Mountain biking at night

Posted by SuperClydesdale on January 10, 2011 under Commentary, Mountain Bikes | Be the First to Comment

I ran into my buddy Mark on Thursday — the same Mark that got me into my first night road ride a couple of months back .   He’d asked me to join him on a night mountain bike ride over the holidays, but I couldn’t swing it.   None of my other riding buddies are man enough to ride at night.  “Too cold,”, “too dark,”  “too many mountain lions.”  Whatever.   While I wanted to go out, I don’t think it’s the best idea to ride alone.   I’d been chomping at the bit to hit the dirt at night, and so I asked Mark, “why not tonight?”   Damn it if he didn’t take me up on it… that wasn’t the plan.  I wasn’t actually offering to ride in near freezing fog.

But, I was looking for a chance to try out my new lights, so when he accepted, I decided not to feign a sudden bought of explosive diarrhea.

On my last night ride, I had a low-end light that I used for my long-distance rides a couple of years ago when I was working on completing the California Triple Crown.    For a double century, I didn’t think I needed an ultra-bright light so much as something that would last a long time and keep me visible to passing cars.  That wouldn’t do –  I’m not going to take a crap light as my sole guide into the woods at night.  I knew that for mountain biking, I needed a brighter light.

In comes the NightRider 1400, aka “a little piece of the sun,”  a 1400-lumen flamethrower.   The NightRider is a ridiculously bright light — actually two lights side-by-side.  One light casts a floodlight-style beam, the other a spot light.   It’s almost certainly going to be brighter than whatever piece of trash anyone you’re riding with will  show up with.  They will be the moon to your sun, the bic lighter to your acetylene torch, the Mars Needs Women to your Mars Attacks.

To me, lights are a new category of bike bling  — a new way to demonstrate your commitment to the sport by outspending anyone else in your tribe.  Instead of trying to outride them, which is difficult and takes a lot of training, now you can just outshine the people you’re riding with.  Hey, everything is a competition.  I certainly was the most luminous rider on Thursday night.   I showed up blazing — I burned Mark’s retinas.  He’s legally blind now.

With 1400 lumens, you can blow through the battery pretty quick.   The NightRider guys have become very clever, allowing you to plug in and program the mode settings on the unit so that you can have up to four settings to suit your rides, with resulting battery life of 2-1/2 hours to 64 hours.   At full setting, with both lights blazing, you can melt paint, weld, or open a tanning salon.

I mounted the light on my helmet and readied myself for the 9PM start.   As night was falling, I kept an eye on the thermometer.   It was a balmy 39 degrees, and a dense fog was descending.   Great.

We rode from Mark’s house up to my favorite loop in a nearby State park.  There’s not a lot of climbing, probably 1800 feet over 20 miles, which is pretty tame by local mountain biking standards.   As a result, it’s a very fast loop.  A local racing group runs a racing series on part of it every summer.   Along the way, we met up with two other riders, both of whom are pretty strong riders.  So, there’s me and three fit, light guys.  Mark is very tall — 6′-6″, but he’s really skinny, he says around 190 pounds.  So, I knew that keeping up on the climbs was going to be a challenge.     I was right.   Mark and one of the other mystery men were very fast.   The other guy was apparently invited to make me not feel so bad.  I was on his tail for most of the climbs and technical parts.  I had to stay back a bit for fear of my NiteRider setting his jersey on fire.

It’s been a very wet winter so far this year, and the ground is saturated.  There’s a lot of puddles, the rock faces are damp, and many of the corners are squishy.  That makes for thought-provoking riding conditions even in the daylight.  Throw a dense fog blanket over the trail, and you’ve got a bizarre experience.  I felt like I was watching the undersea adventures of Jacques Cousteau — looking out of a submarine window at depths where the sun cannot penetrate — so far down that all you can see through a fisheye lens is about what’s directly in front of you.   The fog particulates looked like tiny snowflakes.    Trillions of them.

If it wasn’t for the fact that my feet were cold, and my glasses kept fogging up, and I had to blow snot every few minutes, I would have a hard time believing I was out there.  It was almost an out-of-body experience with all of the unusual sensory experiences happening at once.   It was almost too much.   While I can whip through this trail during the day, at night it was like an entirely different place.   I had no idea where I was at any given time.  Occasionally, I would spot a landmark, and I could approximate where I was, but for the most part, I was uncomfortably clueless.

For a dirt rookie like me, mountain biking during the day can be a challenge.   At night, it can be downright hairy.  A bizarre reaction to my first night ride in the dirt is that I struggled at times to keep the bike on the trail.   I had to step out of the pedals numerous times, half the time because I wandered off the trail and was going in a dangerous direction.

There were quite a number of mud puddles on the flatter parts of the ride.  Some of these were quite deep — 8 inches or so, which kicked up quite a bit of water on my feet and lower legs.  By the end of the ride, my feet were freezing.

The puddles in the flats are more of a nuisance than a hazard.  It’s the muddy turns that cause the thrills.   It’s like you’re riding with two flat tires.   The front end wants to slide out, the back end is fishtailing.   Not a big deal in the day, but at night its adding to the sensory load you’re trying to balance for the first time.

I discovered yet another thing that I am not good at (the list is growing) – mud collection prevention.  Near the end of the ride, I looked down and noticed that while I was caked with mud from the knees down.  Mark was practically spotless.  What’s up with that?   We went on the same damn ride!    There must be some technique I am not clued into yet that allows you emerge mud-free.

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