Hearts of Darkness


The night slips in quietly, coldly, gray to black. Streetlights flicker and ignite, and headlights maraud across town  swooping and swerving while we, in our fluorescent offices, stare out into the darkness and think about riding home.

Like most little kids, I was afraid of the dark. My six-year-old reminds me of this. He clings close if we have cause to walk through the nighttime neighborhood, not sure what he’s afraid of but sure it’s out there. And I can relate as I sift through my layers, base, middle and top, thinking about the ride home.

It is scary, especially in this early part of winter when the clocks fall back, and the drivers are still getting accustomed to driving by halogen. The darkness magnifies sound, cars sloughing through the thin air, tires jabbering against the sandy roadways. You feel isolated, strapped to the wing of the plane, while everyone else sits in coach, munching peanuts and watching the free movie.

Preparation is central to success. Cables connect lights to USB ports, and laundry needs attention to make sure all the necessary layers can be ready. Warmers and booties and gloves and hats. Jackets and vests and clear-lensed glasses. Lumens spill onto the pavement, limning the potholes and patches of ice. Tires get wider.

The transition we were talking about only very recently is here. The need to keep pedaling has grown acute. This is not the hardest part, but the hardest part is coming. We will need some momentum, now that it is dark.

We can talk about the cold with its tingling extremities and its runny nose, but the cold is always manageable. Mostly, riding generates the warmth you need to go on riding. But the darkness oppresses. The darkness discourages. The darkness is the real challenge. Just ride to the solstice and hang on as we roll out again into the light of spring.

I have a very real sense of commitment being tested. It is not how many days I can set out from home, but how many nights I can throw my leg back over the top tube and return. And all those adventure days, when snow swirls across the road and the street lights make bright puddles to leap through, they are all made of a commitment to setting out in the dark now, as the sun falls in the middle of the afternoon.

Image: Matt O’Keefe

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  1. Patrick24

    Good article. One reason I prefer riding in the summer, no matter how hot it gets, is that I almost always have daylight for my rides.

  2. Bill

    A lot to be said for the solace of my commute during the winter months (darkness in both directions, given my work hours), when the bike trail clears out and it’s just me by my lonesome – zen-like in the dead of winter, I tell you, with just the sound of my breathing.

  3. Hautacam

    The first week of riding after daylight-savings time ends is always a shock. I get a sense of vertigo, riding home in the sudden dark with a handlebar full of bright flashing LEDs; it’s almost like the ground is falling away from me into the abyss. But once I get acclimated, and gain some distance from the cars it is replaced with a giddy sense of doing something a little bit forbidden — sort of like staying up past bedtime as kid.

    At least until the hard rain starts. Dark + hard rain + downtown traffic is almost more than I can take anymore. 2 out of 3 is OK but the combination is pretty unpleasant and my tolerance ain’t what it used to be.

  4. Michael

    A great description of the feeling this time of year. In AZ, we don’t go on daylight savings time, so no sudden change in light this time of year (the folks down in southern AZ want the sun to go down earlier, not later, in the summer). The light has been going slowly, but steadily, and nowhere near the extent it goes away farther north. We do get the cold – 15 oF mornings already this year, and three snow storms so far – Flagstaff is not Phoenix and I am thankful. The drivers really don’t seem to have driving after dark figured out yet, but maybe it is that I haven’t grown accustomed to their night blindness yet. But damn, isn’t it GREAT how many good bike lights are out there these days? To think what I USED to think was so good, and how my lights these days are so much better. Things are so much better than they used to be.

  5. Khal Spencer

    The dread of the end of Daylight Savings Time is always worse than the reality. I dug out my lights and fenders a couple weeks before the Crack of Doom and set up one of the commuter bikes in full winter regalia, just to test stuff out and to get over the oppressive feeling this time of year brings out. The ‘cross bike actually looks kinda cool with black fenders on an orange frame (Salsa LaCruz) and its lighting system. Kinda like an F4 Phantom–not very light, but definitely all-purpose. The wonders of LEDs cut a bright swath through the darkness with minimal bulk and that beam adds a bit of uncertainty and adventure to the ride home. My big wish for Christmas is to get a bigger set of batteries so I can stay out longer.

    I do recall back in the old days when finding decent lights was a challenge. Bike lights were either massive or ineffective or both. It was circa 1980 when I decided to seriously forswear the car for routine commutes, so I bought a small motorcycle battery, a trickle charger, an automotive halogen fog light, some bits of wire and switches, and some hose clamps. Fashioned it all together onto a Motobecane Mirage and I had a serious lighting system on my very first commuter bike that had motorists hi-beaming me. My downstairs neighbor, a nocturnal researcher at the sleep research center, had more money than I did and bought one of the first rechargeable bike lights about that time. Back in those days, you had to research the stuff. He had less weight for his lights but I had far more watts per dollar which for a graduate student, was a definite advantage. Just had to remember not to overcharge the battery and have acid dripping onto the derailleur.

