been the case.

Recognizing this apparent appreciation for still being able to get out and explore after work despite a growing absence of daylight, we’ve decided to dust off another previous post about things to do in the dark. This one, which originally ran on Oct. 30, 2009, is on mountain biking.

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I used to dread the end of Daylight Savings Time, which comes to a close this year on Nov. 3 at 2 a.m.  I now accept the absence of after work daylight and keep moving.

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 occasionally getting impaled was the norm, and no biggy in your immortal youth. It’s something altogether different once you get a mortgage. At Wednesday night’s ride at Lake Crabtree County Park in Morrisville, at least half the riders were over 40, several of us past 50. There were women, and there was a 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 50 or more 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.”

And that’s a good thing, because no one likes getting dropped. Especially in the dark.

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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:


Mountain Biking in Western North Carolina


Charlotte Mountain Bike
Tarheel Trailblazers

Greensboro Fat Tire Society

Triangle MTB
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.)


Sir Bikes-A-Lot

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