Bicycle Lighting

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Night Riders: Gold River 600, Vancouver Island

“As always the first night was exhilarating—the fast speeds, the mass freewheel hum, the line of red tail lights snaking over the horizon… You’d think that riding in those big groups with riders all around might feel dangerous. It doesn’t. I guess it’s because you’re surrounded by skilled riders who know how to keep safe, even at those first night speeds.” ~Eric Fergusson, Ups and Downs: PBP ’03

Long-distance illumination

Night riding is part of any long randonnée and regulation as well as common sense dictate a “be prepared” approach to appropriate bicycle lighting.

As mentioned on the Rando Velos page, long-distance lighting lovers generally fall into two camps: the Charge of the Battery Utilization Light Brigade (CBULB) and the loosely-associated Human Amperage Movement Promoting and Serving The Electrical Revolution (HAMPSTER). Before joining up, each should be judged on their own merits.

The first thing to take into consideration is just how long your rides will last; what length are they and how fast do you (think you can) ride them? However swift, lighting needs will obviously be different for a 200 kilometre brevet in summer than an early season 600k.

Though most organizers require lighting for all official brevets (of 200 km and above) and though it is unlikely most riders will require lights on a 200, a combination of early season and Murphy’s Law have more than once kept spring or fall 200 riders out after dark.

So, Which lighting system should you buy?

Generators & lights

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The SON 20-R dynohub

Generator junkies will remind they always have light on demand, without the bother of batteries, and this is their strongest argument. Hub generators, or “dynohubs”—that is wheel hubs that double as power plants—are reliable and add little weight. Certainly generators create drag, but this criticism should be put in perspective. Tests of leading hub generators (see R sidebar) assess resistance of the Schmidt Original Nabendynamo (SON) 28 as equivalent of climbing about 1.5 metres per kilometre, with lights running. With lights off, drag is insignificant; as speed increases, resistance diminishes.

With the development of high intensity LED (Light Emitting Diode) dynamo lights, such the Schmidt Edelux (see below), those worried about weight and resistance can take advantage of the SONdelux. These were originally designed for 20″ wheels. Using them with larger wheels meant that halogen lights did not reach full brightness until a fair speed was attained. This is not an issue with LEDs, which power up quickly.

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B&M Dymotec 6 bottle generator

Shimano also makes a good quality dynohub in the Nexus DH-3N71 and DH-3D71. For the budget conscious, SRAMoffers the well-regarded i-Light hub.

Most cyclists who’ve been around for a while remember generators that worked by rubbing against the sidewall of the tyre. These had the advantage of creating no drag when they were de-activated—snapped aside. Riders on a budget might consider these and quality examples are still available. Still, the dynohub has generally eclipsed the tyre-activated bottle generator.

As well as offering no-hassle lighting, with the addition of a charging system, a generator hub can be used to top up the batteries on electronic devices, like a celular phone.

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Schmidt Edelux LED headlight

Germany takes bicycle lighting seriously and regulates it accordingly. No surprise then to find some of the best lighting systems (both battery- and generator-powered) come from German firms like Wilfried Schmidt Maschinenbau and Busch & Müller.

The latest generator-powered headlights, featuring über bright LED technologies and capacitor-powered “standlights” that stay lit at a standstill, have lately pushed aside once-admired halogen lights like the Schmidt E-6. Randonneurs using halogen lights must carry spare bulbs. Be prepared!

Leading the LED pack presently are the astoundingly bright and highly-coveted 100 lumen-watt Schmidt Edelux and the 220 lm Supernova E3, both of German origin.

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B&M front & rear generator lights

Battery-power

Most novice randonneurs begin with affordable battery-powered lighting and there are many that will suffice for shorter rides, providing care is taken not to “outrun” lower-powered lights on downhills and dark country roads.

Battery lights have come a long way from the bracket-mounted “torches” and D-cell rattletraps of old. Indeed, rechargeable technology is advancing at the speed of light. Put advanced, multi-cell lithium-ion batteries together with the latest in LED technology and it is hard to argue against increasingly lightweight and long-burning illumination.

The newest generation of LED headlights, like the Light & Motion Seca 1400, boast retina-frying light outputs of 1400 lm. Burn times at the highest setting however are just 2.5 hours (5 hours and 700 lm. at “medium”). The Seca 1400, at $699, costs about the same as the best dynohub-powered systems.

Other LED lights use commonly-available AA batteries (rechargeable NiMH or lithium/alkaline) Dinotte 200L Pro Series lights—with output up to 200 lm—are favoured by many randonneurs for this reason. Double-A alkaline batteries can be found at most convenience stores, should a rider forget spares (though these won’t last long). Run time at full power with 4 X AA cell NiMH pack is just 2 hours.

Dinotte also offers lights up to 1200 lm. (Endurance Series) with rechargeable Li-ion cells weighing under 500g, combined.

The downside to any system that runs on proprietary batteries comes when you need more than the hours of light afforded by the initial charge. You must plan 3 or 4 hours to recharge (possible on a sleepover), carry a spare, send one ahead in a drop-bag, or as I’ve witnessed, pre-place one in the bushes on an “out-and-back” course. A spare 9-cell Li-ion battery for the L&M Seca 900 Ultra, for instance, will set you back around USD$300 and weigh 486g. With any battery system, there is also an environmental burden to be considered.

Tail Lights

Generator users have the option of wiring in a light made specifically for generators—models are available with standlight option (see B&M DToplight above)—using battery LED tail lights, or both. Most battery lights will have a flashing and steady mode. Your rando comrades will thank you not to use flashers on brevets. You will be penalized for using seizure-inducing “blinkies” on events like Paris-Brest-Paris.

Helmet lights

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Light up your cue sheet

Battery operated helmet-lights come in handy for reading route sheets and street signs and can be used as a pointing beacon to warn motorists not to pull out in front of you. Most camping/mountaineering headlamps can be adapted for use on a cycling helmet.

Some cyclists use a powerful helmet-mounted light as their main light. I believe primary lights should be attached to the bike. It’s the law in some countries. Try to keep helmet-light weight to a minimum. Your neck will thank you.

Reflective gear

Wear it. Leg bands, arm bands, piping on jackets, tape on helmets and bike frame, vests and sashes—all these help others see you and are mandated on most brevets. See the safety section of the “Tackle” page.

Whatever kind of lights you choose, remember, it’s not nice to be a Ninja.