Saturday, 20 February 2010

Night Cycling

I call it night CYCLING as opposed to night riding for fairly obvious reasons: I want to avoid any connotation with a seriously naff actor in an even more seriously naff 80's TV show! Seriously, the Hoff is about as cool as Cliff Richard and Sir Cliff may be a lot of things, but cool certainly isn't one of them!

But I digress - this post is about cycling at night, or night cycling.

Perhaps I ought to point out at this stage that I'm a card-carrying geek and proud of it! This is an important thing to remember because being a natural-born geek manifests itself in my life in so many different ways. In many instances it means I prefer to make something, rather than buy it, and this definitely was the case with my bike headlight.

I started off with the usual - an LED blinkie. Now a blinkie does make you more visible, but it does nothing to light your way. As a result, I moved up to a 3-LED light. This was an improvement and allowed me to see where I'm cycling, provided I went so slow staying upright was a problem. Obviously I'm talking about cycling in dark places here.

On Ebay I got my next light - 24 LED's or thereabouts. I thought it was ace! Except it ran off three AAA batteries and they didn't last very long! And then a battery leaked and destroyed the controller.

After reading an article on Instructables.com I hacked an old Nokia phone and the LED light together, bypassing the fried controller circuit. This worked quite well, and as a result I had my old LED light back, and now it was running off a rechargeable battery.

Except that while it was bright, it wasn't anywhere near bright enough to cycle in places where it is completely dark.

The next light, the one I'm still using now, uses a 20w halogen spotlight lamp, the smaller variety, and the housing was made out of the aluminium  body of a used army illumination flare I found on Dartmoor. It works very well, even well enough to cycle in total darkness.

Add to this  light a 6600 mAh 11,1v battery and you're looking at a headlight that gives at least 3 1/2 hours continuous bright light. To buy a set-up of similar performance I'd have had to spend several hundred Pounds! Mine cost much less than that, even of it is less pretty.

Night cycling is certainly a different experience. And to be clear, I'm not talking of night cycling on well-lit roads, but rather where there are no other lights. Off-road is even better!

The sounds you can hear around you are different and you can get all sorts of surprises. Last night I turned a sharpish bend and surprised a fox, which was perhaps 10 meters in front of me. Somehow the air smells cleaner, too, plus of course there are far fewer cars out & about, for the stretches of road you have to cycle on.

I'm fortunate in that I live quite close to the start of the Plym Valley cycle path, which is part of Sustrans route 27. Now the Plym Valley path was built on on old railway, so it has gentle inclines and no sharp turns, and it has a smooth, tarred surface. This makes it very popular with families cycling, parents pushing prams, and various people taking their dogs for a walk, which is good. It also means that, while gorgeous, cycling here can be extremely frustrating as you regularly have to slow down to a crawl, or stop altogether.

Many cyclists don't like the Plym Valley path for exactly these reasons, especially the more serious riders. Now to be fair I don't believe the path is the place to zoom along at 40 mph on your carbon-fibre racer. Instead it is a shared space often full of little children and nothing slows me down as much as the sight of little kids up ahead as I never want to run one over!

Just off the path there are various off-road tracks, the grading of which range from bumping-along to absolutely-terrifying, so a fair few serious MTB'ers use the path to gain access to their playground.

As you can see, it does get busy at times, especially in summer over weekends!

BUT...all the people leave when it gets dark! That leaves the entire path, as well as the off-road tracks to me! Bliss! Mind you, at night off-road tracks undergo a metamorphosis and bumping-along turns into I'm-gonna-die very quickly!

And it is all mine! Just mine! I don't have to share with anybody, except the occasional rabbit or fox and the unidentified noises in the dark! You really ought to try night cycling. Except of course on or around the Plym Valley path!