Roundtable: Night Starts

Roundtable: Night Starts

19 March, 2024

It's hard to deny the spectacle of night starts and the drama of riders heading into the unknown of the night. However, with concerns about riders' safety on the roads and the effect of a first sleepless night on a longer race, we put it to those with varying perspectives from bikepacking as to whether night starts have a place in our sport or not.

Starting a race at dusk or during the night is a technique used by organisers for myriad reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited to, safety concerns and creating an additional way to challenge riders and force new tactics. However, it's been discussed that riding without sleep through the first night can lead to higher levels of accumulated fatigue later in the race and poor decision making, thus inflicting an unnecessary risk on riders.

Our panellists for this roundtable include two race directors of events which have used night starts: Angela Walker is the co-founder and director of Northern England's premier free-route race All Points North, and she has lined up at the Transcontinental and Trans Pyrenees Race. Andrew Phillips is race director and co-ordinator at Lost Dot. Alongside his organising responsibilities, he's a competitive racer and has won Two Volcano Sprint whilst also never finishing outside the top ten at the Transcontinental, Race Through Poland and the Trans Balkan Race.

Allan Shaw is a veteran of some of the hardest off-road races on the calendar including the Atlas Mountain Race, Tour Divide and the Silk Road Mountain Race, twice over. His second ride at SRMR in 2023 was famously on a cargo bike. Off the bike, he's known for founding Gays Okay Cycling, a cycling clothing brand that intends to change bad attitudes and celebrate diversity.

Robbie Britton is an ultra endurance coach and athlete, his bikepacking palmares includes a win at in Slovenia and top ten finishes at both Two Volcano Sprint and Three Peaks Bike Race. His running experience is mighty: he’s the current British 24hr record holder and finisher of various ultra trail running events around the world.

1. Night starts can be introduced to a race for a variety of reasons. Are there any circumstances in which you believe that night starts might be beneficial or even necessary in a race?

Angela Walker, All Points North Race Director and racer: Our 72-hour event starts at 8pm. We chose this start time because our start location is in the heart of Sheffield and the roads are quieter after rush hour. As our registration opens at midday, it also gives riders the opportunity to travel to the start on the day of the event rather than having to travel up the day before, thereby cutting down the amount of time a rider has to take off work in order to take part. On APN, It is entirely up to the riders themselves whether or not they ride through the first night or opt to get a few hours rest.

Allan Shaw, SRMR and AMR veteran and founder of Gays OK Cycling Club: From a race organizer's point of view there can be lots of advantages to a night start. If your startline is in a built up area you can get your racers out of the urban sprawl when traffic is lighter and as a big group. You also give everyone the chance to cover a big distance out into the wilderness over those first, crucial, 24+ hours of the race.

Robbie Britton, ultra-endurance athlete and coach: The main reasons I can see night starts as beneficial are the relatively lower traffic levels at night time, especially for a start in a city or town and potential ease with council approvals for starting a bigger event inside city limits etc. This might also lower any required police staffing needed for a start to be allowed as well.

In terms of adventure I do feel that riding in the night is a wonderful part of bike-packing that differentiates it from simply touring with your bicycle and I always encourage people to enjoy a certain amount during a race, whether it be late at night or during the early hours of the morning.

Andrew Phillips, Lost Dot Director, and racer: We take part in events like these to challenge ourselves, if the only metric of a successful day was to minimise risk, we wouldn’t get on our bikes at all.

Anyone who has ridden up the Muur at the start of the Transcontinental Race, as spectators’ shout your name, and their torches light the cobbles can think of at least a few reasons. A race is about the experience, and starting at night is a unique one.

Night starts can also be used to leave heavily built-up areas at night, when traffic is much lighter.

RTPL3 Adrian Crapciu

Race Through Poland 3 in 2021. Photo credit: Adrian Crapciu

2. In your opinion, does starting a race at night post additional risks to riders' safety? And what are the best ways to mitigate those risks?

Angela: In European races, unless you're riding in mid-summer at northern latitudes, at some point you're going to have to ride in the dark. APN takes part at the end of May so from around 9pm onwards and until around 5am, riders are going to be riding in the dark at some point. Even if a rider chooses to stop for a rest overnight, some element of the event will be ridden in the dark and riders need to be prepared for that.

