Biking in the Wolf Hour

Published Cycle California, June 2015, Vo. 21, #6.

  Death Ride, 5 a.m.

Death Ride, 5 a.m.

“And the darkest hour is just before dawn.”
— The Shirelles, Dedicated to the One I Love
"According to the ancient Romans, the Hour of the Wolf means the time between night and dawn, just before the light comes, and people believed it to be the time when demons had a heightened power and vitality, the hour when most people died and most children were born, and when nightmares came to one."
— Promotion wording for Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf), Movie by Ingmar Bergman


Those bicyclists who hit the road early in the pre-morning take off in what was once known as the Wolf Hour, just before the eastern sky started to lighten.  In olden times within the dark forests of northern Europe, this was the time in which wolves returned to their lairs with their nocturnal hunts concluded, getting to bed before the dawn chill set in. 

If biking at that “ungodly hour,” you may have thought you were dressed warmly enough but then your breath once invisible suddenly turns frosty and ripples due to an ever-so-slight draft.   That whisper of a pre-dawn wind was once thought to contain a rush of ghosts returning to their graves, with the increased drop in temperature due to their chilly presence.  Within the deepest hour of sleep, nightmares surge.  (The “mare” of nightmare is not a frightful female horse but rather is a ghost that haunts dreams).

Some organized rides force you to wake up in the wee hours and assemble with headlights piercing the blackness in front while stars still shine brightly.  Some double centuries that require most of the day, such as April’s Devil Mountain Double, take off before sunrise.

In the past, our group doing the Death Ride on the second Saturday in July launched around 5 am.  Sunrise in Markleeville is officially around 5:40-5:45 am.  The Wolf Hour chill hits while you were just beginning your biking.   In recent years, bikers have been starting earlier and earlier.  In 2014, my friend Brian and I joined the trend, taking off at 4 am.  The pre-dawn draft appeared somewhere near the Monitor summit while we were already warmed by our efforts up the first climb of the day.   Thankfully, we made most of the fast-paced drop down the easterly backside without facing the sun’s blinding glare.

The Wolf Hour’s breeze is due to the day’s warmth continually pushing westward the previous night’s cold.  The draft flows continually all over the planet.   Maybe the ancients surmised the meteorological causes, at least the most learned ones might have.  Others attributed the pre-dawn frosty chill to ghosts, werewolves and vampires hurrying to avoid the day’s light.  In the dark ages, wood fires kept away such nighttime terrors, imagined or otherwise.

Starting off on either the Devil Mountain Double or the Death Ride in the “dead of night,” if you will, means hurling yourself into the ancient nocturnal tide of predators and spirits coming back to their dens.  Just when those at home sleeping are prone to nightmares, you’re starting out in that eerie hour, long ago ingrained into human subconscious as a time when your thoughts are most vulnerable.  How hard will the ride be?  Will I make it?  The wind on your face feels a little colder for a while.    When the sun finally rises, you settle into the ride. Ancient fears of wolves and ghosts are replaced by real hills and long distances ahead.