Back in Black
A recent wild idea has sparked an old fear, something I gave up long ago due to the diagnosis of losing my vision.
Like giving up my driver’s licence, night riding came shortly after. The joy of whizzing down forested single track, chasing my mates through the darkness of the night, had to go. It was becoming dangerous: my eyes struggled to send information to my brain fast enough for my brain to process what I was doing.
Not wanting to stop night riding led to many an incident where I would over run a corner and end up colliding with a tree!
It became ridiculous, the danger far outweighing the joy of the riding in darkness. I really took a hit off the bike too. I knew something wasn’t right when I started tripping up kerbs and walking into lampposts (I kid you not). Retinitis Pigmentosa has slowly stolen my night vision, a thief at work in the dark, but it’s not stopping there. Its boldness has it stealing around the fringes in the daylight too. Described once as death by a thousand cuts, I will go completely blind, it’s just a matter of time. Time runs fast, like in the old days of those single track descents.
“I knew something wasn’t right when I started tripping up kerbs and walking into lampposts”
For some reason, I’ve never wanted to be remembered for one thing, never wanted to be a big fish in a small pond. I’d rather try and fail than sit about dreaming how good it would be to have amazing adventures. It becomes much easier to live like this, when you know there is a stopwatch running on your sight. It makes you focus (hah!) on what really matters to you and what you want to achieve in your life.
I’ve always wanted to do something in the polar region, the environment is one that fascinates me. Such a beautiful landscape, but becoming crazily harsh in the flick of a switch. A serious playground, with serious consequences. So I’d like to get involved...
So let me introduce Rovaniemi 150, a 150km fat bike race in Finland, inside the Arctic Circle, in February! This, I thought, was a fantastic idea. I could test myself in that environment, have a little ride to see how I would manage. Simples. The race organisers welcome disabled racers, giving 5 free places a year.
However, although things were falling into place to make this adventure happen, a couple of things really weren’t. Caught up in the excitement, I’d overlooked a couple of key areas. The first, the event is in February and I will be racing the Track (Velodrome) World Championships in March. This is okay, but means my training will focus on riding for 4 minutes at the very top end of my physical capabilities. Not ideal training for a winter race lasting up to 30 hours.
Secondly, the race is in February. February Steve! Winter… Darkness… A lot of darkness. Meaning I’m going to have to spend most of the race in the dark. Not ideal for someone who seriously struggles seeing anything in the dark when the sight robbers are at work.
However, the biggest thing I overlooked in all the excitement was the race is over the weekend of my wife’s birthday! Lucky for me, Caroline is amazing and completely understands my need to have type 2 fun. Caroline is not shy of an adventure, but this one is not for her, she politely pointed out.
This has forced me to confront a fear: the darkness. In particular, riding in the dark. I like putting myself out there, testing myself, learning about myself in new situations. But this is different, I know what this situation was like and I know it is a massive frustrating struggle. But with my latest adventurous plan, this is a struggle I clearly have to embrace for any chance of success.
I thought about what caused the fear I have of riding in the dark, and it wasn’t the riding. In fact, I remember loving the riding. The fear came from not being able to see. Riding my bike, then the light dying, causing my world to go black in an instant while moving. It’s kind of like when you’re walking off a mountain after winter climbing, in a white out, on a bearing. You can’t see where you are going, which way is up or down. You know there are obstacles in your path, but you have no idea where they are. You’re blind.
I believe fears can be broken down. No matter how deep they bury themselves in your mind, they can be overcome. So I thought a lot about the fear I have, what causes it, and I narrowed it down to two things. The first, lights. If I can guarantee that my light won’t die, that’s a demon I don’t have to fight or think about.
The second, the trails I ride. If I stick to terrain that I can manage, and ride at a speed that allows my eyes to relay the limited information to my excited brain, then, in theory, I shouldn’t have anything to fear. I let go of my single track romance years ago. My way was to bin off the muddy trails for the road, I even turned it into my job. However, the fat bike craze changed this: these bikes looked so much fun I couldn’t resist trying out mountain biking again. I found the 5” tyres the perfect weapon to counter my lack of visual field, I could ride over anything on these monsters. I expected single track to be out, but discovered adventurous riding and bike packing would be my new passion. As long as the trails don’t get too spicy, and I don’t get carried away with myself, I’ll never be the fastest or the best mountain biker, but I can be the one having the most fun. I’m not sure how much longer my sight will remain good enough to ride a solo bike, so I’m making the most of it.
I’m riding with a Son 28 dynamo hub, built into Love Mud Hullabulloo carbon rims by Sonder Guru Neil which powers an Exposure Revo handle bar light. I have my old trusty Exposure Diablo on my helmet, which was a fantastic purchase 8 years ago. I no longer have a fear of the lights going out. No fear of biting off more than I can chew in terms of the trails, I’m old enough not to care if I have to get off and walk a section of trail, because I’m too scared to ride it.
I’m completely loving night riding again on my Vir Fortis. I still have to focus really hard, and it is still really stressful, but I can manage. And managing is far better than not because of being scared. I find enjoyment in-between the stressful moments and find exhilaration being out on cold clear evenings. I can’t see the stars, but I know they are above me. I’ve enlisted my best mate Ibrahim Park to be my guide for this race - we’ve had many a winter climbing epic, and he’s someone I can trust if it goes horribly wrong. So, if you are a winter climber hoping for great conditions this season, I’m sorry. I’ve started buying some winter kit for this race, which is sure to jinx the winter for everyone! I can only apologise for my selfish behaviour. Happy riding.