In Praise of Winter Nights
Imagine, for a moment, conditions for the ideal ride. Maybe you’re picturing a summer Sunday, the sun gently softening the Buttertubs and a beer garden waiting for you in Hawes, bikes leaned on the fence and the crunch of ice between your teeth.
Wonderful as that may sound, it's easy to develop such a fixed ideal that you shy away from conditions that in some way fall 'short.' Only a quarter of the calendar year is summer, two-sevenths of the week is weekend, half the clock is daytime and half the weather is above average. Allow yourself to compound those factors and you’re left with less than 2% of the time. If you want to eat the whole banquet, what about the other 98%?
Of course, plenty of riders get out regularly on winter weekends, often motivated more by preserving fitness than for the pleasure of it.
I went for a ride last night. It wasn’t long - not even worth getting the measuring tape out for. But, twenty-four hours later, I’m still buzzing from it. And that’s because a winter’s night has an appeal all of its own for me. It’s some combination of the quietness, the cool, the adventure, and the ‘snatched’ quality of a work night that lifts these nocturnal outings above the ordinary.
The Lakes aren’t far from my home - the National Park boundary is barely half an hour away. That puts the southeastern corner into play for midweek excursions after work. So it was that I stashed the car at Sadgill, Longsleddale at six o’clock. The last flicker of the day’s light was picking out the snowclad buttresses of Goat Scar and Buckbarrow Crag as I put the wheels on the bike. Within minutes I was down to moonlight and whatever battery-power I wanted to expend. I decided to save the lights for the descent.
By most folk’s reckoning, conditions were poor. I set off up the Gatesgarth Pass byway into a stiff northerly. The mercury was around zero but the windchill-adjustment must have taken it below minus ten. Periodically, there were flurries of snow. The snow on the ground was too soft for traction on the steeper sections, requiring a fair amount of pushing. But I was having a brilliant time.
Above the waterfalls, the snow was about 4” deep. Lurking under this smooth, virgin layer, were several 3½” diameter rocks. I could tell that the descent would be a lot of fun.
So it proved. After a brief pause at the Mardale watershed, I turned around and threw the bike down the zigzags, the back wheel swinging in a gentle sinusoid around the path of the front. There was only one off, which amounted to nothing as the softness of the snow kept all bones intact. All too soon, my parked car appeared in the lamplight and the fun was at an end. But, as you can tell, it wasn’t really. These night-rides have a tendency to stay with you.
PS. It's patronisingly obvious (but I'd be remiss not to mention it) that winter night riding carries whole realms of risk. Ride within your limits and use your sense.