Light Reading

The conundrum for the Cyclist (but not the bike rider) presents itself daily. We try to keep ourselves safe every time we get on our bikes, and we want to achieve a balance between form and function. Sometimes function wins, though mostly it’s form with the upper hand. A YJA isn’t going to protect you if you’re already under the wheels of a car, and will do little to prevent you from getting there. Likewise a helmet, yet it is considered an essential item, whereas a fluoro anything will (should) quickly be dismissed.

Like a helmet, lights are one of those essentials that we wouldn’t think of riding without. When we go out on our bikes after dusk, I’d bet that lights will always be reached for before, or instead of, a YJA. The commuter will buy either the cheapest and therefore weakest light set, or go to the other end of the spectrum and get the most powerful lights they can find for the meagre amount of cash they are willing to spend. The middle ground seems to be largely ignored, possibly because someone spending $100 on a headlight will more likey be tempted to spend an extra fifty to double the output. This is where it gets tricky.

Because being seen is the most useful thing for a night rider, more power and more lumens are coveted. With the tech available now, a super-powerful light can be bought for a fraction of what they cost even a few years ago. Lumens are increasingly hitting over the 2000 mark. Batteries charge quicker, run longer and weigh bugger-all. These lights are what we coveted back in the 90s when we first discovered how much fun riding through the bush in darkness was. And it was dark; the Halogen bulbs and brick-like Ni-Cad batteries doing their best but falling well short of adequate output for snaking through trees and down rutted singletrack descents. As the technology moved on to LED and Li-Ion, prices first skyrocketed but then rapidly fell as more small manufacturers got it on the action. Now we could light up the trails like daytime and not have to carry an extra five kilos to achieve it.

Then the commuters got wind of these cheap, powerful, bright lights. Why spend $100 for a 150 lumen job when $200 will get you an 800 lumen hole-burner? Geez, for another $60-100 you can almost double the power. Because you can’t put a price on safety and peace of mind, especially if you ride your bike in traffic every day, it makes sense to have good equipment. So here’s that tricky part: what if the gear you bought to keep you safe was actually putting you in the way of more harm than good? What if that light does a brilliant job of illuminating dark backroads, but conversely is too much for urban use? The trouble with these high-powered lights is they are designed with off-road riding in mind, where mega-lumens are king, where you need to be able to light every nook and cranny that the trail presents. And they’re brilliant at that.

When these lights find their way onto a road or commuter bike, however, it’s a clear case of overkill. 1500 lumens is way too much for the road, especially in built-up areas. If you’re out in the desert or boondocks, perfect; it’s when they’re unleashed in traffic that problems arise. Cars have high and low beams for a simple reason. If you are looking into a bright light coming towards you, you will be impaired and at risk of being temporarily blinded, not good when you are in control of a two-tonne vehicle. Hence drivers are required to dip their lights when 200m away from oncoming traffic. Bike riders are not. So they hit the high beam, get the strobe effect going, and feel safe in their perceived bubble. Meanwhile, everyone else is impaired and endangered by them. Off-road lights shouldn’t be on road-going bicycles. It’s like a redneck with those huge spotlights on their truck, driving around town with each one blazing. And can you imagine the chaos if car headlights had a strobe function?

Drivers don’t need any more reasons to get pissed off at cyclists; in fact they don’t need any it seems. When I’m in my car, or on my bike at night and am blinded by an oncoming cyclist, it’s usually by a high-powered light set to strobe. The brightness is one thing to deal with, but the strobing effect really intensifies the effect and more worringly diminishes the driver’s ability to correctly judge the distance that the bike is away from them. It’s near impossible. On a recent after-dark road ride with @Bianchi Denti, we encountered an oncoming rider at least 300 metres away, travelling toward us; we were pretty much sheilding our eyes and having to look off to the side of the road not to be blinded. It was ridiculous. When I offered that the flash and brightness was dangerous, we were met with a hail of expletives along the lines of “yeah whatever, why should I be unsafe”. Well, having a vision-impaired truck driver hurtling towards him might be the wake-up call he needed.


