Words and pictures by Chipps.
Gliding through the still-dark streets, the silence is absolute. The normal traffic roar has muted to a lone distant diesel taxi engine. The birds are silent. The streets are empty. There aren’t even any bedroom lights on at this time of morning. Half five is too late for the partiers, too early for the commuters, the buses and even the ‘ride the long way to work’ folk. And yet, there are bikes out. The few I see are mostly night shift workers on their way home; their trademark reflective jackets, low cadence and rigger boots giving them away, but there are other riders out there. These riders move with the efficiency and fluidity of practised motion. They’re not going from A to B; they’re taking in half of the alphabet, at speed, before returning just as the early risers are rising.
What do you do when you want to ride but there aren’t enough hours in the day? You borrow some from the night. Many of us head out in the winter weeknights to get the miles in, or to keep the fitness ticking over, or just to keep the engine from seizing completely, but this isn’t always practical for people with the demands of families, jobs and travel. Of course, there’s cycle commuting; using those ‘free’ miles between home and work to extend the riding day.
Then there are the riders who need more. How do you fit 20 hours of riding in a week when you have a full-time job, a family or other demands on your time? You start early. Very early. You start early enough that you’re still charging your lights in the spring long after your friends have put them away for the year until the 12- and 24-hour races begin. You become meticulous in your pre-ride planning; neat piles of clothes and shoes ready to go by the door; lights constantly on charge and bottles filled the night before; coffee machine ready-primed.
Few people like getting up that early, so you need to make it as painless an ordeal as possible. Rise, pad around the house getting your gear on, a quick shot of caffeine to lift the mental fog and out the door. Once you’re out though, that fog lifts instantly in the pre-dawn air as you ride silently through equally silent streets towards the trails. Still too early for dog walkers and even track-suited joggers, the trails are empty and yours. Dew has come down in the night, slicking roots that are fine to ride in the evening, but which bring instant wakeup calls at this early hour, blowing away the remaining cobwebs.
Going into extra time
Scottish road racing legend Robert Millar famously used to train on Christmas Day. Not for any particular fitness benefit, but because he knew that his rivals all took that one day a year off from training. Therefore, he was always going to be one day better than them when they met at the first race of the year. So it is with some of the endurance racers out getting the serious miles in in the pre-dawn murk.
There is usually only one six o’clock in my world; the one about tea time. Yet recently I’ve been seeing two a day as I followed some of these characters on their morning rituals. These aren’t riders who get up an hour early every now and again when the weather looks like it might be nice. They ride every chance they get. 24-hour and snow racer John ‘Shaggy’ Ross told me he managed to make the most of the nice bit of March (aka ‘the new British summer’) to get eight rides in four days; riding every morning before work, then riding into work, riding home again and riding in the evening. An extra 16 hours of early season miles that I certainly didn’t get.
Shaggy can be across Bristol in half an hour and out on the Ashton Court trails before the joggers and commuters. By the time he’s done a couple of loops, he can then continue his commute into work, getting there with everyone else. Or, he could get up later and simply ride to work on the road in about seven miles, but why do that when you can get in two hours of mountain biking before sitting down at your desk?
Jason ‘Terrahawk’ Miles (what is it with enduro riders and nicknames?) has the excuse of a young family to get him out of the door. With evenings taken up with family stuff, the morning is the only time he gets to ride any distance and, as he puts it “The miles won’t ride themselves and for me, there’s definitely still a need to get the miles in. Why commute for 14 miles when you can think creatively, get out of bed earlier and ride for two hours extra on more interesting terrain than the main road into Manchester city centre?”
Extra… Not happy with the pretty decent 14 miles of riding the ‘short’ way to work, he needs to ride more. When he’s not climbing Rooley Moor Road, leaving the lights of Rochdale below and behind him, then he’s doing 60-mile road loops before breakfast… His training partner Phil had to leave to head home that morning at 7am because he needed to be back to do the school run. In a world of absolute time barriers like this, you learn to lean on the softer margins; on things like lying in bed, in order to get the miles ridden.
Terrahawk is channelling Millar when he tells me, without any excuse, “…dragging yourself out of bed at 5am on a dark, wet and cold winter’s morning is not much fun, but satisfaction comes from the knowledge that not many of your future race rivals will be doing the same. Oh, and there’s also the added bonus of appreciating the springtime when it finally arrives.”
Every 24-hour racer knows that the dawn lap is the best one to get. The imperceptible lightening of the sky as it takes forever to fully dawn and the feeling that you’ll make it through to the end now that the sky is light again. These guys and girls trade warm beds for that experience on a weekly basis. Those glorious brightening skies I only see if I have a plane to catch? That’s their weekly wallpaper.
Having ridden with these guys either side of the clocks going back, I can confirm that getting up in the daylight is psychologically far easier to do than rising in the dark, even if it’s still before 6am. Spring and summer means less reliance on lights, drier trails and that glorious low light so beloved of photographers. With the sun already high in the sky by midsummer, you get the mountain bike equivalent of leaving fresh tracks in the snow; your tyre tracks left for puzzled ‘early morning’ riders who wonder how come there’s always someone else on the trails before them when they roll along at 8am.
