Essential Guide: Beat the night

At the time of writing the nights have definitely drawn in more than somewhat, to the point that the daylight hours are starting to occur solely during working hours. Which isn’t ideal if you like to get your rides in of an evening.

But there is an answer. Get yourself some lights, wrap up warm and head out for a night ride. You’ll see all your trails in a whole new light…

Get kitted out

There are loads of different lighting systems available. They can be divided into two broad categories – lights to be seen by and lights to see with. The former category could also be called “commuter lights”. You’re looking at small, compact lights that put out enough light to let other road users see (and avoid) you, but spread it around in the name of visibility and don’t have enough power to illuminate the way ahead.

The second category is where the action is for off-road night riding. While it’s entirely possible to ride off-road at night with a couple of commuter lights and a simple headtorch the fun really starts when you’ve got at least 10W and a big rechargeable battery to play with. The most useful systems have twin beams, usually a wide flood and a narrow spot, combined with a high-capacity lightweight battery sufficient for a couple of hours of riding.

The choices of lamp unit, battery technology, features and manufacturer are somewhat bewildering – we’ve got buyer’s guides covering batteries and chargers and the lamps themselves. There’re also stacks of light reviews in the product review system.

Whatever you choose, it’s not a bad idea to run a little commuter light too. It’s a useful backup if your main light packs up, and you can use it on road stretches to save battery power. Don’t forget a rear light, essential for the road and handy to show riders behind the way on the trails although flashing LEDs can be distracting.

Setup and use

Once you’ve got your lights, you need to set them up right. Many twin-beam systems have independently-adjustable light units, allowing you to aim the flood a bit nearer to the bike for low-speed stuff and the spot a bit further away. If you’re running a helmet lamp it can take a bit of fiddling to get it lined up right. If you find yourself riding with your head tipped back and peering down your nose then it’s not quite right.

The key to successful night riding is choosing the right lights for the trail. To get a decent length ride you need to be fairly conservative with your beam choices. Set off with all lights blazing and with most systems you’ll be plunged into darkness in less than an hour. Save the full beam for when you need it. If you’re lucky enough to have a clear, moonlit night you can often get away with no lights at all on open trails (don’t try it on the road, though).

If you’re just pootling or climbing at an easy pace, a 20W spot aimed 400 yards down the trail isn’t all that useful. Conversely, if you’re going fast and looking well ahead you might as well not bother illuminating the ground a couple of feet ahead of the bike. Get into something nadgery, tree-lined and unpredictable, though, and you’ll want to switch everything on.

Don’t forget to turn off the excess when you can, though, and turn off pretty much everything when you stop. This both saves batteries and prevents overheating – some powerful systems rely on a gentle breeze from riding along to stop the bulbs melting…

Stick with what you know

How well do you know your trails? Pretty well? Really well? So well you could ride them with your eyes closed? Time to find out… Riding familiar trails in the dark is a bit like riding them the opposite way to usual. You get a vague sense of similarity but everything’s different. You don’t realise how much you rely on seeing stuff off the sides of the trail until you can’t see them any more. You might never realise that you always turn in to a particular corner level with a tree stump until you try it in the dark and overshoot totally. Trails by night become weird, distorted caricatures. You see things you never normally notice and don’t see things that you normally take for granted. And the whole thing leaps and rattles about and chucks big jagged shadows all over the place. It can be pretty disorientating.

Which is as good a reason as any to stick to trails you know well. A night ride isn’t the time to start exploring. Choose a favourite loop, or even a loop that’s become so boringly familiar that you don’t bother with it much. Be aware that it’s easy to ride past junctions in the dark, so keep checking that you’re going the right way.

Strength in numbers

It’s always a good idea to ride in groups, and at night it’s an even better idea. The chances of getting lost or falling off are somewhat higher than in daylight, and the addition of lights adds another layer of potential gear failure. A couple of spare riders minimises the chances of getting lost and maximises your ability to get home if anything goes pear-shaped.

Another advantage of group night riding is that you can extend your ride by not all having lights on at the same time. On easy, open trails some riders can get away without lights, using the lights on other bikes. Rotate who’s got lights on and who hasn’t and you can boost your runtime considerably.

As always, let someone know where you’re going and it’s probably not a bad idea to take a phone if it works where your ride is. Getting stuck out overnight isn’t likely to be fun at the best of times, and if you get stuck on a night ride, well, it’s already night…

Trust the bike

When you can’t see as much as you’re used to (and even the most hilariously meaty light system is nowhere near daylight) you’ve got to learn to trust the bike to find its own way through things. You need to be concentrating on what’s up ahead, looking for major trail changes like drops or corners. The microterrain under your front wheel is both invisible and irrelevant – most of it you can’t see and if you could see it it’d be too late to do anything about it. Just accept that anything you haven’t spotted is small enough for the bike to roll over without any trouble and keep looking as far ahead as you can. Stay off the brakes as much as possible, let it roll and all will be well.

Letting the bike find its own way is all well and good, but there are limits. If there’s stuff on your ride that you can’t clean in broad daylight, you’re pretty unlikely to be able to clean it in total darkness. Be aware of the sketchy bits and don’t push your luck. You don’t have to conquer that nasty drop tonight – it’ll be there another time…

Improve by magic

Get all this stuff right and not only will you have a whole heap of fun, you’ll get to be a better rider too. And you won’t have to try that hard, either. Riding with minimal visibility teaches you to make the most of the visual information you’ve got, and once you’ve learnt to focus on the trail and let the bike do the work you’ll find that it works in daylight too. Looking less and feeling more will teach you all sorts of stuff about weight distribution, balance and grip that again will stand you in good stead back in the sunshine. Just don’t let all that peripheral vision distract you…

Night riding tips and ideas

- Try a 24 or 12 hour race, either as a team or solo
- Revisit those trails that have got so familiar they’re boring. They’ll be completely different at night
- Take on an epic day ride without worrying about finishing it in dayligh
- Set off in the early hours of the morning and head for a hillside spot to watch dawn from
- Meet up in the pub before a ride rather than after it. Don’t drink and ride, though
- Don’t stop in the summer. Sure, there’s less darkness but it’s generally warmer

 

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