The origins of most ultradistance cycling events have their roots in Audaxing. In Audax it's generally accepted that you'll need to ride through the night to finish the distance in time and although now we probably have some newer ultra riders who have never done an Audax event, a lot of ultra riders either come from an Audax background or discover Audax events as a way of training for ultras. We advise anyone who's never ridden through the night to enter a 300km or 400km audax as a good starting point to kick off their training.

To make sure that all of our riders are visible, as part of the riders' entry fee we provide a high-vis harness in neon yellow with a reflective strip and expect everyone to be wearing it when they set off. We also expect all riders to have at least two sets of working front and rear lights - one set on the bike and one in reserve.

Allan: I don’t necessarily think there is an additional risk to night starts. In those first kilometers you are at your most fresh and alert compared to future nights. Pretty much all ultra-endurance races involve a certain amount of riding at night, and every racer should be prepared for that. All racers have to work within their own comfortable boundaries of risk, and night riding, whether it be the first night or any other night, has to be part of that risk calculation for everyone.

Robbie: We know that cycling in a sleep deprived state is more dangerous for the rider than cycling in a fresh, well slept state. But that isn’t what is being discussed here. Slower reaction times, poorer decision making, higher levels of risk taking are all elements that come into play when a rider is sleep deprived.

What a night start does is take away the decision on levels of sleep deprivation from the rider and essentially force everyone to ride in a sleep deprived state compared to a morning start.

That’s not to say a large number of riders won’t ride straight though a first night if you start at 9am, of course they will, but that will be their choice to make. Even then, taking a 90 minute or three hour sleep after 18 hours of riding is a much easier decision than, for example, after three hours of riding.

Cut-offs and a desire to get good distance under your wheels before muscular fatigue and lower energy availability come into play means a midnight start will see nearly every single rider go straight through the night without a sleep and sleep deprivation, although not entirely unlinked to time riding/energy levels, will mainly be impacted by nights of sleep missed.

A night start means that every single rider is at higher risk of the dangers of riding whilst sleep deprived from the start of the race. Even if they start to take more significant sleeps from the second night they will not recover normal levels of sleep until post race at this point.

With the races introducing night curfews and limits to time on the bike without sleep etc. but still having night time starts, it feels like the measures being taken to avoid riders spending too many sleepy hours on the bike are not as well thought out as at first glance. Maybe they are being decided by sleep deprived race directors?

Lastly, is it really safer for us to be riding our bikes at an event with a nighttime start with lower traffic levels? states: “The hours from 6 PM to 9 PM account for more cycling fatalities than any other times of the day. Also, 45 % of all fatalities take place in dark conditions.” Whilst some races will be starting after this 9pm watershed, the night as a whole sees more fatalities in cyclists and whilst this is often blamed on cyclists not being as visible, tiredness and increased alcohol in drivers after dark (or even early hours of the morning) can certainly be a factor.

Andrew: I think this depends very much on the race. For shorter events where riders might try and ride all the way through the race without sleep, there would likely be increased risk as they will begin with a sleep deficit. For longer events where riders are likely to sleep almost every night, the effect will be much less. You could even argue that for the many riders who will ride through the first night anyway, the risk could be reduced as they will have spent the day in the lead up to the start resting.

For example, most people starting TCRNo9 at 2200, were probably asleep by 2200 the following night. Had they started 12 hours earlier there’s a good chance they would have slept at the same time on the second night, but after 36 hours of riding rather than 24.

Riding through the night is a learned skill, and learning how to manage yourself in tough conditions is part of racing. Mitigation is about education, understanding, and experience.

Safety, of course, is not just down to the individual rider. Drivers failing to see the cyclist is the number one cause of cyclist deaths. After Frank Simons’ tragic death on TCRNo5, race start was moved to a Sunday night, to try and minimise the risk of drunk drivers on the roads.

