Night Riding: Skills and Tips for Great Mountain Bike and Gravel Night Rides

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In November in the United States (except Arizona), we all set our clocks back one hour. We get an extra hour of sleep on one night, but pay a hefty price for it over the next four months with cold mornings and early sunsets. I may be biased, but as you can tell I’m not a big fan of fewer daylight hours and early sunsets. On the flip side, evenings are still reasonably warm or pleasantly brisk right now, meaning it’s a great time to strap on some lights and ride at night!

People typically think of mountain bikes when talking about night riding, but recently more athletes have been riding gravel roads and cycle paths for more than just commuting after dark. I don’t trust drivers much during the day, and even less at night, so unless you’re commuting I personally recommend minimizing your time sharing roads with cars after dark. 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:

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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 obviously 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.

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(Video courtesy of CTS Athlete Macky Franklin)

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.

Manage your batteries

Most lights have a few 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.

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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.

Blink!

Sounds stupid, right? But really, 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 it’s 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

At least in the beginning, ride on easier terrain when you go out at night. 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 cross bike on a gravel road 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.

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Stop and listen

One of the things I enjoy most about night rides is the quiet. 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.

Eat light when you get home

When you get home from a night ride, 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. I’m not a big fan of training and then fasting overnight, but 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!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS


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Comments 3

  1. If you do happen to have to ride on the streets, make sure you have a light that complies with the law mounted on your bicycle. In Arizona a helmet mounted light is not sufficient. The idea for the bike mounted light is to be seen. A low power light should fit the bill. Also, supplement with a reflector for the rear. Batteries have this weird habit of dying when you need them most.

  2. I’ve had issues with night vision this year riding at night and I do believe it’s my lights which are strong and focused to close up. I like your suggestion about focusing them further out, I can ‘see’ that working! Also which is surprising is you do occasionally have to remind yourself to blink! It’s beautiful breaking fresh snow at night on the Fat Bike! Thank for the article Chris

  3. Good afternoon
    I am an amateur portuguese cyclist, and in 2015 anda 2016 i have trained through the training plans of your’s book “The time crunched cyclist.” . In 2017 i decided to do a full range of Randonné brevets (200, 300, 400, 600 km). So I wonder if I can continue to use the training plans in the book as it is very complicated to accomplish before each brevet long rides for training.

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