Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Top Five Hazards of the Burke Gilman Trail (Nighttime Edition)

For many cyclists, the experience of riding a bicycle in the dark is a rarity, the result of bad luck (like a bungled tire change), or poor planning. I've found myself racing the sun back to my house after a training ride on many occasions; sometimes I win, and make it before the last gasps of orange and pink leave the sky, and other times the sun goes to bed before I reach my door, leaving me in the dark for those final few miles. However, since I moved to Seattle, and more importantly, since I took my job at CycleU, I've been doing lots of night riding simply to get around. (Remember that my faithful truck, my trusty truck that I so very much adore, is (probably permanently) out of commission, so I ride a bike everywhere.) I teach evening classes that end at 8pm, and I have morning classes that require hitting the road before 6am, both of which require riding the Burke Gilman Trail in total darkness. The Burke is treacherous enough during the day, but at night, the really scary stuff comes out! So, for your reading pleasure, I've compiled the Top Five Hazards of the Burke Gilman Trail (Nighttime Edition):

1: Things That Go Bump in the Night

For those who ride the Burke regularly, you're already familiar with the nasty cracks that pepper the trail every fifteen meters or so. Some of these cracks are from tree roots lunging under the trail, some are from water damage, and other appear to be "installer error" -- glaring examples of piss-poor trail building if you ask me. When riding during the day these bumps are easily visible, and my legs tense-up moments before impact. My butt doesn't even need to lift off the saddle; what's important is that my body weight is transferred for a split-second from my oh-so-vulnerable nether region, to my strong (and shock-absorbing) legs. At night, sadly, this is not always the case. My headlight, while adequate for most major trail obstacles, is not bright enough to provide me the same sort of depth perception I enjoy during the day. On occasion, my eyes fail to assess the severity (or even presence) of an oncoming bump, and my crotch is the innocent victim. The result is highly unpleasant: remember in kung-fu movies, when Bruce Lee would throw a punch so lightning-fast that neither the camera nor the bad guy could see his fist move? Nothing....nothing....then--Ka-Pow!--and suddenly the bad guy is staggering around about to go unconscious? Well hitting a nasty unseen trail crack at full speed is just like that, except Bruce Lee's "fist" is shaped like your bicycle saddle, and the "bad guy" is the softest part of your body. Ka-Pow! Take that! Lights-out bad guy!

2: Ninjas

I'm convinced the Burke Gilman Trail is actually a secret training grounds for the League of Shadows -- what else could explain the number of ninjas creeping about in the dead of night? These ninjas are dressed from head to toe in black clothing on a trail that lacks any ambient light; they are extremely hard to spot. I've fended off attacks from these servants of evil countless times: I'm riding along at full speed on what appears to be a poorly lit, but unoccupied stretch of trail, only to have a ninja emerge from the gloom inches from my front wheel, and slash at me with his sword. I'm only alive thanks to my own cat-like reflexes, taking evasive maneuvers, swerving, barely dodging my attacker. After I regain my composure, I often look back and find that through some sort of powerful black magic, the ninja has shape-shifted into a jogger out for a late night run -- very clever ninjas, but you don't fool me. There's a part of the Burke that is covered with a canopy of trees; it is extremely dark there, and happens to be a favorite hiding spot for ninjas. Pedestrians/ninjas, if you want to use the bike path at night, I think you should have to wear a light too.


3: UFO'S

You'll know a UFO when you see one -- carrying more lights and batteries than bicycle, often wearing a full-blown reflector vest, and sometimes even sporting a small flagpole with a neon yellow flag, these interesting creatures of the Burke more closely resemble bio-luminescent jellyfish than they do cyclists. While they aren't inherently dangerous, but I've found myself mesmerized by their beautiful array of twinkling, glowing, strobing, and blinking. The best tactic is to use the "solar eclipse" approach to viewing these oddities: use only your peripheral vision when approaching a UFO -- whatever you do, don't stare directly at the light; it's.....so.....beautiful....just want to look....one...moment....more.

4: The Asteroid Field
Without a doubt, the most dangerous place and time to be on the Burke is the stretch that passes through the University of Washington, on a Friday or Saturday night. At dusk, like bats emptying their roost, college students pour onto the Burke en mass. None of them have lights, most of them are drunk, and very few of them travel in straight lines. They tend to travel in groups, and there are a lot of them. Navigating this stretch of the Burke on weekend nights is a test of the nerves as much as the reflexes -- the closest thing I can compare it to is the asteroid field chase scene in the The Empire Strikes Back ("You're not actually going into an asteroid field?" "They'd be crazy to follow us, wouldn't they?") Sometimes, the Force is with me, and I make it through unscathed. Other times:


(remember, you can't see the embedded videos in facebook -- you have to go to the blog.)


5: The Gandalfs

Gandalfs believe they are on a holy mission to bring light to the darkened parts of this world. Armed with (often two) 5,000,000 candle-power xenon headlights, Gandalfs take to the trail to rid the Burke of its demons. The path in front of a Gandalf is illuminated bright-as-day, but god have mercy on any oncoming traffic. The beam from a Gandalf's headlights can be so bright, I've taken to closing my eyes as he approaches, protecting my night vision for after they pass; sure, I'm still riding blind for a while, but after he passes (provided we don't collide) I don't see spots for nearly as long. On occasion, I'll meet a benevolent Gandalf, one who will shield his headlight with his hand as we near each other, sparing my night vision. To those benevolent Gandalfs of the world, I thank you.

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