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On Biking: Bring a light to ride at night

Posted by Your Town  November 2, 2012 09:16 AM

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The first time was a couple of years ago. My wife and I had been riding our bikes on a Sunday afternoon. It was getting late and the sun was starting to set. But I knew those suburban roads like I knew the back of my hand, and I figured we had plenty of time to get to our car before dark.

By the time we got to our car it had been dark for about 15 minutes. My wife was annoyed, and for good reason: Even with my bright green jersey we were all but invisible to motorists. And the potholes and debris on the road were all but invisible to us.

After that ride (which I later named the “I-almost-made-our-son-into-an-orphan ride”) I vowed never to be out on my bike after dark without a set of lights.

I kept my promise, until about two weeks ago. My end-of-the-day meeting went on longer than I had expected. Not a lot longer, but enough that, in the middle of October, I was going to have to hustle to make it home before dark.

I’m not the kind of person who likes to take chances. Me, a daredevil? In a word, no. I’m more of a belt and suspenders kind of guy. So what was I thinking when I started to ride home 20 minutes before sunset?

Photographers call this time of day the golden hour, when the evening light turns yellow and magical. At this hour it’s hard to take a bad picture. But at this hour it’s also hard to be seen by motorists. Even motorists who want to share the road with cyclists.

I made it home just as the sun set. Alive but out of breath. I hadn’t run any red lights or broken any rules. I’d just sprinted hard. Though with a little more planning (and an extra set of lights in my backpack), I could have skipped this white knuckle of a ride.

Which brings me to the last time. The day after Hurricane Sandy I had to drop my bike off at my LBS (local bike shop) for a tune-up. I was feeling lazy. I could have put a set of lights onto my bike (they were there, in my basement, waiting to be powered up), but that would have meant first putting them on and then taking them off once I got to my LBS.

Too much bother, I thought. Besides, it’s only a short ride. Six long blocks at the most. Piece of cake.

So I took my chances. I pedaled to my LBS and got there just before they closed at 6. Sure, I wore my bright yellow raincoat. But without a light I had no way of seeing the potholes and the leaves that were waiting to take me down. And motorists had difficulty seeing me, especially at intersections.

Since I’m writing this story, you know how it ends: I got to my LBS in one piece. But why did I, a risk averse kind of guy, take such chances?

The usual reasons, I suppose: It was only a short ride (true). It was not that dark (it was). I know these roads like the back of my hand (maybe, but these roads, post Sandy, were slippery and strewn with debris). And finally, the odds of anything bad happening to me were low (okay, but one bad crash can ruin your day).

I could come up with more rationalizations, but I won’t. What I will do is make a promise: I will never ride in low light or darkness without a set of lights. Ever. Why? One simple reason: I’d rather be safe and seen than sorry and not. That way, my son won’t be an orphan, and I’ll get to enjoy many golden hours, on and off of my bike.

Jonathan Simmons is a psychologist and an avid cyclist. His book “Here For The Ride” will be published later this year.

Readers: The Daylight Savings switch is coming up Sunday. What that means is that if you want to ride your bike (before or after work) you’ll need to get a set of lights. A good set of lights costs less than a month of Charlie cards. A great set (the kind that could light up a runway at Logan) costs about the same as a winter’s worth of Charlie cards.

So what are you waiting for? Make your last ride without lights your last ride ever without lights. That way I can see you, you can see me, and we can both see the road up ahead.

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