Every time I ride my bike off-road at night, I get the strangest feeling. Travelling along in a little circle of light that stretches a few metres in front, there's a sense of passing silently and unseen, like a ghost, through something huge.
The mile through the woods on my longer route home is not one of the busiest sections of the National Cycle Network. I've never seen anyone else there after about 7pm. But that doesn't fully account for the complete isolation of that short black stretch of path.
Here in the still dark, quiet seems quieter, fast faster, and strangeness stranger. There are one-tonne concrete blocks on the wider sections, dropped there to stop cars attempting to find a way through, and on top of one is what looks like a dead bird, red-brown and skeletal, perhaps left by a farmer with a shotgun. Maybe a decomposing signal to crows that might venture into those fields. In the mornings I never gave it a second thought, but one night I had to slow down for a closer look. It wasn't a bird after all, but the sheared-off front of a frame and forks, slowly rusting away. Score one for the birds. The ride felt a little uneasier after that.
In the dark the bike, hundreds of components flying in close formation (its tyres, for now, unpunctured by blackthorn twigs) becomes a creature and lines of American poet Robert Frost always come to mind.
A puncture or some other problem would mean a very long walk (assuming I still could walk) and a very long wait for a taxi driver who might not agree to ferry me home. Even if the iron horse keeps cantering smoothly along, I've still a little way to go before I cross into the county where my children are asleep. I won't be home for a while.
But there is a pleasure here that I'll remember all the coming week, simply toiling away through the forest in my little cocoon of light.
As Frost wrote:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.