Mountain bikers can be categorized into two groups, says Justin Steiner: those who don't bike at night and those who do.
In other words, the ones who love it and the ones who really love it. Steiner, Jared Musser and Jon Ritchie really love it.
Winter nighttime mountain biking sounds as thrilling as it is, and requires just as much of participants. Reliable gear, layered clothing, a head lamp, stamina and a place to ride are just the prerequisites.
When Musser and Ritchie pull into the empty parking lot at Frick Park's Nature Reserve Center, it's 6:40 p.m. The thermometer reads 20 degrees, but it can't possibly be that warm. Ritchie's dog, Jackson, a sleek brown pit bull mix, pops out of the truck and pads around under the yellow street lights while Musser, 26, and Ritchie, 24, gear up.
Gearing up is easy in the summer. Throw on a T-shirt, a pair of shimmies (padded shorts) and shoes and hit the trail. Winter riding, day or night, takes a bit more preparation and a bit more money.
"It's definitely an investment," said Musser. "You need a lot more than just a light to ride. There's a whole slew of cold weather clothing."
Steiner is dressed in shimmies, wool knee warmers, windproof tights, shell pants, wool socks, "fancy boots" with heated insoles, wool base layer, wool jersey, fleece vest, gloves and a shell jacket. He fills the two water bottles attached to his bike with hot tap water so they don't freeze as quickly.
"The key is layers," said Ritchie. "You get hot, you can unzip your jacket. It is hard to dress for it. You don't want to be warm when you start out. You want to be chilly."
On this night, Steiner is late to arrive and the cold is beginning to settle in on his friends. Ritchie and Musser flip on the lights attached to their helmets and start walking down Nature Reserve Trail, assuming Steiner will know where to find them.
No one's sure, but they think they began night riding together in 2002, when Musser bought his first headlight. It wasn't anything fancy, nothing like the $600 lights on the market.
They usually ride in Frick Park because it's near their homes (Ritchie and Musser live in Greenfield, Steiner in Lawrenceville), and they know the trails well, a key requirement when biking past sunset. A combination of necessity and envy blinded them to what some non-mountain bikers might consider common sense. Common sense, of course, is completely irrelevant when you really love to do something.
"If you like to ride, you have to ride at night," said Ritchie. "It's dark when you get off work, so you just have to do it."
"Most everyone knew someone who had a light and knew a group of people who were riding and wanted to be on [a] bike, too," Steiner explained.
Steiner, 25, the self-described "subscription guy" at Dirt Rag magazine, a locally produced publication for mountain biking enthusiasts, is compact, well-spoken and sports a stellar beard. Musser, a civil engineer, is taller, with a darker complexion. Ritchie, also a civil engineer, is blond with blue eyes.
Steiner arrives shortly after the others have reached what they call the "Three Log" or "Ridge" trail, an off-shoot of the much wider Nature Reserve trail. It is the first time in a few weeks they've been able to bike there. The weather was warm, making the trails too muddy. The friends practice "sustainable" biking -- they won't ride if it tears up the trails, so they've waited until everything is frozen solid.
Not far into "Three Log" trail they come upon three well-decomposed logs stacked together like large match sticks. A long step is all it takes to clear them. A bit past the logs is a more formidable obstacle: a fallen tree. It rests about 2 feet off the ground. Someone nailed two thin, yellow wooden step ladders to it, one ascending and one descending. The ladders can't be more than 15 inches wide. The rungs are flat. It looks thin and rickety. The ascending ladder is slightly askew and tilts to the right. Beyond the fallen tree, the trail leads steeply down, making a sharp left turn before wrapping back up to the main Nature Reserve Trail.
The mountain bikers begin their craft. It is immediately obvious they are very good because they make it look very easy. Jackson bounds along behind them, mouth agape, and slithers awkwardly under a low hanging portion of the tree. They make a few loops before Steiner stops at the roots of the upturned tree that pokes out onto the trail a few yards above the apparently not-so-rickety ladder.
"Do you guys think this is rideable?" he asks.
A voice from the dark shouts back.
"I dunno. Try it."
This seems contrary to the "ride only what you know" rule, but the group has a pretty impressive track record. When pressed for tales of wrecks and carnage there's a brief silence before Musser offers: "Two weeks ago Jon tore out his shifting mechanism completely."
Ritchie elaborates: "A branch I didn't see got stuck into the rear spokes and ripped the whole [derailleur] apart."
And once Ritchie's light went out so he had to hoof it.
Really? That's it? No wrecks, wipeouts, slides down unforeseen cliffs?
"It's harder to anticipate things at night but you're innately a little more cautious," said Musser. "You don't go as fast and rides take a little longer."
"The worst thing at night is you're focused on the trail, so hanging branches ... you don't see them until it's way too late," Steiner said. "But if you're out there at night, you're definitely more cautious because you don't want to fall and lay there and freeze to death."
Since the fallen tree is only about 100 yards from the parking lot and several able-bodied people are around, death isn't very likely this night. So on his next go around, Steiner hops onto the tree. He balances delicately. Margin for error is maybe an inch on either side, more than that and the trunk's curve will slip him off. He slowly, haltingly rides down to the ladder and realizes he's come too far -- there's no jump-off point. Before the bike can crash, Steiner jumps off, lands solidly next to the descending ladder and pulls his bike down next to him.
Blink and you'd have missed the whole thing.
Undeterred, Steiner tries again. This time he finds a tiny nub of a branch to use as a jumping off point before the ladders. He lands and pedals on.
"[Biking at night] is more challenging because you can only see what's lit up in front of you," said Steiner. "You know the trails well enough and have a general idea of what's happening. But if you're going along and there's a new log down in front of you, then sometimes it's good because you ... don't have time to freak out or panic. You just have faith in yourself and do it."
Eventually, the friends stop jabbering and begin their ride in earnest. After all, they came to do what they really love to do.
Kathleen McCaffrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published March 2, 2008 5:00 AM