Cycling After Dark
It was getting dark quickly and I still had at least ten miles to go. I was testing out a new light on my bike and wanted to see how many hours I could get out of one charge. Poor planning on my part and a sour mood on fate's part came together that evening as my light flickered and went out. The trail was not lighted and the twilight played tricks on my eyes. It was late Fall and the days were getting shorter at an alarming speed. We lost two minutes of daylight each day in the march toward another Northeast winter.
I've lived in the Northeast all my life, but the loss of daylight surprises me every year. This day, I dilly dallied before my ride and got a late start. Ever the optimist (or the fool, depending on your point of view), I thought I could get in fifty miles, and get back to my car right around dusk. So here I was, on an empty bike trail, on my beloved Fuji Tread cross bike riding alone in the dark.
I should explain a few things here. I was biking along a paved path; part of the Erie Canal trail that runs east-west across New York state. Some sections of the trail are alongside roadways, some are on lonely stretches along the Mohawk River. There are sections that wind through leafy suburban areas, and other stretches that run through urban neighborhoods. My route this day took me through a little of each.
This wasn't the first time I'd gotten caught on a bike trail after dark. I will admit that there is a certain thrill that comes with trying to beat time; pushing the boundaries of wise decision making. I'm not reckless by any means, but part of my physical activity journey is facing fear. I started boxing because I wanted to confront fear of violence, fear of being overpowered, fear of getting hurt. I bike because I was told from a very young age that the world is a dangerous place.
I grew up in New York City in the 1970s and 80s and indeed it was not a safe place. I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was almost 18 years old, mostly because of fear, passed on by my parents. My dad took me out to learn to ride our white Pony folding bike when I was about seven. The bike weighed a ton and had a headlight that was powered by the front wheel. We walked the bike over to an asphalt playing field a few blocks from our house. The field was surrounded by a tall chain link fence, and was mostly used for baseball games, as I remember.
My dad held on to the back of the bike and ran behind me as I learned to balance. After a while I started to get the hang of it and he let go. I sensed that I was riding on my own, and—like Lot's wife, I turned around to look. I crashed into the fence, fell off the bike and hit my head. I'm sure I cried, but scrapes and falls are the cost of learning almost anything physical. My mom didn't agree, and that was the end of cycling for me for at least ten years.
I rode off and on in the years after, but nothing consistent until I was in my 40s. Once my kids were all older, I decided I wanted to take another shot at cycling. A very good friend gave me a beautiful mountain bike from his collection. It was tricked out with disc brakes and full suspension, and it fit me well. I rode that bike for a couple seasons, changing out the nubby tires for thinner ones and getting my confidence back. As I started riding longer distances I knew that I needed a different style of bike. If I was going to ride the distances I had in mind, I would need a road bike or similar. My next bike was a Fuji Tread and it's just right for the type of riding I'm doing now.
When I talk about cycling some people warn me that I shouldn't ride alone, especially in certain areas. My response is, who am I supposed to ride with? Should I depend on other people's schedules and riding styles to enjoy cycling? None of those ideas make sense to me. The feeling of freedom I get from cycling is derived in large part from leaving when I want and going where I want to go. I enjoy group rides but I can't always rely on another person to ride where and when I want.
I rode on, squinting, eyes straining to catch the last of the light. Something flew past me, or actually, at me. It was either a small bird or a large moth and it seemed to glow in the dark. I counted down the miles in my head. Six miles to go now, five, four. I balanced riding fast enough to get the hell off the bike path as soon as possible and slow enough so I wouldn't hit a bump and go sprawling. As I rode, I worried about what every woman worries about; is there a stranger lurking, waiting for a chance to do harm? Three, two miles and I'm almost back to my car.
About a mile from the parking lot I realized I was riding behind a guy out walking his dog. He didn't have a light either. The only reason I knew he was there was because I heard the jingle of his dog's collar. I coasted so he would hopefully hear the whir of my bike chain, but I didn't call out to him. He still didn't hear me, so I said "on your left" in the friendliest tone I could muster. I must have scared the daylights out of this poor man from the way he jumped and yelped. I apologized, and we both laughed. I got to my car safely, thankful to be back, buzzed from the risk I just took and always grateful that I can do what I love.