It is a Wednesday night and it is cold, at least for Southern
California. By all rights I should be home with my family,
sipping spirits and relaxing before a roaring fire. Maybe, if we
were feeling sentimental, we would belt out a few choruses of an
obscure Disney song or hum a few bars from Peter and the Wolf.
Not that we do that sort of thing often--but we just might.
If I were home.
If I were home instead of riding a dual-suspension
yellow-and-purple mountain bike up the snowcapped reaches of
Mount Baldy in pitch darkness. I am alone because the rest of my
riding group dropped me like a bad habit 30 seconds into our
nocturnal mission. The only light in my life right now, other
than the power of prayer, is a NightSun lamp mounted on my
handlebars. The left of its two beams is finicky and prone to
giving out, which doesn't worry me--except when the right beam
starts flickering, as it is wont to do every three minutes.
The whole of my illuminated world, therefore, is a narrow shaft
10 to 20 feet in front of me. Other than that I am enveloped in
blackness. No stars are visible overhead, no horizon to preclude
October 15, 1995
I wonder if I am being stalked. I know that the wolves that once
roamed Baldy disappeared at the turn of the century, but the
doors to the dungeon of my subconscious have been flung open by
truest night. I imagine that a pair of rogue lobos survived and
that their offspring--inbred with furious deliberation--have
carried on the species all these years. If that's not the case,
it is a fact that bears, mountain lions, coyotes and rabid
skunks still live on Baldy. I remember having read somewhere
that attacks on humans by mountain lions are on the rise in the
I turn the cranks, shivering as I climb higher and higher,
trying to understand why in the past year something as patently
insane as riding through the wilderness in total darkness has
become the biggest craze to hit mountain biking since gel
saddles. I chase the end of my lone beam and try to entertain
positive thoughts, particularly about the madman who brought me
here. Terry Martin is my friend, I tell myself over and over.
Terry Martin is my friend....
"If you get dropped, always keep turning right," Martin advised
me as 15 experienced riders and I were unloading our bikes at
the base of Baldy 20 minutes ago. We were on a lonely, potholed
access road, miles from such soothing tokens of civilization as
freeways, Taco Bells and telephones. There were no streetlights
to take the edge off the night. All around me, though, other
riders tested their headlamps, quickly clicking them on and off.
I felt surrounded by giant fireflies. "Now, there's one place
where a right turn takes you off the path," Martin continued,
"and if you follow it you'll get really lost, but you'll know it
when you see it." Then, as if admonishing children, he added,
"Don't turn there."
I listened closely. Whatever Martin had to say about making it
up and down Baldy without search-and-rescue assistance was worth
hearing. This obsessive-compulsive, wiry 48-year-old, whose
nickname is Triple Espresso, is the uncrowned king of nighttime
mountain biking. While others may take the occasional nocturnal
ride, nighttime is the only time Martin trains. At 3:30 each
morning he straps on one of his dozens of light packs and heads
out the door of his Fontana home into the darkness.
"I can't work out any other time," says Martin, who makes his
living as a promotional coordinator for PowerBar energy foods.
"My job requires that I work at least 12 hours a day, seven days
a week. If I didn't train in the dark, I'd never be able to
train at all."
To ensure that he has enough light, Martin goes so far as to
custom design light packs. "Oh yeah," he says. "I've got one
that wraps around my torso, a couple for the top of my head and
a whole bunch more for my bike. And if I'm out running instead
of riding, I carry a couple of flashlights in my hand so I can
shine them ahead, to look out for skunks." He pauses,
remembering close encounters. "Can you imagine what a bummer it
would be to get sprayed by a skunk, then still have to run five
Fortunately for me, Martin's weekly training run with other
bikers takes place just after dusk. "Come ride with me and my
friend Max," he had exhorted when I called to ask what night
riding was all about. I imagined Max to be mildly demented, like
Martin, someone with abrasions on his thighs and forearms from
pitching over handlebars into mountain scrub. His teeth would be
coated with trail grit--the mark of a dedicated mountain biker,
night or day.
"Night riding is like being in a video game and somebody's
playing you," Martin said, trying to explain the sport's
attraction. "When I get done, I'm so amped and my level of
concentration is so high that it's like, 'Hey, baby, put in
another quarter, let's go again.'" Martin is so enthusiastic
about the sport that he even finds bliss in crashing. "It's so
cool," he says. "You can't even tell you're falling, because
there's no horizon."
But Martin intends to make night riding more than a purely
sensory pursuit. In the 20 years that he has competed in
endurance sports, Triple Espresso has won age-group titles in
running, in-line skating, mountain biking, the triathlon and the
duathlon (run-bike-run). He plans to do the same with night
"Once we get past the liability issue, it will be only a matter
of time before a competitive national series is organized,"
Martin says. "We're already racing anyway. It started as a fun
form of exercise in the evening, and all the local bike shops
would have their own group ride. Well, soon people started
keeping track of their times on certain courses, and the pace of
the rides started getting faster and faster. Now a lot of pro
riders are out there doing it with us, and the speeds are
getting insane. Really, it's just a matter of time."
As night-light technology has improved (to keep pace with the
growing number of bicycle commuters and competitive age-group
cyclists who have time to train only before or after work),
organized night rides have boomed. A ride that was held last
July in conjunction with a daytime race in Mammoth Lakes,
Calif., attracted a couple hundred cyclists. The increased
wattage of today's night-lights--some put out as much as 35
watts--allows for full-tilt pedaling at midnight, even on
technical single-track routes and screaming descents.
I looked forward to asking Max about the entire phenomenon.
I should have known better. "Max," it turned out, was the light
mounted on the bike Martin loaned me. It had become clearer than
ever that Martin was insane. Any man who names his lights must be.
The unlit access road on which the group met was on the
outskirts of Claremont. With all present and accounted for, we
blasted off the pavement and up Baldy. "The first climb is
pretty long," Martin warned as we splashed through a stream. He
was but a mere shadow beside me. "It lasts about 12 minutes."
Those were the last words I would hear for an hour. I didn't
mind much when the pack dropped me. I was uncomfortable riding
in the dark, and it showed in my lack of aggressiveness. But
now, as the climb goes on, I stop worrying about carnivores and
goblins and find myself reveling in the quiet blackness. There
is a stillness to night that I have always loved, but to find it
on a city street I have to wait until the bars close and the
cars disappear. Then the silence becomes so acute that the click
of stoplights changing colors can be heard. Or the sound of a
car changing gears a mile away. Nothing feels pressing.
Reflection and hope come easily.
It becomes even quieter as I work to climb higher. All I can
hear is my labored breathing. When I notice that I've begun to
ride very fast and I start to see the beams of stragglers from
the pack ahead of me, a theory springs to mind: It's easier to
climb hard at night. During the day a four-mile ascent seems
endless. The summit is always in plain sight--tauntingly,
elusively high. At night, it's all you can do to focus on
chasing the end of your beam. Riding fast becomes an afterthought.
Usually I am shamelessly competitive, but hunting down those
stragglers holds no appeal. I let them bob ahead, specters
cutting the darkness. If I were to catch them there would be
sound in my world again, and I don't want that. The dark has
become a cocoon. I feel swaddled and content.
Moments later a full moon peeks over the mountaintop, revealing
for the first time the weave and tilt of the fire road I am
climbing. I turn Max off and let the moon show me the way.
Freelance writer Martin Dugard is working on a book about the
Raid Gauloises Adventure Race.