Sunday, September 19, 2010

Night lights

On the last Saturday night of the summer of 2010, I rode through the wilds of the New Jersey Pine Barrens with an Ancien.

I met Len on my first brevet. At that point, I only had the slightest idea what it meant to be a randonneur, and had never heard the term Ancien. Since that day, I've learned a little more. 

After reading the recent post on the ride with a midnight start, Len offered to show me a range of lights that might better suit night riding. Of course I would. We met at the Shop and Go parking lot at sunset. The moon had risen hours ago. On the drive to the ride it appeared as a translucent blue apparition waxing well past half but not yet full. Now, with the sun receded, it solidified in bright relief. 

Len arrived first. Although we'd met once before, I realized I had never seen him off of his bike. Physically, he is lean, spare, efficient; in conversation, he is comfortable, generous, ebullient. We dressed the bikes with lights and ourselves in reflective gear and headed into the darkness of a quiet tree lined road through a wildlife management area.

He first showed me a light mounted low on his front forks. It cast a truncated cone of candle yellow light on the surface of the road ahead. The light pattern was engineered to light the road evenly without hitting the eyes of oncoming drivers. Using a hub generator makes the rider the power source, so it can work all night - as long as you keep moving. When you stop, for traffic, rest or a flat tire, the light goes out. Its replaceable bulb last for about one hundred hours. A spare can be kept tucked in the folds of an extra tube. I learned that once it was the traditional light for randonneuring, until the recent development of longer lasting LED and HID bulbs.

Following that soft glow, Len shared the story of his journey to the start of the 745 mile ride from Paris to Brest to Paris. The details are his story to tell; but it began with centuries then double centuries and then that search that leads to randonneuring. I laughed, recognizing that beginning like the first time you meet a friend.

The next set of lights was battery powered LED lights made by Ixon. One mounted low, opposite the first, and the other on the handlebar. On its own, the low mounted light projected a blue white asymmetrical pattern similar in shape to the first lamp. But in brightness and sharpness, the light of the LED was like a Kindle while the incandescent was like a leather bound novel. When the second Ixon was turned on, there was no comparison. 

With the road now well lit, he shared amusing accounts of his first year of brevets, as he went ever further, 300k, 400k and finally managing 600k only to be greeted by smiling brevet organizer who congratulated him on becoming a "Super Randonneur" and qualifying to ride twice that distance in France in a brevet from Paris to Brest and back to Paris, the PBP, that is only run once every four years. Those who complete the PBP are known as Ancien or Anciennes, and their names are recorded for posterity.

The final light was a generator powered LED. Powered by the act of riding it also stores enough charge to run briefly when forward motion stopped. It was the brightest yet, lighting  up the road and the adjacent trees.  He had saved the best for last.

The 2007 PBP had a drop out rate of about 50%. And this was among riders that had qualified to ride it. It was marked by unprecedented rain and cold. Based on everything I had heard or read, it must have been a real sufferfest. Len completed that ride and on the road through the Pine Barrens shared that story as well.

At the end of the ride, Len offered me a light to use on the upcoming 400k. Of course I would. I thanked him for his time and generosity.  Its amazing how a shared light can  transform the darkness.

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