GET UP TO LIGHT SPEED
From LEDs to legal requirements, urban survival to back road brilliance and hyper tech to ultra tough, we shine a light on everything you need to know about bike lights...
From urban cityscapes, rural roads to off-road epics, we explain what lights you need to use where and more.
Bike lights have never been smarter, brighter or more userfriendly than they are now. There have never been more to choose from either, but how do you pick the ideal illumination for the riding you do?
Beyond the legal requirements (see boxout) what light you go for depends on your budget and common sense. The great news is that LED [Light Emitting Diodes] lights are very reliable, tough and don’t cost a fortune for a usefully powerful unit. Most manufacturers quote lumen output to give you an idea of likely power, however, there’s a big disparity (up to 30-plus per cent) between theoretical power and actual power once it’s gone through the thermal and efficiency losses of battery discharge, circuitry, LEDs and so on, then bounced off the reflectors and out of the lens.
Lenses and reflectors control how that power hits the road too. Spot beams focus the power for longer reach down the road at speed. Flood beams spread the light wider for better peripheral vision. While most lights produce a simple round beam, which elongates to an oval as it hits the ground, others produce a broader letterbox or flat oval beam. Some lights also advertise ‘side lenses for extra visibility’, although what use a 5mm square of backlit amber plastic is going to be as you pile into Piccadilly Circus at rush hour is definitely debatable.
Nearly all bike lights are now powered by rechargeable Li-Ion [lithium-ion] batteries, which is a very good thing. They’re light and compact for their capacity and much more forgiving of random recharge/discharge cycles than older battery types.
How much capacity you need depends on your riding. All night audax haunters or transcontinental bike racers need as many hours as possible, commuters scuttling from one USB port to another and hour-of-training-twice-aweekers need less. Batteries
“The great news is that LED lights are very reliable, tough and don’t cost a fortune for a usefully powerful unit.”
always decrease in effective capacity when they’re old or cold, so it’s worth having some emergency reserve for on-ride incidents. We would advise buying extra ‘insurance’ runtime if you can.
In terms of recharging, smaller lights are likely to just come with a USB charge cable that you can plug in wherever, but bigger lights generally have a dedicated charger. Charge times vary dramatically, so match that to your general level of hurry/forgetfulness.
Some bike light manufacturers love modes, but we generally only use two or three settings to eke out battery life. Having to toggle through several settings to get the one you want and then inevitably overshooting and going all the way round again, with frozen fingers that can’t really feel the switch, is a right pain. Also, while having a flash mode is handy for daylight running it’s a potential nightmare when you accidentally switch it on as you dive into a rutted bridleway descent on a gravel ride. We’re big fans of programmable menus and/ or remote switches that let you change modes without taking your hands off the bar.
While outputs, burn times and physical size/weight haven’t changed much, one area where lights have improved massively is communication. Not long ago the best you could hope for was an LED traffic light showing battery charge and maybe a main switch that changed colour with the power mode. Now there are several lights on the market that
“Some bike light manufacturers love modes, but we generally only use two or three settings to eke out battery life”
display the mode you’re in and the resulting runtime, as well as recharge information in real words and numbers. While some aren’t as accurate as others, this feedback still makes a big difference to stress levels and usability, particularly on limited runtime lights or longer rides.
LEDs and Li-Ion batteries are far more efficient than old bulbs and Ni-Mh or lead acid batteries, so most lights are now selfcontained. That makes them much easier and neater to fit than lights with a lead to a separate bag or bottle battery. Make sure the light you buy actually fits your bike though. Most clamps are designed for round bars, so anything aero or otherwise odd will need a rubber strap mount or a stem mount. On that note while stem centring mounts look neat they obviously don’t work with out-front GPS units unless they have switchgear, and you have a gear/brake cable setup, which makes running them under the stem viable.
You obviously want the light to look where it’s needed, rather than drooping towards the floor. Wobbling lights can make it awkward to pick out detail and tire your eyes and brain quickly too. Tighten the mount enough to stay put without potentially crushing your bars, head to bikeradar.com for reviews of the most secure units. If a rubber ‘grip strip’ isn’t provided then a bit of old inner tube or a wrap of tape on the bar works well. Some lights will also include helmet mounts which are useful for off-road use and on back roads, as long as you don’t stare directly at oncoming drivers.
Be safe, be seen, see back
While the legal lighting requirements give you basic visibility, decades of experience as bike commuters and drivers tell us that the more attention you can attract and the more you look like a moving human, not a
“the more attention you can attract and the more you look like a moving human, not a distant skip, the better”
distant skip, the better. Multiple lights are a start, but if you can stick them on bits that move (ankles, head, bag) so they move organically even better. Similarly lights on the edges of your bike like Cateye’s bar end plug LEDs help drivers sense speed and distance better and adjust for you accordingly.
We’re also seeing more ‘projection’ lights appear, shining red laser lines or bike outlines onto the road around you. Companies like Cyliq are also combining lights with cameras to record your ride if you fancy joining the CCTV.CC club.
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of clothing when it comes to being seen. There are some literally brilliant reflective fabrics around now that boost visibility massively at night, even if they only seem like subtle details during the day. While you might think it looks sleek/ slimming/ninja-esque, dark clothing is a dumb idea if you’re trying to be seen, and a bit of bright goes a long way to avoiding being an A&E casualty.
The 800 lumen ‘Blitz’ mode picks out trouble in the darkest alleys
A wired remote for flicking between high and low beams is included
Below USB charging is handy if you’re riding between home and work
The ‘double barrel’ beam uses a warm, eye-friendly colour with a progressive fade
By using six LEDs in a horizontal strip you get a detailed 3D rendering of the road
Left See a full review of the Blaze, now Beryl Laserlight at bikeradar.com