How to become a true night crawler (and overcome your fear of riding at night)
Nyctophobia. This fancy word means “fear of the night”.
Let's assume you are not exactly scared but you don't feel comfortable riding after sunset.
You'd be surprised how much ultracycling potential is wasted because people avoid riding at night. Needless to say, you will have a hard time to get into long distance cycling without the ability to ride for a few hours without sunlight. Of course you cold opt for a cosy hotel as soon as the sun sets or simply try to be home by the time it gets dark, depending on what kind of adventure you're up to. But in a race this will limit you a lot, not to think of winter if you live in parts of the world where daylight is rare during those colder months. You might even be unable to train adequately because avoiding darkness is somewhat impossible on a long term point of view.
So what if you could overcome your fear of riding through the night? What if you could even enjoy it? What if you could become a true night crawler, not fearing, but striving for the dark, rushing through empty streets with nearly no traffic at all, finding out that real darkness is actually quite rare and that there is more to the night than scary tales of serial killers, crowding behind every bush?
Trust me, riding after sunset can be the most peaceful, rewarding experience when you let it happen.
And it's actually pretty safe when you stick to few easy to follow rules.
So, how do get started? Well, don't rush into things. This might take some time as you will have to exchange your negative believes about riding at night with some positive experience. You will gain nothing by setting out totally unprepared and getting overwhelmed by fear. This will only add to your believe that night rides are something unpleasant. We want to do the opposite, add positive associations and little by little, overcome your fear.
At first you need to analyse what gives you the chills.
What exactly are you scared of? Wild animals? Serial killers? Fantastic creatures or an alien attack? Don't laugh, fears are most of the time irrational.
In fact, I love cycling at night. It's my favourite time for doing long rides. But this doesn't mean that I'm never scared and I didn't start to love nightrides by doing a 200km ride all by myself during winter. Even I get scared from time to time and mostly those are irrational thoughts and ideas. Luckily, more often I enjoy the silence, the solitude and the special feeling cycling through the night can give you.
Undoubtedly feeling scared is part of the process (at least for most of us I guess), so don't think this disqualifies you. In contrary, it shows that you are healthy and thoughtful which is always a good thing.
If you are a woman you are probably intrigued by the general assumption that it's even more dangerous for you out there. I will get to that later.
First, try to localise the idea which makes you fear riding at night. Try to look at it from an objective point of view, like a statistic nerd would look at it.
When you're able to verbalise what exactly you are scared of you might even find out that it isn't really worth holding you back.
It's true, there aren't many people out at night. This might be one of your worries, but when your concern refers to getting into trouble caused by another human being, this is good news. Less people mean less bullshit, it's just simple mathematics. You might argue that it's not the quantity but the quality of people making the difference. Someone who is out at night on a lonely road must be some freaky criminal, a psycho, a Ted Bundy up to no good. But imagine yourself out there. You are there too. Are you a Psycho?
I have never met any freaky criminal out at night and I've been riding in the dark a lot.
There is something else to consider: You are moving. Hopefully at decent speed, so the chance for an encounter with a serial killer is even reduced. And last but not least: Most crimes are committed during daytime. Despite what horror movies want to make you believe: the chance to bump into a psychopath on an empty highway at 3am is insignificantly small, because psychopaths are good at math and know that it's highly unlikely that they will find a potential victim at such an deserted place at 3am. I hardly ever meet anyone at night. If you don' t believe me, how about finding out for yourself?
Try to set out for your training ride a bit later than usual. Maybe you have a certain route which you know very well, your standard training route would be perfect. You will feel much safer, even in the dark, in a well known environment.
Night ride hack no 1: Choose a night with full moon and a clear sky if possible. It's astounding how bright the moon can actually shine. On some rides I had the impression of a car driving behind me which in fact was just the moon.
Night ride hack no 2: During summer the total hours of darkness sum up to only 5, whereas during winter the nights are considerably longer, even up to 16 hours. I know it isn't always possible to take this into account when scheduling your training, I'm just giving you an idea for the different parameters.
Night ride hack no3: Riding in the mountains or in areas with a lot of forest can add to the sensation of darkness. If you have the opportunity, try to avoid these factors in your first training rides.
If you are comfortable with riding the last stretch of your route during darkness you can eventually expand the time you're riding without sunlight. You can start varying the route, from urban areas to a more rural environment. When you feel safe in this state it's time for the next step.
Step 2 - Plan your first long ride in the dark with company
This might sound like a step back because you already rode through the dark on your own. But if you look at it closely all you did was circling around places you knew for a few hours. Don't overstrain yourself now with planning to ride the whole night through unknown territory. My first night ride was with a friend and I enjoyed it a lot. But I also remember a few situations where I was relieved not to be all by myself. After all this is about getting used to riding at night, and the more positive experiences you make, the less fearful ideas will remain.
