I'm climbing well, the familiar warmth of exertion is spreading through my legs, standing up on the pedals I dig in for the final kick to the crest. A deep breath in and I feel icy autumn air stream into my lungs, I exhale and a cloud forms in front of my eyes, breath turned white by the powerful beam of my helmet light, reaching the summit I unclick one foot from it's pedal and coast to a rest beside my riding mates..
Last night was the first proper ride of the winter season, by proper I mean the half six meet at the carpark of the local riding centre was done mainly under the rapidly approaching darkness. Until a year or so ago I hated night riding, my experience of it was limited, cheap lights often failed me when needed and the one 24hour event of the season I did meant the learning curve was often steep and blooded.
..a few moments to wait for everyone to regroup, we move off before the cold works through our layers and hard won body heat, the sound of shoes snapping into pedals fills my ears. The trail turns downhill from this point, it's a section of singletrack we've ridden countless times during the summer, one that's quick, technical and smile inducing. A pause to let the rider in front put some distance between us and I'm moving into the trail line, up on the pedals, fingers covering the brakes. All of my concentration is focused on the pool of light ahead. Senses spoiled during the light months struggle to adjust, the trail moves under my wheels but my brain isn't yet in tune, those night ride reactions have lain dormant, but they're coming back, this isn't about being quick and perfect in one go, it's about getting your eye in and becoming comfortable with the reduced visual input. My front wheel catches an unseen obstacle and I hastily adjust, balance shifting instinctively to correct, realign to the trail and regain my speed with a few sharp pedal strokes. My focus is complete and I feel totally alive, Eckhart Tolle speaks of the state of 'No Mind' - the point of which there is no internal chatter or white noise. This is my No Mind state, I'm hardwired into the bike and trail, the bills, job stress, family issues and To Do lists are gone.. there is just Being..
During those first few 24 hour races I dreaded the night, I knew I had to do a lap or two, but feared the time I was on the trail, my lights would undoubtedly fail, one year in particular was especially memorable. The uneven ground worked to undo the lights mounted on my handlebars so that over the course of 200mtrs or so they would drop until they pointed at my forks. Completing 10 miles of this was misery, better equipped riders flew past, confident in their ability and equipment whilst I hugged the side of the trail, moving slowly and in a bad mood. Each experience was enough to put me off venturing out into the night until the following year would again force me to embrace the night trails. Eventually I parted with the necessary money and bought decent lights, adding another powerful second set a year later. Suddenly a new world was opened up, the night was no longer to be feared but embraced. Trails long familiar took on a different persona, skills honed during summer months were left useless, my riding changed and I felt myself progressing for the first time in a long while.
..The ground is passing more quickly, my brain has changed up a gear and the trail is being processed that bit quicker, the rider in front is being reeled in. All too soon the end of the trail is approaching, those few signs which are a forest bikers equivilent of trackside braking markers. I ease back and drop onto a fire road and into the bright pool of light created by the numerous light sets of my fellow riders. Talk is easy and laughter frequent as experiences are shared..
We ride every wednesday, a handful of riders who are prepared to venture out no matter what the weather to get our fix, it's the trails, the comaraderie, the banter, shared jokes, laughs, crashes. For those few hours I'm not a dad, nor a husband, I'm a bloke on a bike, the one you beat last week, but who might just beat you this time and no longer does the night stop me.
All hail the darkness