STREET LIFE: LIGHTS FOR THE ROAD AND COMMUTING
Michael Stenning directs his beam on lights for the commute and road riding …
With value for money on the up, high quality lighting is more pocket friendly than ever. There's a bewildering array of lights for your bike, so what are your options and what should you be looking for?
Lighting requirements for road riding, though sub/urban contexts are completely different to trail duties.100-500 lumens is ample for being seen with and at the upper ends, seeing-by, should you fancy an extended blast home, or often ride through semi-rural sections.
At the other extreme, 1000 lumens upward is what's required for speeding through winding backwaters at 25mph plus. However, this will depend upon optical quality. That said, budget “big guns” tend to be all or nothing; look for something with several power settings, for example the MOON METEOR STORM PRO. These will ensure light can be tailored to suit conditions, run times are optimised and you’re unlikely to dazzle other road users.
Ultra reliable and dirt cheap, LEDs dominate the market. HID (once the preserve of higher end car headlamps and stadium lighting) had a niche following, especially in some mountain bike circles but these have proven comparatively fragile and expensive.
This leads me nicely into the legal stuff. Front and rear lights must be bike-mounted. Fronts need a steady beam to comply with UK law in the strictest sense - that’s BS6102/3 (or EC equivalent). Lights must also be positioned centrally and to a maximum height of 150cm. Assuming you’re taller than 5ft, this rules out using a helmet mounted commuter kit such as this L&M Viz 360.
Literal compliance with Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations (RVLR) guidelines requires reflectors are also fitted - six in total, four on the pedals.
However, thankfully these stipulations were amended in relation to blinkies.
In any case, many of us feel happier with lighting on helmet, jacket or bar and stay mounted blinkies in addition as our main lighting set-up.
Type of lamp
This will depend on how frequently you ride in the dark, where and your budget. Really basic torch types powered by AA/AAA cells remain plentiful and often sold as a front and rear combo.
These start at £25 and might be ideal for quick trips across town, to meet friends, catch a film etc., where it's about being seen - rather than seeing with.
£50 odd buys something rechargeable capable of delivering 500+ lumens (such as the Ravemen CR500) with several lower modes for less battery slurpage. However, at this end of the market, run time can constrict fun times. - we’re talking 150 mins tops in the highest setting - not ideal for middle distance commuting through sticksville.
Lumens may sell lights but numbers aren’t the full picture - a high quality lens and reflector are equally significant players. Price is a good guide. Some, including this tiny and extremely well made 660lumen Silva Trail Speed Elite produce a far more useable pool of light than sub £100 fare boasting 1000plus.
We've also been very impressed with the Ravemen range, which offer lots of lumens and plenty of bang for you buck. For example, the Ravemen LS500 Front Light, that is a fair representation of of sophisticated optics offering more capability that the numbers might suggest.
Lenses, reflectors, colour and beam patterns
Road riding requires a pure, focused beam of light, whereas fast paced trail stuff demands a combination of spot and flood. Powerful diodes pumping out uber lumens are no use if they’re communicated through a bargain basement lens and tin foil reflector. This will result in halos and similar imperfections, defeating the object of being able to ride quickly in difficult conditions.
Colour is another significant factor. Halogen and filament bulbs tended to produce a “warm” yellowish light, whereas modern diodes create a very pure, white arc referred to as “cold”.
Run and charge times
A dimming bulb used to be the first nudge from the a AA/AA types, but nowadays these often hold their output to the end.
Smaller versions can be a godsend for dead of night pannier rummaging, or tackling roadside mechanicals - especially if you’re running a dynamo set up.
More powerful commuter plus models including those with fit 'n’ forget lithium ion and lithium polymer cells employ USB plug-ins. However, while easily coupled to laptops, computers and similar everyday office equipment charging times can be less convenient.
Others such as the Moon LX760 (now discontinued, but still available) use this charging method but employ their own replaceable cells. Buy a couple and you can swap as circumstances require - contingency or extended ride time.
“Traffic light” style battery indicators are commonly integrated within the switch. More sophisticated “intelligent” systems will also staircase downwards to conserve power automatically; others communicate via the lamp using intermittent strobes meaning getting plunged into darkness is pretty rare.
Care of your lights
Li-on cells in particular are fairly straightforward to look after, although can be very sensitive to heat, so store and charge at moderate temperatures. Give them a full charge before first use and as a general rule, avoid running them completely flat.
That said, doing so two or three times a season may actually improve their longevity - unlike Ni-cds, there’s no risk of the cells developing memory and therefore, false charging. Popping them in storage for several months? Charge to 40% of full capacity beforehand and fully charge periodically to minimise deterioration.
Tempting as it may be to purchase two or more cells, bear in mind this is false economy since these will deteriorate from the time of purchase, not use. Be wary of buying cheap cells from the Far East on online auction sites - quality is extremely variable. Exploding Li-on batteries and/or chargers can cause serious damage to people and property.
Repair superficial cuts, grazes and similar abrasion damage to wiring using high quality electrical tape promptly to avoid damage.
Only clean lenses and bodies with a soft, damp cloth - never use harsh detergents. Better optics tend to employ scratch resistant coatings, which will resist most accidental, everyday carelessness but a little padded pouch might be wise if yours are regularly bouncing around in a pannier.
B*ll*cks to batteries
Not everyone likes batteries, no matter how frugal or dependable. Thankfully, dynamos have become more efficient and much brighter too. Audax and other organised “all-nighters” have certainly helped. However, while running costs are frugal, a few factors should be kept in mind.
Bottle models require strong tyre sidewalls - those with a fairly coarse tpi (threads per inch) and dedicated dynamo track are best options.
Ideally opt for a system that holds some charge in reserve when stationary-junctions, traffic lights being obvious examples. Hub dynamos are arguably the best option and will recoup the additional cost of wheel building very quickly.
For general riding 3 watts will generate a reassuringly bright beam front and rear. Every so often low power 1.4 watt versions pop up very cheaply but will only produce a feeble glimmer. Audax and performance orientated winter bikes are better served by the higher end. 3 watt types - such as this Shutter Precision SL9 or its PD8 sibling which produce very little resistance and much greater output - good enough in some cases for trail duties when combined with a suitably sophisticated headlamp.
Leaping forward front lights for hub dynamos offer a lot of variety these days. As ever B&M maintains a strong fan base, but we've tested some excellent - if pricey models such as the Sinewave Beacon (combining light and USB charger, both of which can be used at the same time) and the K-Lite siblings: the Bikepacker Ultra and the Bikepacker Pro V2. Their range now includes an Ultra Low Drag model.
Halfway houses and capable compromises
Many of us like a bit of dirt in our riding diet - even if it’s just a quick spin around the forests on our ‘cross bike. Combing a higher power helmet lamp with a bar mounted spot can prove the best option for those wanting a single system for pretty much all conditions.
The former’s flood means you can project light where you want to travel, while the spot picks out the details, so you can concentrate on maintaining a decent speed. Prices are falling all the time but expect to part with £200 for a lightweight, compact combination with good spares backup and aftersales service.
A UK importer supplying EU accredited equipment is always going to be easier to deal with than someone 3,000 miles away should something go wrong.
Prices are falling all the time, so lights are becoming better value. Nonetheless, to some extent, you only get what you pay for. It’s possible to buy an 1800lumen unit with Cree LED and external battery pack for £14 - online. However, even the lower settings tend to be very fierce, which can be troublesome, especially around town. Similarly, lower rent reflectors and lenses mean they’re not great for picking out the detail along deserted lanes, or trail, either.
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2015
UPDATED OCTOBER 2018, NOVEMBER 2020, AND NOVEMBER 2021