The cycling commute to and from work is never average. Cycling is always a kind of adventure. As a cyclist you can play around – speed up, meander a bit, try to catch another cyclist, do a bit of sneaky no-hands, attempt a wheely if you feel like it.
But yesterday’s journey home from work was special; a truly sensory experience, pedalling into the sunset, the dusk and the brief gloaming before darkness.
It wasn’t just about the colours roaring before fading and giving in to the shadows, it was about the temperature starting cool and dropping steadily. As the embers of the day glowed thin and long on the horizon and the stars came out overhead, so the toes were starting to numb.
The cycle to work earlier in the day had been one of the most utterly satisfying that I’ve had this year. I would normally say that the peachiest rides are in warm weather, when you’re wearing least and you feel the sun warm on your arms and legs.
But yesterday’s ride, starting in a biting chill that necessitated full-finger gloves, winter jacket and possibly a second pair of socks, was so fresh and invigorating that I’ve revised my opinion. What’s more I arrived at work happy, unflushed and ready to get on with the day without the need for cool down.
Having a commuter bike now, I thought I’d better get kitted up with lights and attempt some winter commuting. I’ve got some for the Orange mountainbike but they are old and a bit weak. It’s been years since I persuaded anyone to go night-riding with me in the Forest of Dean. It’s a different world, threading your way along trails lit only by the pool of light beyond your front wheel and a shadowy figure pedalling ahead. We didn’t do any downhills or anything particularly risky but it just felt so different and a bit dangerous, which is reward in itself. There were always some spine-chilling bird squawks that I couldn’t identify; nightjars, perhaps owls on the hunt.
I couldn’t transfer my old lights to the commuter bike. For the road, I definitely needed a bit more oomph in the lumens, lux or candlepower department.
The prices in the Evans catalogue were offputting – a nonsensical £234 for a front light? Not a chance. I went to a local bike shop where the guy led me to a modest display of lights. It looked like all the cyclists in Chelters had been there before me. But hey, I got what I wanted – a good back rear light, a diddy little red flasher to attach randomly (the handles of my rackpack) and a front light with a choice of crappy beam or pretending-to-be-quite-bright beam which you can have on standard steady or funky flashy. You can forget it if you want to compare your lumens or your luxes – no such indicators of brightness appear on the products that I’ve got. Can’t complain too much, I suppose, as I got them all for fifty quid.
The ride started in Chelters with the sun low on the horizon at the end of a stunning clear day on roads and cycle paths, turned on to several miles of bumpy, badly maintained main road and then on to a country lane which faces due west. This is always a treat because you’re watching the setting sun and the fiery sky ahead. There are several places where I was sorely tempted to stop and take some pics but impossible to capture the scale and majesty of it all on my phone camera.
When I started out, Cheltenham’s trees glowed gold and yellow in the last of the sunshine but after the sun had set and I turned on to another major road, the trees were intricate black silhouettes against indigo ink-stained clouds.
Back in the cut and thrust of a major road, where I got the distinct impression cars were giving me a wider berth than usual – hopefully because of my spiffy new flashing red rear lights.
Heading towards Gloucester, I decided to adapt my usual route, chickening out of one of the last stretches, along a busy dual carriageway with a slip-road joining from the nearside. I once had a slightly traumatising near miss with a stupid woman driver red car who thought she could just squeeze by in front of me at about 60mph while I was half way across the slip road. An experienced cyclist pal advised me to avoid it, even if it meant cycling an extra couple of miles. I don’t normally bother in broad daylight but in the dark it seemed eminently sensible so I did, taking the longer trip through Gloucester to make full use of off-road cyclepaths.
Cyclepaths have their pros and their cons. The con that irritates is having to look out or stop at side junctions, the pro is that it’s off the road. On the whole, I’d rather mix it with the traffic – I’m entitled to a car space on the road, after all. I only use cycle paths when I have to as I prefer to keep going once I’m going and the stop-start nature of cyclepaths drives me nuts.
I didn’t realise that the major obstacles on cyclepaths would be other unlit riders hurtling towards me out of the shadows in the opposite direction. Of course, they could see me but it was hard to see them. There was also a little local problem with a man allowing his dog to go for a crap on an extending lead – across the cycle path. Fortunately I saw the bloke first and wondered what he was doing lurking close to the start of an underpass, slowed, and then had to come to a halt while the guy reeled in his staggering little dog.
Cycling past hundreds of cars – many of them queued at junctions – is always a joy. Whenever I’m stuck in a car myself, my heart is with those cyclists out there in the open air, pedalling along pleasantly in their myriad styles on their wonderfully varied forms of bicycles – and sometimes tricycles.
I’d forgotten about cycling through the creepy underpass at night. I’ve some across dodgy dealings while cycling through there in the broad daylight, so when I turn the sharp corner to cycle by the river, it’s always with a sense of trepidation, because you never quite know what’s around the corner. It was deserted last night. This is also the place where you are most likely to have a prang with another cyclist if you are both going too fast and unconcerned about the possibility of someone suddenly appearing around the corner. It hasn’t happened yet but the risk is there.
From there the route heads away from the road, winds up a rise and into the dark countryside on trail which is familiar but becomes wholly different, mysterious and risky at night- a limb of tree might have fallen or tinkers dumped a truck-load of rubbish. The short, sharp downhill wasn’t the blast it usually it. Caution had to be exercised, like a dog – in case there was a dog out for a late constitutional. It felt constrained and weird to be cycling into the limited little pool of light ahead, watching out at the same time for overhanging branches and briars which it’s easy to avoid in daylight.
Along the darkest sections of the trail, a curious thing happened – pinpricks of light were flying up into the air around the front of the bike, tiny and glowing like sparks from a Catherine wheel. Magical, the effect of fragments of stone pinging up from my wheel, caught momentarily in my headlight.
Bats flitted beneath the branches and I thought there was a slim chance I might see a badger crossing the path ahead – their latrines are well away from the sett, down by the river – but I was out of luck. When the thin black needle of the church steeple appeared above the hill ahead, I knew I was almost home.