Hot on the heels of the weekend expedition, I got an email just before finishing work today saying there was a club ride tonight, 7-9. The first of my lights arrived the other day, and this seemed to be the perfect time to try them out. The club always seems to ride the same routes (so I was told) so I knew at least that despite the dark I'd be covering ground I'd ridden before.
Due to the late notice, though, this was going to be another ride without any food beforehand. I grabbed the crust of bread we had left over and bolted it down while I nipped over to the co-op with my shiny pound coin to buy a couple of chocolate bars. I scoffed one as I jogged over to the garage, got the bike out, and headed over to Witney. It's about six miles from the garage to the meeting point, and I had a whole 20 minutes to get there in, against a headwind. So once again, the trip started with a manic dash to catch people before they set off without me. Fortunately I made it just before they left, and with the briefest of greetings we were off to get out of town. The guys were in such a hurry to be off I didn't have chance to strap my light to my helmet, but I figured there'd be time for that later - it was only just beginning to get dusky. And we wouldn't get to anywhere wooded for a while yet.
About five minutes later, we turned left. In itself not unusual, but we'd never been down that road before when I'd been out... and why was everyone tanking it so fast? Oh well, head down, zoom along after them. Probably just eager to get to some fun stuff. Soon enough, we turn off the road... straight onto a wooded track. Arse. Oh well, still not that dusky, I should be fine... ooh crap, why is my bike sliding all over like a demented thing as I ride?
Turns out this track is strewn with lots of pebbles. Everyone slowly pulled away from me as I struggled to bully my legs into picking up more speed with the promise of chocolate as soon as it feels like I'm more than 50% in control of where the bike's going. Zooming out of the track and back onto the road, the two folks in front of me bunny-hopped up the curved curb ahead without breaking their stride. Determined to keep up, I do my best to do the same, and happily despite my failure to time it anything like right, and a gut-wrenching sideways lurch as the back wheel and the curb meet, I'm up and over and all is well.
At about this point I figured out it was likely that I wouldn't be having the easy ride I was hoping for. And then we turned into the jumps someone had cunningly made in the woods. I'd fallen a bit behind the two lead bikes, with the other guy behind me, and had no idea this was coming. I couldn't see their route through it, and we'd joined the run sort of in the middle. I figured out what I thought was sensible line through it all and just in time realised that if I carried on the way I was going, I was about to hit a deep double at the perfect speed to plough into the other side. Somehow I managed to squeak around it (and so did the chap behind me, who had also not noticed what we were riding into). Commenting about it later, it turned out the other two had ridden across and round the jumps - i.e., gone the sensible way. Oh well. Quickly we were on to the next bit, and another new experience for me: Going down steps. A flight of about six of them. The two lead guys shot off down them, and as I did a slow turn in the clearing before the steps to clip in, the final one of my companions disappeared down the gap in the foliage. I figured it was probably a bit late now to ask advice about how to ride them, got my weight back, dragged the back brake and with a mutter of "ah, screw it" went for it before I had a chance to think better of it. About three steps in I realised the suspension was working harder and harder each step... I was hoping I wouldn't end up running out of spring and pitching over the front bars, which felt ever more likely, and then with great relief, I got to the bottom and hared off after the others. A short run of roads and we were on a nice, zoomy, undulating turfy path with bumps just begging to get you a little air. I wasn't really expecting this, so squandered it for the most part (next time, maybe...).
I was beginning to get an idea of where we were now... just coming to the top of the rocky bridleway I mentioned last post. It seems we were now back on ground I'd actually ridden before, but doing it the opposite way. I was amazed at the difference in character going down compared to going up; what looked trivial features when climbing seemed to have grown over the past couple of days, and the gentle-ish climb was now a fairly speedy descent. I think it was down here that I managed to jump in the wild for the first time (if I actually got both wheels off the ground, that is). And nearly fell off; I really have to stop turning the front wheel while I'm in the air.
As we got to the bottom of the hill, a sinking feeling came over me. We were heading to the woods near Stonesfield again, where I'd been out alone at the weekend. I had been looking forward to this, but it was beginning to get really dark now... and we were going at it backwards. So I'd be going down the other side of the hole... bigger, steeper, rockier and new to me. In the dark. Eek.
I finally got my light fixed to my helmet at this point, crossed the river and into the half-light of the wood. The climb up this side was much much steeper than the route I'd taken before, which was probably good - I had no time to worry. At the top, the guys asked if I was up to riding down, or if I wanted to go round. It couldn't be more worrying than the steps, I thought. Ah screw it, lets go. Dropping in from this side sets you up for a jump at the bottom, and the guy in front of me got some monster air from it. My standard issue inability to plan my exit line well meant I missed the jump. But I made it down, no crashes, feeling pretty comfortable. Result!
The next section, a sweeping downhill through the woods to a sharp turn at the bottom was, if anything, more worrying than what I'd just ridden; it was properly fast. I didn't feel like I was shedding enough speed, but wasn't keen on hitting the brakes any harder. What to do? Turns out I had slowed down plenty, and made the turn with just the slightest skid (I should emphasise that everyone else did it much faster than me - the wuss is still strong in me). A twisty turny climb back out to the entrance to the wood, and we were back on the road for a bit. It was now getting properly dark as we hit a more protracted stretch of road riding, and my light got dimmer and dimmer. As soon as we pulled onto the next bridleway, I stopped to switch batteries. The next section is a bit of a blur to me... it wasn't boring, just nothing special as we trundled along the sides of a couple of fields. Soon enough we were in Hanborough and one of the group was turning for home.
Not the rest of us though. Time for the last wood of the day - Pinsley. Much flatter than the others, but much bigger, and with the feeling of the speeder bike sequence from Return of the Jedi as you weave around the trees - especially in what was now completely pitch darkness aside from our lights. I was trailing the two experienced guys relatively slowly now - I couldn't figure out how they were even able to follow the path at the speed they were going, much less negotiate the roots and stuff. If I didn't have their lights to follow, I'd have been totally lost pretty quickly. Just before the bomb hole run in the middle of the wood, we stopped and turned out the lights just to appreciate how dark it was. And then onto the main event: Two bomb holes, in succession, with a slight dip and turn between them. Going down the first one in the dark was a fantastic experience - just hurtling into pitch black and then the trail appears in front of you from nowhere like a wall as you hit the climb out the other side. After the second one, you just have to turn around at the top and head back through them. Whee! I got totally freaked out by hanging ivy as I hit the bottom of the last hole on my way out; in my peripheral vision I thought it was a branch, and swerved madly to avoid it. Lost my momentum, and had to walk the last part of the exit. Oh well. Unfortunately as we left the wood, I made exactly the opposite mistake - what I thought was ivy was a branch. I ducked as the trailed dipped under it, but forgot that I had a light on top of my helmet, meaning I was taller than I thought. Didn't hit it too hard, but enough to be a warning not to make that mistake again in a hurry!
Then we were out of the woods, and off towards the roads home. I got back about three hours after setting off, starving, and elated to have been out on my first ride in the dark and to have managed to nerve myself up to trying everything I was presented with. Riding at night is such a different experience; it's nerve wracking as things leap out at you from nowhere, and trails you think you know take on a different character but also really, really beautiful. Even though you can't see much. A great experience.
Then I got home, et tea and wrote this. Then probably went to sleep.