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 vertigo.
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 West.
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, pot-holed 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 Bicycling 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 miles home?"