I’ve always enjoyed riding my bike at night.
When I was a lad I’d strap my Walkman (Lone Justice, Bryan Adams and maybe some Propaganda, for cultural and historical reference) to my belt and razz about town on my bike in the dark, a self-contained unit of fun when all there was to be had in a pre entertainment overload world was whatever the parents were watching on the TV in the front room or trying to find Radio Luxembourg upstairs. One television in the house, three channels, maybe four. It was my escape from this stuffy suburban world for as long as the batteries lasted in the Wonder lights that dribbled a watercolour yellow puddle across the tarmac, which was always considerably less time than you thought the batteries should last. Looking back now I can see this was the start of the need for escape, getting away on a bike and the tranquility of solitude, I just didn’t know what it was then and couldn’t form that deep seated feeling of unbelonging and otherness into coherent thought. I’d tried what other people did to collectively amuse themselves of a night and it didn’t suit me, this did. It always felt like it should be lonely, it never was.
Leap forward from there and a change of discipline to mountainbiking and night rides that bookmarked my weeks and years for quite some time. Lights slowly getting actually usefully being able to see by, increasingly brighter and smaller and with run times that went over an hour, groups of like-minded friends who thought that riding bikes and stopping for a pocketed hip-flask and snacks somewhere in the woods on a hill was a perfectly acceptable way to spend an evening. This lead easily into 24hr racing where I looked forward to the scamper of the night laps or that race that just existed through the hours of darkness, that was my favourite.
But riding on the road at night for pleasure has been alarmingly under-represented since those youthful times mucking about of an evening, it’s been an activity mostly relegated to the last bit on Winter rides, coming back from the pub and the humdrum necessity of commutes. Heading deliberately out on the tarmac into the pitch has been a rarely picked option, there have been a few nighttime events and longer rides that have knowingly dipped their toes into the inky pool but it’s not a regular feature. It needs to be. Maybe because a nocturnal trudge is so often a reluctant requirement for a good half of the year that it never gets chosen as a gratifying thing to do. It should be a pleasurable experience in theory, the roads are quiet of traffic and with bright lights piercing the ebony you’re going to be noticed a lot easier than in the daytime so it is arguably safer.
It is not a concept that bothers me, the nighttime has always been natural to me, a hawk rather than owl. It took me a while to realise that my brain only really woke up when everyone else was going to bed and my most comfortable time of day was the 10pm to 2am slot. I’ve always fancied the job of a graveyard shift DJ, the type of music that works best after midnight has always been my favoured genre. There is something about the quiet in the world and the lack of distraction that makes me rouse. I’m not afraid of the witches, vampires, bogeymen, werewolves, trolls and fairie that roam the shadowy hours, and the monsters under the bed can’t get me if I’m not in bed.
I had an invite to a birthday party in London and what with training for a big bike ride and stuff it lodged in my head to ride up there from the coast and pedal back down. The host was informed and through a deep, incredulous and yet affectionate sigh let me know it was ok. A faux commute to London and back for A Thing is something I’ve always wanted to do but never quite got round to, there have been enough times on the tube-train-train-walk home when I’d wished I’d cycled; the fear of fighting my way through the maze and melee of London being the biggest intimidation and discouragement of all. But now I have modern gizmos with arrows on that make this sort of escapade easy and navigation doesn’t require tedious stopping and looking at a map at every junction.
Purely by chance my journey occurs on the same day as the memorial to Mike Hall; the long-distance rider and founder of the Transcontinental race I hope to be doing in not very much time at all. Riding to London and then back when the train would be a more comfortable option seems a fitting tribute. No excuses then. Bike-packing bags stuffed with not-going-to-look-ironed-for-long smart clothes, warm layers for the way back and slightly squished presents.
The ride up to the Big Smoke is unremarkable but for a shower of rain about Dorking, the dramatic lowering of driving standards as soon as I enter Surrey and severely under-estimating how much time it would take to negotiate my way right into the middle of the city. Red traffic light sprint after red traffic light sprint. Once at my destination a little spangly-eyed and too late to be considered fashionable I have a quick wash and change and do my best to politely and discreetly eat enough food for both the ride up and the journey back down. Whilst others are doing the prolonged goodbye I’m in the spare room putting smelly and still slightly damp kit back on. It’s good Day Three stinky Transcontinental training I suppose, as is stepping out of warmth and hospitality into the cold and dark with a not gentle 100km bike ride ahead of me. Bip Garmin on, deep breath, BeMoreMike, click in, turn left.
