Enter night: the joy of riding in the dark

Riding in the dark is something we'll all be doing soon enough, so now seems like a good time to revisit our overnight ride on the Exmouth Exodus two years ago to remind ourselves that even in the most challenging conditions, riding bikes is fun!

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Charles Biscoe is stretching out in the Harbourside Café in Exmouth. It’s just gone 8am and he’s got a hilly century in his legs and a clock-stopping fry-up in his belly. His Wellington Wheelers club mates are scattered around the sunlit cafe happily raking over the experience of the night before. Outside, a cohort from another club, Woodbury Cycling, sip prosecco and toast a mission well and truly accomplished. If you were looking for the acme of contentedness and a certain lightness of being, you could do a lot worse than Biscoe and the 30 or so Lycra-clad cyclists in that seaside cafe; the remnants of the Exmouth Exodus are a tired but happy lot. 

We have just ridden the 11th edition of the 105-mile through-the-night ride from Bath to the seafront of the Devon seaside town. It’s not a sportive, more a reliability ride. You register (kind of), turn up (any time you like), pay a quid, and ride to Exmouth (without signage or support). He can’t remember exactly, but Biscoe thinks this is his fourth or fifth outing. 

Despite some early rain, delivered by the sort of summer storm that breaks off young leafy branches, it’s been a long and happy ride through the night. It certainly produced another set of memorable experiences for Biscoe. “Did you see the swans that were just sort of looking at us?” he asks. “They came up in the light as these white shapes. We chased a few deer up the road as well. You don’t see those sorts of things in the day,” he says. We hadn’t seen the deer or the swans but still witnessed more wildlife – a fox, toads, rabbits, and rodents galore – than we had in our diurnal rides all year. 

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Open to all

The variety of wildlife was nothing compared to the spread of riders who’d left Bath between 8.45pm and 10pm the night before. Over the course of 10-11 hours, we came across a cheerful trio of elite racers, assorted clubmen and women and a body of audax types. Then there were the real outliers: out-for-a-laugh students on cheap and rusty mountain bikes, singlespeeders and those on vintage bikes. The unifying factor? Adventurists all. “It feels like we’re sneaking about, it feels a bit naughty,” one rider said during the night, somewhere on the Somerset Levels after the rain had cleared. And that rather got to the heart of it. Fun, slightly mischievous, a trip back to being a kid. 

Cycling for pleasure is usually framed with distant hills, vibrant colours, the sun. There’s a reason the cover of our magazine makes liberal use of bright azure skies. But that shouldn’t rule out night riding, especially as a group, because it provides a unique experience. We’re not talking the early evening mid-winter grind home, fighting to be seen by weary car commuters, but bowling along deserted rural lanes by the light of a full moon amid a group of like-minded adventurers. 

Wildlife aside, it’s not that you see more riding at night, but what you do come across, you see more vividly. High summer hedges turn electric green in powerful white light. Roads glitter with silica and quartz. And because you’re forced to focus on what appears in the bright beam in front, seeing becomes a conscious process, it keeps you on your toes. 

“When you ride during the day, you’ve got stuff to look at and be distracted by, but at night you’ve just got to concentrate on the light in front of you,” says Dan Chorley, a 23-year-old Bristolian, on completing his first Exodus. 

“For me the highlight was cycling down Cheddar Gorge and looking up at all the rocks. I guess there was a fear factor of not knowing what was beyond the bends, but then I looked up and all the exposed rock was lit up – it was definitely the highlight.”

He was a brave man to be looking up at those literal highlights rather than the wet and winding road, but he was right. The contrast of the white limestone outcrops against the black of bracken and soil was a new twist on a ribbon of road familiar to many in the south west. 

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Band of brothers

The enthusiastic group of brothers, their in-laws and friends; the chatty pros who sat on for a while, enjoying the collective light cast from three or four powerful lights; the students who whooped their way through a couple of bike path tunnels soon after the start of their adventure. Road cyclists aren’t renowned for the welcome they give each other, but the Exodus was different. There was a camaraderie in the night that for whatever reason doesn’t exist in the
day. The opening line was easy too: “So, first Exodus?”

