Cycling on the edge of the day

In which Andy plays tag with a barn owl

I nearly didn’t go for a ride on Sunday. We’d been out for the day and by the time we got back, on a chilly March afternoon, there wasn’t much daylight left. After I’d gone out into the side alley, found the flat back tyre (d’oh!) and fixed it, I had barely an hour until sunset. But I wrapped up warm, stuck a light on the bike and went anyway.

I’m a great believer in twilight cycle rides. There’s often something magical about the light as dusk approaches. Even a turbulent, shower-spattered spring day will often settle into an eerie calm in its final hour or two. Pedal your way to the top of a hill at that time and you can watch a wide-screen, Cinemascope crack of bright sky open along the horizon, the dark grey clouds pulling back far enough for the sun to make a defiant last-minute appearance, spreading violent orange light across the landscape.

At this time of year my regular cycling companions and I look fondly towards those midsummer evenings when the Wednesday night ride not only starts off in sunshine but segues into a seemingly-endless dusk as we chase home across the downs to finish in the garden of a local pub. But even in the depths of winter, there’s something magical about the edge of the day.

Of course the same is true of early morning… or so I’m told. One day I hope to see what an early morning looks like.

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Morning mist over the River Wye, on a Wye Valley Beano. Photo courtesy of Mark Gallagher.

Okay, I exaggerate. I’ve had some wonderful dawn rides – not least one with friends cycling in Brittany last September, where we left our hotel in the pre-dawn gloom to ride on empty roads through sleeping villages. By the time we reached the harbour in Brest the sun was shining, the water was glittering in the bay, the city was slowly coming to life and we had time to sit outside a quayside café while we waited for the first ferry of the day to arrive. But I do struggle with early starts, as any Beanoer who’s tried to get intelligent – or even intelligible – conversation out of me before breakfast will confirm. (Some would claim that they can wait all day for me to provide intelligent conversation, but we’ll pass over that.)

Anyway, back to the Sunday in question. Dusk was starting to close in as I turned onto the long flat road along the valley (locals will know which road this is – we only have one long flat road in mid-Hampshire). Immediately a barn owl appeared, flying parallel to me above the field to my left. After a few seconds it pulled ahead of me slightly. I accelerated to move up level with it. It flapped its wings and shifted slightly ahead. After a minute or so of this game, it flipped lazily sideways through a gap in the hedgerow, ending up directly in front of me, as if it were daring me to try and catch it. After a few seconds of this it swerved back alongside and continued to pace me until it reached the end of the field.

Later on in the ride, as the road took me through the woods and the last of the daylight disappeared, a roe deer stumbled out of the trees into the beam of my light. It turned and scampered up the lane a few yards before dashing into the woods on the other side. Seconds later another one did the same, while a third (obviously the smart one) clattered through the trees alongside, staying away from the road. Yes it was cold by then; yes, it was dark. But I wouldn’t have missed that ride for the world.

I sometimes think we should run an “Evening Beano” – a week where we stay in a nice big house, lounge around all day then head out for a ride in mid-afternoon, returning shortly after dark for a late supper. Or maybe a “Dawn and Dusk” Beano – get up before dawn, go for a morning ride, back for a slap-up brunch then take it easy until another ride in the evening. Just remember the golden rule, though: don’t ask me any difficult questions before the first coffee.

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