Winter puts the skids under your riding in more ways than one, but it’s also the best time of the year to pick up new skills and experience the best the countryside has to offer in terms of fresh cold air, and deserted trails.
So wrap up warm and pay attention as we bring you a brief BIKEmagic guide to getting the best from the darker 6 months of the year.So how do you ride in the dark?
There are two really facile answers to this. A/ with lights, B/ carefully. Both have their serious side though.Lights
We’ve already reviewed the new NiMH 2000 lightset from Lumicycle and we’ll be testing more off road illuminators over the coming weeks to let you know what we reckon are the specific cream of the crop. But if you can’t wait that long here are the basic searchlight shopping tips.
Make sure you get a light with a battery life longer than your average night ride. You’re more likely to crash, puncture of stop for some other reason at night, so make sure you’ve got reserve power to get you home.
Make sure you get lights powerful enough for the speed you ride. If you’re clattering down big dowhnills flat out then you’ll need maximum illumination, while for lower speed less technical stuff you can get way with less lamp power. Make sure your light pattern reflects your types of riding too. Spots are great for high speed straight line work, but they only point where you do. On the other hand wide arc flood beams are great for slow twisty sections but they can’t reach far ahead unless they’re super powerful.
Luckily most decent light systems now allow different bulb wattages for different power and battery life needs as well as spot or flood beam options. Twin systems also let you change between each light to suit conditions as you ride.
Make sure you get a fitting system that works with your bike and your habits. If you only use lights occasionally and like your bars uncluttered, don’t get a set up that need a permanent scaffolding structure on your bike. Also make sure the battery bottle or bag actually fits to your frame. Most are designed around conventional double diamond frames not suspension mainframes with monocoque sections or strange bottle mounts. Even if your frame has bottle mounts make sure the cable on the battery pack is long enough to reach the bars.
We’ll be bringing you more details on the technical side of batteries, bulbs, overvolting, beam patterns and burn times from our resident tech expert (Hi Kev) shortly. Until then the basics are;
Lead acid batteries are cheap but heavy for their power and get upset if they’re run down to zero.
Ni Cad batteries are lighter and generally more powerful but get upset if you don’t run them down everytime.
NiMH batteries (like laptops and mobiles use) don’t love being run flat either but they offer big power at about 30% less weight than lead acid or Ni-cad batteries. As usual though, performance costs extra.
On the ‘ead son?
There’s a long running argument over whether helmet mounted lights are better than handlebar mounted sets. Each have their pro’s and cons:
Helmet mounted lights point where you look, so you can look round corners and near or far away from the bike depending on your speed and the terrain. However as they illuminate on the same plane of vision as your eye’s it’s sometimes very tricky to detect changes in depth such as drop off’s etc. They also weigh down your head and tire your neck if they’re mounted too far forward and you’ll need to carry the heavy battery pack on a belt or in your Camelbak.
Bar mounted lights keep your helmet and backpack free from weight and wiring, but they can be a pain to fit to some monocoque bikes. They also give you set illumination in terms of depth and field of vision, and they only point in the direction the bike is travelling, so you don’t know what happens after the corner. Powerful bar mounts also throw big shadows along the trail from any crest, log or high point, leaving you to guess what happens in the big black patch behind them.
Of course in an ideal world you’d have both, but you’ll have to judge which seem like the lesser evils for yourself.
Make sure your lights point far enough down the trail to give you warning of trouble. If all you can see is your front wheel you won’t stand a chance of staying on the trail and out of the trees at any faster than walking pace.Technique after dark
The main problem of riding at night is visibility. Even with good lights you can only see where they are pointing and as they say, it’s the ones you don’t see that get you.
Like any riding situation where you’re not totally sure what happens next, keep your weight back so the front wheel rides up and over trouble rather than burying itself and lobbing you over the bars. If there’s too much stuff and too little light raise yourself off the bike, keeping your limbs relaxed and ready to react to any slips or slaps the bike takes. It’s also a good idea to run tyres harder than normal as unseen rocks can cause pinch punctures and fixing flats is no fun on dark wet winters nights.
Even if you can see what’s going on low light situations can cause curious problems. Beware dark bushes such as holly which can often look like the trail gap but quickly prove otherwise in a prickly fashion. On the opposite tack beware silver birches that look like the light strip of singletrack on moonlit nights. Or is it just me who’s that stupid.
Watch out for target fixation too. Your lights might be lighting up the trail perfectly but overhanging branches are all too easy to overlook (espescially if you use a peak) which can have truly stunning consequences.
Even if you reckon you know the trail like the back of your hand, lack of light can cause chaos, so always ride well within your daylight limits, we guarantee you’ll still have fun.Safety
At the risk of sounding like your parents, riding at night is more dangerous for several reasons. As you can’t see properly you’re more likely to crash or break something at night. Therefore it makes sense to ride in a group or at least let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back, so they can come and look for you if you don’t return.
Night time also provides cover for all sorts of dubious types as well, and whether it’s a comedy prank that goes wrong or a serious attack that leaves you injured or without a bike a lone rider using a regular route is an easy target. Again, ride in a group if you can and let someone know when you expect to be back. Vary your routes and times you use them as well, and however good the singletrack might be avoid areas with a bad reputation or isolated from any sort of helpful civilisation.
On the upside, there’s nothing quite as amusing as providing a ‘courting couple’ with unexpected grandstand illumination or coming back to find a car park full of gently rocking, steamed up cars. Especially if you recognise the number plate.Go do it
If it sounds like a hassle sorting out lights and riding into tree’s you thought were trails don’t be put off. Night riding is an absolute blast that makes even the tamest local trails seem an absolute blast. Getting a decent set of lights means riding after work becomes a possibility again, so you don’t have to get fat and frustrated waiting for the weekend to come round.
Get some lights, use at least some common sense when you’re riding and we guarantee you’ll discover a whole new league of mountain biking fun.