By Fred Matheny
If you’ve never done it, night riding seems dangerous. I know what you’re thinking: “What if drivers can’t see me? What if I hit things in the road that I don’t spot it time?” A short worry session can produce another dozen what-ifs of similar magnitude.
I’ve had very little necessity to ride in darkness. But the few times I’ve done so, it was a magical experience. The most memorable was at the Furnace Creek 508, a grueling race of 818 km that traverses California’s Death Valley.
Our 4-man team used Furnace Creek as a dry run for the next year’s Race Across America and we covered the 508 miles in a bit less than 24 hours to set a senior (age 50-plus) record. Here’s how I described riding from darkness to daylight during one of my shifts:
“Now I’m motoring along on a rare flat road with the eastern sky glimmering into light. A sliver of crescent moon hangs above a jagged silhouette of desert mountains. A shooting star arcs toward the horizon. It’s like there are no other cars or people anywhere — just me and the bike rolling through the desert under fading stars. Even my labored breathing is rhythmic and peaceful. I ride out of darkness into the town of Baker.”
With modern lighting technology, riding at night is as safe as in daylight. In fact, some would argue that it’s safer because there are fewer cars on the road and a driver’s normal response to a brightly lit object ahead is to slow down and swing wide when passing. Many night riders contend that they get more motorist respect in the dark than during daylight.
Tips for Riding in Darkness
Let’s look at 5 ways to make night riding safe and fun.
—Be bright. The trick to nighttime safety is to make you and your bike as bright and showy as a Christmas tree. This means a strong headlight, a bright taillight and reflective tape on crankarms, pedals, shoes, rims, helmet and seatstays. Add a reflective vest or clothing made of illumiNITE fabric and you’ll be visible for hundreds of yards with little weight penalty.
—Use quality lights. There are dozens of lighting systems and the technology improves constantly. Rechargeable batteries are lighter and last longer than those of only a few years ago. LED lights take advantage of a smaller power drain compared to bulbs, and unlike bulbs they don’t burn out. A high-power headlight system will let you safely ride dark country roads at the same speed you’d use in daylight.
—Have a secondary light. A headlight is fine for seeing the road ahead but not so good for changing a flat or fixing a mechanical. And you need a good backup light in case your main unit fails.
A helmet-mounted light is a great solution. It shines where you look for repairs and allows you to read street signs and see around turns. You probably won’t need to ride with a helmet light always on. You can save it for special occasions.
—Choose safe routes. Sometimes you can find a commuting route that’s lit by streetlights all the way to work. Then you don’t need an expensive light for flooding the road. What you do need is for motorists to see you coming. An inexpensive light powered by AA batteries and shining at driver level works well.
—Keep your night bike in top shape. Use good tires with a protective belt under the tread so you won’t need to be changing flats in the dark. Similarly, make sure your bike is in good mechanical condition. You don’t want a breakdown on a late-night ride when help is hard to come by.