Have you ever cycled in complete darkness? Night cycling is a totally different experience, and judging by rides such as the Dunwich Dynamo, it’s popular, too. And yet, so many people have never gone night cycling.
There’s something magical about cycling at night. No, I’m not referring to urban night cycling, along roads with streetlights. I’m talking about riding in your own, personal bubble of light, along otherwise dark lanes.
If you’ve never done it, you will be surprised by just how different an experience it is. Even roads you know well will seem completely different, and off-road tracks can seem utterly unfamiliar. Your senses will mostly be limited to what is visible in your beam of light, and your world will be hugely shrunk.
I’m such a fan of night cycling that I organise an all-night bike ride, called Darkmoor, and try to ride the Exmouth Exodus. All of these rides followed from the Dunwich Dynamo – the original all-night bike ride. Legend has it that four London cycle couriers were sat in a pub, after work on a Saturday, and discussed the possibility of cycling through the night to Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast, thus starting the Dunwich Dynamo. Is the legend true? Who knows? Who cares? It’s a great story, regardless.
Almost anyone can (and should at least once) do an all-night bike ride. Before you do so, however, I have some suggestions for you.
Obviously, you will need lights. Now, lights come in two varieties: to-be-seen, and to-see-by. To-be-seen lights are what you use when you cycle around town at night, on well-lit streets. To-see-with lights are what you will need to cycle in the dark.
There are a few things worth mentioning at this point, starting with the most obvious: test your lights! By that, I don’t simply mean fitting them to your bike and going for a quick ride. Do you know how long they will last on full charge? No? Well then, charge them up, make a note of the time, switch them on and leave them on, then keep checking on them. You shouldn’t plan any night ride if you don’t have a clear idea of how long your lights will last. Oh, and if your lights have different brightness levels, test the run-time for each level.
The realities of being a woman
As a man, I think nothing of cycling along completely dark roads, in the middle of nowhere, all on my own. As a woman, the sad truth is that you’ll be far more at risk, and specifically, at risk from men attacking you. I can apologise for that, I can point out that “not all men” are sexual predators, and I can do 100 other things, none of which will alter this reality. Sadly, as a woman, you need to factor this into your planning, and while I hate having to suggest this, I still would recommend that you consider cycling in a group, instead of on your own.
It is never a good idea to go cycling somewhere rural, miles away from help, with only primary lights, and you really should always have backup lights. I learned this the hard way the 1st time I cycled the Exmouth Exodus in 2014, and my only front light failed on me, forcing me to cycle in a group on riders that came past.
Since those days, I’ve upgraded to dynamo lights – it’s SUCH an improvement – but I still take battery lights along as a backup. Last year, after having been defeated from completing a Grand Union Canal ride by the weather, which made the clay on the towpath be as treacherous as black ice, I found myself taking a late train from Leighton Buzzard to Rugby, then cycling from Rugby to Leamington Spa.
It was raining a lot, after midnight, I didn’t know the area at all and was relying on Google Maps on my phone giving me voice navigation, as it guided me along some of the worst Sustrans routes I’ve ever cycled on. Then, around 15 miles before Leamington Spa, my dynamo front light started flickering, before dying completely. Years of water ingress killed it.
Fortunately, I had a backup light, in the shape of a Cree T6 zoomable torch, which I strapped to the bars, along with a battery tail-light (the dynamo tail-light takes it power from the headlight, so was also dead as a result) and was able to complete my ride.
If I had no backup lights, I would’ve been stuck by the roadside until it was light enough to safely and legally cycle without lights, and in the pouring rain and driving wind, that would not have been fun.
Though we never want anything to go wrong on a ride, sometimes things do go wrong. On my Grand Union Canal ride, my bike slid out from under me seven times, due to the extremely slippery clay (it had rained heavily the week before, and was raining on the ride). The last of those crashes ended with me whacking my ankle against something hard – it was bleeding a fair bit, and very painful. This was the reason I couldn’t complete the ride.
Though I had camping gear on the bike, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk the following day, let alone ride, so my exit plan was to get back to Leamington Spa, where my van was parked. When you’re riding solo, especially far away from where you know people, then your exit strategy might not be as brilliant as you may want, but you should still have one.
How will you get home, if you suffered a disastrous mechanical during the ride? Or, if you simply are too exhausted to complete the ride? Always think your exit options through beforehand.
