Sunday, June 21, 2015

Solstice Ride: The Joys and Troubles of Night Riding

In my earlier days, I very much enjoyed riding alone at night. [...] It would be hard to defend the touristic value of these night stages, or argue that a beautiful landscape benefits from being seen under the pale moonlight rather than in the morning or the evening sunlight. Yet there is no doubt that some aspects of nature are more amazing when illuminated by the moon rather than the sun. Vélocio in Le Cycliste
The latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly features the republication of a 1929 article about night riding by famous French randonneur Vélocio. Inspired by his writing and the beautiful summer we're having here in Wisconsin, I started planning for an all-night ride on the shortest night of the year (this time hopefully without hitting a skunk...). The plan was to head out around sunset and keep going all night until the solstice sun would rise again.

 I developeded a few tentative routing options and tried to recruit fellow riders. Unfortunately, the few people potentially interested had other commitments that night, and so I was going to be on my own. I decided on a long but not ridiculous route: Head west on the Military Ridge State Trail to Dodgeville, then riding towards the Wisconsin River, follow the river east, and then return to Madison—all in all about 250 kilometers. This seemed like a good opportunity for another test ride of my newly acquired SOMA Grand Randonneur (there will be a dedicated post on this) and so I quickly installed the also new B&M IQ Cyo Premium headlight and swapped the dynamo front wheel from my Gunnar to turn it into an night ride-appropriate vehicle.
The sun has set

I got back from work a little after five, loaded up my front basket with supplies, had a nice pasta dinner, and by 8 o'clock I was ready to go. The fading sun provided beautiful light and I was zooming along at a decent pace, enjoying the cush of my 42mm-wide Compass tires.

I love riding this stretch of the Military Ridge in the evening light
Just after Verona I noticed that my front light bracket had started coming loose. A quick fix, but as soon as I stopped a squadron of mosquitoes immediately went on the attack. It was probably quite the sight to see me simultaneously trying to fix my light while minimizing the number of bug bites. Not much after this incident, I noticed that the right side of my saddle caused some discomfort. The saddle is a B17 Imperial that I just recently brought back to life with a new frame. I think what happened was that after a long ride in the rain last weekend, the saddle must have sagged enough to put pressure on parts of my behind where there shouldn't be any.
Blurry moon sliver over Mount Horeb

The last remainder of daylight was gone now, and soon the thin sliver of moon disappeared beneath the horizon too. I arrived in Dodgeville at 11:15. From here on I would be no longer on the bike trail but country roads. Lo and behold, I straight missed the first two turns, giving me pause: I was in unknown territory, relying only on the tiny screen of my GPSr for navigation. Suddenly that no longer seemed like such a great idea, and my saddle issues certainly didn't help. I assessed my options: Across the street, the glowing sign of a Super-8 motel tried to lure me in. I wasn't all that tired, though, and so I figured I might as well just turn around and take the same route back. The saddle discomfort I could deal with and navigation wouldn't be an issue on the bike trail. So around I turned, now with a slight headwind.

This time around, I didn't miss the turn-off to Blue Mounds State Park and climbed my way up to the plateau on top. There were a couple campers and barricades, presumably in preparation for the Horribly Hilly Hundreds taking place on Saturday. At 2:30 am, everybody was asleep (including the mosquitoes), though, and so I could enjoy a sandwich and a wonderful view of the starry sky. Continuing on the path would mean that I would miss out on a lot of the views of the skies and so I decided to continue on roads from Mount Horeb on. At least here I would be in familiar territory, and it was late enough to not have to worry much about people driving home after bars closing.

Strange animal sightings in the dark...

 Leaving the path also meant more hills, and while my mind was quite awake still, my body showed some signs of tiring. Nonetheless, riding on these back roads was much nicer than being on the path.

State Capitol, very early in the day

In the distance I could see the glow of Madison, gradually supplemented with the first bits of light of the new day. I arrived back home a little before 5 am, exhausted but not excessively tired. The theory that as long as you keep going your mind can stay awake for a long time does seem indeed work for me too.

Bike counter on the SW Commuter Path
All in all it was a great experience, quite different from riding during the day. One of the things I enjoy about cycling is just looking at and experiencing the landscape. At night, this experience is very different: Visually it is very much reduced; but at the same time this enhances your other senses to some extent. If I were to a ride like this again, I would pick a route that's easier to navigate, maybe choose a night with more moonlight, and make a better effort of recruiting fellow riders.

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