Riding through a big city late at night is a joy and I’m not even coming back from a night out with that blissful few pint souplesse. Usually clogged and angry roads are fast, wide and easy arteries out of the place, narrower streets are nippy little ginnels. The electric halflight gives a false impression of speed, and I always get slightly mesmerized by the through and off of my shadow as it races ahead of me and then drops back off my rear wheel, only to appear again half-wheeling as I pass each street light. A smoother me on an endless loop. The sharp white light from late-night eateries, wafts of smells, detritus of rubbish and the thrown out skitter the streets. Glows of windows with normal carrying on the other side, because riding a bike at night just isn’t normal, televisions downstairs, upstairs curtained windows promising everything and yet probably nothing, maybe a compromising shadow-puppet if you hope hard enough. Slip past like a ghost, a thief or a wisp. Even though I’m moving at an excited and enjoyable pace it still takes me an age to go from the maze of city streets through the long endless uphill drags of commuter sprawl to abandoned leafy suburb roads to finally reach the edge of civilization and I pause at the last street light before the blanket black of the countryside starts.
I’m on my own.
The separate little bubble of a cyclist is amplified manyfold at night, a rider the head of a cone of light slipping hushed through the landscape, a glowing cocoon of motion and drive sneaking around the haunted hours. The merest whisper of tyre noise and chain flutter giving the game away. Drop off the Downs down a laundry shute of holloway, crow black beaks of chill nipping at fingers and shins. Temperature changes are more pronounced at night and more varied, they let you know where you are in the world where visual clues are taken away, the cold pools that you plunge into in the misty dips of the landscape, the warmth that can hide in tunnels of trees and that buildings cling onto, and the dusty oily heat that emanates from the undersides of motorway bridges, the concrete a storage heater for the days sun. Stop beneath the fat slab legs for an energy bar nibble and listen to the rhythmic thunk, thunk of cars and lorries over the compression joints. No-one knows I’m here. A lorry heard miles off comes thundering past full of sandwiches to crash the moment. Get back on, clip in, three power strokes, settle into the dreamlike rhythm again.
I could do with an all-night petrol station about now, just for a bit of comfort. I should have packed some birthday cake.
About halfway through the ride I enter home roads so as tiredness starts to creep in I can concentrate less and switch to auto-pilot. Keeping speed I choose some of the bigger busier roads that I usually avoid in the day for being too troublesome where I prefer instead to frequent the quieter lanes threading to the sides but tonight they’re left for me alone to pound along. I could have been sat on a train, waiting at stations I don’t want to get off at, looking through the reflections in the window into the light streaked blackness wondering where we are. I could also be warm and have a cup of station franchise tea but I would never see the deer jump out of the trees at the edge of my light, stop still and then bound back in silent slow-mo as I approached. Or chase a badger down a hill.
The last barrier before home is Ditchling Beacon and right now it promises to be quite hard as my legs, body and head are tired. I stop in a barn under the solid black lump of the hill to collect my energies. It has the noiseless echo of a large empty space, it is also warm, I could sit down for a bit. Do not sit down. I could lie down and have a nap. Do not lie down. Stand still instead and listen to the wind annoying the corrugated iron for a while. No-one knows I’m here. I finally step out encouraged by the thought of a rare ascent of the climb untroubled by revving cars bumping my rear tyre and I ride up the hill taking advantage of the quietude by riding on the wrong side of the road for a lot of the way, because I can. I stop in the middle of the road on a corner and soak in the nothing, because I can. Heh. I’ve done this hill enough times to not even need lights, I can ascend by muscle memory alone, stand up in exactly the same spot as usual, sit down as it levels off, stand up again for the steepest bit at the false summit. Just the noise of my breathing and even that seems a long way away.
At the eventual top it’s mostly downhill to the thin but horizon thick strip of glow in the distance, hello home, one rise to crest and the streetlights start again. Fast straight descent with no cars pulling out to worry about and without pause I swoop right through the traffic lights I always always have to stop and wait at and it is a tiny yet glorious snapshot moment that slaps a stupid grin on my soul. I put my headphones on and with a soundtrack my transition through town is almost filmic; the streets are empty but for piles of bin-bags and the odd wandering silhouette, wet roads from the recent showers mirror shop lights shiny. The usually packed city is deserted and I’m the only thing that’s moving, that sleek fast shadow again, a teenage boy once more. But now embracing the not normal of it all, being happy in the otherness, confident in self, owning the night. It is the most serene I have been in a very very long time.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.