Battery v dynamo
Speaking of dynamo lights, obviously, you have two choices with bike lights: battery powered, or dynamo powered. Dynamo lights are superior, in almost every case. The only time I’d prefer battery lights to dynamo lights is if I was planning on riding along some twisty, bumpy, challenging singletrack MTB trail, where you’d really want to flood the area in front of you with light.
Dynamo lights actually often emit less light, but they make far more efficient use of it, so the light goes only where it’s needed. Importantly, dynamo lights usually won’t blind oncoming traffic, either, while battery lights more often than not will do so.
If you want more information on dynamos, and the huges benefits they offer, go read my post on keeping your phone (and other gadgets) charged while cycling.
Upgrading to dynamo lights isn’t the cheapest option, as it involves either replacing the front wheel with a dynamo-hub wheel, or rebuilding the front wheel around a dynamo hub. Battery lights can be quite cheap, or ridiculously overpriced. Before rushing out to buy battery lights, consider this: most battery lights use the same LED chips, with a Cree T6 being the default nowadays.
Ignore the silly claims of brightness listed for most lights, as you’ve more chance of winning the lottery every day in a row for year than of those claims being true. Battery lights are rated in lumens, and a T6 chip can output between 700 to 1200 lumens. That huge variance is dependent on the quality of the circuitry driving the chip, the battery pack used, and even the ambient temperature.
I shortcut it and simply work on the minimum value, which mostly tends to be more correct, anyway.
The rider behind
Before going on a night ride in a group, please do this first: at night, in as complete darkness as you can get, switch on your bike’s tail-light, then pull up a chair and go sit behind your bike, facing the light. How long does it take for the light to seriously mess with your eyes? Remember, red light doesn’t affect our night vision as much as other colour light would do, and when riding at night in a group, do others a favour by using a far less-bright setting for your tail-light. Their retinas will thank you!
Depending on where you are, there may or not be organised night rides near you. I’m based near Plymouth, and there wasn’t any, which is why I started organising Darkmoor. Bath is the start of the Exmouth Exodus, while London is the start of the Dunwich Dynamo. There are several other such rides in the UK, too, but nearly all of them are 100 miles, or longer.
If you want to do one of these rides, I strongly support you, but do ensure you’re in physical shape, else it won’t be enjoyable. Darkmoor, in particular, is very hilly (well, it’s in Devon, after all) and by comparison, makes the Dunwich Dynamo seem perfectly flat.
If you’re in or around London, The Fridays might be a good option for you, but nothing stops you from starting your own night ride. Obviously, it can be as long, or as short as you’re happy with. I started cycling at night by doing a ten mile loop from my front door.
Creatures of the night
Go on, admit it – you thought the title of this post described the riders, didn’t you? I want to tell you about some utterly wonderful wildlife encounters I’ve had while cycling in the dark.
One of my most favourite experiences was when I was cycling up Drake’s Trail, near midnight. My front light at the time was feeble, so I was riding slowly, when up ahead I saw movement, just before a viaduct. I slowed down, and when I got closer, I saw it was a herd of deer crossing the path. I stopped perhaps ten metres away from them, and they seemed curious, but unalarmed by my presence.
As I was staring in wonder, I heard a noise behind me, and turned to look. The other half of the sizeable herd was crossing behind me, and for a minute or two, I was surrounded on all sides by deer. I just smiled in wonder.
I’ve encountered so many foxes that I’ve lost count, though each time I was struck anew by how beautiful these creatures are, and how much I detest fox hunting.
Once, again on Drake’s Trail, a badger and I had a contest to see who could have the biggest fright! I was merrily cycling along when something right next to me started moving and making noises. First instinct was to pedal faster, which meant I was pacing the poor badger that was right next to my bike, as it was running for its life. Once I realised that, I stopped to let it get away.
I’ve seen stoats, millions of rabbits (and once a stoat that caught a rabbit far bigger that it!) as well as plenty of hares, and on Dartmoor, I’ve had to slalom between hundreds of sheep asleep on the road.
My most favourite experience involved what I think was a barn owl, but certainly an owl of some sort. At the time, I was cycling on a narrow lane that’s totally enclosed by the trees growing either side, forming a green tunnel. The owl swooped in from the side, and was flying perhaps two metres ahead of me, at head-height to me, and matched my speed. For around half a mile, I was following that owl doen the lane, before it finally swerved off between the trees.
I would have had very few of these encounters if I’d been cycling during daytime.
Go on! Go have a mini-adventure! Go do some night cycling and meet the creatures of the night!