*Keep the lumens under 300-400 for road: It’s more than enough for the darkest backroads, and you can drop the beam lower in built-up areas. A small USB-rechargeable light is less bulky, all-in-one (no extra battery pack) and does a stellar job.

*Don’t flash: This is the worst feature ever for a headlight. It’ll disorient drivers and other riders, and how anyone doesn’t get a migraine from riding with that thing flashing constantly I’ll never know. They probably do. Have a solid beam at all times, and if you really want something flashing, make sure it’s a small output and is mounted fairly close to the solid beam light as well.

*Flash at the back if you must: Except if you’re riding in a bunch and someone has to stare at your light for prolonged periods. Then use a solid beam or a low-frequency pulse. And if you must flash, then keep it simple and use a basic on/off pattern. Those disco-light patterns with eight different LEDs doing various things? Ridiculous, and another enabler of motorist condemnation.

*Helmet-mounted lights are awesome: For mountain biking! It allows you to project light where your bars may not be pointing, essential for trail riding at night. For the road: ridiculous. All they do is give the impression that there’s a low-flying plane coming in to land on the highway, and when you look directly at drivers, well, you know what happens…

*”I didn’t see you.”: Yes, even with your bike lit up like a disco, drivers/pedestrians/other riders may not see you. No matter how safe you think you are being, how many lights you have, how bright your YJA, you still need to be attentive and assume everyone is out to run you over. And if you read the comments on any online story of Cyclist and driver interaction, a lot of them probably would.



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49 Replies to “Light Reading”

  1. Great article, fully agree. It kills me to see the picture where the dude is not just holding the bike with two hands, but it is so heavy he needs to rest it against his shin to keep it from falling over.

    Love to see a video of this guy trying to ride that thing.

  2. @Simon

    Don’t read the comments on stuff, Brett. It’ll just make you sad.

    I can’t help myself and always get sucked in… doesn’t make me sad, more livid!

  3. @kixsand

    I have the Lezyne Micro Drive – 200 lumens.  USB charge.  Bloody brilliant!

    And really, that’s all you need. I have a 300L Lezyne (Power Drive maybe?) which never really gets put on the highest output…

  4. I almost crashed into a cyclist coming the other way last night. I came around a corner on a cycleway next to the motorway. There was a cyclist coming the other way but initially I thought it was a car headlight (as I’m riding against the car traffic) and then I realised at the last minute it was a cycle. A flashing light would have been better in that situation. It would also be good if there was more than a small barrier between the motorway and cycle way to block the car lights.

    At night I use two lights – 1 lower powered flashing light and a more powerful Cateye Volt 300 on normal beam, which seems a good combo.

  5. i was riding with friends on a MUP one night when we saw other bikes headed our way, so we filed up to free half the path.  two dudes on empty touring bikes with generator front hubs, absolutely blinding.

    We pass the two bikes and i swing out, night blind, to ride next to my buddy and almost hit their friend, riding behind them with no lights whatsoever, head on.  don’t blind other riders or drivers.
    And put a light on, third guy.

    Then there was the time i was closing in on a red blinkie light from behind feeling like fuckin Sagan, “man so fast i’m catching that guy so fast whooo the legs are good tonight! ”

    ..until i realized that the red blinkie was mounted to the bars of a squeaky MTB  with a disconnected front brake riding against traffic while the rider pulled from a 40 oz of malt liquor. Another head on collision averted, narrowly.  Who puts a taillight on the bars? hobos.

  6. Recently in one of my cycling mags is touched on lights and it had three suggestions I found completely wrong for a commuter. 1 Bright as you can get (for those dark back streets) 2 helmet mount so there is light wherever you look and 3 make sure its flashing. These three suggestions I found terrible and irresponsible. For me riding in the dark, I can’t stand it when you get someone trying to get on your draft without asking and having their flashing light going up and down with their helmet mount. It give me a headache…

  7. @brett

    I have the macro drive for winter and the zecto for summer in case I’m caught at work and can’t get home before dark or the weather turns ugly.

  8. took a while for the penny to drop – it’s mid winter down under. However, even in June I’ve put on a steady rear light when out for a ride on a gloomy damp day, especially when on some of the country lanes in Kent with high banks and full tree canopy.

