Night Riders of Utahvania

The sun sets as I take my bike off the hitch rack. Mountain bikers in the parking space beside me do the opposite. They’re heading home. Although their ride has ended, mine is about to begin. I dig my shoes onto pedals and take off up lonely singletrack. A few stragglers are on the trail but for the most part the place is empty. Darkness creeps over the mountainside like a video camera iris slowly closing on the world. I stop, reach to my helmet, and turn on my headlamp. Then I ignite the light on my handlebars. I am a night rider.

I didn’t always seek the embrace of darkness while mountain biking. But now I’m like a vampire. The crucifix represents unbearably hot summer days. Crowded trails are the stake driven into my undead heart. Both aversions have driven me to pedaling at night in the State of Utahvania. But my preference for night riding didn’t begin as a specific hobby choice, or even as an escape from heat and people. It actually started as a practical exercise for 24-hour race training. My teammates and I would get together after sunset at Mueller Park in Bountiful, Draper’s Corner Canyon, and any trail in Park City to become proficient at traveling over singletrack with just a narrow beam of light to guide the way.

After my first night lap on a race loop, I was instantly hooked. Never again was night riding a necessary evil. It became an addiction. There’s just something about the stillness, the quiet air, and the moon casting shadows across the earth that elevates the mountain biking experience. 

But mountain biking in the dark is not easy. When descending full speed down a flowing trail in daylight, I use all my senses to stay on the bike. At night the most important of all, my sense of balance, is especially screwed up. Vision is dulled. All perception of space, time, and movement slows down and becomes out of sync. Objects floating by peripherally are ghosted where tarnished edges of my light barely brush trees that are so close I can reach out my hand and touch them.

There’s another strange effect to riding by headlamp. You get tunnel vision when the spotlight in front is the only thing you can see. But at the same time, riding at night diminishes one of the most basic mountain biking skills – looking ahead.

Bike lights have become so bright these days that if you’re caught on the wrong side of one it’s like staring into a solar eclipse. At over 3,000 lumens, the blinding-est of them all is twice the brightness of a car headlight. And yet, with all the power of the sun shining from my handlebars, it’s still not enough to illuminate hairpin turns. That’s why it’s vital for me to wear two lights; one on the handlebars, and a second awkwardly strapped with duct tape to my helmet. That way when I approach a sharp turn, I can angle my head to scope out what’s below a switchback before committing to the impenetrable darkness that lurks just around the corner.

Riding in the company of friends can mitigate this issue. Letting a buddy go first is helpful for mooching off their lights. It’s also helpful so they can blitz any unseen obstacles ahead. But on this night, I’m riding alone.

Without the perceived safety of friends close by, the forest becomes sinister. Evening light has disappeared to pitch. There is no moon. My lights are the only thing piercing that inky blackness. Out of the corner of my eye I see a flash of white. I pedal faster, then see it again, there behind the pale bark of wraithlike aspens. I hear what sounds like whispering, then the crack of branches. I imagine ghosts lurking in the forest. Actually, I’m convinced that there’s supernatural somethings out there. But nothing is as scary as the wail of my dirty brakes that siren louder than a banshee’s scream.

There it is again, the mysterious white, further ahead this time. Then it’s suddenly at the end of my light, bounding onto the trail. I stop. A large animal stares straight at me. It’s literally a deer in headlights, blinded in a time and place where no light should exist. My pounding heart calms as we face off in a staring contest. The deer shows no signs of moving, so I pedal toward it. Then it takes off, not back into the woods but down the trail ahead of me. I follow, pursuing the doe around switchbacks into an open field where she finally lunges off the singletrack. I hear an entire herd crashing over the forest floor. Night is the sanctuary of wildlife and I feel guilt for sending these creatures into a panic.

It starts to rain. The drops streak through my headlamp’s beam. Lightning flashes on the horizon like a strobe light. The misty rain opens up night smells from damp soil and evening blooms. I smell mint and it makes me think of Mojitos. Time to go home and have a drink.

I come to a stop at my truck as another night rider passes by. He’s just starting his loop despite the fact that it’s almost midnight. It seems I’m not the only bike vampire in Utahvania. We exchange pleasantries and size up each other’s lights to compare who has the biggest. I try to convince him that biggest doesn’t necessarily mean brightest. I tell him to watch out for deer. Then I tell him to watch out for ghosts. He smiles knowingly and nods as if he also believes that there’s more than just wildlife haunting the spaces between moon shadows. Or perhaps he’s actually witnessed them. If I’m lucky, maybe someday I’ll get to spot a glimpse of the supernatural on the periphery of my night rider lights.

Nah, I don’t have enough lumens.

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