Yesterday was the Maxx Exposure ride. As it looked like being a nice night, I'd planned a substantial (>80) nightride to Washington and back, for no other reason than friends were doing it and I could do with some practise...
Spend the day quietly bimbling about carb-loading (aka eating cake), bike fiddling and cocoa making, before finally departing after 7 as the sun goes down and the sky turns all sorts of purple. Spin over meridian, along the road, dodging rabbits, get to bottom of Blackcap, turn left through gate and square up to horrible climb -
'Fixed' expensive light fails for fourth time in three months.
Re-assesment. Okay, I have a blinky light and the puncture Petzl. There is just enough daylight left to get me to the top of the hill, I have been looking forward to this all day, I am not going home now and I can always walk back down the hill if I need to. Proceed at snail's pace up rapidly darkening horrible climb. Discover it gets no easier when you can't see it. And did I ever mention how much I hate climbing on gears? Time passes so much slower when you're thrashing about in 22/30...
Reach summit and remove layers. Hair wet with sweat, breeze cooling. Break out the thermos, replace layers, plus more and watch the first specks of light appear over Kingston Ridge. Clearly riders - there is no road up there, and the white pinpricks are moving at a sedentary speed which reminds me just how large that lump of chalk is. High on the facing ridge, I have a great vantage point and watch them descending, like parachute flares, before climbing up out of the valley towards me, blinking and twisting in the trees.
Some time later, after the lead riders have passed by, the clouds smudging moonlight all over the sky, Nigel arrives. On his cross bike - hmm. Brief chat whilst I surreptitiously peer at his beam pattern - yes, it'll do. I fall in alongside and we bimble gently - well, okay, we fly at a ridiculous pace to the Beacon, where he leaves me to no doubt continue along the route at the ridiculous pace and I turn to retrace my steps in a quieter fashion more suited to stiff, cold legs.
The moon is out and it's two-thirds full. As my eyes adjust to night vision again, the city lights behind me look like fires and the water on the dewpond is rippling white. Black cows kindly shuffle off the trail and by looking up and to the left a bit I can keep tyres to singletrack across the tops. The climbs are hardest, in shadow and full of holes; the descents, braille riding, bike moving freely beneath me, obstacles felt and reacted to, senses quickened. The pace is mostly pedestrian but as I warm to the darkened world I am reminded of a saying recently thrown in my direction - if life throws you lemons, make lemonade. Night rides are all too often an arm's race, trying to stay clear of the person with the brighter light, tolerating helmet lights being shone in your eyes. Solo excursions are apt to be scary, with monsters lurking on the peripherals of the pool of light and noises in bushes that seem darker than they are because inefficient eyes are tuned to something brighter. Riding by moonlight renders the hilltop a friendlier place, and civilisation more distant, somehow, even though I'm frequently passed by Maxx riders going the other way, some who banter, most saying hello and a few who just try to run me over...
I make the trip west once more with Matt and Dave, both honorary Northerners who I'd forgotten would be here and whom I'm glad to see as they have two lights apiece, more than enough for me to hitch onto. Both are quieter than usual, and for once I feel like the one out of place trying to make the small talk. I give up and we pedal gently along in silence. It seems more appropriate somehow. Waving them off I feel a pang of sadness; I should have been going with them, but the descent home remains.
Back along the tops once more and then left, down behind the hill and it's steep enough to be buried deeply in shadow. Properly dark, in fact. Right off the back of the saddle, feel and react, don't think too much, be brave. And do not, whatever you do, tell your mother that you did this. The fact that I'm on a test bike with 5" front and rear is no doubt a great help but soon I've let go of the brakes and am proceeding through the darkness at something approaching a proper pace, deliberately not looking or trying to see, just feeling, remembering what little I can, letting the bike guide itself into and out of the ruts, over the waterbars, between the banks. When the moon emerges from behind the hill and the trail is thrown into contrast it's like someone flicked a switch; it feels like daylight and the shadow of the ridge is cast pinprick sharp on the fields below. It all ends too soon and from the road I look back along the ridge for signs of riders; none. There are no cars on the road and even the kamikaze rabbits have declared ceasefire for the night. A couple of lone jets bank for Gatwick, engines loud, lights shining; I close the door behind me satiated by something which turned out to be far more than the sum of its parts. Lemonade, indeed.