  9. I recently took delivery of a FYXO ‘king Bright – I think it’s 800 lumens on high – at $79 lots of bling for your buck. My morning loop goes partways through a National Park, so it is good for dodging ‘roos, but way too bright for normal road use. It is more powerful than the Ayups I use on the MTB, so I mainly ride (road) on the low setting, and only up it to arc welding intensity when surrounded by bush. I’m waiting for the cops to put a limit on the lumens of these things – there are some serious intensity lights (2000+) out there.

  10. A handy hint, if you are tempted by a stronger light, you get good burn time on the lower settings the more powerful the light is. I have a 500 lumen light, which has about 1.5 hours burn on full and 4 hours on 200 lumen. Most lights seem to follow this pattern, of having 1.5 hours on full beam  and 3 – 4 hours on the lower, more reasonable settings.

    And if some twat is riding towards me with 2000 lumens on full, I can double down on the stupid and blind him back. Not that I ever would, mind….

  11. So this very funny rant was posted on FB by a friend last year.

    He’s a very serious and competent age-group triathlete, ex-army and trains on the Al Qudra purpose-built cycle track – it’s a dual lane track with each lane about 1.5m wide, to help your understanding of the situation.

    To the man with the light. 

    Lights on the bike on the Al Qudra Cycle Path are a ‘good thing’. They let other riders know that you are there and they illuminate the track ahead of you so that you can spot the rocks that the Grim Reaper has launched into our paths as he hammers the rev limiter on his Nissan Patrol.

    But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Whoever it was heading South on the Bab Al Shams stretch last night (at about 8pm – you were one of very few out there), your light is very impressive, but also dangerous. 

    I was riding North, humming half-remembered Bonnie Tyler, with my over-designed, irrefutably beautiful piece of milled-aluminium, Lezyne mini-torch dimly illuminating the track from 5m out to about 40m in front of me. I saw you at a range of about 3000m. I would guess that the unhappy skipper of a small fishing ketch would feel as I did if a supertanker bore down on him in a narrow channel at night. Your light drilled a cylinder of pollution through the moist desert air. I wouldn’t be surprised if secret aircraft from secret airbases were muddled by the appearance of a new strip in the desert. We used to have something similar attached to the Chieftain tank in the early ‘80s. I would have been humming ‘The Clash’ back then. Absent modern night viewing aids, we would light up the enemy with a million candelpower before shooting him with our 120mm rifled gun. Until we realized that he had a gun too and would shoot at us as soon as we switched the searchlight on.

    So I had lost my night vision by the time you were at 2000m and closing. I checked my position: dotted line a metre to the left, solid yellow line a metre to the right. Desert beyond. With some hours of riding already behind me, my clear glasses were a bit sweated up. As you entered the engagement zone and the last 100m I tried to look away. Down seemed like a good direction. But your laser high beam refracted in a myriad dazzle through my glasses and I was lost. Blinded and now with no road reference, I tried to hold my line. I erred on the side of caution, thinking that a head-on collision was a possibility and corrected to the right. Had you had any peripheral vision you might have just caught my beautifully executed Paris-Roubais, cobbles to ditch, forward roll as my front wheel caught the sand and I catapulted into the desert. But you sailed on ignorant of the carnage in your wake.

    Now, let me be clear, I wasn’t happy at this point. I’ve done a data-logged 50,000km on this road bike and I can count my involuntary dismounts on one hand. 

    If this happens again, I shall pick myself up, turn around and ride after you. I can be quite quick when fuelled with a mouthful of sand and a whole bucket of adrenaline. I will catch up with you. And when I do I will use the minimum persuasion necessary to separate you from your lumens. And if your name ends with ancellara, or rome, and I don’t catch up, I will find you and I will…

    Please, dear riding friends, if you must buy the biggest, baddest, latest, brightest front light; aim it at the road and not at me or the fauna at 3000m. Anything you spot at that range will be in Abu Dhabi by the time you get there. In some countries there is a difference between main beam and dipped headlights; the idea being that you avoid dazzling other road users. We could try this here on our bikes, on our shared track, by pointing the lamp down a little.

