Having spent a lot of 2015 focussed on running, I thought it might be nice to do my first bike-based event in 2016 — I enjoy being out on my bikes and have often wondered how far I could go in a single outing. My Strava profile says, “Made for distance, not for speed” and this applies equally to running as cycling (and probably swimming, too). I’ve no real desire to go as fast as I can on a bike, so races held no appeal. Part of the beauty of cycling, for me, is taking in the surroundings.

Ride The Night ticked lots of boxes for me: a chance to see our fair city by night in relative safety while covering a greater distance than I ever had covered before. A bonus of it being overnight was that I’d not be giving up a significant portion of a weekend with the kids as I had with last year’s marathon and associated training. Count me in!

Last night was the night and after a night out in the City with K, I pedalled down to Albert Park for the start. There were a few spots of rain on the short ride in but as I entered Albert Park there was an almighty flash of lightning and then the heavens opened. I met with one of my colleagues in the pouring rain and waited while he grabbed his rider’s pack. I was soaked though to the skin and the thunder and lightning showed no sign of abating. I began to think of going home. My colleagues had decided that the rain was too much for them (and I couldn’t blame them) and I began too look to the skies and hope that the organisers were looking at the lightning with a view to calling the whole thing off.

As I wandered around the start area trying not to feel cold, I bumped into one of my friends from parkrun: she was there with her husband and said that another couple of parkrun friends were nearby. Hardy folk, these parkrunners! I got chatting and before I knew it the public address started booming and we were ready to mount our trusty and well-illuminated steeds for the start of Ride the Night 2016.

We set off, slowly, around Albert Park. I’ve never been surrounded by so many cyclists and I found it a little unnerving: one misjudged overtaking manoeuvre and there’d be a nasty domino effect and a whole heap of mangled bodies, wheels and fluorescent clothing. It was good to be rolling, though. The rain didn’t seem so bad now that I wasn’t standing in it and the arrays of lights trailing around Melbourne’s iconic lake was a sight to behold. I also took note of the grandstands that are already erected ahead of next month’s Formula 1 Grand Prix. More on that later.

It was great fun cycling with a couple of friends in the dark around Albert Park, down to Luna Park and up to Port Melbourne to our first rest stop. Cycling along the beach at night felt particularly peaceful. I thought I’d like to do that again. We stopped at the first rest stop before heading to the turnaround point near The Spirit of Tasmania’s terminal and then we hit a snag: we got directed back to Albert Park Lake. We thought it seemed a little strange but kept on pedalling along with a group of our peers. At the entrance to Albert Park, the error was addressed and we all headed back up to South Melbourne where we rejoined the flow heading towards The Arts Centre. On this section, there was a major intersection involving very wet tram tracks and a couple of riders came a cropper. Some other cyclists stopped to help, so I kept moving but I lost my friends in the mêlée and so took it really slowly for the next few kilometres in the hope that they’d catch up.

The next section of the ride was up past Flinders Street Station, through the City to Royal Parade. This section was treacherous, the tram tracks were bad enough but taxi doors being flung open in front of large numbers of very visible cyclists reinforced in me why I prefer riding on Melbourne’s beautiful trails over its city streets. The cycle lanes are too narrow in Melbourne at the best of times and with hundreds of riders, they felt positively claustrophobic. I was taking it slowly hoping to regain contact with my friends anyway, and so I didn’t feel too vulnerable but still I heard many cyclists complaining of close calls and that out me a little on-edge.

At the zoo, we joined the Capital City Trail, a path with which I am very familiar and, having realised that my friends were not going to catch me, I decided it was time to speed up a little and find myself some clear track. I enjoyed being off the roads and when I arrived at the second rest stop I decided I’d keep rolling and carry on enjoying the trail. However soon we were on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy and I found myself between tram lines. They were still very wet and very slippery and I was hyper-cautious as I headed downhill. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to exit that particular section and head out past the MCG and the slippery boardwalks to Yarra Boulevard.

Yarra Boulevard was closed to traffic, which made it feel particularly eerie. There was very little noise and all I could see were front and rear bicycle lights. I was a little concerned about not spotting tacks in the darkness I only had two spare tubes and two CO2 canisters with me. Would that be enough? Thankfully, I made it the The Kevin Bartlett Reserve unscathed and I took my second break of the night. It was very muddy at the rest stop, so I didn’t walk too far in my clippy (drippy?) shoes and I was soon on my way again. The darkness probably meant that I missed my fellow parkrunners heading towards me on their way down the Boulevard.

I was very much into the swing of things by now and enjoying the solitude that the night ride was providing me.

As we headed back through the city, along La Trobe Street, I noticed blisters forming on my hands. I was getting on for the longest distance I’d ever cycled and in far wetter conditions than I’d completed my other long rides. I felt thankful for my padded cycling gloves and resolved to keep pedalling. I had no idea what time of the morning it was by this time but I was starting to feel a little weary. As I reached the rest stop at Docklands I decided to power through and head to the finish.

The last segment from Docklands back through Port Melbourne and back to Albert Park Lake was very, very quiet. I seemed to have lost the crowds (so much so that along Lorimer St I began to wonder whether I’d inadvertently left the course), which caused me to pedal a little harder to find some form of civilisation. There’s not much happening at The Docks at that point on a Sunday morning!

I crossed the finish line at Albert Park at exactly 04:00, which I thought was a pretty reasonable time. My Garmin said I’d completed 65km at this stage and I thought if I took the long way back home I could probably make it up to triple digits for the first time.

I didn’t stop long at the finish area; just long enough to have a muesli bar that had been handed to me as I crossed the line. I headed back to the beach and back up along the coast. It really is so tranquil in the dark: I would definitely like to do that section again and again. I hoped to meet my friends on the way back to wish them well for the rest of their ride but it wasn’t until Docklands that I saw them and they were deep in conversation as I passed them.

Various marshals gave me strange looks as I headed against the flow back through Docklands and onto the Capital City Trail. I thanked them all for being out there and providing us with a great ride.

At one point, near Flemington Bridge, the Capital City Trail was completely underwater from the night’s torrential downpours. I had to leave the trail for a little while and cross a road or two. The USB-powered headlight on my bike was not as bright as it had been at the beginning of the night so I switched it to a flashing mode to try to conserve enough energy to get me home.

I followed the CCT back past where we’d been earlier in the night. The marshals had all finished and left. I passed the bicycle counter in Carlton which suggested 1,620 people had been through since midnight. I suspect this means that about 1,400 people bailed in the rain.

At Clifton Hill I tried to join the Merri Creek Trail back to Coburg but, again, the rain had taken its toll and there was no way though. Back up the hill I climbed and crossed St George’s Rd to try to rejoin a little further North. I encountered more flooding and a snake, so I decided to stick to the road for the rest of the journey.

As I neared my home, my Garmin reported I’d clocked up 95km. Tantalisingly close! I decided to pick up the Upfield Bike Path for a couple of blocks and head back along Coburg parkrun’s course to make up the last 5km, which proved to be an interesting ride. I met a couple of early morning runners along the way and the footbridge at De Chene Reserve was almost impassable due to flood waters. My shoes are still drying out.

It was a great ride, I am glad I did it. I learned a lot about cycling and about myself and I’d maybe do the event again. I’ll almost certainly not enter a competitive gran fondo but would like to take on a few long distance rides either solo or with friends for fun. Exercise-wise, riding 100km was a lot less effort than running a marathon and while it gave me a sense of achievement, it was nowhere near comparable to running.

And that beat the snake as my biggest surprise of the night.