Saturday, September 29, 2007

How To - Night Riding For Fluent Riding

With the future missus out with a friend of hers (or not, she just walked back in), I went for a night ride. I had some problems keeping track of my NiteRider a while back, leaving the light, extension cord, and the helmet both sat on somewhere in the depths of Summer Street. So as not to waste the perfectly good (and virtually new) NiteRider battery and charger I had left, I bought a second setup. Now I simply have two batteries and two chargers for my one helmet light.

For someone who likes backups and keeping things in reserve, this is a good thing.

I went out for a ride the other night, enjoyed it, so when I had the opportunity to go out again, I went.

There's something special about the night. I know there are some physical things that happen - it's usually colder since the sun is down. Your pupils dilate because it's dark out. And I read somewhere that your adrenaline gets going - the fight or flight thing, sort of revving up, "just in case". With your vision handicapped, your other senses step up their vigilance. You're more aware of touch, of sound, and of smell (except tonight - I had a stuffy nose).

My legs were a bit tender from my run the other day - I yelped when the future missus lovingly squeezed my quad - and so I wasn't expecting too much. Usually I have a goal or two in mind when I go out on a ride. Sometimes it's as simply as "Go out and ride." Other times it's a bit more specific. Tonight was a specific kind of night.

With my legs not totally recovered, I'd feel any sort of effort. With the night freeing me of distractions, I knew my legs would be broadcasting their state loud and clear. I was thinking of how to increase my aerobic base - it's my Achilles heel, and if I had a better base, I'd be able to finish more races. More finishes means more chances to sprint. A friend of mine rode a few times with a very, very good racer who happens to sprint well. What interested my friend was that the sprinter trained at a steady, locomotive-like pace. Apparently he went 220-250 watts all the time - uphill, flats, down hills.

Now, for me, the instant I start heading uphill and put any kind of effort to the pedals, I'm at 250-300 watts and usually much more - it's not uncommon for me to look down and be doing 600-900 watts when I think I'm "just getting over this hill". On the flats I prefer to stay at 100-150 watts (except when chasing trucks, imaginary sprinters, etc.). And on downhills, well, I figured out recently that if I break 100 watts on a downhill I'm working harder than normal.

So tonight I decided to see if I could be a bit more consistent with my output - perhaps a bit less on the hills, a bit more on the flats, and a lot more on the downhills. My somewhat tender legs would be better at broadcasting their workload so it's be easier to gauge my efforts.

What ended up happening was I'd go 300+ up a rise, try and maintain that on the flats, blow up, and then try it again on the next rise but keeping the numbers a bit lower. Ultimately I did something right. Instead of the paltry 145 watt ride I did on the same loop a while ago (or even the 179 watts on my "fastest" ever ride on the loop), I managed to average 184 watts.

Eventually I want to even out my efforts a bit more - it would help to spin more on the rises so I don't have to push on the flats - but I think this was a good start.

Although that was my only conscious goal before I left, soon after I thought of something I wanted to work on - looking ahead.

During the day it's easy to look down too much - see what you're about to ride over. At night, with a spotlight type beam, if you look down you quickly lose track of where you're going. Because of this, riding at night with a helmet light is the best way to learn to look forward while riding.

This is because your helmet light illuminates what you look at - and if you look down, you can't see forward anymore. Suddenly a little twitch of the bar and you're veering off the road. Sounds sort of unsafe, right? Well, it forces you to keep your head up, to look ahead.

And by default, you can't see what's directly under you.

(As a side note, in a similar vein, I think that all student drivers should have the bottom 6-10 inches of the windshield covered in limo blackout tint - so you can't see what's directly in front of the car. This would teach much better driving habits by forcing the driver to look 50-100 feet ahead, not peer at the road 10 feet in front of the car. Of course when you park your car or do any close quarters manuevering, you can simply raise up on the seat to look at what's happening.)

When I first started riding at night, it was all mountain biking. I really wanted to see what I was riding over so I could time my wheel lifts and such. I even went as far as to mount a light on my seat tube pointing downwards so the ground below me lit up!

But this didn't help. I had two light systems with two lights each and carried a lot of extra weight, but lighting everything up around me didn't help - I couldn't go beyond a certain speed because I'd outride my visual field.

Everyone told me I need one good light pointing forward, not four with one pointing down, another up a bit, even another up a bit more, and another pointing perhaps 10 feet away. I understood what they were saying but couldn't commit - I'd always end up looking down (after doing something like flipping over a big rock that disappeared out of my 20-30 feet in front light beam).

That was until my light rig died on me.

Imagine you're in the depths of a Connecticut park, 450 acres of unmarked trails, rock fields with baby head sized rocks, stone walls, logs, and lots of low hanging branches and pesky trees that spring up in front of you.

Now imagine it's pitch black.


You can't see a thing.

You can't even feel your way forward because you're on a bike. Sure you can scrunch up your eyes so you don't get a branch poking in it, but it simply doesn't work.

This was vividly illustrated to us one night. A bunch of us saw some kids riding with AA battery lights. We cautioned them on the lights but they were having too much fun (or they were lost, I don't know). It was already pitch dark. We saw them an hour later, walking their bikes through the thickest of bushes, completely and utterly lost. They had no sense of direction, they couldn't see anything, and were literally trying to walk in a straight line until they hit something civilized - a road, a house, something.