“There will always be someone talking to you,” agrees Steve Rosewarne. As an audax rider who completed the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris last year, he knows a thing or two about riding at night. 

“Some people ride past – fair enough – but some stop and say hello, ride along for a while. When you stop on the side of the road there are countless people stopping or checking you’re okay,” he says. “My rear derailleur cable snapped and I’ve been riding on three gears for about 45 miles. It’s shite,” he says, with the easy smile of the unflappable. “I managed to tie off the cable so I got the derailleur on a reasonable gear at the back because I knew what was coming. But on the downhill and the flat everybody’s going past me and I’m just spinning,” he adds as he piles into his breakfast. Undaunted by distance and lack of gears, Rosewarne was preparing to ride back to Bristol.

During the night, there really was a feeling of everyone being in it together. In Cheddar, the first pit stop, riders lingered longer than they would normally to refuel. That was mostly to let another rain squall pass but also because it was in a raucous, crowded and muggy village hall, which felt more like a village pub lock-in. The tables brimmed with cakes, biscuits and sugary tea, all for the price of the coins dropped into the honesty boxes.

On the road, groups merged and broke according to what felt manageable, and how good the conversation was. That camaraderie was more than just idle small talk. At 4am, we were saved from an horrendous wrong turn by a university IT worker, whose Garmin was still firing. We rode the final four hours together, he sharing directions and we pushing a little wind for him. 

Come and go 

At the start of the night, on the edge of the Mendips, we came across a man in a three-quarter length overcoat labouring up a tough little climb. He rode a vintage bike with a little AA-battery powered front light. He’d done the Exodus before, he told us, just as another shower broke. Halfway up the hill, trailing in our light, he put a foot down and turned his bike around. “I don’t need this tonight,” he said and was soon enveloped by the black and the rain and heading back to Bath. 

He might have been more concerned about the damp, but a good modern light makes all difference. The type that make drivers flash you because they think you haven’t dipped is perfect. Ours, borrowed from a friend, was air-sea rescue grade, plus it means you don’t lack for company as you attract a shoal of followers.  

Many in the group managed on a lot less, or had done so in the past. Rosewarne, the intrepid, down-to-three-gears audaxer, remembers his first night ride on something less than ideal. “You’ve got to have good lights,” he says emphatically. “I’d never really ridden at night and I just had a little light on the front and back. We went through Cheddar Gorge and my friends left me. I might as well have had a candle.” 

It’s most comforting when three of four big lights combine. The floodlight effect eliminates a lot of shadow and throws forward further. Oncoming cars slow right down. The alternative, striking out alone, means riding on one light and the ever present danger of running out of light, which is what happened to us at about 4.30am. 

While it’s all about power at the front, the rear light calls for something more sympathetic. Being seen trumps all, but
the best rear lights are those which don’t induce a headache in a close following rider. Something constant, maybe with a pulse, is perfect. 

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Darkest hour before dawn

Adrenaline and excitement work until about 2.30, 3am and they probably make you ride a bit harder than you should. But from then on it’s the group and grit that get you through. Energy levels are at their lowest ebb. Descents are slower, changes at the front of a group become more frequent. The road feels harsher and more resistant. Riders shift in their saddle to relieve the pressure of six or seven hours of riding. Climbing is more ragged. Most of all, though, the body clock has gone haywire. What was fun and jolly now just feels weird and unnatural, but that’s just part of the challenge. 

With the arrival of dawn comes a second wind – and a tailwind at that. The names on the signposts are reassuringly Devonian now: Honiton, Ottery Saint Mary’s, Tipton. The route passes through slumbering thatched villages where the only sound is the pleasing whir of the freehub, because conversation absconded with the night. 

The route swings inland to take in a devilish set of climbs to get on top of a common that’s all nettles and bracken. From the top of the heath, you can see, or think you can see, the coast. And from this high point, it’s sunglasses back on for the sunlit descent into empty old Exmouth and that well-earned fry-up.

If you’ve never done so, take a night ride this summer. Pick a night when the moon is full, hitch on the winter lights, gather some friends and head out into the quiet lanes and experience a familiar landscape in a new and, well, different light

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