Adrian Crapciu RTPL3

The mass start of Race Through Poland 3 in 2021 at 10am. Photo credit: Adrian Crapciu

3. Many of those who race in events with night starts skip the first night's sleep for varying reasons. Do you support this tactic? And, what effect do you believe this has on the earlier and later stages of the race?

Angela: Personally, I'd say that tiredness is more of a hazard than riding at night, and tiredness can strike at any time of the day or night when you're covering long distances, irrespective of whether you've started at 8pm, 10pm or 6am. Riding into the dark on the first night isn't the problem, it's choosing not to stop on the second night as well where things can start to go awry. We've seen this scenario play out on quite a few occasions over five years of running APN.

I think that riding overnight on the first night is ok, especially if you've had the opportunity to get some rest during the day before your night start, but you will probably need to factor in some sleep the following night otherwise you could be heading for trouble. For longer ultras that take a week or more to complete, although one sleepless night at the start will be fine, riding successive nights without sleep isn't going to do you any favours in the long run.

At 1,000km, APN is a relatively short event so there's a temptation for some to see if they can ride it all without stopping for sleep. This is why last year we introduced a three-hour mandatory rest period in order to ensure that riders cannot now ride overnight two nights in a row.

For many people who enter Ultras, the element of rider autonomy is one of the most attractive aspects. Riders like to make their own decisions on when and where they eat and sleep, rest or push on. For this reason we struggled a lot with the decision to bring in the 3-hour sleep rule as we really do feel that in an ideal world riders should be able to make those decisions for themselves, but in the end, after a few too many close shaves with incidents relating to tiredness after over 48 hours of non-stop riding, we felt we had no choice.

Allan: The short answer is, I do support this tactic. As I said before, I think night riding is a fundamental part of endurance racing, and it is very common that the pointy end of the race will all skip the first nights sleep whether the race starts at night or in the morning, so it can keep the beginning part of the race more competitive and keep the front group closer together to have more/most racers push through that first night. Additionally, depending on how much rest you take on night 2, I think it can help you find your rhythm a bit faster.

Robbie: So although I believe that night starts and riding through the night is more dangerous, I 100% support the rider’s choice to make this decision. I’m not anti-night riding (who would want to upset David Hasselhoff like that?), but feel it should be a tactical decision made by the rider, from a position of knowledge and experience.

I think we should be encouraging riders to learn about the dangers and costs of riding when sleep deprived, helping them manage the impact through education around the subject, rather than putting rules in an event that force a certain decision on a rider.

Depending on several factors, such as race length (in time), food availability, environment, race position, lodgings etc. I think the decision on whether to ride through an entire night is a key tactical decision for a competitive rider to make and they should be made aware of the additional risks they put themselves in when doing so.

Andrew: It’s something that I have done plenty of times, but that doesn’t mean I would recommend it. It’s something you have to learn and decide to do yourself, but it can be hard to get back in contention if you want to be at the front of a race and you lose several hours on the first night.

I think that this is partly due to the psychological boost that comes with finding yourself towards the front of the pack after the first day’s riding. However, if you push too hard, you risk creating a vicious cycle whereby your physical fatigue makes you need sleep more.

It is also true though that too little sleep will slow you down, so finding the balance is pretty personal. Personally, I know roughly how my body-clock runs, and I sleep in 45/90/180 minute cycles. This means that when I wake up, I’m not in deep sleep, and feel much better as a result.

Transpyrenees Biteofme DSC 7706

Transpyrenees 2023 after a 18:00 start. Photo credit: Małgorzata Michalik

4. For any rider looking to undertake their first race with a night start, what considerations would you urge them to make? And, what advice would you give to those riders?

Angela: Practise, practise, practise! Night riding is a skill. Don't wait for the event itself to roll around, you need to know how you feel when you ride at night and the only way to do that is to go out and ride in the dark. Maybe enter a 400km audax where riding through the night is essential as there'll be other people to ride with if you're lacking in confidence. Even if you don't intend to ride through the night, all ultracycling racers need to be prepared for some elements of night riding. An early, pre-dawn start is always advantageous in order to cover the distances required, especially during the summer months when the heat of the midday sun can make riding more challenging. Riders also need to be prepared for the unexpected because even the best-laid plans can go awry. Accommodation may not be available where you'd planned to stop or an unforeseen situation such as a mechanical may have taken longer to resolve than expected, and you may find yourself needing to press on into the night.