Remember, it's all about repetition. Repeating good experiences as often as possible is the best way to get rid of irrational fears.
You need to convince yourself that riding at night is a great thing not by telling yourself this, but by actually showing and experiencing it in a controlled manner. You will prove to yourself that your believes about riding your bike in the dark where in fact false and after a while your brain will shift nightrides into the category: safe. It's actually proven scientifically and known as “neuroplasticity” but I'm running off track here.
Interestingly this goes well with
Step 3 - Plan your ride beforehand
I know this sounds ridiculously obvious, but this is something I still struggle to manage properly. In case you are a perfectly organized individual you can skip this part.
If you are, like a high percentage of people, a rather average organized person, you should try to form a habit of getting everything ready before the last minute starts to tick.
Reducing stress pre-ride is the best way to prevent stress during the ride.
You don't want to get harassed by questions like “are my bidons clean?” or finding out ten minutes before start that you didn't charge your powerbank. Or that your chain desperately needs a wipe and some wax.
I tend to underestimate those minor matters and tell myself “ah I can do that later”. But once you're going down that road you'll have a good chance to end up completely stressed out because those trifles sum up to an hour of delayed departure and the feeling of being late on your date with the night.
Step 4 - Music is the most powerful weapon against fear
Prepare your playlist with the severity it deserves because music can be an essential part of riding at night. If you don't like to listen to music while cycling, simply skip this part.
If you are like me, choosing the right music can significantly help you make nightrides your new favourite thing. It can be your own personal Berghain out there or Milanos Scala, whatever fits your taste.
Music is a very powerful tool in manipulating your feelings. All you need to do is paying attention to your needs. In some nights I love to pedal everything out while listening to very hard, dark minimal Techno whereas in other nights this scares the shit out of me and I need something stupid like Avril Lavigne or Lady Gaga to get me going. This is all up to you, find out what works best and don't expect it to work every night in the same way. But what about safety you may ask? Isn't it dangerous to listen to music while cycling?
I will dig deeper into this concern in the next paragraph
Step 5 - How to make riding at night safe
Now that we worked on your irrational fears it's time to talk about the possible dangers (I didn't want to scare you right at the beginning..)
Riding at night can be dangerous when you:
- ride without proper light
- ride without reflecting clothes and straps
- ride off-road in areas where no one could find you in case of an accident with no one knowing you're there
- ride without letting anyone know where you are and what you're up to
- continue riding despite you are very tired.
- not wearing a helmet.
Well, you should always wear a helmet, this is obviously not exclusively a night ride hack. Apart from looking absolutely silly on a road bike without it, a helmet can additionally prevent your beautiful brain from severe damage.
If you set out for a ride, let a friend, your mom, your husband, wife or anyone know where you plan to go, especially if you are about to hit the gravel sections of really far out places sparsely populated. As I said, at night you will hardly meet others on your way, so make sure that in case of an emergency there is someone who knows where you are. Traffic-wise I'm convinced that it's much safer at night, simply because there aren't as many stressed out people in cars (and on bikes) trying to rush home. But this also means that in case of an accident there are less people around to help you. I don't say this to scare you but to ensure that you take up responsibility for yourself.
Now, THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE : Shine like a fucking solar system. Don't be shy with lights on your bike. When you look like the Coca cola truck at Christmas it's just about right. The more the better.
Never go with only one front and rear light, always take a set of spares with you. You wouldn't believe how quickly you can run out of light options. I had been in a situation where I lost my replacement rear light and the other one broke due to heavy rain. I was lucky enough to have a headlight with a red-light function I could use as a replacement.
You can save on a lot of things as a cyclist, don't save on lights. They might save your life not only once.
Moreover, having reflective material on yourself and your bike is a guarantee that in a worst case scenario when all your lights don't function anymore you will be seen by approaching cars. Shine bright like a diamond.
Riding and sleeping is a very sensitive topic which I will take a closer look on in a different article.
For one night you should be fine and not struggle too much with sleepiness. Just make sure you slept well the night before, and if this didn't work, you should try to get a rest a few hours before you hit the road. I don't recommend going on your first night ride sleep deprived. Trust me, you will not enjoy it.
This is the major safety framework that should keep you as safe as possible, everything else is up to your personal taste and believes. For example, I cannot see a rational argument that speaks against listening to music on a low traffic road. I can see the lights of traffic thus I know another vehicle is approaching. Generally it seems that drivers take more space to overtake cyclists at night, at least that what I heard of many fellow riders and experienced on my own.
