Urban Cyclists Take Back the Night
February 13, 2012
By Cory Bennett
Richard Brause stopped his small group of cyclists. “OK, folks, we’re going to dip down real quick,” he said, his salt-and-pepper bearded face stuffed under a yellow helmet. “It’s going to be dark for a little. A bit scary, but that’s the fun.”
One by one, the squad of cyclists eased down the slope onto a bumpy, unpaved path through the miniature ravine, covered by a bridge. For a few moments, it was pitch black, save a few weak, shaky lights clipped to the bikes. The dark, shallow water moved slowly next to the cautious riders.
It was just past 11 p.m. on a Saturday night in January in New York City’s Central Park, a time when most seasoned New Yorkers avoid the park. But on this night, Brause was leading the monthly Riverside Ride, a nighttime bike ride organized through Time’s Up, a community biking organization. The ride noodles its way from the bottom to the top of Central Park before shooting back down along the west bank of Manhattan — Riverside Drive.
Brause brought the group to a halt next to four men in heavy coats huddled around a 2-foot-long telescope mounted on a tripod. “I was hoping you’d be here,” Brause said to the stargazers. He chatted with the men as the riders took turns peeking into the telescope.
Richard Brause rides his bike through Central Park at midnight
Richard Brause leads the Riverside Ride through New York’s City’s Central Park. (Photo by Cory Bennett/CNS)
For Gwen Nickolaychuk it was pure magic. An environmental project manager from Canada who is working in New York City for a few months, she had never been on a nighttime bike ride before. “It’s so peaceful,” she added. “We were in the middle of a crazy city, but it was so quiet and it was like we had the park all to ourselves with how many million people around us.”
Nickolaychuk is like many cyclists in recent years who have discovered the pleasures of exploring the urban landscape after dark. In addition to having areas to themselves that are normally claimed by cars or pedestrians during the day, night cyclists also get the chance to tour new neighborhoods, stumble on unique slices of late-night city culture, and enjoy the visual spectacle of hundreds of bike lights illuminated against the night sky.
Night rides are not new. Several big cities are known for their annual rides. Boston has the 24-year-old, midnight-to-dawn Back Bay Pedalers. Chicago has the 25-mile, L.A.T.E. Ride each July that attracts 9,000 cyclists. And Portland has an annual glow-stick, costumed night ride with fire jugglers, a disco party and doughnut feast. But regular urban night rides have grown steadily in popularity in recent years, creating a subculture of bikers who take to the streets after the sun goes down.
Midnight Ridazz, a night bike riding group founded in 2004, is largely credited with the uptick in late-night biking in car-heavy Los Angeles. It draws as many as a few thousand riders for Crank Mob, its big annual ride usually held in May. But the organization now has rides practically every night of the week. Most attract between a handful and a few dozen riders. All have a jovial, laid-back approach. The group’s website allows anyone to post a ride they’d like to lead and there is usually an opportunity to grab a beer afterward.
Riding through the Los Angeles nightscape brings its own unique rewards. On a recent ride, roughly a dozen cyclists tentatively pedaled their way through the pitch black tunnels that crisscross underneath the city’s streets. Head lights showed the way through the darkened drainage channels. John, a cyclist and skateboarder who goes by the name Roadblock and is one of the founders of Midnight Ridazz, counted tunnels to the left and right, double-checking an old city map he had printed off the Internet to determine the group’s location. It was approaching midnight.
They explore some weird things, he said of the ride, laughing. When you are in the tunnels, he added, “you have no idea where you’re at because you can’t take a GPS so you’re kind of relying on these old city maps and counting the tunnels and then figuring out which way to turn.”
For others, night riding is about making themselves the spectacle. John Silva began posting a night ride in 2007 in the Southbay area, which runs along the coast southwest of Los Angeles. Each month he arranged a new costume theme — comic book characters, animals, etc. — and a barbecue to finish off the night. His monthly ride soon attracted more than 50 cyclists.
“What’s not to like about barbecuing in a park among the oak trees?” he said.
The Southbay Cruisers, as the group has become known, have since moved from costumes to occasionally lighting up their bikes. Silva and several other riders attach a battery-powered neon light, the Down Low Glow, to the bottom of their frames. Others simply wrap Christmas lights around the frame.
Neon lights have become an increasing draw for night bikers around the country. The makers of the Down Low Glow have enough demand that they are developing a newer version of their light. Two industrial design students at Carnegie Mellon are also developing LED neon lights that fit around the rim of a bicycle’s tires.
But the beauty of seeing only flashing red lights against a dark canvas is enough for Brause, the ride leader in New York City. For a decade, he rode sweep, bringing up the rear, on the Central Park Moonlight Ride, another Time’s Up ride that exclusively explores a darkened Central Park. It’s the most popular of Time Up’s three monthly nighttime rides. The other explores Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Over two decades, the Central Park ride has grown to a few hundred riders during the summer.
“Watching the string of blinkies in front of you is like watching this wonderful kinetic sculpture,” he said. “There’s an aesthetic to it that’s really a pleasure.”