    Summer is great for those long, luxurious rides. Winter is great because you can come to terms with it and it doesn’t mean putting the bike away as much as mastering the mysteries of darkness, cold, and snow.

  6. Robot

    @Chris Little – You’re right. Sough would have made more sense. I was going for an onomatopoetic effect there, which sough captures just as well, though I liked the idea of the cars sloughing the air like snakes shedding their skin. It’s a good catch. Words are important. Thanks.

  7. brucew

    With my hours at work, headlight season starts in mid-August. By the time Standard Time rolls around, I hardly notice it.

    Over the years, I’ve gotten so I like my night commutes. A lot. Up until snow flies, I can still do my long loop, which includes several miles of MUP. I’m the only one out there now. It’s nice and peaceful. I see deer almost every night–a nice ten-pointer the other night.

    My cadence has come up, as has my speed, while my HR has gone down. I plain enjoy the work, and doing it at night means fewer distractions, while still not being nearly as boring and soul-destroying as a trainer.

    Of course, with an eight-month dependence on lights, I’ve come to apprecieate really good lights. Beam pattern means more to me than simple brightness. I’ve come to really like the German StVZO compliant lights. They’re worth a look when you’re serious about night riding.

  8. Mark

    It is that time of year. Hard to get out the door and get going. But you know how to dress, and 15 minutes later you’re warm and happy. I keep riding year ’round – it’s good for my body and soul. And I can’t tolerate the trainer, I’d rather face the cold, and the darkness is something I enjoy.

    And (khal) the lights are so much better. I remember my bottom bracket generator light – darkness at every stop, and after every puddle.
    Now my night ride among the cars is safer than daylight rides. Drivers don’t not see me.

  9. oldschoolzeus

    Cannot justify the added danger of riding in the dark! Too many killed in my neck of the woods after dark. Won’t do it.

  10. Brian

    I dont enjoy riding in the dark. The darkest it gets for me is just as the sun is rising, work wont allow the time to ride after. I am always a bit more grateful for the days that I can ride in the fall/winter. Makes you feel like you earned it!

  11. TominAlbany

    I am unable to keep my toes warm when it dips below thirty. I’ve tried windlayer over neoprene booty with wool socks on. I’ve got a pair of Lake winter boots that still won’t do it. Any thoughts?

  12. Ron S

    The end of DST has brightented my morning commute, for now, but plunged me in total darkness on the return leg, here in Buffalo, NY. The darkness is much more manageable since I upgraded my lights both in power (Magicshine 1500 lumens) but more importantly, with the addition of a horizontal diffuser (modified from the intended use on their 1200 lumen light) to spread the beam wider accross the road. The wider beam allows my eyes to relax and my vision to become more natural. The light is mounted to my helmet and only requires a small turn of my head to see what is near me. The cold is another problem. When the temps are below 30, the amount of layers and their restriction become problematic.
    With respect to safety, I actually fell safer at night because I tend to overdo the blinkies. I keep a front, white, low power blinky and a red low power one on the back of the bike at all times. I use them day or night. At night, I also strap a blinky to the outside of each leg. I am thus surrounded in blinkies. I also use a twin beam headlight (older 300 lumen) on the handle bars. A bit of overkill for my relatively low traffic 24 mile RT commute, but it works for me.

  13. Noah_Deuce

    Hey, TominAlbany, try some of the chemical toe warmer packs. I find that those plus the Shimano MW81s (a windproof, but not much insulated shoe) keep my feet warm down into the low 20s.

    In general, riding both ways in the dark right now, I really appreciate my dynamo light. I have the Exposure Lights one, but if you want to get really fancy you could run a Schmidt or B&O light. It’s astonishing the freedom I feel when I don’t have to worry about recharging batteries at all.

  14. Jonathan

    Here in Australia we’re hitting our period of long daylight hours. The only thing about summer that bums me out is the loss of my dark commutes. I still get a bit of dark on the mornings that I roll out at 4.15, but that’s only once or twice a week, and that’ll disappear by December.
    I’ll get my fill of darkness this weekend though: 170km of riding thru the night from Sydney to Newcastle with 80 of my closest friends. Roll out at 9pm, get to Newcastle for a swim, and the cafe opens at 5am for bacon & eggs. Bliss.

  15. Brad

    It’s full dark both ways in the pacific northwest and I couldn’t like to more. My Light and Motion SECA 1500 stet at .5 allows ample light for a 44 mile round trip commute, there’s few if any other trail users (about 30 of this commute is on two rail to trails), the light “opens up my tunnel” and I too get into a nice zone, often deeper that in daylight as there’s less bombarding my senses, including much less noise.
    I find that rides on the weekend, in the daylight and always striving for being on the bike in ‘the heat of the day’ is a nice balance, a reminder of what cycling is about, and a reward for getting the dark miles in.

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