    Many thanks.

  12. Great read and I must confess to transgressing in the flashing up front / disco behind department. Will switch to steady mode from here on.

    Lezyne Power Drive XL up front Zecto back on the commuter. The little Femto jobs front and back for the A bike in low light.

  13. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. When I were a lad, on me paper round, these were a luxury! I’d spend half my earnings on batteries alone.

  14. If there is one thing that boils my Welsh piss, it’s the christams tree of doom heading towards me down the cycling path. He looks like runway 1 at Gatwick but, to top it all, he has a light on his handlebars that can only be likened to that laser beam Goldfinger used to try and cut Bond’s nadgers off

    ‘Do you expect me to be seen, Goldfinger?’

    ‘No, I expect you to piss off, Mr Bond’

  15. @VeloJello

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. When I were a lad, on me paper round, these were a luxury! I’d spend half my earnings on batteries alone.

    Oh yeah, I remember those puppies. Pure shite they were. Ever Ready my arse. Weighted about 3lbs each and the clips sucked. If you hit a bad bump the whole lamp flew off into the darkness. That left you using whatever light didn’t jettison itself to try and find the pieces of the other light whose constituent parts were now scattered randomly in the darkness. Oh, and the batteries lasted about one trip before fading to a sad yellow glow.Even at their best they gave off about 10 lumens I think.

    Hard to believe Wonder lights were a big improvement . . .

  16. @simon

    Yep, I know that feeling!  Read this on the bloody Telegraph the other day, of all places.  Struck me as such a reasonably balanced article (even the comments that I skipped through seemed reasonable enough) that it made me despair for NZ…

    That’s an interesting article, especially the bit about riding on rural roads being more dangerous. After all, that’s where the majority of us chose to spend our leisure time.

    I’m going against the flow a bit but I’ve long favoured a very bright rear light with a bit of a disco function (currently, I’ve got a Hope District that kicks out about 135 lumens and has a three flashes pause three flashes pattern). I generally find that when I’m using lights the visibility is less than ideal, at dawn/dusk or in fog and rain. Mix in some oncoming headlights and a constant light can get a bit lost. I want a light that’s going to be seen from a long way off. If the disco effect confuses drivers, I’m fine with that as I’d rather a driver who’s thinking “what fuck is going on” rather than auto piloting.

    There’s a benefit in daylight as well, although I wouldn’t usual use lights unless it was aweful weather. Following a couple of kids round our TT course last week after starting a few places later, I was surprised how much further away I could see them from when they were going through the shaded sections. One of them was my son. I was quite happy he was visible from several hundred meters away.

  17. @Kieran

    At night I use two lights – 1 lower powered flashing light and a more powerful Cateye Volt 300 on normal beam, which seems a good combo.

    Use a Volt 300 as well paired with a low powered Lezyne Femto or a Macro duo(got this as a subscription gift!) depending on roads and conditions.More than enough(esp paired with the Macro) to light up fen roads on a dark morning.Good battery life on the Volt too,the Lezyne Macro less so.

    Usually have two on the back as well with one on a standard flash setting.

    Must admit to looking at Exposure lights though and you can get a 3d printed Garmin mount with an Exposure light mount to help ease the cockpit clutter.

  18. The nerd titers of picture-dude must be off the charts.

    I attach a (very small but bright) red flashing light onto the quick release of my back wheel. It doesn’t blind any riders behind, but can be seen by cars. It also doesn’t mar the esthetic of my machine

  19. Not sure how I feel about the “don’t flash.” I commute with a Serfas USB 5 on the front and run it on flash during daylight. It’s not that powerful and I don’t think drivers would pick it up if it weren’t flashing.

    And as bright as some bike lights have gotten, I still find it hard to believe they come close to the fancy lights on Audis and BMWs.

    Lights definitely don’t replace riding Defensively Aggressive, but I’m also going to make myself as visible as possible for all the distracted fuckface motorists. Curious to see what some others have to say, as I know someone in particular who advises using a helmet-mounted light coupled with a bar light for dark/winter/rain/commuting. And for all the nutters with overly bright lights, I can still count those fuckers on one hand; to count all the cunts in cars I’d need around 84 more arms.

