When things go bump in the night it usually turns out to be something in the attic, or your imagination getting the better of you. In this case, it’s MBUK Art Ed Jimmer, who, in the blackness, has managed to entangle himself in his pedals, cranks, wheels and, finally, frame, before toppling to the ground like a lead weight. “Did you just fall over?” I ask. “Yep,” he replies sheepishly, as he picks himself out of the slop. I can’t help but snigger at his misfortune, but later in the evening I’ll get my payback, when a stray bramble catches my shoe and sends me crashing to the ground.
Boyz ‘n’ the Wood
Riding your bike at night can turn even the most mundane route into a ride full of surprises, so there’s an air of anticipation as we unload the van. Our lights are fully charged (well, mine and Jimmer’s are, more about that later), our bikes are raring to roll and we’ve got more trail snacks than we can possibly cram into our packs.
Features Editor Ed, Jimmer, snapper Milky and I feel like an intrepid crew of explorers, about to take on the dizzying heights of Somerset’s Mendip Hills. But then we remember we’re only a stone’s throw away from the pub, Bristol city centre and Weston-super-Mare. Oh well, we can but dream…
Art Editor Jimmer always looking to be in the spotlight. Photo: Jacob Gibbins
Jumping on our bikes, we begin to climb through the forest, hoping to get a couple of runs in before darkness descends. At the summit, there’s just enough light to make out the trail. Hammering over roots, rocks and soft fresh earth is a great feeling, even if your vision is slightly hampered, and the dimness spices up the shallow gradient of these trails. A few runs in and we’ve all warmed up, despite the fast-dropping temperature. The last remnants of light turn the clouds pink and purple, then disappear over the western horizon as quickly as Jimmer can talk. We all reach for the ‘on’ buttons on our lights and, in a display nearly as impressive as the aurora borealis, transform the forest from pitch black to a cool white. Our combined output of around 12,000 lumens makes the local flora and fauna think it’s high noon in summer, and as we turn to admire our firepower we simultaneously dazzle one another, burning our retinas deep enough to leave scars on our pea-sized brains. We won’t be doing that again, and it’s a good 20 minutes before the shadow spot in my vision finally clears.
Dancing in the dark
In the gloom of the conifers, every noise and movement is exaggerated and intensified as our imaginations run wild – and that’s before we even take to the trail. The next track we want to hit runs down a gully, off a couple of drops and through some drifty banked turns.
All your senses are heightened when you ride in the dark – it makes even your familiar trail spot a completely different challenge. Photo: Jacob Gibbins
In daylight it’s good fun but doesn’t require a huge amount of skill. I volunteer to go first and, turning my lid light and bar-mounted lights up to max power, cast the glow of a small nuclear reaction down the trail. Despite my impossibly bright lights, the trail is full of surprises. I hit the first turn with scalpel-like precision, only to be thrown offline by a root hiding in the shadow of a small dip. I’ve entered the corner fully committed, and as my tyres are pushed violently sideways there’s no way out. I try to dab my foot to regain some semblance of control but it stays stuck firmly to the pedal. It’s surprising how much the sensory deprivation is causing me to struggle to be on normal form. I manage to hold my speed through the next section and over the drop. As my bike is propelled forward and upward by the lip, the trail is veiled in shadow and the landing I’d just spotted disappears beneath me. After what feels like an eternity my wheels touch down on terra firma and the trail once again glows white before me as my lights cast their piercing beam through the dense trees. The trail then winds its way down the soft, dark and slippery hillside, my bike breaking traction to the left and right while I trying to focus my eyes on anything illuminated. What a thrill! The excitement of uncertainty, the unique feeling of riding at night, is something not to be missed.
Getting some air in the failing light is a bigger thrill than in normal daylight hours! Photo: Jacob Gibbins
Jimmer and Ed follow the same line I’ve just ridden, trying their hardest to keep the necessary accuracy to ride this magical moonlit wonder. It’s fantastic watching their light trails zoom past me as I stand at the side of the track, and although I can’t see their faces, their shouts and hollers tell me everything I need to know – they’re having an absolute blast.
We’re now really into the swing of things, and Ed decides it’ll be a great idea to head along the bridleway to the highest point on the Mendips. Arriving at the trig point at the top of Black Down, 325m above sea level, with exposed moorland all around us, the wind is biting. Even though we’re all wearing plenty of layers, the cold is cutting deep into our energy reserves and our bodies are fighting just to stay warm.
It’s always a good idea to have a couple of back-up lights between you and your riding mates in case your main set fails. Photo: Jacob Gibbins
Suddenly, we’re plunged into darkness. Ed’s light, the only one we’ve kept switched on while we’re having a well-deserved snack, has cut out. As our eyes adjust and the Somerset wilds unfold beneath us in all their dark beauty, we realise that the gigantic Hope R8 wasn’t fully charged and had been spluttering and wheezing on an empty tank of lithium ion for the past 20 minutes. “It’s too late guys, you’ll have to go on without me,” I imagine the selfless hero saying. Instead, Ed steals Milky’s lights and sneakily bolts them to his bar. Burdened with his massive camera bag and no lights, Milky decides that maybe it’s time we head back to the warmth and safety of the local pub, The Swan, for some of Somerset’s finest ‘zoider’ and pub grub.
You might not get the stunning views at night but you experience a different sort of beauty as you ride across dark, open expanses. Photo: Jacob Gibbins
We make one final dash across the moors, through the woods and down the rocky trail, hoping that Milky is close enough behind us to benefit from our somewhat reduced lumen output. It’s a good job Health and Safety aren’t around to see our antics, as I’m not sure we’ve put this one down on our risk assessment form. Luckily, we all make it back to the car park in one piece.
As we enter the pub and head over to the welcoming open fire to thaw out, our senses are overwhelmed by all the light, sounds and smells. Out in the woods in the dark, everything had felt a little soft and fuzzy, and the dancing shadows had played with our sense of perspective. It’s this that gives night riding an extra dimension of fun – and danger.
Cider downed, it’s time to call it a night. “Who’s on for the same next week?” Jimmer calls out as we crunch across the carpark. I reckon a weekly night ride might just become a thing…
This article originally appeared in issue 339. You can find back issues of MBUKhere.
Looking to get yourself set up for night riding?
Then check out the new October issue of MBUK. Inside you’ll find a grouptest on 15 trail lights, with all the jargon explained, detailed guidance on what to look for and three winners depending on your requirements and budget. Plus, How-To advice on riding in the dark. How to prepare, what to take and where to go.