Riding at Night

By Associate Coach Jenni Gaertner

Every year in November and December I mourn the waning daylight hours. Motivation gets harder to maintain when I find myself driving to work in the dark and returning home the same way. Unfortunately, the disappearing daylight poses problems with keeping to my training plan. I dread the evil “first ride” on the indoor trainer.

My husband, admittedly the more “hardy” one in this relationship, frequently tried to convince me last year (and the year before) to join him and his posse for the weekly mountain bike ride in the dark. “Yeah, right,” I’d answer him. Then I’d follow with the usual cliché referencing porcine aerobatics that would have to take place before you’d ever find me careening down a mountain trail with a narrow beam of light as my only refuge from the engulfing darkness…

But recently I’ve experienced an epiphany of sorts. There’s something scary, serene, and beautiful about riding at night. There’s the feeling of complete anonymity as you weave through the streets or along the bike path, unseen, cloaked in the darkness. The sounds seem to be more amplified, perhaps by my heightened sensitivity since I cannot count so heavily on sight. And the smells: firewood, dinner cooking, the almost palpable crispness that means I’ll probably have to scrape the windshield tomorrow morning. You don’t experience those same smells on an evening ride during the spring or summer. But the best feeling about riding at night this time of year? Avoiding the indoor trainer!

So, with this newfound enthusiasm for the nocturnal, I’ve discovered that my training perhaps is not as limited by turning back the clock as I previously thought. Try some of these tips to extend your options this winter:

Invest in the right equipment. Obviously, you’ll need a light. If you’ve not ridden at night before, go to your local bike shop and talk to someone who has. A light can look pretty bright in the parking lot, but it’s a lot different when you’re actually moving. Be sure to get a light that is bright enough for the type of riding that you anticipate doing. I’ve yet to venture into the mountains; I spend my night rides on the cyclocross bike on the road. Road speed demands a brighter, far-projecting light – one that can’t be “outrun” by the speed of the ride. Trust me, it’s no fun to feel like you just don’t have enough light to see if that’s an obstacle ahead or not. Don’t forget the rear-facing red flashing light, either. Likewise, make sure you can be seen. Fortunately, most manufacturers of winter apparel have strategically placed reflective materials on most articles of gear. Check your stuff – if no reflective properties, get some cheap reflective tape you can use on your helmet, shoes, jacket, etc. And, if you’re like me (a bit on the wimpy side when it comes to enduring the elements), invest in some high-quality, warm, weather-proof clothing. When you’re comfortable, it’s easier to talk yourself into heading out into less-than-desirable elements. Gloves and booties are an especially important component of comfort. Don’t skimp on them. “Pimp your ride:” If you don’t have a cyclocross bike or a mountain bike that you like to ride on the road, you can set up your road bike with wider, more aggressive tires, which will provide better traction and protection from unseen hazards and rough winter roads.

Be prepared. Just as during the day, be sure that you are prepared for what you may face. Bring your cell phone, ID, money for Starbucks, and of course stuff to change a flat tire. Having to change a flat during daylight is bad enough, but it’s even worse when amplified by the dark, the cold, and the desire to just get home. Be sure to let someone know your planned route and approximate time you’ll be returning.

Be safe. Obviously, you’ll need to be sure to ride extra defensively. Be aware of your surroundings. Consider getting a group together to take advantage of the safety in numbers. Ideally, ride on bike paths or in areas off-limits to cars. If you do ride with others, allow a little more space for braking and cornering and call out obstacles on the road. Again, be sure that you are able to be seen with your light and reflective markings, and let someone know your plans.

Have fun. Use this opportunity to improve your bike handling skills. Try that mountain bike ride, or take the ‘cross bike off road. There’s something very thrilling and a bit frightening about venturing off-road in the dark. Granted, my speed of mach 2 is nothing compared to my husband’s mach 37, but the lack of visual input to my sensory system demands that I ride fluidly and smoothly – otherwise I’ll likely be eating dirt for dinner! It forces one to become more “Zen” about riding, to “become one with the bike, young Grasshopper,” or face the consequences. Bent arms soaking up the bumps and relaxed shoulders are a must — a great way to develop habits that you can transfer to your day time riding.

While I’ve not found the courage (yet) to venture off-road with my husband and his buddies, I have found solace in my solitary nighttime excursions on the road. As cold as it is, I’m warmed by the knowledge that I don’t have to struggle to stay on the trainer spinning to nowhere. And there’s also a small sense of pride that I’m now one of a rare breed of riders that are tough enough to ride when the conditions aren’t perfect. A year ago I would have never thought I would head out for a night ride when the couch looked so much more inviting! There’s something to be said for the mental and psychological training that occurs with night riding, too. It can build fortitude and mental toughness. “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” right? And while I don’t necessarily love to ride at night, it does make me a tougher rider, confident that I can deal with whatever faces me on the race circuit.

What’s that? I hear a flock of pigs overhead…

Associate Coach Jenni Gaertner, MPT, M.Ed. specializes in cycling and triathlon with Wenzel Coaching. She and her husband Mike own the shop Vertical Earth and are two-time finishers of Ironman: Coeur d’Alene and Canada. Her current passion is for road racing and cyclocross. Juggling two kids and a husband, two jobs, and a small business provides insight into the struggles that many other aspiring athletes with “real life” obligations face.