Allan: So much advice! As someone who isn’t a huge fan of night-riding but who will make it happen, here's mine:

  • Bring good lights and consider how you plan on keeping them powered.
  • If you plan to take 2-4 hours of rest a night, consider whether you think you are more of a riding-into-the-night or riding-out-of-the-night-type. For example, I worked out pretty early that I don’t like riding super late into the night, but I like the feeling of getting a sneaky head start. So I would prefer to take my rest by 10pm and be back on my bike before 2am, rather than riding till 3am and starting at 6am. It’s all psychological, but can make a real difference on how tired you feel.
  • Think about your fuel, a full pack of pringles and a few cans of coke powered me through the longest and sleepiest hours of night riding in Atlas Mountain Race.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of a good express-nap. I used to scoff at racers proclaiming to have survived on 10-15 naps most of the race, how could you possibly feel rested after so little rest? But after so much time fighting the sleep off, taking a short moment to embrace it and let the sleepiness envelope you completely can have a really noticeable after effect.

Robbie: If your race does have a night start here are my top bits of advice to help limit the impact it can have on you as a rider and the considerations that need to be taken into account.

  1. Try to bank sleep in the days leading up to the start. Increase the amount of rest before you race to make sure you roll off the start line as fresh as you can. This can also include trying to get an afternoon nap on race day or even putting a 90 min full sleep cycle before the race starts, then going through your morning routine to trick the brain into thinking you have just got up super early, rather than setting off super late.

  2. Adjust your effort and respect your carbs. Adenosine build up in the brain is what makes us feel sleepy and the only way to dissipate the levels is to get some shut-eye. Caffeine might fuzzy the receptors for a while, but it won’t reduce levels.

Adenosine builds up at higher rates when metabolic demand outweighs supply. Simply, if you’re burning more energy than you have coming in. So when it comes to night riding I often advise riders to lower the effort a wee bit and make sure you keep the energy trickling in

  1. Don’t be afraid to take a micro nap or scheduled sleep on the first night. It might not be a full 90 minute sleep cycle or good quality three hour kip, but even 20-40 minutes (under 45 minutes to avoid going into REM sleep and then having to complete a full 90 minute cycle) will help balance sleep deprivation levels and mean you’re stronger and making better decisions on the first full day of the race.

It depends on how long you will be riding as well, as a 48 hour sprint race should be treated differently to a 10+ day epic and you need to consider how your decisions on the first night might impact your ability to cover distance a week later as well.

If you are at all worried about night starts or night time riding then get your practice in. One of the beauties of ultra-distance bike-packing over ultra-distance running is you can get away with an overnight adventure without your legs being battered for ages afterwards. You just have to catch up on your sleep a wee bit.

Andrew: Finding somewhere to rest during the day before is important, so that you can be as fresh as possible when you cross the startline. Practising riding at night is also really useful, it will help take away the fear factor and help you understand how to manage your fatigue.

Riding straight through a night for the first time can be pretty daunting.

If you’re not sure where to begin, I’d recommend starting with a short sleep in the middle of the night. This will not only help you stay sharp, but it also mentally breaks up the night into two chunks — something that our brains are really accustomed to.

Once you’ve mastered this, you can then try riding through a night with the knowledge that if tiredness hits, you can always stop for a short sleep to make sure you’re alert and safe on the bike.

Don’t spend too much time practising this in the weeks before a race though, as that fatigue will build and you might find it hard to catch up before race day!


Race Through Poland 2022. Photo credit: Mateusz Birecki

We hope this feature serves as food for thought for all racers, from those choosing their first bikepacking race to the veteran bikepackers lining up at an event with a night start for the first time and those with bucket loads of experience to interrogate their own opinions a little more.

Thank you to our panel for contributing their thoughts on this important, and often overlooked, topic.

Whilst you're here, why not check out Apidura's packable visibility vest which is a cycling specific vest certified to EN 17353, a requirement often found at long distance races.