One of us took pity and rode back to the parking lot with them.

I didn't think too much of it until the night my light went out.

Suddenly, things were very, very scary. I couldn't see anything, I couldn't see the trail, not even my handlebars. Close your eyes real tight (but before you do that make sure you do the following after you close your eyes - count to ten and then open them so you can keep reading).

What did you see? Yeah, well that's what I saw.

Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit - I had a couple friends with me who had lights. So one of them said, "Hey, just follow me." Before I could assimilate this concept, everyone took off, including him.

I realized that everywhere I looked, except where his light shone, was pitch black (the eyes closed kind). I started pedaling furiously to catch him. I was bounding over the trail, the familiar thrumming below me, then a big bang as I launched over a rock (or log or something). I landed, somehow made it, and kept going.

After a very scary 10 or so minutes, we made it back to the car. But in those 10 minutes, I learned more about fluid and zen-like bike handling than I had in the previous 10 years of racing. When you're flying over single track with obstacles up to a foot high over slippery and inconsistent terrain, you adjust your riding style so that you can handle anything that happens automatically. Your grip on your bars gets a bit tighter but your arms are loose. You let the rear wheel skip around if it wants. You deal with things.

When you see your "headlight" (i.e. the one on the rider 10 feet in front of you) illuminate something, you file it in your head and ride around the thing you imagine (since it's in the pitch black part of your visual field). You quickly learn to stack three or four such obstacles at a time - because Mother Nature doesn't space her trail obstacles 20 feet apart for you.

I suppose it's like reading music - if you can't read ahead, you can't play. So you learn to understand the notes that are a bar or two ahead of what you're playing.

I haven't done this in a while - but when I started up tonight, I realized my helmet light was aimed pretty well - at a reasonably level head angle, the beam focused about 40 to 50 feet in front of me.

This meant I couldn't see things 10 to 15 feet in front of me.

When I realized this, I made "looking ahead" one of my goals. It helps when you drive cars, especially on entrance and exit ramps (my favorites), although it's also useful in parking lots and general street driving. So I practiced looking forward - so much so that I almost turned into the curb on a super hard right turn.

I thought I was going faster than I was and when I turned, I felt sand and grit under the tires. I quickly looked down, saw the curb about a foot away, and corrected my trajectory - the road was another 5 feet down. I was looking to my 4 and 5 o'clock - where the road ended up - until that point, looking 50-100 feet up the road.

My eagerness reined in, I had no further problems on the ride. I kept my head pretty much level, looking down only to spot check wattage, time, or to illuminate my arm (when I signaled a turn).

Another thing that happens when you can't look down too much is that you don't know what gear you're using.

This, I realized, is a good thing.

When you're in a tightly packed field, perhaps on a narrow road, you may not have the luxury of looking down to see if you're in the 18 or the 19. Instead, you shift in a zen fashion - pedals too fast = shift up, pedals too slow = shift down. If you run out of gears, you have to shift both the front and rear at the same time to get the next higher or lower gear. On your own, it's hard to discipline yourself to do this without looking down. At night, it's much easier.

This is because if you look down, the top tube reflects the light pretty strongly and basically blinds you. It's a tame but effective punishment for checking your gears. The same goes for checking your computer.

This means you're at the mercy of how you feel, what you perceive. The sensation you get when riding at night (with a helmet light aimed correctly) is sort of the same as the one you get when you're riding in a field so tightly packed you can't look down.

This is good.

Finally, with very little to distract you visually, you start to use your other senses. For safety, your ears become extremely important. I always knew this for avoiding cars (you can hear around corners you can't see around) but I didn't realize how important hearing is for riding in the peloton until this spring when I felt extremely uncomfortable fighting for position in the field. I happen to get a bit warm so uncovered my right ear. Suddenly I felt like I knew everything that was happening to my right. I still felt uncomfortable to my left. With only a lap to go, I had to uncover my left ear. I took half a lap but as soon as I did it, I could sneak through gaps I was scared of approaching earlier in the race. Hearing is important and riding at night helps reinforce this.

Your sense of touch is amplified. That sand and grit on that acute turn? I might not have noticed it during lighter hours but at night it was a huge alarm bell ringing.

Night riding is also good to test out different gear. Doing a group ride during the day is fun and you get to hang out and stuff but you learn of the uncomfortable seam on your thumb only when you're in the diner and someone says, "Hey, what's that red raw mark on your thumb?". You look and realized, oh, it must be my new gloves.

When you ride at night, any maladjustment, any misfitted clothing becomes apparent immediately to your hypersensitive body. You can tell right away when a long sleeve jersey is actually doing nothing to shield your torso from the wind, or when the wicking material in your jersey gets overloaded with moisture.

Night riding, I realized, is better than just using night hours for getting some training in the legs. It's also a good way to become more fluent in riding your bike.


Anonymous said...

I have gone night riding a few times in the hills of Petaluma. It is a very unique experience just like you say, all your senses are awake and highly aware of all the little details missed as when there is daylight. Lately I don't ride at night as temps go down into the 30's and sometimes high 20's plus the "icy" roads, it turns out to be very, very unsafe.

Aki said...

It's the same here - 17 deg last night, about 32-33 when I rode yesterday. It'll be trainer only soon although I think I might actually ride a mountain bike on a trail for the first time in 10 years or so. I'm glad you could relate to what I wrote.