The sun doesn’t make getting up that much easier, but the irony about the middle of the night times we were surfacing at, is that it’s simply so early that it’s more akin to that ‘getting up to go to the airport time’ rather than being close to anybody’s normal rising time. This seems to bypass the ‘ooh it’s early’ reflex I have and go straight into the ‘something important must be happening, I must get up’. This comes with its own unique set of anxiety dreams where I imagined that we’d already been riding, or another where I dreamed that it was midday already and we’d missed not only the ride, but half of the working day. It made the lightening sky more welcome when the alarm finally went.
The summer means different things to riders in the desert states of the USA. With daytime summer temperatures in the 40s Centigrade, riding at midday or in the afternoons is virtually impossible unless you want to fry. With rarely any cloud cover, the heat is sucked from the ground overnight and summer riding means an early start to take advantage of the relatively cool temperatures. Riders in Phoenix or Moab often meet at 5am in order to get their day’s ride in before the furnace temperatures arrive at sunrise. Within an hour or two of sunrise, it’s simply too hot to ride.
Dawn riding in Arizona isn’t anything special; it’s just what you need to do if you want to keep riding there. A little like if you live in the UK, you need to make peace with riding in the wet. There can be a 20° shift between the night and day temperatures, with that cusp being very fine. Once the sun comes up (or goes down) you need to hightail it out of there, or find some dramatically different clothing to wear before you boil or freeze.
Back in the chilly dawn of a British spring, there still isn’t a house light on when we get to the woods. Normally you’d expect to see at least one dog walker at any time of day, but this hour is the no man’s land between night people and morning types. Terrahawk is keen to stress that he doesn’t mind night riding per se, but for him it brings more problems than morning riding. Night riding leaves you fired up after a good few hours of zipping through the trees, but that’s probably the last thing you want when you’re trying to head home to sleep. And stopping for that post-ride pint isn’t going to make you any racier… You then have to negotiate yourself and the bike into an already-dark house without winding up the dog and you probably have no choice but to put the bike away wet as nobody appreciates a midnight bike hoser.
Although the trails, woods and moors are quiet at night, there just isn’t that absolute silence of the pre-dawn. I always appreciate riding down the lanes and seeing people’s living room windows aglow with evening meal eating or TV watching. I know that I’m out there while they’re vegetating in front of the box. Riding at dawn gives you no house lights, no sign that anyone else is doing anything other than sleeping. You’re already winning on the day; you’re riding a bike in exchange for probably having to go to bed a little earlier than normal. All the trails are yours to ride; your route needn’t be hampered by crowds or traffic, or walkers or horses. Explore the neighbouring woods, or rail the same corner 27 times, no one is here to notice.
Eventually the responsibilities call and you make your way back to civilisation, passing through neighbourhoods just waking up; the milkman making deliveries; the paperboys and girls wanting a race; the queue for the first bus of the day… Even the Co-op car park is empty, with just a taxi driver waiting for it to open so he can refuel with cigarettes and Red Bull. If you’re lucky, the first baked goods of the day are just being put out.
Despite stopping for photos as the sun started to come up, after my ride with Terrahawk and Phil I got home well before I usually get up. I’d been to the tops of the hills that normally only feature on bigger summer loops, seen the sun rise, played around in a quarry and returned home with only the keenest of the commuters on the roads around me. Another side benefit (or perhaps the biggest one) is that a full breakfast, with omelette and black pudding was not only needed, but it was heartily deserved.
After a bracing shower it was back on the bike for the spin into work, where, if I’d done this more than once, I’d have had the choice of either smugly telling everyone about my huge sacrifice and eventual reward or, as the habitual dawn chorus riders do, saying nothing at all. My friends and rivals might wonder just how I got to be so fast with all those other things eating into my time… Time to award yourself a little smile, regular morning riders. I salute you.
How To Get Up Early
Do you really need to be told how to ride bikes in the morning? Get up, ride bikes, go to work (or back home) all smug. Feel smug for the rest of the day. Simple.
There are things you can do to make it easier though, such as preparing absolutely everything the night before so it’s as simple as ‘wake, dress, shoes on, ride’. If you need a coffee, then have it all ready to go. You’ll find the wind on your face will soon wake you up.
Having a riding partner to chivvy you along on cold, wet days really helps. Knowing that they’ll be circling the Co-op car park on their own until you get there should help you leave on time. Terrahawk started riding with fellow keen rider and family man Phil by saying “Let’s meet up early next week and ride up that big hill and then ride to work” and they’ve met at least once a week for the last two or three years.
At this time of the year, it probably doesn’t even matter what bike you’re riding. It’s all about getting out, riding outdoors and enjoying the cool and silence of the dawn on your own, or quietly appreciating it with friends. Oh, and don’t just set your clock ‘a little early’ as you’ll probably just snooze yourself into breakfast time. Set it for ‘OMG that’s the middle of the night!’ as that will invoke your must-get-a-plane response.