Darkest Before The Dawn

Riding a bicycle is like life itself: balance is key, you should always move forward, and ideally it should be free from crotchal discomfort.

As far as the the moving forward part, that’s true both literally and figuratively, and if you’re going it right you’re not only discovering new landscapes but also learning new things about the act of cycling itself. Instead of riding the same old routes it’s important to get lost now and again, and instead of taking shelter under the umbrella of your “expertise” it can be good to try something new and feel like a complete novice once in awhile. Despite a lifetime of riding bikes on one capacity or another I certainly keep coming across stuff I realize I don’t know shit about, and one of those things is lights.

It’s not that don’t ride at night, it’s just that it’s never truly dark where I live. When riding home late or setting out in the predawn hours I’ve never had to worry about being able to see anything, thanks to all the streetlights. Back when I was young and childless and did stuff like “work” and “train,” if I wanted to train after work all I had to do was head to Central Park for the group rides that used to happen there all winter long. As for mountain bike night riding, it always sounded like fun, but like surfing or SCUBA diving it seems to require the sorts of friends and equipment I didn’t have–not to mention leaving the city at night in a car, which you don’t do, unless you want to wind up circling the block for parking like one of those suckers in that Times article. Therefore, on-the-bike illumination was merely something to make me more visible to others, like those lights at the top of skyscrapers. So if I was riding at night I’d strap on a couple blinkies and be done with it.

Now, however, I’ve got a proper headlight on my Rivendell. I’ve also got to get out early if I want to ride regularly during the week, and of course at this time of year the sun sleeps in until well after 7:00am. So this morning, instead of heading down to Central Park like I normally would when riding in the dark, I headed into Van Cortlandt Park and made towards the darkness of suburbia:

Turning onto the Putnam Trail, I immediately realized two things:

  1. The headlight on my Rivendell casts a wide and far-reaching beam that offers surprisingly good visibility (really, my lousy photography does not do it justice);
  2. Despite the above, I was terrified.

Seriously, the last time I was this scared was when I went to Steamboat Springs for the IMBA thingy, attempted to walk home from a party, and realized they didn’t have sidewalks or streetlights.

But this time was different. In Steamboat Springs I couldn’t see shit and was in an unfamiliar place, but thanks to my fancy headlight I could see pretty much everything around me, and moreover I was on a stretch of path I’d ridden roughly five million times. So why was I still terrified? Well, the cure for fear is reasoning, and so I asked myself for an accounting of what I was afraid of. Was it that someone might be lurking in the dark waiting to kill me? A frightening proposition to be sure, but also a highly unlikely one. Attacks in quiet sections of park are certainly far from unheard of, but why would someone looking to prey upon a fellow human be waiting in abject darkness and in frigid temperatures in the hopes that someone might happen along? It was simply a poor value proposition, like ice fishing in a frozen swimming pool. If you’re a murderer you don’t want witnesses, but you still need victims, and any serial killer worth his suit made from human flesh wouldn’t risk freezing to death waiting around in the woods all night on the off-chance some beardo on a Rivendell might ride by. (Unless he really had it in for beardos on Rivendell, that is. Let’s hope we never have to contend with such a person, who would no doubt be dubbed “The Friction Shifter Killer,” and would ultimately be traced by the FBI to a shack in the woods wallpapered with copies of The Rivendell Reader.)

Okay, so I could cross people off the list of stuff to fear. But what about animals? We’ve actually got our fair share around here, and indeed I was about to ride through an area that just a few years ago had been terrorized by a rabid coyote:

Indeed, just as I thought this I caught sight of a figure at the edge of the trail. At first I thought it was a small bollard of some kind, but as it began to move I realized I was face to face with a skunk. Here’s a photo:

Yes, I realize you can’t see anything because I had my flash turned off, but here’s what you’d have seen if I’d had it on, and if there had been a handy caption hovering over the skunk’s head:

Actually, I was far less worried about rabies than I was about the thing emptying its funk glands all over me because I had startled it. I mean, I’m sure Grant Petersen could talk me though getting the skunk spray off both my Rivendell and myself by using Grandpa’s Pine Tar Wonder Soap (I’m guessing it involves bathing in a galvanized wash basin while listening to banjo music), but the simple fact is I just don’t have that kind of time.

Fortunately, by the time I’d run the skunk gauntlet the earliest rays of sunshine were beginning to appear, dissipating my fear along with the darkness, but before the life-giving fire orb began its ascent in earnest I stopped to photograph my bicycle in the darkness:

And to contemplate how like the moon it looked:

Soon after I bore witness to one of the most celebrated natural phenomena in the universe, that of course being the spectacle of the sun rising over the iconic skyline of Yonkers, NY:


By the time I reached the Hudson, day had broken, but the light on the Palisades beyond was still early morning pink. Now here’s some dyno porn for the Light Freds:

The lamp is a Schmidt Edelux II:

And the hub is a Kasai Dynacoil:

I do occasionally think I feel some faint vibration in the handlebars coming from the hub, and if that is in fact what I’m feeling I wonder if it might not be the case with a fancier hub. (The only hub I can compare it to firsthand is the Shimano dynamo hub on my WorkCycles, though that bike is not exactly a platform that allows you to detect any sort of nuance.) However, as I often have to remind myself, just because I notice something doesn’t make it a problem. So far the hub has been great, and even if it it is causing a little extra drag (feel free to go down that rabbit hole if you want) that’s an infinitesimal price to pay for a light that actually lets you see at night and that you don’t have to charge. (By the way, Kasai now makes a field serviceable version of this hub, which you’ve seen advertised on this very blog.)

Some years back (and I’m too lazy and embarrassed to look it up) I recall writing about the Knog Blinder lights they had sent me, and when someone pointed out that lights like that are stupid and that you should use a proper light with a shaped beam I said something like, “Yeah, whatever, I don’t care about hurting people’s eyes, I only care about being seen.” I now realize I was being an idiot, and that a bike light called a “Blinder” is like a saddle called the “Taint Splitter”–not only that, but a saddle that splits other people’s taints as well as your own. My apologies.

Anyway, all of this is to say that here I am at XX years old and only now learning that good quality bicycle lighting is important. Who knew???

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