It looks like we've entered that magical time of year... the season of 5pm nightfall. Today I rode home along a pitch black road under an ink blue sky, my path illuminated by a faint hint of stars and my bike's dynamo headlight. There was precipitation in the air that was not quite snow, but a fluffy sort of sleet, and bits of it fluttered, mothlike, in the headlight's beam. I could see nothing else around me, save for the vague outlines of scraggly trees.
Having happily ridden my bike through the past four winters, at some point I began to take it for granted that I was equipped to cycle at night. This changed during my attempt at a 300K brevet last spring, when I found myself absolutely unable to navigate a hilly, winding country road in Central Massachusetts in the dark, despite (multiple) powerful headlights. Part of the problem was no doubt exhaustion and nerves, but part of it was how absolutely dark that particular darkness was!
Those of us who cycle mostly through populated areas are accustomed to streets being lit at night. In cities, the ever-present blaze of street lights and store fronts, and the constant stream of car headlights means we are never in the dark at all. In suburban areas, the lit up windows of residential homes provide a soft background glow. Even many of the unlit country roads tend to have reflective features or white lines along the shoulders that - in the beam of a bike's headlight - reveal the shape of the road ahead and guide us around bends.
But what of areas where there is nothing - and I mean, absolutely nothing - to provide illumination other than our bicycle's lighting? It's an environment difficult to imagine until you've experienced it, and cycling through it can be just as much about being able to tolerate it psychologically as it is about having adequate lighting. When it's so dark that we see nothing other than what's in front of us, the imagination can run rampant and the mind can play tricks on us.
I am getting myself used to cycling in the rural dark here - mainly by sticking to short stretches of familiar roads. More than anything, I am finding that knowing the road is helpful, as well as knowing how far I have to go until the next well-lit stretch. So far, I feel fairly comfortable doing this - the biggest challenge being that I tend to get sleepy. Nothing like complete darkness to fool us into thinking it is bed time, even when it's hardly dinner time.
In the winter season, some portion of our transportation cycling will almost certainly take place in the dark. How dark does it get where you ride, and how do you deal with it? Do you feel that, aside from equipment issues, cycling at night requires some mental or emotional adjustment?