Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

03 November 2015

Trying To Shed Some Light

Early the other morning, Daylight Savings Time ended.  That meant moving the clocks back an hour, which means that it gets dark an hour earlier.  Of course, that means day begins an hour earlier, for now.  But within a few weeks, we'll "lose" that hour, as well as an equal amount of time at the end of the afternoon, as the days grow shorter overall.

That means, among other things, that most of my rides home from work will be done in the dark.  I suspect the same is true for other commuters.  And some of us will be doing at least some part of our "fun" rides in the dark, whereas we might have been doing them in daylight a couple of weeks ago.

Many of us will therefore be using our lights more than we had been--or using them, period, after months of not using them at all.   I fall into the former category:  I don't avoid night riding; in fact, there are times I enjoy a ride begun after sunset.  However, during the weeks and months of long days, I do my nocturnal rides mostly by choice; some of the riding I'll do in the dark for the next few months will be out of necessity.

Thus, I and other riders will be making more use of our bike lights. 

It used to be that here in New York--and, I suspect, in other American cities--one rarely saw a cyclist with a high-end lighting system.  The prevailing wisdom has always said that bike lights in the city are "for being seen, not for being seen by".  Most city streets are well-lit enough that you don't need a bright headlight to see potholes or other road hazards, not to mention the traffic and turns ahead. If anything, I think that for city riding, a headlight needs to offer more side than front visibility so that drivers approaching an intersection without a signal can more readily see a cyclist approaching.  Also, I think good side visibility is useful in very tight intersections where, even if the cyclist stops well short of the crosswalk or the "stop" line, a driver could turn into the cyclist's path--or the cyclist him or her self--if he or she is not seen.

Schmidt hub generator (for disc brakes)

If anything, it always seemed (at least to me) more important to have a good tail light, preferably a good, bright "blinky".  That is assuming, of course, that you are a nice, law-abiding cyclist (which you are--right?) who always rides in the direction of the traffic.

These days, though, I'm seeing more cyclists with more sophisticated (and expensive) lights than the removable "blinkies" I use.  Some are riding with hub generators; others with rechargeable battery packs carried in water bottle cages in other attachments.  And I have seen some very high-tech looking lights mounted on handlebars, brake bolts and fenders.

Planet Bike Super Flash

Such systems no doubt have their advantages.  But, for the time being, I still prefer the Planet Bike Super Flash  I've been using on the rear and PB's Beamer for the front.  I think I've spent more on batteries for them than I spent on the lights themselves--and it's not because the lights "eat" the batteries:  the lights simply hold up well.

Planet Bike Beamer

I think I'm reluctant to buy anything more complex or costly because, well, what I have seems to have worked for me (for seven years) and because I often park where theft is a concern.  Once, when I parked my Bontrager mountain bike, someone cut the White Industries hubs out of my wheels; I worry that someone might do the same to a generator front hub if I were to use it. 

"Bottle" generator

Bottom-bracket mounted generator

Also, even though I've heard that the all of those new generators and super-lights are better than what was available before, I'm skeptical.  Perhaps it's because when I came of age (as a cyclist, anyway), most of the bike lights available were, simply, junk.  "Bottle" generators were inefficient, chewed up tires and made a lot of noise ; generators that mounted on bottom brackets and ran off tire treads also ate up tires, didn't work on treads that were too knobby or too smooth, and simply skidded over tire treads if they were covered with rain or snow.  Battery lights were heavy, clunky, mounted on flimsy brackets and put out less light than the ones powered by generators.  Really, the best light--as Tom Cuthbertson noted in Anybody's Bike Book--was the "armband" flashlight made by Wonder and a few other companies.  I used to wear one on my left leg, just below my knee, on the theory that the light bobbing up and down would signal, to motorists, that a cyclist was ahead.

Wonder "armband" light

Maybe one day, if I ever decide to build a dedicated tourer or randonneuse, I'll build a wheel around a Schmidt hub dynamo or something like it.  But as long as I have to park on city streets, I think I'm going to stick to relatively inexpensive removable lights.


  1. I used to use that same Wonder light, also strapped below my knee. The new lights are so much brighter.


  2. You get a ticket for a flashing red light here. Flashing red is strictly reserved for emergency vehicles.

    I have seen some studies that indicate that it is very difficult to estimate the distance of, and the direction of travel of a flashing light in the dark. I have observed this myself. Blinkies just might confuse car drivers. I really think that flashing lights are contra-indicated for travel on dark country roads. They may be alright in a well-lit urban environment.


  3. The best investment I've made cycling is that dynamo hub and Supernova lighting. I consciously paid extra to get the low key black anodized version. I've even manipulated it by switching to 12v versus the 6v generated from the hub. In one years continual ramble of America I didn't over$400 on batteries for a front light alone. Now, I have found yellow glow from the NOS Union generator kit much more pleasant on my eyes. I can make it more colors and judge depth easier. However, the generator just will never instill confidence in a long distance adventure anymore. I'm really spoiled by that dynamo. I'll never rely on battery powered lighting solely. Nothing worst then making a last minute detour and having it shut down on you mid ride.

  4. Coline--Well Said.

    Unknown--It's true that today's lights are much brighter and simply better. I'd love to see someone make something like that Wonder armband light, with LEDs and more modern electronics. Or, almost any retro-style light with modern furnishings.

    Anon--Where are you? I have heard that in some places, cyclists have been ticketed for using flashing red lights. I think you are right about the usefulness and safety of flashing lights on country roads vs. urban areas. I hope it didn't seem that I was trying to tell readers they should use what I use. Most of my night riding is in urban areas, and I believe that what I'm using makes sense in such environments. Now, if I lived in the country, I might buy a Schmidt dynamo hub or something like it.

    Teamdarb--If I were doing a tour like yours, I might spring for a system like yours. Having your batteries die on you is not as big a deal in the city as it is in the conditions you describe.

    What you say about the Union generator reminds me of France where, until recently, headlights (for bikes as well as cars) were yellow.

  5. I am up here in Northern Europe, Finland, at 63N latitude. All forms of traffic are highly regulated here, much to everybody's advantage. There is a new set of national traffic laws in effect now that defines separated bike paths as part of the road legally, and makes cyclists the equal of cars. We have to make turn signals, etc., by law. This town of about 70,000 people has something in the range of 250 kilometers of separated bike paths.

    It did not occur to me that you would insist people did things the same way you do. You are not that kind of person.


  6. Leo--I might favor separated bike paths if they were legally part of the road and cyclists were the same as drivers, as you say is the case in Finland. For one thing, it might lead drivers to be more aware and respectful of cyclists. For another, it might make law enforcement, as applied to cyclists, less subjects to the whims or misinterpretations of police officers.

  7. The legal question as to who has the right-of-way, for instance , is cut and dried. (The "right hook" is ALWAYS the driver's fault.) The problem is that, as the set of laws is fairly new, not all cyclists and drivers actually know they are equal to each other. For the time being I continue with my old policy of establishing eye contact with drivers before taking the right-of-way. Most irritating is when drivers give me the right-of-way when I don't have it. That can result in some dangerous situations. I usually put both feet on the ground and maybe stamp one down a few times.


  8. Leo--I have, when crossing a multilane road, have had drivers give me the right-of-way when there were other lanes of traffic to their right. That situation often occurs where the off-ramps from bridges and highways merge onto local streets.

    Like you, I also establish eye contact with drivers before I take the right-of-way. Generally, I assume that they (and police officers) are not cognizant of when cyclists have the same rights as motorists.