15 May 2011

The Wonder (Light) Years

If you've been reading this, you know that I love the looks--and sometimes function--of older bike accessories.  Not for nothing do all of my bikes have brass Japanese replicas of the bells used on French constructeurs.  And all of my bike bags are canvas.

Now, of course, there is absolutely no earthly reason to buy some of the other bike accessories from le temps perdu. I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I see someone spending half a paycheck (for me, anyway) on a model of pump that folded when I used it in my youth, or for a model of fenders that cracked or broke the first time I rode them in cold weather.

Still, one retains a soft spot for some things from one's youth.  And today I came across one of them on eBay:

For years, I kept one of these in whatever bag was attached to me or my bike while I was riding. It had a red lens on the rear and white on the front; both lenses were bounded by a translucent red band.  This light was sold as an "armband light," and many runners and hikers, as well as cyclists, used them that way.  

However, I found that they were more effective (if a bit less comfortable) when strapped onto my leg, just below my knee.  Motorists and pedestrians who saw that light bobbing up and down  gave me some strange looks from (though, truth be told, I can't blame them all on the light), and I'd bet some cyclist in New Mexico or some place like that was mistaken for a low-flying UFO.

So...The light definitely did its job, which was to make its user more visible.  And it did so cheaply:  The light didn't cost more than a couple of dollars and took two "C" batteries.

The only problem with it--or, at any rate, the version in the photo, which is the original and was made in France--was that it often broke off at the point where the head screws onto the body.  A Japanese near-clone corrected this problem but wasn't quite as bright as the original; it was sold under Schwinn, Raleigh and other names and, if I remember correctly, made by Sanyo.

Of course it, like nearly all bike lights made more than a decade or so ago, is functionally obsolete.  Remember, the light in the photo was made before halogen bulbs, let alone LEDs, were available in bike lights. But, given that comparatively primitive state of bike light technology, the Wonder and Sanyo arm/leg lights were actually very good options.  In fact, it is the only light Tom Cuthbertson recommended in Anybody's Bike Book and Bike Tripping.

I'm tempted to buy that light.  I mean, even though it's plastic (albeit with a canvas strap), it just reeks style.  It almost makes me want to jump on the  next Peugeot PX-10 or Gitane Tour de France I see and take a moonlight ride.


  1. I have one of those lights - somewhere - if I could only find it, along with the hairnet.

  2. For old lights, I like the look of those boxy chromed battery lights.

    I have a copy of Anybody's Bike Book. While I like some of the practical things he said, other bits of advice just seem so wacky and misguided in this modern era. Like the only type of bag he has is a "rucksack" that can fold up into his pocket.

    I love canvas bags too, but just got some custom made cordura bags.

  3. Steve: Now that you mention it, I may still have one, too.

    Adventure!: I learned bike repair from Anybody's Bike Book. I don't know how anyone could have made things much clearer than Cuthbertson did in that book. I loved the drawings, too!

    However, you're right about some of the advice he gave. To be fair, though, you should realize that he was writing at the dawn of the Bike Boom. At that time, good lights, racks and other accessories were difficult to come by, at least in the US.

    On the other hand, I wholeheartedly agree with what you say about his advice on rucksacks: I have never liked cycling with a backpack. And I can understand why you went with Cordura: for a cross-country tour, it makes sense because it's easier to make the bags in a shape that won't catch your heels but will carry what you need. Canvas bags tend to be boxier than nylon ones.

  4. Justine--

    Yeah, I know that it was a different era from which Cuthbertson writes. But I still laugh when I hear “rucksack in pocket”. Any rucksack that fits in my pocket is NOT going to be useful! As a daily bicyclist/commuter/whatever, I bring “things” with me, so I need an appropriate place for these things. “Rucksack in pocket” makes me think that Cuthbertson used bicycles for leisure purposes and didn’t want to sully it with utility. It also harkens back to an era when “The only bag a man needs is a wallet”. And if a man HAD a bag other than a briefcase, well...there’s something funny about him.

    At least Cuthbertson isn’t as bad as Sloane is in the 1st Edition (1970) of his “Complete Book of Bicycling.” Some of the things he says can come across as misogynist these days. But forty years ago, few would bat an eyelash at that crap.

    One thing that really gets me about some of the books of that era was the vigor in which three speeds were discredited. I can understand the excitement over ten speeds, especially after so many generations of heavy bikes. But three speeds had and have their place. For example, in Chapter 3 of the Complete Book of Bicycling, Sloane depicts a contemporary Raleigh Superbe. It’s got chainguard, Brooks saddle and saddlebag, full fenders, and dynamo hub wheel and lighting. I look at it and say, “Looks like a practical bike!” Not to Sloane, who captions (and I paraphrase) “English Racer? Certainly Not.” He directs us to the contemporary ten-speed, which in the photo is a Schwinn Super Sport ironically enough. It’s a nice bike, but doesn’t have fenders, chainguard, bag, rack, or lighting. (It does have a Brooks saddle though.) Yes, this is a sportier bike, but is it a more practical bike? And it’s only in the last, oh, few years or so, that we’re regaining an appreciation of utility bikes.

    Sorry for the rant!

    As for my bags, I would have loved to get some canvas panniers, and have a feeling I will someday. But most of the ones I’ve seen are a bit too fancy and not that practical for touring purposes, not to mention expensive. Plus, most of the custom bag makers I know use the standard cordura and waterproof lining technique that goes back to the world of messenger bags. The only custom bagmaker I’ve seen make canvas panniers (beside Carradice, who I wouldn’t consider “custom”) is Swift in Seattle. http://www.builtbyswift.com/ You can get bags done in waxed canvas at an additional cost. (They also do saddle bags and handlebar bags too!) But I did a trade for my bags from Curtis at North St. Bags http://northstbags.com/

  5. Justine,

    Your blog is one of the best sources for a picture of the 70s French Arm-band Light. Bike lights have come a long way since then, blindingly so.

    Thanks, Steve