Ride into night

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.

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About janh1

Part-time hedonist.
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25 Responses to Ride into night

  1. This fabulous, Jan, and what an advert for cycling to and from work! A ride full of event. Thanks!

  2. IsobelandCat says:

    Hi Jan

    Great post. I thoroughly enjoyed that and felt I had travelled the journey with you.

    Your ride to and from work sounds lot more demanding than mine, but i agree with you about the freshness of the early morning. I too have gone for full gloves this week, but as my nose starts to run in the cold, I may soon switch to the bus and catch up on reading.

    My greatest dangers, apart from other cyclists and drivers, are pedestrians who wander in front of me on quiet streets not even looking to see if anyone is coming, and the appalling state of many of the roads. You could fall in some of the potholes around here and end up in Australia.

    Did you know that if you are obviously female drivers give you a wider berth? I’m trying to remember if you got the hot pink jacket. I’m thinking of a new and very girly helmet.

    And some new lights would be a good idea too. 🙂

    • janh1 says:

      Hi Isobel 🙂 I *have* new lights – although I discovered tonight that a nut has already dropped off one of the back light fixings. Journey too bumpy, obviously! Actually went into giant sunken manhole thing tonight that I would have avoided in daylight.

      Good point about the quieter roads – everyone thinks they can do what they like, so in fact there are hazards – just different ones!

      Yes I’d heard that about female riders – even more so if you don’t wear a helmet at all. I’m wearing a hot red jacket at the mo but the waterproof I got was the lilac one – which has a nice close girly cut. Don’t think I would get mistaken for a bloke anyway, having mid-length hair flicking out from underneath helmet and unmistakeably a woman’s ass. 🙂

  3. IsobelandCat says:

    Sorry, I meant I need a new front light. Can’t find mine.

    • janh1 says:

      I would lend you my mountainbike light but it’s so dim, it wouldn’t really be suitable for your needs, Isobel. I do envy you the City riding though I’m surprised to hear about the pot holes. I thought that was just Gloucestershire and the consequences of the County Council Highways department having a zilch budget!

  4. IsobelandCat says:

    Sometimes my bike rattles so much on badly surfaced roads i think it’s going to fall apart. I dislike the long narrow ruts between patches of tarmac too. They always feel as though I’m going to get suck in the groove.
    I don’t actually ride through the City, my journey is further west.
    I’ve got a cheap light from Tesco, but I mean to go to Marathon for some new gloves, so I’ll probably get one there. I was in a branch of Evans yesterday. You seem to like them, but i find them fairly unfriendly and unhelpful. In fact, despite the fact that I was gazing at gloves and looking for the tube thing we discussed earlier in the year, no one came to offer me any help. I left.

  5. janh1 says:

    Well, I probably use the term “City” lightly. I probably mean anywhere east of Uxbridge! 😀
    I think the roads are in a worst state than they have been for about thirty years! Like the useless, ill-planned cycle paths that are 3 metres long, the most awful roads demonstrate that none of the people holding the purse strings for maintenance *ever* cycle!

    Maybe you should put your bike in to a bike shop to get an annual tightening up. Bike shops vary according to the members of staff employed and they are idiots if they don’t notice and offer to help a customer in a quandary. Having said that, most of the guys in Evans Bristol are very helpful and the guys in Birmingham Evans were brilliant when I shot in there at 3 minutes to six (closing time) asked where their Ron Hill tracksters were, tried on a pair and bought them at about ten seconds to 6 o’clock! No raised eyebrows or tutting – only smiles and a bit of joshing.

  6. IsobelandCat says:

    Ah, sorry. City with a capital c means the square mile to me. we have a crossing or pedestrians and cyclists (accident waiting to happen, and it nearly did for me when two kids rushed across my path in the pouring rain one day) where you have to wait for ages. So most people, cyclists included, start to jaywalk. Not clever. and of course when you approach and see it’s green you pedal like **** to get across in time.

    Luckily I have Bob’s Bikes locally as well as the cycle workshop and the wonderful Edwardes down at Camberwell. So Evans is supernumerary. I think the tightening up is a good idea. a wash wouldn’t go amiss either. 🙂

    • janh1 says:

      Oh don’t mention “wash” Isobel. My bike tested positive for grime yesterday 🙂

      Robert Crampton wrote something the other day about regretting starting the cyclists trend for ignoring red lights becauses so many people are now doing it. Must be a City thing – I don’t see that in Chelters and I certainly wouldn’t do it. If you get knocked off your bike after shooting a red, you don’t have a leg to stand on as far as insurance is concerned… or otherwise, I should imagine!

      Bob’s Bikes sounds good. I know a chap called Bob who’s good with bikes. Someone getting a puncture he can mend is the highlight of any trip out with him. 🙂

  7. I did have a wry smile with your experience of the dog on the extending lead. I was less fortunate on my encounter – which was in broad daylight: http://sophiescott196.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/bumps-and-bruises/

    I’m always amazed by the number of cyclists that I see on the roads round here (unlit roads) who don’t have lights on. In a sweeping generalisation about cyclists, I swear there are some who deserve anything that happens to them for being so foolish.

  8. janh1 says:

    Well yes, I totally agree with your comment about unlit cyclists. I find it unnerving when they come at you out of the dark at full pelt, unnannounced.

    Yikes. Nasty bruise. Ah the perils of extending leads. It’s a wonder they aren’t sold with a whole book of H&S instructions. Excellent blog, Sophie! I want to go to San Francisco. Son no 1 recommended it – and Monterey.

  9. It was a nasty bruise. Took ages to finally fade after going through a myriad of shades of purple, green and yellow 😀

    I’d recommend San Francisco too. I was only there for 4 days on a stopover, so didn’t get out of the city apart from the cycle ride, but I loved it.

  10. Dinah Mow says:

    Uplifting and Hardy-esque, Jan, you took us from the noise and danger of day to the peace and reflection of night where the dark gateau of a church spire points to home and restoration. I see the light!

  11. janh1 says:

    Oooh Hardy-esque, Dinah? I’ll take that as a *massive* compliment 🙂 I remember visiting Hardy’s house and realising that as a boy he walked (hazy memory alert) approx seven or nine miles to school and back every day. No wonder he was able to describe the harsh weather, the heathland and the countryside so eloquently in his novels.

  12. Pseu says:

    Wonderful blog!

    • Pseu says:

      My night time cycling in recent years has been limited to riding a footpath across fields to go to a pub skittles evening. On the way back I fell off… rather bruised, but it was my own fault… I was wearing an ENT style headlamp as it was the only light that was working that evening and we were committed to cycling…

  13. janh1 says:

    Ear Nose and Throat? 😀 Brilliant. If I had a medal for eccentric cycling I’d give it to you, Pseu!

    I love the thought of pedalling unsteadily over dark meadows after having a tincture or two, with recumbent cows staring curiously at you.

  14. valzone says:

    Another brilliant read Jan, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I wish I could ride a bike 🙂 I also wish I could relate a tale like you, Splendid stuff Jan.

  15. janh1 says:

    Thanks Val, it was a ride of rare beauty. I’m expecting to be rained on this week, which is another experience entirely 🙂

  16. Pingback: Ahead Bike | Xpedition Online

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