Last Saturday, September 22nd, was the Fall Equinox which for cyclists is a harbinger for dwindling daylight. Daily commutes may no longer entirely take place in brilliant sunshine and what was once plenty of time post-work to ride in sunshine is becoming a more precious commodity. Which makes now the perfect time to discuss bike lights and which ones will fulfill the needs of your riding endeavors.
In general, lights fall into two categories: lights that help you see and lights that help you be seen. And of course there’s then the million dollar question – which do you need?
Much will depend on when, where, and how you ride, but one thing is consistent: every cyclist should own at least one set of lights to help ride safely. While many bikes come with reflectors, and a lot of cycling clothing and gear is reflective as well these days, you still need to use lights for safe cycling. In fact, most states require that lights be used when riding at night. Our home state of North Carolina requires a front light that can be seen from at least 300 feet in front of the bicycle and offers a choice for the rear of either a red light visible from at least 300 feet behind or clothing/a vest that’s visible from 300 feet behind.
Safety Lights/Daytime Running Lights
Quite simply, every cyclist needs to own at least a set of safety lights. These smaller, inexpensive LED lights have become much brighter and have longer battery life in recent years. They take up a minimal amount of space on the bike, attach easily to the handlebars and seatpost, and are bright enough to help you be seen. Even if you don’t plan on riding at night, having a set of these with you during the fall and winter is important in case something unexpected happens and your ride makes an unplanned transition into darkness.
Going beyond having safety lights for use when it’s dark, it’s just a good idea to use them as daytime running lights to maximize your visibility to motorists, fellow cyclists, and pedestrians. Even in broad daylight, a set of front and rear safety lights can create bright pulses and flashes to snap other road users, especially motorists, out of the haze and malaise of the day and alert them to your presence.
The Axiom Lazerbeam lights are popular in our office and are especially effective for daytime cycling. As a died-in-the-wool roadie who’s all about a minimalist aesthetic when it comes to accessories on my bike, I’ve personally become a fan of the Knog lights as they’re well-designed, exceptionally compact, and – like many lights in this category – conveniently re-charge via USB. They’re on every time I’m out on a ride.
Packing more of a punch than safety lights, commuter lights make an ideal choice for commuters and road riders. Commuter lights are brighter than safety lights, and typically have an output in the 50-375 lumen range (lumens are a measure of how bright a light is – the more lumens, the brighter). These lights are capable of putting out enough light to illuminate the path in front of you with some help from a street light or two.
They’re typically very convenient to mount on the handlebar – most utilize a tool-free system – and they feature an internal, rechargeable battery that helps keep the weight down and re-charges via a USB cable. Commuter lights are also moderately priced and won’t bust your budget.
NiteRider lights are exceptionally well-made and in the realm of commuter options their Lumina Micro 550 Headlight is a very popular choice. In its brightest mode, the Lumina Micro 550 provides 550 lumens of illumination, bright enough for riding in near total darkness. But keep in mind that the running time for the brightest option is of course the shortest (in this case 1.5 hours) before the light needs to be re-charged.
However, this light – and lights of this category – include a range of brightness options (in this case five, including a daylight flash selection and a walking mode for use when you’re a pedestrian), so it can run for up to seven hours at a lower, 125 lumen output or 20 hours in walking mode. Keep in mind that the brightest option may be overkill for the amount of darkness you encounter while riding. With experience, you’ll become a Jedi master in terms of using enough light for safe cycling while maximizing the run time of your battery before a re-charge.
Packing high-powered LEDs in the 500-2200 lumen range, these are the lights that are used to light your way during full-on night rides in pitch black darkness. At the lower end of that brightness range the lights are still relatively compact, self-contained units, while at the upper end of that brightness range they can be fairly big, and some even require external battery packs. And they can be priced in the several hundred dollar realm. But what you get is a bike light that is so bright if feels like you’re riding with your own, personal sun – such as the brightest light Nashbar currently sells: the NiteRider Pro 2200 Race Headlight.
If you ride on trails at night, like to do some road cycling at night, or commute down unlit country roads, these are the lights that can show you the way home. The NiteRider Lumina 950 Boost headlight is a perfect choice for riding in these conditions, and is also an exceptional value.
Basically, these are flashing red lights that mount to the back of your bike — either on the seatpost or seat stay, or by clipping onto a saddlebag or backpack. Their purpose is to make you visible to traffic approaching from the rear, while some tail lights also offer a wider radius of illumination and can also help you be visible from the side.
Most are pretty inexpensive, and they go a long way toward helping you stay visible and safe. The most powerful tail lights can be seen from over a mile away, while smaller “blinky” lights are more suitable for city or suburban streets that aren’t totally dark. The aforementioned Axiom Lazerbeam 180 tail light is a great option, as well as the NiteRider Solas 100. They’re compact, durable, easy to use, and are USB rechargeable.
Tail lights are also required of cyclists riding at night in almost every state, city, and municipality in the United States, but independent of the law, we just think they’re a very good idea to enhance your safety – in daylight as well as night.