Sunday, March 1, 2015

How to Ride All Night

Preparing for Solstice 2014 ride
Probably all of us ride at least sometimes at night, even if it's just our commute home during the mid-winter months.  From late fall to early spring, we may carry lights and anticipate many training and recreational rides ending in darkness.  Most think of darkness as something to be avoided or tolerated.  But what about riding all night, intentionally?  Have you considered that?  Does it sound like fun, or a worthwhile challenge?  I think it is.

I've ridden through the night several times now:  On 400km brevets, on 24-hour fl├Ęche events, solstice night brevets, and on the outset of the fabulous SIR 1000km brevet from Seattle to Klamath Falls.  I don't consider myself an expert, but I don't think I can consider myself a beginner any more either.  Here are a few things I've learned about riding through the night, from dusk to dawn.

Aside to my experienced randonneuring friends: You probably already know what I'm going to write here.  Feel free to critique my advice and add some of your own in the comments.  This is aimed primarily at recreational and sport riders who are new to distance riding at night.

Why might you do this?  First, because riding at night is something a little different, an experience worth having.  Everything looks different.  If you ride alone, the solitude is magnified.  If you ride with a friend or a group, riding together for a long time at night is a bonding experience. Or, you might just want to ride a really long way.   If you are riding for 24 hours or more, a period of darkness is a given.   (Almost:   There is a 600km brevet in Alaska that takes place around the summer solstice and entirely in daylight. )

Of course your bicycle must be equipped with a good headlight.  I'm a big fan of hub dynamo light systems, but both dynamo and battery lights have improved greatly over the last few years.  You need enough light to see the road, and you need it to last all night.  There are lots of good battery lights available now that meet the first requirement; the second is a little harder, but you can do it.  There is more to say about lighting than fits here.  I'll reserve the rest for a separate post.

Even if you have excellent lighting, don't underestimate the value of good reflective clothing.  Besides making you much more visible to drivers while you're riding, a reflective vest or jacket will make you visible when you're beside the road, fixing a flat at 3am.

Solstice 2013 ride (photo by Norm Carr)
Besides food and lights, you will need some capacity to carry layers of clothing on your bicycle. If it's cool at 8pm, it may be downright cold at 4am.  The coldest hour seems to be right around dawn.  If you don't have the layers you need, the energy your body needs to keep warm will be stolen from your pedaling, and also hurt your alertness.

A night ride requires more planning than a day ride.  In particular, you'll want to have located 24-hour convenience stores and gas stations with mini-marts, because your opportunities for buying food at night are much more limited than during the day.  It can be difficult to read a cue sheet at night, so a GPS or a GPS route on your phone (like the new RideWithGPS app) is very helpful, particularly if the route is not very familiar.  Even if you use a Garmin or other dedicated GPS device, it is a good idea to have your route also on your phone (the app is good for this) in case of a device failure or if you get lost.

If you can, take a nap before an evening start event.  Even an hour, even if you can't really get to sleep, helps make sure you don't start in the hole.  Sometimes this won't be an option, but if you have the chance it is very helpful.

Make sure someone knows your route.  If you ride at night often, or outside cell phone coverage, you might consider a satellite tracker like the FindMeSpot, which communicates directly through a satellite and does not depend on your cell phone.  If you need one very occasionally, you might rent or borrow one, or perhaps you can ride with a friend who uses one.  If you need one often, they are about $150 to purchase plus $150 each year for service.  I've never used the 'call for help' feature on my tracker, but I'm glad it's there.

You'll also want to pack more food than you would for an equivalent ride in the day.  Eating while riding can be more difficult in the dark.   If you have a front rack or a handlebar bag, it helps to munch from the bag while riding.  Otherwise a 'bento-box' style top-tube case can hold a couple bars and a couple gels.  I'm not a fan of powdered drinks in general, but they are convenient at night since you can reach your drink without seeing it.

Eat, drink, repeat.  This holds for riding in the day or at night, but it's particularly important at night. Besides keeping your energy up for pedaling,  sufficient food and water help keep you alert.  If you start feeling drowsy, consider how long it has been since you last ate or drank.  Caffeine helps too, and many gels, bars, and other ride foods available today include caffeine.  But caffeine without additional food energy won't do it.

Suppose you've eaten enough, and yet the drowsiness is becoming overwhelming.  You must stop. Really, do it.  Falling asleep while riding is a bad idea.  I've done it once, but woke almost immediately and recovered before crashing.  Last year on a ride in Washington, a rider was not so lucky; he fell asleep, crashed, and broke his collarbone, a long way from anywhere.   So if you find yourself shaking your head to stay awake, pull over and take a short nap.  Set your phone alarm for fifteen minutes, eat a gel or bar with caffeine (which you can be digesting while you rest), and lie down if you can, or else sit with your head on your knees, and take that little bit of sleep.  It doesn't take a lot.

You will go slower at night.  What feels like 18 is probably 14; what feels like 14 is probably 10.  Unless you are racing, you should just accept that you will not maintain daytime speeds at night.  Nonetheless, you need to guard against slowing down too far.   If you feel like you are doing 14-15, but you are really doing 9-10mph, you may quickly fall behind your plan, so check your computer occasionally (or use the backlight on your gps unit to keep your speed visible).

The bigger threat to your schedule at night is not riding slower, but taking too long when you do stop.  If you stop at a convenience store without a plan, the delay can easily balloon.   If you are riding in a group, it helps to discuss the stop in advance:  Are we taking bathroom breaks? Getting food?  How much time do we plan to be stopped?   An explicit plan for the length of the stop helps.  Take the time you need, but not more.

And then?  A ride is just a ride.  Things will look different, and you'll feel different, but the key skills of steady pedaling, monitoring your exertion, and enjoying your surroundings are the same as ever. If you can ride 100 miles or more in the daylight, with a little preparation you can probably ride 100 miles or more at night.
Refueling after the Solstice 2014 ride

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