In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to take some extended rides at night – most recently my return from this past weekend’s World Superbike round at Laguna Seca. As I frequently do, when I have a bunch of saddle time on my hands, I started noodling on something to while away the hours. For this trip, the topic was how much I love riding motorcycles in the dark.
Back in the time before marriage and children, I spent more time riding at night than I do now. Part was out of necessity: If I wanted to leave town for the weekend, it usually required waiting to the end of the work day on Friday. However, I also had a buddy who would occasionally join me for canyon rides a couple days before the full moon. This timing was necessary because the moon would rise before sunset and be high enough in the sky to bring out some details on the mountain roads before it was too late at night to really enjoy the ride.
Mostly, however, my late-night sojourns were solitary ones. I had a couple favorite routes, but the one I took the most was a meander through the San Gabriel Mountains that ended up on a ridge overlooking the illuminated grid of the San Fernando Valley. Those excursions were as much about sitting with the view as they were about the ride – a necessary break from the stresses of life in a megalopolis.
When I mention this love of night riding to motorcycle friends, I’ve learned to prepare myself for sometimes strident responses about its danger. Way back in 2004, I wrote an editorial for Motorcycle Cruiser magazine called “Night Riding on Unfamiliar Roads,” and no article I’ve written before or since has garnered more hate mail. I had people say I should be fired or sued for recommending a motorcycle activity that was practically guaranteed to get riders killed. While most of those letters came from folks who lived in states that have large deer populations (and I understand the risks are very different in those places than in the Southwest), it’s the intensity, no, the outrage of the responses that still unsettles me.
I suppose I shouldn’t be terribly surprised. I have strong feelings, too. You see, I don’t just like riding at night; I love riding at night. My recent night rides just stirred that love back from a long slumber.
With all the miles I’ve traveled over the years, a healthy number of my favorite motorcycle experiences happened at night. Without boring you with too many details, here are some of the most memorable:
Riding solo through Canada on my return from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean: I’d never seen the Aurora Borealis, and having it play out over my head while I cruised down a tree-lined two-lane highway was enough to keep me riding to the point of exhaustion. When I crossed through clearings, the visuals exploded overhead only to narrow back down to a mere slice as I moved on. Ultimately, I found a short spur off the highway to lay out my sleeping bag and drift off to sleep with the colors dancing above me. In case you were wondering, yes, I’d seen all the signs about how many people had been in accidents with moose on the roadways.
Competing in two 24-hour endurance races: The two events were quite different from the saddle. In the first, I was riding a comparatively slow bike (a modified EX500) with the brightest lights on the track. There were minimal lights on the track, leaving it up to the rider to navigate the course. We passed many teams on bigger, faster motorcycles because we could see where we were going. The second year, I was riding a GSX-R750 with my fellow Sport Rider staffers. Each corner had a large light illuminating the flag station, making the track a somewhat connect-the-dots affair – which was a good thing since the Gixxer I rode was an ill-handling beast.
The experience of racing at night is totally unlike in the daylight. You can see smoke coming off the knee-sliders of your competitors. You’re aware every time someone in front of you touches down a metal part of their motorcycle. The bikes running race fuel versus pump gas are more readily apparent to the sniffer.
While reference points are a vital part of cutting a fast lap in daylight, they are essential to simply keeping your bike on the track at night. Miss a reference point in a high-speed corner, and you have no idea where you are until the edge of the pavement comes rushing up to greet you. Finally, there’s the spectacle of seeing the lights from other bikes throw your shadow around you on the track. Just don’t get so distracted that you miss your reference points.
Nightfall in Swiss Alps on my honeymoon: Although it wasn’t a particularly long night ride, the experience of seeing the sun set over the Alps and then riding down with my wife on the pillion into the progressive darkness in the valley and a nearby town to look for dinner and a “zimmer frie” (a vacant room) for the night has stuck with me for 18 years.
US 50, The Loneliest Road in America, during a thunderstorm: My friend and former boss, Jamie Elvidge, and I were riding through a long valley in southern Utah during a downpour of almost biblical proportions. We probably weren’t going any faster than 50 mph, and the rain was so heavy that the headlight only illuminated a tunnel through the rain to the churning water on the road in front of us. Occasionally, lightning would flash, revealing the valley spread out around us for miles in an instant of blinding clarity before the darkness collapsed back on top of us. The storm assaulted us like this off-and-on for most of our trudge through the 120 miles to our hotel rooms.
For me, the act of riding at night embraces the great unknown we all face when we ride: the what’s going to happen next? Darkness only brings this to the fore. The road appears, constructed out of nothing right in front of our eyes, and unless we have one of those fancy BMWs with the otherworldly ability to aim the beam into the corner, what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily where the road goes.
As someone who has trouble planning beyond the end of the week, this act of creation resonates deep within me. It’s how I’ve lived my life. Yes, I face a multitude of inherent problems that could be avoided with better vision/planning/foresight (just ask my boss or my wife what it’s like dealing with me on a daily basis), but I prefer to discover my path as I go – even if it leaves me with my headlight pointing off in seemingly the wrong direction.