Trees overhead filter out the moon, letting dim light fall through like shards of glass or silver scraps of fabric. Tires on crushed pea gravel whisper a quiet grind as a few dozen people roll along at a relaxed fourteen miles per hour. They've all come for different pieces of the same thrill: motion through darkness, nighttime wildlife on the prowl, a path without tricycles or droves of Sunday riders.
Nocturnal bicycling is a pursuit, not a pipe dream, on the Canal Towpath in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area because "it's straight and it's open," says Derrick Kortvejesi, manager of Century Cycle in Peninsula and organizer of the biweekly Towpath Tag Ride Under the Stars. Translation: You probably won't crash into a tree, and the rangers won't chase you out.
Under cover of darkness, other trails are more treacherous: the Cleveland Metroparks' seven all-purpose paths are open until 11 p.m., but they twist and turn at the whim of the landscape, with trees lurking around every bend. The North Coast Inland Trail in the Lorain County Metroparks is straight, following an old rail bed from Elyria through Oberlin to the town of Kipton, but the rangers lock the gates at dusk.
So insomniac cyclists are left by the side of the canal. "A lot of people don't realize that the [towpath] never closes," says CVRNA Park Ranger Karen Kopchak. And what hides during the day patrols boldly in the darkness. "You can appreciate the wildlife at all hours" during the night hikes, she says. "It's a lot about what you hear"--owls, spring peepers, and coyotes. The National Park Service estimates that eighty to ninety coyotes roam the park.
"The coyotes only take the slow riders from the back of the pack, so as long as you're ahead of the person next to you, you're okay," jokes Kortvejesi.
For some of the regulars on night rides, cycling after hours is a matter of convenience. "I ride at night quite often, because that's when I can get it in," Kortvejesi says. "I think a lot of people are finding that, with work and family obligations, by the time they're finished with all that, it's 8 or 9 o'clock. If they want to go for a ride, that's when they can do it."
Cleveland attorney and two-wheeler Don Canestraro agrees, but adds solitude and darkness to the list of attractions. "Night riding is a lot of fun because it adds a dimension. It's dark, and you have the trail to yourself. If you've ever been on the trail on a nice Sunday afternoon, you know how crowded that can be. But you have to put up with the gnats."
The Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area hosts a Towpath Tag Ride Under the Stars on Friday from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., starting at the Canal Visitors Center, intersection of Canal and Hillside roads in Valley View. Cost is $5; call 800-257-9477.