Shorter days means it's scary season again

The time of year when it was possible to head out for an evening ride in daylight has been departing rapidly, and with the clocks going back at the weekend it is definitely time to charge up the batteries, dig out the helmet mount for the lights and start night riding.

The other day (night?) was my first 29er night ride of the season; with the 29er in tow I left work and set off for the forest around King Alfred’s Tower, a massive brick folly built on the point where the boundaries between Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset meet. Since then the Dorset boundary has moved, but the view remains awe-inspiring. On a good day you can see two coastlines, right across the neck of the south-west of England.

Of course the marvellous view is from the top of the tower; on a moonless night in the thick forest below there is no view other than the track ahead and behind, and no light at all besides the beam thrown out by the headlight. With no horizon for a reference point the first descent into the forest is totally exhilarating… my entire universe consists of the track immediately in front and the flash of passing trees on either side. The track is wide and just at the right gradient to fly down at speed without risk of spinning out of control. If ever there was a definition of “The Zone”, this is it.

The bottom of the hill is reached all too soon, where the track turns and follows the contour lines around the hill. Somewhere around they have been felling trees, as the track is muddy from the passage of heavy vehicles and strewn with the occasional branch, stump and other pieces of wooden leftovers ready to stop the wheel in its tracks. This section required an awful lot of concentration for a level, wide fireroad; it was like one of those video games where you have to nip left and right to dodge the falling rocks, only these were approaching a good deal faster and with a lot less warning. I had a few UPDs along here caused by paying too much attention to dodging one discarded stump to notice the one just behind it…

The track joins a tiny road for a brief climb up to the site of a Roman fort before diving back into the forest. It is another fireroad, but this one is badly rutted with deep puddles either side and thick mud in the middle, which makes picking the best course for the 29er a bit tricky. It goes on just long enough to give me drenched feet and a seat handle covered in slimy mud before it reaches a section where a slight slope has made the track drier.

Here the track runs along the edge of the hill for a mile or so. To the right the trees have been cleared, leaving just the undergrowth and the occasional dead tree to throw spooky shadows. To the left the ground falls away rapidly; too far for my light to illuminate, so the effect is of massive treetrunks reaching up from a bottomless abyss to the forest canopy far over my head.

This forest is where I did a lot of my hill-climb practice for the Red Bull; it is excellent 29er territory because of the variety of hills and large milage of fireroad and doubletrack, but the downside is there is precious little singletrack to be had. The next section of about a quarter of a mile was the only singletrack on my ride, and even this was fairly wide, straight and uphill. With the momentum gained from speeding along the fireroad I made it most of the way before being reduced to getting out of the seat and mashing the pedals round. The ground started to get muddy as the track levelled out, and on reaching the top I was forced to dismount and walk along the track as it is far too thick to be rideable.

The trail emerges onto a doubletrack trail leading straight down the hill. This bit is great fun because in an area entirely covered in soft earth and loam it is a steep, rock-strewn descent down into the valley. With limited light and no depth perception getting to the bottom in one piece is a game of luck rather than skill; the rocks are hidden under a growth of moss and autumnal forest detritus, and it only takes one hit to send me flying. When I’m not not walking back up the trail to retrieve the fallen 29er the trail is quite fast and hard work, until it slowly smoothens and levels out approaching the most southerly part of my ride.

This is the point on a night ride when “The Fear” starts to set in. The furthest point of the ride, miles from the familiar safety of the car, alone, deep in a mysterious forest with a finite supply of light… the reasons as to why this is a really silly thing to do are many and varied. I find the worst thing to do when having a snack break is to look backwards, in the direction of where you’ve come from. Dark, isn’t it? I wonder what might be hiding in the shadows, just out of sight… was it just a flicker of the eye, or was it… something else? Other than the crinkling of the jelly babies packet everything is totally silent, until a branch shifts somewhere in the gloom, or an owl, disturbed by my headlight, takes flight overhead.

When such thoughts start creeping in you know that it is no time to linger around, so I set off again, gradually climbing back to another road below the fort. Despite the gradient the speed remains quite high as I am spurred on by the ever-present worry of realising that the patch of light on the ground in front isn’t quite as bright as it was earlier. The lumicycle lights remain bright right until the end; it’s good in that it gives you a long time with lights at full intensity, but it does mean that when the battery starts to go the light fades very quickly.

Back on the road it is a quick spin to the junction at the bottom of the earlier climb to the fort, and from here it is only about a mile back to the car. After skirting around the hill from earlier I somehow end up at the bottom of a different climb than the one I came down. This is a bit of a surprise; I’ve been here often enough to know where I am, but I have no idea how I’ve got here. This happens a lot in the dark; areas you know like the back of your hand suddenly become completely alien as all references disappear in the gloom. In total I’ve cycled over 400 miles on the Quantocks but haven’t managed a night ride there without getting disorientated at some point. You only need to be a few metres of a trail, or even on the right trail but facing a different direction, to be effectively lost.

Either way, here all the climbs head back up to roughly the same place, so I head upwards. This hill is the hill I used to do “laps” of before the Red Bull. It starts fairly easy, but the final section is steep with a raised water bar right where you don’t need it. In the dark this kind of hill always seems a bit easier, possibly because of the cool temperature, but more likely the pyschological advantage of not being able to see how far you’ve still got to go. Clearing the water-bar with a little upwards grunt I emerge from the trees into the clearing around the tower; from here the car is only a few hundred metres away, and I’m back.

My lights worked to the end; the mad escaped axe-murderers hiding behind every tree never quite caught up with me, and the fierce, territorial creatures of the wood didn’t feel I was quite threatening enough to run down and leave broken and bloody deep in the forest. In my view, that makes the ride a success, and I can’t wait until the next one.


Great write-up, Phil! I’m glad to be reading it in the daylight.

Yes, excellent writeup, Phil :smiley:

I always enjoy reading the accounts of these rides by those of you accross the pond. I think it’s so cool that you have castles and deep, dark forests :stuck_out_tongue:

I wish I had a Coker (even a 29er would be nice) to ride through Sherwood forest (or any any forest by an old brick castle!).

That ride started near the tower, finished in 1772, and passed either through or near two hill forts from the Iron Age, a couple of thousand years ago; then through the probably-been-there-forever forest estate of a stately home from the 1700s. Next weekend we’ll be on Dartmoor, where you can’t move without falling over the remains of some medieval village, fort or some other random construction.

You upstarts on t’other side of the water, I don’t know… :slight_smile:


The way the weather’s going it’ll be more like IN the pond than across it :slight_smile:
That’s supposed to be a road and my front garden - not usually a river :astonished:
There certainly is a lot of old man-made stuff on the moor. Mostly stone age and iron age, from when it was a forest, and some more recent remains of mining and quarrying. Nothing particularly old in the picture though… the wall on the opposite side of the road is probably a couple of hundred years old and the house/railings are only a century old.

Heh. I’ve just got an email from someone from Devon saying they want to escape the quagmire that is Dartmoor and go to the Quantocks…

Muni - check
Helmet - check
Sleeping bag - check
Snorkel - check!