With Daylight Savings Time ending this weekend, we’ll be rolling the clocks back an hour and ushering in the months of earlier sunsets. Commuters will spend more time riding home in the dark. For mountain bikers and gravel and road riders, it’s a great opportunity to clip on some lights and enjoy cycling at night! Whether you’re riding in the woods, on a quiet gravel road, or down the bike path, here are some tips for having a great night ride:
Invest in two headlights and one taillight
Gone are the days of weak 200 lumen (amount of light emitted) lights, massive batteries, and short run times. These days I use a 700-lumen USB-rechargeable light that only weighs a few ounces, and you can go into the woods with lights that pump out 1400 lumens or more! I recommend a handlebar light and a helmet light. The handlebar light gives you a steady beam in front of you. The helmet light points wherever you look, which can be very helpful for spotting turns, reading signs, or making sure a person or car sees you. If you need to choose one over the other I recommend the helmet light. And a red blinker on the back is a good idea day or night on any bike.
Dress for falling temperatures
It might be reasonably warm when you leave your house, but the temperature will drop the entire time you’re out. Carry a layer to put on, or start with zippers somewhat open. If you’re too warm early and soak all your layers in sweat, you may get very cold later. Here are more resources for cold-weather cycling.
Manage your batteries
Most lights have various light levels, and the brighter the setting the shorter the run time. You don’t need your highest light level to ride slowly uphill, so notch it down to a lower level. Use the high beams for fast and technical areas. Also plan your rides to be at least 25% shorter than the expected run time of your batteries. If you have two hours of battery life, plan a 90-minute ride so you have some insurance against a flat tire, mechanical, getting lost, or some other delay.
Tell someone where you’re going
Better still, tell someone where you’re going and ride with a buddy or group. Even with great lights and plenty of practice, the risks and consequences of crashing at night are higher. You don’t want to spend a cold night on the ground out there by yourself.
Sounds stupid, right? But really, in the dark it takes more focus to figure out the terrain in front of you and some people seem to get sucked into their own light beam. You don’t have much context from peripheral vision, and the world outside of your personal light beam seems to disappear. It’s easy to get tunnel vision. Brighter lights sometimes make this worse because the contrast between the bright beam and surrounding darkness is so stark. Super bright lights can also sometimes wash out terrain features, ironically making it more difficult to judge if something is a rock or a dip.
Headlights create a cone of light in front of you, and the cone is brightest in the middle. If you’re starting to get tunnel vision, stop staring right into the middle of your light beam or point it further out in front of you to get more dispersion. Look around the edges and get more context of the world around you.
Ride moderate terrain
When you’re a beginner at cycling at night, ride on easier terrain. Your local trails will look very different at night, with shadows and blind spots and rocks you never noticed before. Whether you’re riding a gravel bike on a path or a mountain bike in the woods, try to go with the flow. Be loose on the bike so you can respond to unexpected bumps or slips with some body English. Be careful about outrunning your lights, or going so fast you can’t react to what’s in front of you by the time you see it.
Stop and listen
The quiet is one of the most enjoyable aspects of cycling at night. Don’t be in such a hurry that you miss the chance to stand still for a while and just listen to the quiet. We spend so much time surrounded by so much noise that silence is refreshing and restorative.
Remember there’s a huge flashlight on your head!
Seriously, it’s painfully bright to anyone you’re looking at.
However, that flashlight on your head can be useful for getting a driver’s attention if you are riding on roads or crossing roads during your night ride. Although blinding drivers is not advisable, people are pretty good at noticing when you spotlight their car. People also notice lights that move, particularly when they move like people or animals. Scanning, sweeping, and spotlighting with your headlamp can help you get home safe.
Eat light when you get home
When you get home from cycling at night, don’t gorge on a huge meal. Eat something smaller, with a balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Some athletes struggle to sleep soon after a big meal. Some people try to eat minimally after an evening workout (indoors or outdoors) or fast entirely. That’s probably not the best choice if you plan on riding the following day. If you are trying to execute a moderate ride with low carbohydrate availability in the morning, you could eat a light meal that’s weighted more to protein and high water content and high fiber content vegetables (broccoli, peppers, salad) instead of grain or starch sources of carbohydrate (pasta, rice, potatoes).
Most of all, have fun!