How Not To Night-Ride

This is a story about Tom. Try not to be like Tom.

A couple of weeks back, my trail-buddy Tom managed to rip through the three big chainrings on his cassette while grinding uphill in full beast mode! His chain had somehow pulled the large 50-tooth ring into its two unfortunate smaller-toothed siblings, bending and snapping all three of them in the process. Neither of us were aware that that could happen! A quick bodge had Tom back on the trails, albeit now with a smaller range of gears and the prospect of an expensive repair. Fortunately, the cassette was still under warranty and shouldn’t have snapped that easily, so e-Thirteen were happy to provide a replacement. This, however, meant two weeks without a mountain bike while said cassette was in transit. And since Christmas, we’d been enjoying weekly night rides chasing down the beams of our bar and helmet mounted lights. Tom does own an old cyclocross/gravel bike that he uses for commuting. So, I suggested he strap his lights to this and carry on as normal. Temporary problem solved.

So last week we explored the Clent Hills, me on my full-sus enduro, and Tom perched high on his gravel bike. For those unacquainted with gravel bikes, they are essentially road bikes with slightly wider tyres. Fully rigid, with clip-in pedals and drop bars, they are usually ridden by folk that query the origin of their coffee beans while paying for their carrot cake and flat whites via a contactless wearable. (I know, that could be literally any cyclist!) The gravel bike is most at home on long American unpaved backcountry roads, clear from asphalt and any technical features. But apparently, they also take the rougher stuff in their stride when piloted by a capable trail rider. Plus, it was Tom’s old bike, so it didn’t really matter if bits started falling off!

Well the gravel bike outperformed our expectations, effortlessly slicing through deep slop like a cheese wire. My wide tyres, on the other hand, were churning mud like a ‘Bake-Off’ contestants whisk. I’ve no doubt Tom will admit a slight feeling of vulnerability while descending with his arse up higher than his hands, tightly clenched around the drop-bars. But aside from a flight of very sketchy steps, he cleared everything that I’d done on my dropper-post assisted all-mountain steed. The old cyclocross bike done good!

With another successful night ride in the bag, and Tom still waiting on his replacement cassette, this week we ventured out again – one on mountain bike, one on gravel bike. Only that same day, Tom had hit the deck hard on his morning commute, sliding out on ice. Sharing a similar fate to the cat, curiosity led poor Thomas to try pulling the front brake lever, to “see what would happen”. It didn’t kill him, but it did leave the left side of his body feeling quite tender! A lesser man might have taken this as a sign that a night off was in order. None-the-less, and eager to proceed, Tom limped onto his hybrid-tyred road bike as we prepared to ride up into the hills, only for the silence of the crisp winter evening to be broken. “F*@k!” said Tom. “I’ve forgotten the f*@king battery pack!”.

Few would disagree that the most important piece of kit for a night ride is a high-powered light. Without a battery pack connected, Tom was now missing this vital tool. He did still have his helmet-mounted torch, but it was much lower powered, and by nature, lights up where your head is pointing rather than in the direction the bike is going. It wasn’t ideal. By chance, I had a regular head torch in my car. It’s only 150 lumens, designed for finding your way around the inside of a tent at night. But surely, it’d be better than nothing, so I offered he wrap it around his bars. If the goal was to light up the top of the front tyre, then it worked a treat. Unfortunately, it barely illuminated the ground beneath it, let alone any of the treacherous trail ahead. Looking like a very lost urban commuter, Tom nervously followed me and my abundant beam of light up the hill.

With the trail pointing up, line-choice wasn’t an issue, as my lights clearly made the path visible for the both of us, and Tom’s lightweight cyclocross bike made easy work scuttling up the ascents. The problem was, every time the rocky trails pointed downhill, I couldn’t help rolling away, forgetting that Tom was in pain from his earlier fall, was riding an inappropriate bike, and basically couldn’t see the ground! It seemed I was underperforming in my role as guide and watchman, as my hindering friend slid sideways down a muddy bank at least twice, and almost lost his helmet to the claws of a greedy low-hanging branch. At one point, I think I even saw the stars align to form the words “GO HOME TOM. IT’S NOT YOUR NIGHT”.

But, with the odds stacked against him, Tom was still with me when both bikes rolled along the final few metres to the car. He’d managed to keep his old gravel bike wheel-side down while successfully navigating some rocky, rooty and sloppy trails, with just a helmet lamp and an utterly useless head torch flapping around on the bars. We even managed to spot a wild deer, just a few metres away dazzled by our helmet lamps. One more (semi) successful night ride in the Strava bank.

To summarise…

  1. DON’T go night-time trail riding on an old cyclocross bike.
  2. DON’T forget your light.
  3. DON’T go riding following a painful crash.
  4. IF the above advice doesn’t float your boat, DO grab whatever bicycle you can get your hands on, strap a head torch to it, and go explore!

Be more like Tom!



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