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How to cycle at night safely

Lights out needn't mean bedtime for riders with our tips for cycling at night

Joseph Delves
28 Oct 2019

It’s time to embrace the dark side. With the changing of the clocks, most of us will find the hours after work plunged into gloom. However, there’s no reason to lose your evenings to the horror of inactivity, or worse still the gym.

With the latest lights to guide you, plus some sensible precautions, any rider can overcome their fear and venture out into the darkness. Of course, modern technology plays a big part in keeping riders safe at night. Front lights bright enough to keep you visible while also illuminating the road ahead have been around for a good few years.

Previously expensive items, you can now score a scorching 1,600 lumen unit from Halfords for fifty quid, giving you one less reason to stick only to roads with overhead lighting. Bright enough to outperform many motorbike lights, you’ll even need to be careful not to dazzle oncoming traffic. Twinned to a powerful rear light, vehicles following behind have no less reason to notice you before they pass than during daylight hours.

Into the twilight zone 

(Photo credit: Redbull Content Pool)

One rider who knows more than most about late nights in the saddle is Josh Ibbett. A former winner of the brutal Transcontinental race from Belgium to Istanbul, he rode almost 4,000km in under 10 days and as many long nights. ‘The most obvious attraction of riding at night,’ Josh tells Cyclist, ‘is that it allows you to just keep on riding! 

'Whether it’s training through winter, commuting from work or covering more ground in a bike race, riding at night prolongs the amount of time you can spend on the bike, pursuing your passion. ‘There’s something special about cycling all night and watching the dawn come up,’ he adds. ‘I’d recommend it to anyone.’

Rolling through the darkness down a corridor of light makes night-time riding a unique pleasure. With the world on either side obscured in blackness, all your attention is absorbed on the road as it emerges ahead of you. Without any visible landmarks available to locate yourself, it can be disorientating, and even the most familiar roads can seem uncannily different with the lights turned down.

‘Riding at night is mentally challenging. During the day there’s always the view to distract you. In the dark you have to focus on the beam of light in front of you,’ Josh says. Surrounded by trees that hide the horizon, hazarding through forests can be particularly exhilarating. Even as adults, there’s still something a little eerie about the night-time and that’s what provides nocturnal riding with its unique frisson.

It feels both slightly spooky and somehow illicit. With the noise and traffic of the daytime long past, your senses become acutely aware of what’s going on around you, adding to the sense of solitude.

However, while the roads themselves are likely to be empty of commuters or school run traffic, that doesn’t mean you’ll be riding alone. 'Farm animals can be scary though. One minute you’re cycling through an empty field and the next second all the cows turn their heads to look at you and the lights reflect off their eyes and scares the crap out of you!’

Picking your routes and staying safe 

Night riding climb

But what about the average rider? For most people, the best accessory to take on a night ride is likely to be a companion. Not only is there safety in numbers, but also you’re less likely to get spooked if you have someone along for company. Plus they’ll be there to help out in a jam. 

Whoever you manage to round up, if you’re heading off on your own nighttime adventure, sticking to parks, canals or gravel trails will help minimise the risk from traffic. 

Otherwise, pick roads and times likey to be as quiet as possible. At the same time consider what drivers are likely to be out and about in that particular area. If your Sunday morning ride frequently takes you past ditches filled with upsidedown cars, it’s probably not a great idea to be riding around the same corner on a Friday or Saturday night. 

Surprisingly, city centres can also provide good terrain for riding after work on weekdays if you wait until after rush-hour. There will be fewer drivers about, however, most areas are never so empty that drivers don’t expect to encounter cyclists. Add in lower speed limits and it’s often possible to get a better view of the city riding at night than during the day. 

So rather than sitting on your backside or wasting hours on the turbo trainer, why not round up some friends along with a few sets of lights and head off into the unknown in search of an adventure? Unless that is, you’re still scared of the dark.

Tips for safe and enjoyable night time riding

  • Somewhere around 800 lumens is a sensible starting point for a light that’ll let you ride safely on unlit roads. If you want to go faster, something brighter is a good idea.
  • Rear lights needn’t have nearly as high a lumen count as your front lamp. Anything over 20 lumens should let cars see you at a significant distance. 
  • A helmet light is also useful for looking into the peripheries or if you need a light to assist with roadside repairs. Should your main light fail, it’ll also serve as a back-up. Using a single light source will create deep shadows and make judging distances more difficult. Having a small supplementary light on your helmet will fill in the gaps.
  • Ideally, just stick to the routes you know. Tell someone where you’re going and be sure to take a phone and tools with you. Better still, why not bring a friend along? 
  • High-visibility clothing is a great idea at the best of times but even more so at night. Reflective materials mean you needn’t go dayglow if you fancy something more subtle. Also, look out for gloves with reflective patches as these are great for signalling. 

Three nocturnal events to consider… 

Even if you can’t find a friend brave enough to come out with you, year-on-year there’s an increasing number of nocturnal events popping up in the cycling calendar.

Red Bull Timelapse

(Photo credit: Redbull Content Pool)

A day and night, plus a bonus hour when the clocks go back. Red Bull Timelapse pits 1,000 riders against each other and the clock. Divided between team and solo categories, it’s most recently been held on a 6.7km closed circuit in Windsor Great Park. With the aim being to cover the biggest distance possible, the race takes place on the weekend when the clocks change in October. Adding an extra hour, the 2 am stretch sees laps count double.

Dunwich Dynamo

For over 20 years, the Saturday nearest to the full moon in July has marked the start of the Dunwich Dynamo – the UK’s most famous overnight ride. Run with minimal organisation and an emphasis on self-reliance, it follows in the tyre tracks of a handful of couriers who decided to ride the 116 miles from East London to the Suffolk coast one evening in 1993. It’s still free to take part, with most years over 1,000 riders joining in the nocturnal fun.

Yorkshire True Grit Dark Skies

Taking place on the edge of the North York Moors National Park, the off-road gravel grinder ups the difficulty by taking place at night, and in one of the UK’s designated dark sky parks. Getting rolling as the sun goes down, it covers 50 miles through forest and moorland. Limited to 100 places, you’ll need to carry a survival bag, first-aid kit, and whistle, suggesting this is not an event to be trifled with.

Next event scheduled 26th February 2022, info here

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