Words by Rebecca Charlton; Photos by Simon Keitch & Chris Catchpole
When the clocks change and the nights draw in, cyclists have a decision to make: kit out with night riding accessories and embrace the darkness or hang up the wheels and miss out on hours of glorious saddle time.
Riding by night brings with it new challenges and a fresh enjoyment, whether that’s simply getting home from work or creating extended routes. It’s easy to see winter commutes as a means to an end, but with a good set of lights, some warm clothing and some interesting ride options, it can offer a wonderful new take on your cycling. With our survival advice you can ensure you’re well equipped to embrace all the joys night riding has to offer.
Gordon Skillen: the rural commuter
Gordon, 38, covers six miles each way on his rural commute in Dorset, from Wimborne to Three Legged Cross. He’s been cycling for 10 years now and tells us why he continues to pedal through the winter evenings and how some exciting obstacles mean things never get boring out on the road.
Cycling Active: What inspires you to keep riding through the dark winter evenings?
Gordon Skillen: A few miles a day seems a far more interesting way to get some miles in than sitting on the turbo-trainer in the garage, to be completely honest.
CA: What do you do differently when you’re riding in the pitch dark as opposed to bright summer evenings?
GS: Use lights. That’s it, really. On unlit rural roads, even the weeniest of LED lights shows up, unlike urban areas where it can be like a big kaleidoscope of lights from all sorts of sources, so I’d argue that you’re actually more visible than on an urban commute. That said, it’s good if you’re lit up like the end of a runway. Reflective stuff helps, as does white clothing. You also need the stonkingest great light for the front, as you need to see as much as possible as well as be seen.
CA: What would you say is probably the best thing about your commute?
GS: There’s always something about barn owls screeching in the woods as you ride through, or just riding on a clear, moonlit night. I’d also say that there’s something about having a completely empty road all to yourself. A sort of bleak ‘last man on earth’ chic. There was a time when I used to tell myself ghost stories when I was riding, about meeting the devil at the cross roads and selling my soul for a race win or something but I’ve grown out of that now.
CA: What would you say to any of our readers who are thinking about night riding for the first time?
GS: Just get on and do it. I wouldn’t advise riding in below freezing conditions, or in heavy rain, but at all other times — just get out there! It’s going to be a long, boring winter on the turbo if you don’t. Get yourself a really good front light and try to head for the sort of roads that aren’t either a quagmire at this time of year, nor a commuting rat run. Oh and I’d advise getting to know them in the daylight.
CA: What does the rural commute throw at you in terms of challenges?
GS: I have a couple of cattle grids to contend with, which can get quite exciting in the rain. The route runs through an area full of wild grazing cattle. They’ve never been an issue, though — but I do surprise the occasional badger or fox. Or a deer, which is always exciting. As soon as one bolts, you can guarantee a couple of his mates are going to follow him out of the hedgerow.
One of the shortcuts to where I work is via a ford, which turns into quite a fast-flowing stream in heavy rain. My technique is to raise my feet to the down tube and ride through it at just the correct speed. Too fast and you shoot water everywhere and get soaked. Too slow and you don’t make it all the way through and have to either start pedalling again or get off and push your way out.
A friend of mine was out training for Mountain Mayhem a few years ago, getting some night rides in on his mtb. He took the wrong turning off a byway and ended up with a farmer pointing his shotgun at him, thinking he was up to some sort of mischief. But nothing like that’s
happened to me so far, touch wood.
CA: Do you ever plan longer night riding routes for a bit of variation or do you tend to stick to the commute?
GS: My own cycling club [Poole Wheelers] have an evening chaingang around lit, urban roads, which is as much a social get-together as a training ride. There’s another evening ride for hardcore roadies, where you need REALLY good lights or you’re pretty stuffed, as it’s like a rollercoaster ride in the pitch black. You can sit at the back and use other people’s lights for illumination, but if you’ve got a little blinky LED and you get left behind on a hill, it can make for a very interesting ride home.
Sarah Strong: the urban commuter
Sarah, 36, commutes between central London’s Hyde Park and Herne Hill. She appreciates her evening rides for practicality, fitness and the pure love of it. She’s been riding for eight years and explains why cycling by night really is no hardship.
Cycling Active: What inspires you to keep riding through the dark winter evenings?
Sarah Strong: I like to keep cycling through the winter because it keeps my fitness level up and ready for spring. It isn’t too much of a hardship if you have some decent winter gear. There’s a different atmosphere to London in the winter evenings and I enjoy seeing the same roads in a different light.