Nevertheless should common sense make you unplug your earphones when you're riding in hard traffic or other situations that require all your senses to stay safe, but I'll leave this up to you.
Apparently you're ready to go now, your powerbanks are fully loaded, your playlist would unmask every DJ as a dilettante - but there's one last thing I want to mention.
There are a few things I want to speak out on behalf of female riders who struggle with riding alone through the night.
(Gentlemen, you are invited to continue reading as well)
I have been horribly scared to ride at night. When planning my first long distance race this was the major reason why I signed up in the pair category. At some point I was confronted with the possibility that my team mate wouldn't be able to ride with me and I asked myself: Could I handle this on my own?
I panicked by just thinking of riding alone at night in a foreign country and even worse, sleep outside all by myself. This was at a point where I already felt comfortable with solo training rides during dark winter hours and as things sorted out and my team partner confirmed he would make it to the start, I was left with an obvious insecurity. This resulted in a sensation of weakness, I felt smaller than I felt before, I had encountered a limitation. What if my partner wouldn't be able to finish half way through the race? Would I have to scratch in this scenario just because of my overwhelming fear?
So I decided to eliminate this uncertainty, or at least find out what it really was all about. And I did it just the way I described it, in small steps, one after another, starting to realize that my fear actually came partly from the unknown and partly from society.
The cliche of the woman who gets attacked at nighttime while being at a deserted place is an ubiquitous element in a lot of movies, books and adverts. Much to a degree, where we don't even realise this anymore, so that it seems simply reasonable and somewhat normal to be scared at night as a woman. Despite all the desensitisation training throughout the last year, I still find myself in situations where all those profound, since childhood established and ever since nourished primal fears suddenly roll in and remind my puls to accelerate. This can be triggered by something unspectacular like a car driving a tad too slow right next to me in the middle if the night, while I ride through a tiny Austrian village somewhere between Vienna and the Großglockner Hochalpenstraße. It seems that this very same vehicle is crossing my path too often, turning into streets just to show up again a few moments later. Could it be that the driver is looking for something? Or does he follow me?
It's the first night of the Three Peaks Bike Race 2020 and after several hours of riding, the nervous tension of the start has still not faded yet. I feel anxiety creeping up while I my brains starts reminiscing all the news I've watched in the past about missing women, all those posters on stoplights with headlines beginning somewhat like “Have you seen... “ .
I turn into a small street, off track and away from the main road, a quiet neighborhood with middle class family houses. Maybe someone would hear me screaming for help here? I start to look for escape routes through those pretty gardens. Movie plots are constantly rushing through my mind, competing with advisories from my grandma and while this concert in my brains takes all free capacities of thinking, I try to become invisible.
Next to the side of the road I spot a bench in a dark corner. I pretend to be desperate for a break, despite the obvious redundancy for such an act, as there is no one there to be convinced except myself.
I turn my lights off. Suddenly my ears witness the motor of an approaching vehicle. With shaking hands I grab my phone to dial the number of my best friend in order to let at least someone know where exactly I disappeared without a trace. Desperately hoping no one will dare to get closer when I'm talking on the phone. The headlights of a car hit the bench where I sit and I stare into the blinding lights. The car stops at a house a few meters in front of me while the worried voice of my best friend sounds in my ear: “ Hey what's up? Are you ok?”
I just dare to whisper: “Yes. No. I think someone followed me with a car, I don't know exactly where I am. I'm sitting on a bench...”
A man gets out of the car.
Petrified and trembling with fear I try to memorise the license plate and as many details as possible, but I cannot see the face of the man who is slowly walking towards the house. He seems in no hurry and carries something in is hand. Suddenly he stops. I catch my breath. Slowly he rises the undefined object in his hands and-
drops it into the letterbox.
I breath a sigh of relief, the voice of my worried friend in my ear who seems surprised to hear me bursting into laughter: “Oh, everything is okay, don't worry. It was just the newspaper deliverer!”
Of course the ominous car was driving slowly turning into streets and seemingly going into circles. But not because the driver had been looking for a potential victim, but simply because he was doing his job.
Maybe he even wondered why such a strangely dressed cyclist sat down at such a deserted place in the middle of nowhere at this time of the night. It might as well be possible that he didn't even notice me at all. However, it is clear that the scariest thing in this whole story was my own fantasy and what I expected to happen.
I'm not neglecting the possibility of bad plot twists here but truth is, they are really rare.
I already wrote about the reasons why it is perfectly fair to say that riding a bike at night can be a safe activity, no matter what's your gender.
Overcoming fear is not about ignoring possible dangers but to accept them as what they are to find out, that things worth being scared of hardly ever happen.
In this sense: Carpe noctem.
Or to say it with Lady Gaga: