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 riding.
"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.