  20. @Ccos

    The nerd titers of picture-dude must be off the charts.

    I attach a (very small but bright) red flashing light onto the quick release of my back wheel. It doesn’t blind any riders behind, but can be seen by cars. It also doesn’t mar the esthetic of my machine

    I can’t believe that “titres” has become titers. Why would US chemists fuck that up?

  21. Unlit roads on the daily commute so an Exposure Strada for me, has fullbeam + dip, FULLBEAM only when some twat in a car is blinding me, so that I can see the road from the barbed wire

  22. Good to see this here. Especially “Don’t flash”, at least for front lights. For winter commuting I’ve got two Lezyne lights- a Power Drive and a Mega Drive. Usually use both of them on a lower power setting- gives me more of a spread without blinding oncoming traffic.

    Minor challenge this week is fitting the mounts to the #1 for Saturday night, as I’m doing the Dunwich Dynamo (for the first time). Don’t want to run them too bright on that, I fear lighting up the countryside will just encourage a crowd of poorly-equipped wheel suckers!

  23. @Phillip Mercer

    “Recently in one of my cycling mags is touched on lights and it had three suggestions I found completely wrong for a commuter. 1 Bright as you can get (for those dark back streets) 2 helmet mount so there is light wherever you look”

    I’ve found recently on a very dark cycle track when I go around a corner/curve I cant see $hit until my front wheel is through the curve. It always makes a fun moment wondering if you will hit something. So I see that advantage of a helmet light in those situation, but most of the time I would piss off drivers when I look at them.

    Yeah the Volt300 is great and the usb charging is very handy. My other light didn’t cut it when there was no other light and I had to slow right down to 15-20km/h, otherwise I could see any obstacles in time.

  24. @ped


    The nerd titers of picture-dude must be off the charts.

    I attach a (very small but bright) red flashing light onto the quick release of my back wheel. It doesn’t blind any riders behind, but can be seen by cars. It also doesn’t mar the esthetic of my machine

    I can’t believe that “titres” has become titers. Why would US chemists fuck that up?

    That’s because we spell stuff properly. ‘Muricans may not pronounce things to your satisfaction like “prah-cess” for “proh-cess” (I’ve give you that one) but damn it, we’re putting the “r’s” in the correct place. Also, I think we get a great big fat fine and a punch to the nose if we put e’s were they don’t belong (see: olde). At least that’s what the great author Dave Berry would have us believe.

  25. An article about lights from @brett, I guess it must be winter in the antipodes.

    I have a Lezyne rear light; I can’t say I recommend it.  If it gets damp, it shuts off.  Given that I need a rear light for early morning rides with a high likelihood of fog, it is useless to me.

  26. I’ve also started using a light on my seat tube to illuminate my bike / self, so that you see more than just lights floating in the sky.

    And I’ve used my mountain bike lights on one or two mid winter evening road rides, but they were out in the boonies and when I happened across traffic I looked down enough I wasn’t blinding them, but illuminating part of my bike and the road ahead.  The roads were definitely dark enough that without a decent light it was impossible to see the edge of the road.

    Although when I was younger, I used to joke that lights just gave them something to aim for…

  27. Now if we could get the caged idjits to turn their lights on when it’s raining . . .

  28. When it comes to lights I’ve always figured drivers drive their cars in the direction they are looking and if they’re looking at a flashy light that’s grabbed their attn…

  29. @extra special and bitter

    Excellent idea regarding the downward pointing light on the seat tube. I think I’ll give that a try.

    In relation to headlights sometimes I think drivers are more responsive to the moving arc of light that is cast by the light and illuminates the road (rather than the actual headlight itself), so it makes sense to cast a tight circle of light around you on the road.

    I might’ve expressed that inelegantly but hopefully not to the point of incomprehension.

  30. @Al__S

    I’m doing the Dunwich Dynamo (for the first time). Don’t want to run them too bright on that, I fear lighting up the countryside will just encourage a crowd of poorly-equipped wheel suckers!

