Dawn to Dusk to Dawn Again
This March, we followed four Rapha riders to the lunar landscape of Lanzarote as they rode from dawn to dusk to dawn again, on a long-distance journey through the senses.
It's not about the destination, it's about the journey. We’re all familiar with the saying, but it is never truer than on a long-distance ride. Covering vast distances and travelling through the night is not for everyone but for as long as there have been bicycles, there have been people prepared to push the limits of endurance.
For what lies beyond the realms of a regular ride is an altogether different kind of journey – one on which the normal rules do not apply. Where fatigue and discomfort are overcome, distance is just a number and the senses are strangely heightened. In search of this ultra-endurance state of being, four Rapha riders set out for the lava fields of Lanzarote.
Cast off to the northwest of Africa, this Spanish island is a place apart. Perfect for escaping everyday life and embracing the experience of a ride through the night. Of our quartet, author and veteran of the Transcontinental Race Emily Chappell is the most experienced endurance rider.
“During the daylight hours I'm always reading all of the landscape around me,” she says, reflecting on the start of the ride out of the southern town of Puerto del Carmen towards the angular igneous rock formations of the lava fields in the island’s interior.
But a ride takes on a different dimension as dusk descends. “With the sun setting, you get to see the best of both worlds – it’s like riding through a secret that nobody else knows,” Emily tells us. “As darkness falls however, all you’ve got is the light ahead of you and a small area of road to focus on. The rest is a mystery.”
As the world you can see shrinks, other senses take over. Sharpened by nighttime silence and honed by hindered vision, sound in particular becomes more important for many. A Rapha product engineer by day, Ruby Beardsall races cyclocross and trains on the track as well as riding longer distances. Wherever she’s riding, she always keeps an ear out for what’s around her.
“Lots of people plug into music or podcasts these days but I prefer not to. Without the distractions of the day everything is louder at night – the whirring of wheels and sound of your own breathing. I find it strangely exciting.
“You don't really know what's coming up or how your body is going to react to the road but I always find that I’m able to listen far more intently. When you’re riding at night, you’re more likely to hear a car or anything else coming long before you see it.”
Despite riding side by side as they entered Timanfaya National Park in the darkness, each rider was living a different experience. And for bike mechanic Ed Scoble, it isn’t all peace and tranquillity.
“Riding is the only thing that gives me full independence, the sort that I don't get in the real world,” he says. “But night riding is my kryptonite. As a deaf rider, I do enjoy going through the night as it forces you to simply relax and get comfortable. When there’s nothing much to see, and sounds are next to useless to me, it can be the purest form of cycling.
“I don’t enjoy lacking sight as well as sound but it does mean I’m a lot more observant of my surroundings. On Lanzarote, the landscape looks barren but it’s actually full of life. By focusing on what’s right in front of me, I’m able to notice things that other people tend not to notice.
“Smell is important too as it invokes the most distinct response in our memories. I form emotional reactions to what I see through what I smell. Every landscape has its own scent, and in this volcanic landscape it was sulphur mixed with sea air, an earthy smell of rocks and roads baked in the sun day after day.”
Dawnbreak is something many of us seldom see. But for a cyclist emerging out of the dark, it’s a beautiful sight. And for our quartet, it was a chance to take stock. As the second day of the ride began, the group’s fourth member Aaron Lee, a regular on long-distance audax rides, remembers checking his body to see just how he felt.
“There was a real mix of surfaces on the island,” he tells us. “Though we were riding silky smooth tarmac roads, either side of us were rugged rockscapes and reddy-black volcanic hillsides. It was a tough environment that took its toll.
“Salt stains on your jersey, a wind burnt face and fatigue from road vibrations through the bars into your hands and arms – all of these are indicators of just how far you’ve been. And all of them set to the constant side-to-side swaying of the bike itself - keeping time like a metronome.”
Sometimes long-distance rides are all about time – passing through checkpoints or making it to the finish in time. But at their simplest, they’re completely removed from time and its constraints. As we found out on our island apart, going long is a chance to check out of the normal and tune into something else.
And whether you’re fresh as anything or running on empty, riding in the day or navigating by night, have one heightened sense or one impaired, it’s a world you can access only through effort and endurance.