Pete Zimowsky: Prepare for cycling in the dark as days get shorter

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comOctober 16, 2013 

This is the season when darkness creeps up and takes you by surprise if you’re a commuter bicyclist.

Been there. Done that.

Suddenly, you find yourself needing your bike lights after staying at work a little longer than expected and discovering it’s dark outside.

“With the recent rash of cycling/car incidents, plus kids riding their bikes to school in the dark in the mornings, I think it would be beneficial for the community to get a refresh on cycling rules and best practices,” said Paul Goldy, who commutes on his bicycle daily from Meridian to Downtown Boise.

I enjoy riding at night, and it can almost be relaxing if you’re prepared and keep a sharp eye out for traffic, other cyclists or walkers, and obey the rules.

Here are some tips:

Lights are a must. Depending on your speed, it could take up to 35 feet to stop your bike. Have a bright headlight so you can see that far or farther out in front of you.

There are some strobe headlamps that let cyclists be seen from even farther.

Some bicyclists also wear a helmet headlamp in addition to the handlebar-mounted light.

That allows for the biker to see in other directions besides just where the bicycle is heading, with just the turn of the head.

Your rear light is even more important and should be very bright and intense. Don’t get a wimpy one.

It’s best to ride with traffic, and a rear light will catch the attention of motorists. Blinking ones are even better. Again, think bright and intense.

Even with lights, don’t assume that motorists are aware you are coming. Ride defensively.

Lights are important even if you don’t ride on streets.

Greenbelt commuter traffic gets heavy in mornings and evenings, and lights can prevent collisions with other cyclists or pedestrians.

The Greenbelt is closed after dark, but you may be riding in low-light conditions early and late.

Check your batteries before you need them. If you haven’t used your lights since last winter, they may be dead. Also, carry spares.

Reflectors. Some bicyclists probably think reflectors are nerdy, but they let you be seen.

Check your front, rear and side reflectors and make sure they haven’t fallen or broken off. Some reflectors that come with bikes aren’t adequate for night riding. You might upgrade to larger ones.

You can also use reflective tape on your bike. I even have some on the back of my helmet.

Wear bright clothing. There are great cycling jackets available in bright, reflective colors.

If you like your regular jacket and it’s not too colorful, think about getting a reflective vest.

It’s getting cold at night, and to be comfortable, wear well-insulated clothing that’s light without being bulky.

Layer with a base, insulation and a weatherproof shell. The less bulky, the more comfortable it is to ride.

Wear breathable fabrics to avoid condensation inside your clothes.

Glasses. Night riding can be tricky with glare and lights. You might think about getting a pair of cycling glasses with interchangeable lenses for night and day.

Stay focused. Night riding is a whole different ball game. Have your wits about you, and don’t daydream.

Keep a lookout for other headlights coming, and watch the shadows for runners, or cyclists coming in from cross streets or paths.

A helmet light, in addition to your handlebar light, comes in handy because you can point it in any direction and signal a motorist your position.

Colder weather also means slick roads and pathways.

Watch for ice or wet leaves and debris in roadways.

Sometimes the sprinklers run on the Greenbelt in the mornings and leave the pathway slick.

Slow down and ride in control.

Plan your night route. Try to ride on streets with bike routes and in areas with less traffic at night.

“Avoid roads where the speed limit is over 40 mph,” Goldy said.

He recommends going to the Ada County Highway District website and downloading a Bikeway Facilities Map (

It’s best for young school kids to ride on sidewalks on the way to school.

But even though they are on a sidewalk, they should have lights and reflective clothing to be seen by motorists and other cyclists.

Obey traffic laws. Ride in the direction of traffic. Stop at stoplights and stop signs. Yield the right of way.

Don’t assume motorists see you, or will give you the right of way.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

Statesman outdoor writers Pete Zimowsky and Roger Phillips alternate columns on Thursday. Look for Roger next week.

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