by Our Bicycle Lives
Have you noticed? More often than not these days, it’s night-time. As I’m writing this in the depths of winter, when nights are at their longest, I lament the fact that compared to, say, Barcelona, we’re missing one hour of daylight per day, and regaining a paltry two minutes. I can’t say I look forward to this time of year but I do enjoy the long nights once they finally come. It’s all about the bike.
With the post-rush hour darkness come silence, space, slow time, solitude and peacefulness, all highly valued commodities in a capital city. Finally here’s the chance to reclaim London, every inch of which is so coveted in the daytime. Going for a ride on Christmas Day feels equally liberating: so, my city belongs to me too, after all. At night, I treasure that breathing space so badly lacking during the day, and not only because of the fumes! Like the Michael Fassbender character going for a run in Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011), the camera tracking him in a fantastically beautiful scene, I have my own space, I own it.
The city, too, comes into its own at night, its street lamps and neon lights gleaming as far as the eye can see. Nightfall when you’re indoors brings with it a sadness, a sense of irreparable loss, as the light fades and the day comes to a close. Not so on a bike: dusk is not melancholic but uplifting, with the twilight in the wide expanse of sky up above slowly superseded by the stars and the city lights, as time gently passes. Some nights, I’ll bask in the sharp brightness of the moon, my guide on the way home, enough to rival, even in winter, my ideal cycling environment: a mild summer night when heat and traffic have both subsided. Seasons come and go unnoticed when we’re in front of a computer but cycling at night renews a connection with our environment which has so often withered after years of urban living.
From a non-cyclist’s perspective, especially one’s nearest and dearest, riding a bike at night is frightening, worrying and, well, dark. Will the cars see you? Will you not get mugged? Etc. The question of safety is in fact less relevant on a bicycle than on foot, thanks to the relative protection afforded by speed and provided you’re sticking to main roads. About ten times a month, winter and summer alike, I cycle home later than 10pm, but judging by the scant two-wheel presence at this time, not many of us are night owl cyclists. Maybe we’re too busy commuting, or else we equate darkness and danger. Whether you already love the night or shy away from it, you’ll discover a whole new side of it on a bike. Find out.
The ever insightful Invisible Visible Man describes a city ‘devoid of its usual sounds as to seem like an entirely different place. (…) a world with its mute button on.’ And its pause button too. If the past is a foreign country, so is the night when you’re out-of-doors, a world that day timers can’t even imagine. It wants a blogger, or a filmmaker, to tell its story. Think Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), whose protagonist works night shifts and lands on another planet. It’s something else. Night-time is when traffic lights are green from Waterloo Road all the way to Brixton (24 January 2013, 10.30pm), a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence unless you live in the Netherlands. Night-time is the time for miracles, for strange encounters, for strokes of good luck, for ghosts, for reverie, for foxes. For magic. Everything is more mysterious, and that includes potholes! As the city sleeps, we’re on our own, like the survivors of an extinct species, the last people on Earth, and I feel linked to the few human beings I see by an unspoken fraternity.
I normally associate night-time cycling with the end of the day, with a weariness, a pleasant tiredness that will soon end in the comfort of my home. Being up in the small hours before daybreak, when party-goers meet early risers, is an altogether different sensation and one that I’ve seldom experienced. Then there is that in-between time, the dead of night, when I’m in pitch-black country. It’s the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and I’m taking part in Midsummer Madness, cycling over the Thames and through Soho up to Regent’s Park for sunrise. Meeting place: London Bridge; meeting time: 2.30am. Riding to the starting point with a friend is exhilarating: the streets are deserted, bereft of a single car, so we’re able to ride and have a conversation. Quite an achievement! I witness the dawn and the birth of summer from the top of Primrose Hill. Birds are chirping, the sky brightens, the sun rises in the east, the city awakes and I am already up. The night is over, it is time for me to go to sleep.