    Quite. I very nearly came off, riding the DD two years ago – when some blinking bright bulb arrived suddenly on my shoulder, in a pitch dark section.

    I’m riding it for the second time, at the weekend. Looks likely to be very warm, with chance of storms (grin) so the moon will probably be of little help.

    The small self-contained USB rechargeable light is the perfect solution I think (on steady beam, except when commuting in traffic near dusk or dawn).

    The Lezyne Macro current model seems to me well designed, in that it’s got two modes:

    • (standard) cycles through various differently bright and/or blinking patterns
    • (race mode) alternates simply, at a press of the button, between “economy” (100 lumens) steady, and brightest possible (400 lumens) steady, and that’s all.

    I think the latter mode will work nicely on the DD at the weekend. When following (near or distant) tail-lights, I found 100 lumens to be both plenty, and socially appropriate.

    The train only needs a big light on the locomotive: only when you find yourself alone or at the front of a group, on unlit twisty roads at 2am, do you need more. 300 lumens felt just about enough for that, on the DD 2013 (Exposure light; conked out recently). But that was only ever for a few minutes at a time; and sparsely. New Lezyne Macro is closer to 400 lumens and claims 8 hours on economy when new (let’s say, 6) and 1.5 hours on full.

    A basic secondary front light will serve until 10:30pm or so, then act as backup. The brighter light’s charge then only needs to make it through until daylight; which comes well before 5am.

    The rear light does not need to be a very bright one (and should not be). Any car driver will have already passed a lot of other cyclists before you, so will definitely be on the lookout (or taking some other route). But some visibility of lights from the side of the bike, is very important.

    If riding with other people, arrange somehow to be uniquely recognisable in the dark! There’ll be lots of similarly clad people on similar, similarly lit bikes; so you’ll see a fair amount of additional illuminations. These serve the double purposes of fun, and identification. Of course the penny-farthing or dog transport etc stand out sufficiently by themselves.

  31. @piwakawaka


    don’t flash @Ron!

    The light has 70 lumens on high. During daylight I really don’t think it’s bright enough for motorists to see me. Why not use it on flash? I definitely think it helps drivers see me.

  32. @Joe

    Now if we could get the caged idjits to turn their lights on when it’s raining . . .

    Argh, yes, I spend many days in winter and during summer storms telling the fucking drivers to put their lights on. I almost feel like some people are so fucking stupid they think leaving them off saves gas or money or something. When every single other fucking driver has their lights on, how does it not strike them to put theirs on?

  33. Any ideas for rear lights for aero seat tubes?  I like and use the big cateyes, but I’d like a smaller, USB chargeable one for backups and wet, ‘orrible races.  I think the Lezynes and Knogs are out…any other ideas?

  34. @simon

    Any ideas for rear lights for aero seat tubes?  I like and use the big cateyes, but I’d like a smaller, USB chargeable one for backups and wet, ‘orrible races.  I think the Lezynes and Knogs are out…any other ideas?

    Serfas Thunderbolt. Weather proof. Bright. USB chargeable. Attaches with rubber straps, can be fit on any bike/tube.

    I use a Planet Bike Super Flash on my saddle or post, can fit the Thunderbolt on the seat stay or elsewhere in winter conditions for two rear lights.

  35. Having been taken out in broad daylight in a classic SMIDSY, and coming within millimetres from meeting my maker (fractured C1, thank you very much) I am a huuuuge advocate of a bright flasher during daylight hours. And since a wee steady light during the evening peak hour Sydney commute just blends in, if not absolutely pointless, is sitting right next to pointless, sharing its popcorn and backwashing in its Coke.

    Having said that, the key is simply not being a douche. Turn the light to dim  (or drape the hand over it in a casual fashion) when stopped in traffic, or coming face to face with someone on a narrow road, and aim about 5m ahead of the bike.

    A balance can be struck between being visible and being overly annoying without being a danger to others. Advocating a blanket ban on flashers is simply a misguided polemic.

  36. @Ron

    While we’re on the subject of aero shaped components, same question for headlights for aero handlebars? I hope to get the miner’s light off my mate’s helmet. I’m sick of being blinded everytime I do a shoulder check with him on my wheel.

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