Night Rider

Mountain biking after dark? It sounds crazy, but as one nervous Nellie discovered, barreling across the hills after sunset is nothing short of euphoric.

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  • Written by
    Anne M. Russell

The first time I ever heard about mountain biking after dark was when a friend told me a guy she was dating had broken his neck riding off an unseen ledge during a group ride. (He wasn’t paralyzed; just badly hurt.)

I love mountain biking, but I’m not an X Games kamikaze. I’ve never shouted anything about wanting to “bomb the downhills” or “shred the gnar,” so I found the idea of riding in the darkness deeply unappealing. I imagined sheer terror— plunging downhill into total blackness.

But friends, who explained that night bikers use high-intensity lights on their handlebars and helmets, gradually won me over. I figured the nice group of female mountain bikers I ride with, Girlz Gone Riding, couldn’t all be crazy, so there must be something I was missing. After a year or so of refusing invitations, I bought a handlebar light and joined them for a ride. We began around 6:00 p.m. on a hot summer evening and stuck to familiar fire roads—no narrow single track with hidden hazards.

The first wonderful discovery was that it gets cooler as the ride goes on. That might seem obvious, but I’d experienced so many bike expeditions where the temperature soared from pleasant to blistering, that I took it for granted that all summer mountain rides ended in a pool of burning sweat with my skin sizzling from too much UV exposure. But as the sun dropped behind the mountains, the evening air became cool and fresh, and scented with sage.

There was also the surprise of seeing the exact moment when day turns to night, which is a luxury that the long days of summer afford us. We start in daylight, but then a moment comes at dusk when all color leaves the landscape. The shrubs, rocks and plants become vague dark outlines against the dim sky. When we turn our lights on, the world narrows to just the trail.

During the day, I’m a skittish rider, always looking around nervously. Am I passing that branch too close? Am I going to wash out in that rut up ahead? What if I ride into that tangle of barbed wire? After dark, all those concerns are put to rest. Pedaling along enveloped in cool darkness feels safe. The bike seems to float above the surface of the trail and I’m suddenly flying.

I look over my shoulder and in the distance I see other riders’ bright points of light floating down the dark trail behind me like falling stars. In daylight, I don’t feel anything spiritual about mountain biking; my mind is too caught up in imagining catastrophes. But in the calm of night, I imagine that each little star represents a soul. I think of a line from a Victorianera poem: “The gates of Heaven are always/Open at the day’s decline.” And I feel joy.