I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of the dark. I walk assuredly down most streets after sunset, I haven’t needed a night light since third grade, and I love nothing more than sitting on my roof beneath the stars. But send me into the woods after dark and my imagination runs wild. So, when my friends suggested I bike with them, at night, through the city woods with a head lamp, I figured it’d be the best way to either tackle my fears or send me into a perpetual fetal position.
Nighttime mountain bike riding can turn the smoothest single track into an X-Games-like course, as you dodge unexpected low-hanging branches, nocturnal animals with scary, glowing eyes, slippery roots from foggy days, and occasional homeless people or lovers rustling in the bushes. To help ease my fears, my group leaders offered up their three rules, essential to physical (and emotional) safety:
Even among my group of experienced night riders, they never go alone and they never leave anyone behind. It’s easy to lose each other in the serpentine-like trails that fill this city’s open spaces, so the group keeps in touch with each other through various birdcalls. One guy likes caw-caw; another koo-koo-doo. It must be really confusing for the stoned kids in Golden Gate Park to see a set of floating lights race by, while hearing mismatched bird calls. Apologies for freaking you out.
To prepare for my epic night ride, I go in search of a good light. My gear box is full of little white blinkies that I rarely remember to strap to my handlebars before heading out at night. But my racer friend tells me that those little blinkies will do nothing for a real night ride. “What you need,” he says, “is a serious light.”
I swing by Freewheel Bike Shop first, and the mechanic points me to some larger Knog lights – hipstery, cute, and totally impractical for this ride. “No,” I say, “like real lights. Serious ones.” “Oh. Yeah, we don’t carry those – you’ll have to order them.” He says there aren’t enough people in the city who need them. But I need my light this week. The mechanic suggests Sports Basement, because they cater more toward the epic adventurer.
I ride over to 16th and Bryant, and to my joy, Sports Basement has a whole collection ranging from $100 to $550, depending on battery life and the number of lumens. I learn that one lumen = one candle placed one foot away. My puny city blinkie is only ten lumens, and the serious night riding lights are at least 120. When you factor in how many lumens you need, plus the fact that it needs to last for three or four hours, the high cost makes sense. I walk out with a $200 Light & Motion Stella 150 – a mid-range serious light.
Now that I have my crew of riders and my new light, I set out to explore some of the trails during the day, scouting out my route before sunset. With my car in the shop and a set of mountain biking friends who are also carless, I decide to go in search of single-track close to home.
For a city resting on a seven by seven stretch of land, San Francisco has an inordinate amount rideable space. McLaren Park (317 acres) has plenty of trails, Golden Gate Park (1,017 acres) does as well, and Mount Sutro (61 acres) provides the mother lode of all – a steep, narrow, but incredibly well-marked network of single-track, all of which are nicely mapped out on The SF Mountain Bike website.
Mount Sutro is a dense forest nestled behind Twin Peaks filled with thick eucalyptus groves and tight single-track, and even in the day, the network of trails keeps me on my toes. To get to the trailhead, I make my way to Clarendon Avenue. [From the Castro you can either go straight up the gear-grinding 17th Street climb or “wiggle” your way to the Panhandle and up Ashbury to the top of 17th. Turn Right onto Twin Peaks and stay right for Clarendon.]
I go to the top of Clarendon and turn right on Johnston Drive, riding up the hill and taking my first right onto the trail. Now I’ve hit the mother lode, where I can play for hours. With the help of new signage, I can navigate my way on the East Ridge, West Ridge, and Peak trails, or just ride on the other side of Clarendon, doing a steep and technical up and down to Sutro Tower.
Even during the day, I only see one other person on the trails – an old man with a walking stick and a limpy dog. “You gonna ride that?” he asks, gesturing at the slick rocks that provide a minimal crossing over the water runoff. “Yup,” I say, somewhat apprehensively. And I take off, spinning slightly, edging my way up the technical section. “You did it! You did it,” he cheers from below. Adding, endearingly, “you’re great!” And this unexpected compliment – creepy from anyone other than a sweet old man – helps propel me up the steep slope and begins to calm my nerves about the upcoming night ride.
By the time I meet my posse at 8:30, it’s dark. Really dark. The calendar says it’s a full moon, but the weeks of fog have all but swallowed la luna, leaving the city looking like a cheesy Sears portrait with a soft focus and a cloudy border. We roll to the trailhead at Mount Sutro, and begin making our way up the steep incline.
With the moon obscured, the only light is coming from our headlamps. It’s just enough to see my front wheel spinning in the dirt, my gloved fingers softly pressed against the brake, and three feet of rocky trail in front of me. I try to focus on the skinny trail instead of the owl hooting above me and the unknown sound coming from behind the giant eucalyptus—is it human, animal? There’s no way to know. If I turn my head, I’m likely to ride off the trail…into a den filled with rabid raccoons.
I can’t see my fellow riders, though on the intestine-like trail I catch glimpses of their own lights darting frantically back and forth as we wind their way up and down the mountain. Unsure of which way to turn, I call to the leader – “Coo-coo, coo-coo.” He answers back with a faint “kaw-kaw, kaw-kaw.”
I follow his bird call to the top of the mountain, where my gang of four is already laying back on the trail, looking up at the sinewy legs of Sutro Tower, and smoking handrolled cigarettes. We are only four miles from our house, but if it weren’t for the familiar structure above us, I’d swear we were miles from the city.
We’re preparing to race back down what we just climbed up. It’s steep and narrow and the blackberry bushes are overgrown; their thorns had left thin, bloody lines on my legs as I charged up the mountain, and there’s no question it’ll be worse on the way down. But even with my bleeding calves and burning lungs, I’m pumped for the dark, narrow, technical ride. I adjust my new light so it points down, and prepare to descend into the darkness.
If you want to be a night rider, get your gear at a local bike shop. Sports Basement carries the Light and Motion Stella light series, and Mojo and Freewheel can order you other lights. Remember, you need one that is at least 120 lumens, but the more the better. The San Francisco Mountain Biking site is a great resource for maps of the city’s trails. To ride the mountain, follow Clarendon Avenue to the Mt. Sutro trailheads on either side and look for the single-track. Happy riding!