One recent evening, I was closing up my Ortliebs, getting ready to roll my bike out of the office for the trip home, and one of my coworkers walked by and asked, “You ride your bike in the dark?”
I was a little taken aback. While I’m used to people questioning riding in the rain, it never “dawned” on me that riding without sunlight would be perceived as a deterrent. Besides, this time of year, the standard work day is dark at both ends. If you put your bike away to wait for Spring, you’re missing out on some special adventures.
I would like to offer up what I think are the special joys to be found on early morning and evening winter commutes. As is often the case, before you’ve tried it, the actual experience is surprisingly nicer than what one might imagine just looking out the window.
Fortunately, I am old enough to have been of “paper boy” age at a time when young teenagers still had paper routes. While I hated getting up at 4 am seven days a week to fold newspapers, once out on my bike I discovered that the Twilight Zone-like experience of being completely alone in the empty neighborhood streets was awesome. For an hour or so each morning, I had the world all to myself. In those days, if it was raining I’d have a poncho that covered my helmet-less head and draped completely over my paper bags and the upper parts of my bike. Whether wet or dry weather, it was a serene cruise though a dark, empty world from my secret vantage point. In those days, I often had something from the Top 40 mentally playing in my head. Especially for foggy mornings, one of my favorites was The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.”
Today, as a (somewhat) older guy on my winter commutes, I am often reminded of those days. There is something about the darkness that feels comforting, like a blanket. It’s easier to see motorists coming, even from behind if you pay attention to how your own shadow moves. There’s also something about less visual stimuli that makes the sounds seem clearer. I feel a sort of crystal awareness that isn’t there in daylight. It’s also much easier to make yourself visible. Besides head and tail lights on the bike, I like them on my helmet as well, and there are many options for inexpensive little lights and reflectors that can increase your all-around conspicuity.
If riding in the dark is a new thing for you, here are a couple things to be cautious about: if your route takes you on streets or paths without street lighting, make sure you have a headlamp that actually lights up the pavement in front of you, and manage your speed so potholes and debris can be easily avoided. Just as in daytime, make sure your lane position keeps you visible to others. If you’re first in line at an intersection, keep in mind that oncoming traffic may lose you in the sea of headlights in back of you, so be wary of turning traffic as you proceed on the green.
Otherwise, look for the things you rarely notice from inside a car or bus. The full moon, the scents of dinners cooking, raccoons, and of course your fellow riders, in on your secret.