Confessions of a Noctivagant Cyclist

On my wall at home hangs a picture. Two cyclists disappear into an indigo-black sky, watched over by an owl in a tree as the night enfolds them, the world silent beneath their wheels. I like it because it reminds me of some of my favourite rides, and because – it’s time to admit it – I’ve always been a noctivagant cyclist. I’ve always liked riding at night.

An essay came out a few years ago ‘Why programmers work at night’. It spoke of three reasons: the lack of distractions, the tired mind’s need to concentrate solely on the task in hand, and the focusing influence of a bright computer screen in front of you when the rest of the world is dark. I’ve never been a good programmer, it’s always been the part of my job I try to avoid, but I could identify with this article. It spoke truth to me. It described how I lived.

I was finishing my PhD at the time, working late into every night and then coming in late the next morning. I said it was because it was the only time I could get access to the lab equipment, and to a large extent that was true. More than that though, the night was the time I could think for hours at a time. I could be alone with the lab, just me, the equipment and one giant problem to solve. More then anything though, it was the time I could do a deal with my tired brain: let’s concentrate on the problem, because there’s no sleep until this gets done. It worked.

The national 24 hour time trial, 2011. I placed 35th, and 15th when I raced again two years later

When I started this tour I decreed it would be a daytime affair; I left the big lights at home, and resolved to ride at sociable hours. Time after time though, I’d make zero progress in daylight hours; the sun was hot, the bike didn’t work, I’d get distracted, then the ennui would come in and before I knew it, the sun was falling and I’m wasn’t even 100 kilometres down the road.

Then with the dark, something magical would happen: my problems would disappear and the miles would roll by in an unseen instant, mere numbers in a dark world. Existence was reduced to an ever-shifting pattern of white lines in a small pool of yellowy light as I moved my bubble of salvation through the inky without, the cool nothingness pressing in beside me and closing in behind me, ushering me on for hour after silent hour.

I haven’t always been able to ride at night. In Alaska it was too cold. In several places the roads were too bad. In China the combination of the winter blackness, the twisting, muddy roads and the need to get a room each night to satisfy the government watchers meant that I was seldom out on the road for long after the sun disappeared.

In other places though, and whenever I’ve wanted to cover serious distance, the daytime has never been the time to do it. Give me the night, any night.

First image: “Night Ride”, Dave Flitcroft, Art from the bike shed

End image: Lost Highway

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