Should you ride a bike through the night? (Yes, if only for the morning bacon roll!)
Pascal here. Both myself and Dan have completed numerous rides over 200km, often partially in the dark. Last weekend, the opportunity came up for me to solo ride through the night, starting at 8pm and finishing at 6am. In this blog, I compare the theory vs the reality of riding through the night, broken down into 5 Top Picks.
We kick off by looking at why? (a question we regularly get asked by friends and family, to which the answer is normally 'why not?!...'). As in, why choose to spend a night on a bike, rather than in a bed?
Why? During our 2000km Lands' End to John O'Groats ride (2021) and 5000km ride across the US (2022) we are planning to ride primarily during daylight hours. However, in some of the US desert stretches, where day time temperatures will reach 50 degrees (!), we will switch our routine to riding during the night hours - when temperatures will be cooler. Also, if we fall behind our expedition schedule due to unforeseen circumstances, it is possible we will have to ride overnight to get back on track. The point is, expeditions are not the time to try something for the first time - best to try these things in advance and see how it feels.
Theory One: Get a daytime sleep in, the day before.
Reality One: A total fail on this one! With lockdown restrictions now lifted enough to go and meet your mates in the pub (outdoors only for now, so layered up the max!), the day before was filled with freezing, but ace, beer garden catch ups. I had set aside a couple of hours in the afternoon for a nap, but instead I stayed out socialising...By the time I got back to the house in the late afternoon, I only had 30 minutes of my nap window remaining. I quickly jumped onto the sofa and willed myself to instant sleep (like Christmas Eve night, when you know it will be Christmas when you wake up!). Predictably, I just lay there telling myself 'get to sleep, get to sleep, get to sleep', which clearly didn't work. After 20 minutes of that nonsense, I got up, downed 3 cups of strong coffee and got ready for the off - yawning already, not a great sign!
Theory Two: Night riding hallucinations
Reality Two: Such night time hallucinations are often referenced by ultra runners and ultra cyclists, 'I suddenly saw rainbow coloured unicorns running alongside me, the moon turned into my mates face and started talking to me, and my handlebars turned into a French baguette, etc....'. No such luck, it was just very dark. At one point, I heard the sound of hooves on tarmac chasing me from behind, like a deer was running down the road after me. I looked behind, turns out it was actually a deer chasing me down the road....! Having done other endurance activities overnight before, in my experience it's generally during the second night of being awake that the really funky stuff happens! When this does happen, my advice is to embrace it and enjoy letting your mind drift off, safe in the knowledge that it's not real. Or is it?! No, no it's not.
Theory Three: It's all about the lights.
Reality Three: It really is. In fact, it's all about the electronics more generally, I'd throw bike computer and phone into the mix. Riding along country lanes in the depth of the night, you really are largely on your own. I saw only 5 cars between 1am and 5am, there are no trains running in case it all goes wrong and you need to bail on the ride, and there are obviously no coffee/cake stop options (whaaaat!) - it's a very different vibe to the Sunday morning club spin. As a result, you are far more reliant on your electronics to keep you safe and on course, back up power is the key here. For me, I have a small power pack, that can provide very quick charge to my bike computer, phone and bike lights; you can get decently lightweight ones for about £50, they can be absolute life savers. If you're going long during darkness, you need one. I also take spare lights, both front and back, and a head torch as this allows you to 'do things' at night (fix punctures, open food packs, toilet admin, etc...).
Theory Four: The sunrises are epic!
Reality Four: Not in eastern Devon in early May they're bloody not - it was cloudy, slightly drizzly and totally non epic! For me, from 4am onwards it was a case of light levels slowly creeping up, accompanied by the dawn bird chorus. To be fair, this was pretty cool in itself, you definitely get a real sense of the world around you waking up. I felt the promise of a new day, more specifically the promise of a warm bacon roll that had my name all over it at the very first open café I came across. They say that you aren't officially an ultra cyclist until you've ridden through the night and experienced dawn from the saddle, for me it definitely felt like a milestone moment and something cool to tick off.
Theory Five: Get used to riding in darkness before 'riding through'
Reality Five: So, so true. Myself and Dan have done hours, and hours, and hours of night riding through this past winter. We trust every bit of kit on our bikes, and we know how to fix most minor mechanical fails. We also know where 'things' are, so we can do it all on auto pilot. Silly things, like; being able to access water bottles without having to look down; knowing where in our top tube bag our bars/gels are located; knowing exactly how many hours our bike lights last on each power setting mode; how to adjust bike computer brightness settings on the go; there are many more. If you don't have this level of confidence when riding your bike, I'd recommend adding in 'darkness hours' at the end of some of your longer day rides, on roads you know well - this will build confidence. Riding through the night needs building up to, I'd say that once you've mastered 3-4 hours in total darkness you are then ready to go fully through the night.
Summary. In life, it's ace to try different things, whether that be on or off the bike. A good gauge for whether you're properly pushing the boundaries is when you tell someone what you're doing, and they react with, 'you're doing what?! You are INSANE, what is wrong with you!'. For Dan and I, this is a great sign that shows we are living our lives fully, rather than allowing ourselves to get stuck in a rut and watching 'I'm a Celebrity Master Big Brother Dancing on Bake Off Ice' every Saturday. Just think, you could be out riding your push bike through the hours of darkness like a total hero instead!
Riding through the dawn, having spent the entire night pedalling away, brings a unique sense of satisfaction. You are entering into a very select group, a far more select (slightly more mental?! Discuss...) group than when you cross the finish line at a marathon; it's just bit more niche. In completing an overnight ride, you're demonstrating that you're a totally self-sufficient cyclist - it's a proper adventure, rather than completing an event that someone else has organised for you to turn up and finish.
Give it a go! If only for the early morning breakfast bacon roll, which I guarantee tastes amazing....