By Claire Walla
Just about this time of year, when it gets to be 5 p.m. and utter darkness has settled into place, most of us begin to fantasize about the post-work transition through the cold, night air and into the warm confines of our home. There, central heating and fleece blankets will provide added insulation as we spend the remainder of the evening in a relatively motionless state of rest and relaxation.
So it pretty much defied the norm on Monday, December 13 when I found myself at 5 p.m. driving through the inky black shadows along Route 114 in the opposite direction of my house with a mountain bike in my backseat, and my internal GPS set for the Northwest Path in East Hampton, where I was to meet Sinead Fitzgibbons for an evening ride through the woods.
Crazy? Perhaps. But not entirely abnormal. Fitzgibbons, along with a handful of other cycle enthusiasts, invade these wooded hills every Wednesday evening, zipping along the dusty paths, rolling effortlessly over piles of stray leaves and the jagged tree roots which protrude like varicose veins along these tree-lined trails.
Fitzgibbons said she took up cycling when she moved to the East End 12 years ago. Back then, these evening rides pulled a regular crowd of late-night, bike-loving locals. The tradition was started by Sherry Hymes and her partner Mary Scheerer when they opened BikeHampton on Main Street in Sag Harbor about 13 years ago. The rides had a hefty following for a solid eight years before ultimately tapering off when Hymes and Scheerer sold the store five years ago.
Since then, late-night bikers were pretty much left, well, in the dark … until now. Through an organization Fitzgibbons founded called Spokespeople, which encourages biking on the East End, she is trying to bring the night life back to biking.
By 5 p.m. it was already so dark I nearly missed the turnoff (a makeshift parking lot between Swamp Road and Stephen Hands Path). And it was so cold I came fully prepared to brace the elements, burrowed beneath two cotton t-shirts, a Patagonia pullover, a thick cotton hoodie and a black puffy jacket, which I wore in addition to a pair of running pants, denim jeans, a hat, mittens and two pairs of thick ski socks. If I was going to try to navigate the perilous trails of the East Hampton outback, I didn’t want to have to fend off frostbite in the process. (Fact: I was sweating like a pig by the time our ride was over.)
If it isn’t already clear, I was a mountain-biking novice. At this point, the bulk of my cycling experience had been limited to the $90 “commuter bike” (read: functional scrap metal) I bought last year from a Craigslist ad in Brooklyn, and I had only been accustomed to using this two-wheel clunker for cruising around the paved roads and sidewalks that connected my house to main commercial drags. Fortunately for me, Dave and the guys at Bike Hampton were able to lend me a road bike which they outfitted with monstrous mountain-bike tires, suitable for the kind of journey I was told to expect from Sinead.
After parking, I grabbed my custom hybrid and circled the parking lot to get my bearings while Fitzgibbons — dressed more appropriately in a sleek, black biking ensemble and wearing a pair of nifty bike shoes which clipped nicely into the pedals of her new $2,200 two-wheeler — assembled her Specialized “Stump Jumper” for our hour-long ride. After a couple loops around the lot, I figured I was as ready as I’d ever be.
“Go ahead and lead the way,” Fitzgibbons said.
I wasn’t so sure she understood the scope of my biking abilities.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she answered without missing a beat, and off we went.
I turned the front wheel of my bike toward the trailhead as the harsh, white orb of the LED clip-on strapped to the front of my bike illuminated everything within a 10-foot radius of my front wheel. All I could see was a swatch of path and the washed-out brown, gold and violet hues that surrounded it. With nothing else to orient myself, I pedaled on with no choice, really, but to have faith in my ability to navigate whatever lie ahead.
Fitzgibbons traces her predisposition for nighttime activity all the way back to her childhood.
“I’ve never been afraid of movement and exploring my own physical self and what I’m able to do through sport,” she said.
Having grown up in Ireland, where she said it’s often dark and cold, Fitzgibbons adds that she learned to make the most out of dark and dreary circumstances.
When you forget the idea that unfavorable conditions limit what you’re actually capable of, she continued, “all of a sudden the night becomes available.”
This idea was evident after my tires’ first few revolutions on the trail. The fact that it was dark and cold quickly faded as all my concentration narrowed in on the road. Intuitively, I shifted my weight to hug the turns and I listened to Fitzgibbons as she coached me through the terrain.
“Shift your weight forward, but not so much that your back wheel spins out,” she said as I proceeded to down-shift for an easier incline, and “keep your feet at 3 and 9 o’clock and lift your butt slightly back behind the seat of the bike” she reminded me when I started my descent back down.
I could feel the power of the bike’s 29-inch wheels, which were nearly impervious to the freckled ground beneath the tread. I had grown so accustomed to overlooking the imperfections of my “commuter bike” — which screamed in agony every time I encounter so much as a pebble — that this machine, by comparison, seemed to steamroll right through everything in its path: pebbles, roots, branches, pot-holes. It was empowering to pass so effortlessly through this muddled terrain with a somewhat blind confidence in where I was going.
“It’s nice to narrow your world down to a little illumination,” Fitzgibbons later said, adding that the small dose of reality made possible by LED also heightens the senses, making bikers more aware of sounds and smells they might otherwise overlook during the day.
“When your world is much smaller, you also feel more a part of your bike,” Fitzgibbons added.
In the end, we logged a total of about seven miles on a lollipop loop that brought us across Two Holes of Water and out to Bull Path and back. In the grand scheme of things, it was a quick tour. And yet, I still came to understand why people actually choose to ride their bikes in the dark, in the middle of winter.
“If you look at a rock as you’re going around a corner, unintentionally you’re going to hit it,” Fitzgibbons said during the ride. “But if you look beyond it, if you look at where you want to be, you’ll get to where you want to go more easily.”
She thought about this for a second, then added, “It’s a good metaphor for life, really.”