There are fewer cyclists on the road, so there aren’t the same bottlenecks at junctions. When the alternative to cycling is being stuck in a stuffy tube carriage or overcrowded bus I’ll choose the bike every time. At the end of a cold, wet commute there is always a relaxing hot shower to look forward to!
CA: What do you do differently when you’re riding in the dark as opposed to summer evenings?
SS: I tend to take a little more time when I’m manoeuvring and signal more obviously and for longer than usual. I think I use my peripheral vision less and take more care to properly observe my surroundings. I take descents in a little less gung-ho manner too! Generally speaking, I cycle a little slower and give myself more time to react to the unexpected.
CA: What’s the best thing about your commute?
SS: On leaving work, I first ride through Hyde Park. You do have to be careful of other park users in the gloom but in November/December, the way is partly lit by the reflections of the winter fair and the Ferris wheel in the Serpentine. I love riding through London and over the Thames late at night and seeing that wonderful river vista; I sometimes take diversions down to Waterloo or Lambeth Bridges just to take in the view.
CA: What would you say to people who are thinking about night riding for the first time?
SS: If it’s an urban ride, try riding familiar roads first and gain an awareness of how it differs from the daytime ride. Perhaps ride with an experienced night commuter and make sure you have good lights. I tend to attach small lights to the front and back of my helmet too, and make sure all have plenty of battery life left. Dress for a sudden drop in temperature in the middle of the night and early morning — especially if you plan to stop for any amount of time.
CA: Does urban commuting in the dark present different challenges?
SS: If some motorists don’t notice cyclists around them during the day, then it seems to be far worse in the dark and can be a lot more dangerous — even if you are lit up like the London Eye. I ride a bit more defensively at night and claim my space on the road obviously. I tend to change to wider tyres in the winter for better grip on wet roads. I also use some kind of added puncture protection — it’s not fun trying to change an inner tube in the cold, rain and dark.
Night riding tips
CA’s Hannah Bussey explains how to play safely in the dark
When riding at night, it’s just as important to be seen by other road users as being able to see the actual road. The Highway Code requires a front white light, a red rear light and reflector at night, and you’re also required to fit amber/yellow pedal reflectors, but that will prove tricky to achieve riding clipless. Less well known is the rate of flash! Your light must flash between one and four equal flashes per second. We think one flash per second is too infrequent, and suggest going for the fastest option.
It’s worth investing in more reflectors and lights than just the minimum, the more the merrier in fact. But make sure they’re the right colour — white at the front and red at the back — and don’t dazzle other road users.
If you’re in the market for a new front light, check out our ‘Seven of the best’ front light review on page 62 which gives advice to help pick the best light for you. Whatever light you opt for, make sure that there is plenty of juice in the battery before you set off.
Maintaining your ride
It’s important to look after your bike whatever the time of day or year, but if you think roadside maintenance is annoying in the day, try doing it at night.
Like the saying goes ‘prevention is better than cure’. Check tyres for cuts and embedded debris (glass and sharp pieces of gravel) before every ride, especially night rides. If you’re not confident at fixing punctures, get some practice in. Try a couple of dress rehearsals at home, so you know what you’re doing if you puncture out on the open road. If you are using a more rugged ‘winter’ tyre it’s likely to be less supple, so ensure you can actually lever it from the rim if you get a flat.
If you’ve been pottering around all summer with a neatly packed bag of spares tucked under the saddle, now is the time to give it the once-over and check for rusted multi-tools, degraded tubes and making sure you haven’t removed anything and forgotten to replace it.
We all like to be seen looking good on the bike, but when riding at night it’s even more important to stand out — but for all the right reasons. Many bike clothes have amazingly effective reflective elements such as piping on the seams or flaps on pockets, although it’s also worth wearing neon colours, especially at dawn and dusk when the light is flat and not all cars will have their lights on. If you’re riding with a rucksack, invest in a brightly coloured one or a bright bag cover for extra visibility.
If you’re unfortunate enough to suffer a bike breakdown, it can get pretty chilly trying to fix it at night. Make sure you pack a stowable jacket to keep out the worst of the weather.
We’re all used to donning a pair of shades on sunny days, but it’s just as important to remember eye protection at night. Some glasses have clear or light-enhancing ‘swap-out’ lens options which are perfect as you can wear the coloured ones during the day and then change the lenses to clear for rides at night.
We love riding in the country lanes, and don’t want to stop just because it gets dark. But don’t underestimate how dark it can get in the country. You’ll need a bright front light in order to pick out potholes and the like, but with enough burn time to complete the ride.
Well-trodden routes can look different in the dark, so make sure you are totally confident with where you’re going. If you are picking a really quiet route, best ride with a buddy — we’ve known grown men to spook themselves with the thought of a baying pack of wolves snapping at their heels!