It’s night-time and I’m pinned face down in the muddy undergrowth, in the middle of a forest, in near total darkness.
The only sounds penetrating the inky atmosphere are my own erratic breathing and the snapping of twigs underfoot as an unknown someone closes in.
It could almost be a scene from the Blair Witch Project, but, when the heavy footsteps stop next to me the slasher-movie tension is replaced by the sound of someone killing themselves laughing.
The reason I’m lying in the mud unable to move is that I’m tangled up with my bike.
This is because I rode into a tree and fell off.
I rode into the tree because I didn’t see it, on account of having forgotten to switch my lights on.
I’ve discovered night-riding and it’s awesome!
Given the lack of daylight in the UK this time of year, when darkness is upon us by 4pm, you’d be forgiven for thinking that cycling is confined to weekend wobbles or turbo trainers. But in a bid to maintain some fitness throughout the winter and just for the fun of getting muddy, it’s time to embrace cycling in the pitch black.
Night riding works to combine all your basic daylight dangers and the general stupidities of mountain biking (impossibly steep muddy descents, boulders, tree roots, drops and thick mud) with that extra level of crazy, producing near endless opportunities for endangerment to life and limb.
There is however something wonderful about riding at night, not least the lack of people or traffic. Cutting through moonlit fields, silhouetted against the star scape it’s almost magical. Often riding in groups of 15 or 20 we probably make quite a surreal sight to the odd dog-walker or jogger we meet.
It also gives familiar day time trails a whole new twist when a fairly sedate path suddenly becomes much more technical when you can’t readily see all the usual obstacles.
It’s good for sharpening reactions and building skills too, dealing with the unknown and learning to ride to the feel of the trail under your wheels rather than relying on sighting terrain and obstacles.
Whilst the environment may be swathed in darkness, as riders we’re anything but. I’ve discovered night riding necessitates serious lumens (units of light) beamed via industrial strength helmet and handlebar lights to spectacularly illuminate the world (well they do if you remember to turn them on!).
These head-mounted lamps are especially unforgiving. Speaking to someone with a helmet light can mean laying your eyesight on the line. Engage in conversation with a neighbour at your peril as you’re immediately blinded by a face full of super-high intensity head-light beam when they turn to speak to you.
These industrial strength lights also confuse the heck out of car drivers. Meeting the odd vehicle on route I imagine we look like some weird alien space craft or a giant piece of farm machinery (I’m thinking Canadian monster combine harvester) as a line of 10+ nuclear-strength front lights sweeps up the road towards them.
The pace at night is maybe a little slower but the technical opportunities more than make up. Tree branches, bushes and stumps loom up out of nowhere necessitating some nifty handlebar and body moves. And the world can be awfully dark once those headlamps zoom off through the trees. Trust me when I say that the fear of being abandoned alone in the scary woods, because you can’t keep on pace, is enough to ensure I ride like a lunatic to keep the group’s tail lights well in sight.
It’s very wet and boggy too at the moment and hitting an unexpected and deep patch of mud on a dark trail, wheels sliding everywhere, is enough to set the heart racing, very similar to an all-out sprint.
But, the very best bit by far, is that night rides generally tend to end at the pub. There’s nothing more beautiful and welcoming after a cold, mucky ride than the warm bar with good company (well other cyclists at least). Dissecting the ride, comparing mud-tans all with a glass of something and the smug inner-glow that only a great bike ride can bring definitely helps brighten up those dark winter nights.