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Rechargeable Bicycle Lights

You know this trail like your TV remote, yet you flinch with every rogue shadow that passes under your wheels. Blasting through the trees and navigating the rock gardens with focused tunnel vision, you wonder how close that drop-off to the left really is... Yes, you know this trail, but under the dim moonlight, you're riding it again for the first time. Welcome to the world of night riding!

Besides great fun, and a unique and exciting experience, night cycling is a fine way to fit your passion into a busy schedule. It's also a wonderful escape from the scorching sun and crowded trails. The narrowed field of vision and shadows at night provide a great opportunity to improve your handling skills as you concentrate to pick the right line. Perhaps best, you'll sometimes see animals, too (don't run into them).

For this type of riding, you need a powerful and reliable rechargeable lighting system. These have the oomph to turn night to day and make even technical-trail riding possible after dark. They boast a Rechargeable light systempowerful bulb(s) and a rechargeable battery that fuels the light for a couple of hours at least.

These are sophisticated systems with many features and a wide price range. So, here we explain some of the differences to help you in choosing a light.

First, a word about taillights. While some high-tech rechargeable lighting systems offer optional taillights, most come with a headlight only. This is because the most common use for these lightsLED taillight is off-road bicycling where a taillight is unnecessary. If you're using your super light for road riding, either select a model that can be ordered with a taillight, or do what most people do and get an LED taillight to use with your rechargeable lighting system. These LED flashers are plenty bright, affordable, quite light, easy to mount and reliable.

Basic Configurations

Lighting configurations for serious road and off-road riding include helmet- or handlebar-mounted rechargeable lights (photos), or, if you want the ultimate, consider using both! Helmet-mounted lights are generally the least expensive option, ranging from $75 to $150. Bar mounts are typically between $95

helmet-mounted

handlebar-mounted


and $300. And running both is obviously the most expensive option. There are advantages to both types of lights depending on how and where you ride. For serious off-road rides it's best to use both.

Helmet-mounted lights generally use smaller and lighter battery packs carried in a jersey pocket, hydration pack, or backpack. These systems typically have one light and are available with incandescent halogen bulbs or long-lasting high-intensity bulbs. Using a NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) battery, these systems can run for 1 to 4 hours on a charge.

Using larger batteries often attached to the frame or stored in the bottle cage, handlebar-mounted systems provide more power and longer run times than most helmet mounts. These systems can come with up to three light units with various combinations of flood and spot lights. These larger systems can produce up to 40-watts of power with burn times from 1 to 7 hours.

When using handlebar and helmet lights, you may only need to switch both lights on for fast descents or technical sections. Conserving the battery power in your helmet light during slow sections or climbs leaves you with enough power in your helmet light to use it as an emergency backup for trailside repairs or unexpected delays. Remember, it doesn't hurt to end your ride with power to spare, but coming up short is a night-riding no-no. (The chart on the right shows how the lights compare.)

Tips

The Basics

  • Don't ride alone at night. If you absolutely have to go solo, tell someone when and where you're riding, and when you expect to be back.
  • Setup your lights and go for a test ride around the neighborhood so you can adjust the beam angles, power controls, and make sure everything is secure.
  • For your first night excursions, ride conservatively on familiar trails so you can adjust to the conditions and avoid getting lost.

The Essentials

  • Consider the burn time of your lighting system when choosing a trail to ride and leave yourself with enough battery power to get home.
  • Wear eye protection. Branches or anything coming from the periphery is impossible to see until it's too late. Eyewear with clear lenses are perfect.
  • If you don't use two lights, at least carry a backup flashlight.

Look out!

  • Learn to compensate for beam angles. Shadows from handlebar lights can make a 4-inch log look like a 4-foot drop-off. Likewise, the lack of shadows from a helmet lamp can make obstacles look more flat than they are.
  • When following another rider keep an eye on the trail in front of them using their light. Try not to follow their bike so you don't follow them into a bad line.
  • Out of sight, out of mind... is not a good approach to night riding!

Technical Considerations

Shoppers for bicycle lights today are sometimes surprised by the variety of systems available and the range of prices. This is due to the ingenious ways manufacturers optimize light output and battery power. And, how they build in features that make these lights perfect for cycling, such as ways to mount the battery. For those of you who are interested in the science behind the lights, we offer this section. (You certainly don't need to master this information to get a nice light.)

Brightness
When considering bicycle lights, wattage is the most common unit used to describe a light's power and it's one way to gauge how much brightness a system will offer. However, technically speaking, wattage is actually a measure of a light's power consumption, not really the amount of light that it produces. A lumen is the international unit for the actual amount of light that's produced, equal to the amount of light given out by one candle radiating equally in all directions.

This is an important distinction because, for example, a 10-watt H.I.D. light will produce more light (in lumens) than a 30-watt halogen light because an H.I.D. lamp uses its power (in watts) to produce light much more efficiently than halogen systems.

The important thing is to realize that you can't go by watts alone in determining, which is the best light. We're happy to point out the differences and recommend the best light for where and how you ride.

Carrying Options


Helmet Light:
Carried in a hydration pack
or backpack


Handlebar or Helmet Light:
Straps to frame or carried in
a hydration or back pack


Handlebar Light:
Carried in bottle cage

Batteries
Until recently, Lead Acid and Nickel Cadmium (Ni-Cad) batteries were the most common power source for bike lights. Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries are the latest, and offer the best combination of power storage, lightness and fast charging currently available in cycling.

An important difference between a Lead Acid battery and Ni-Cad or NiMH batteries is voltage consistency. A Lead Acid battery's voltage will slowly drop and the light will slowly dim as it's used, whereas Ni-Cad and NiMH batteries will produce constant voltage throughout their cycles. This means that lights using Ni-Cad or NiMH batteries will stay fully lit until just before they shut down completely.

Lead Acid batteries are the most common power source on inexpensive lighting systems. Lead Acids hold their charge for longer periods between uses, which is a valuable feature for an occasional night rider. The primary drawback is weight. Lead Acids are about twice the weight of the better batteries for the same capacity. Also, they typically last between 200 and 400 charging cycles, whereas a Ni-Cad will last through 300 to 2,000 cycles. Lead Acid batteries will also lose more of their capacity in cold weather than Ni-Cad or NiMH batteries.

Ni-Cads are a popular battery because they're moderately priced, less affected by weather, and are easily safely charged with simple chargers. A common misconception concerning Ni-Cad batteries, is a problem with "memory." You may have heard that you need to fully drain a Ni-Cad battery otherwise it will remember where you began charging it and only retain that much capacity. This has never been proven in consumer batteries or cycling lighting systems. The battery industry uses the term memory to refer to voltage depression, which is actually caused by overcharging a Ni-Cad battery at a slow rate. Overcharging, causes the energy being put into the battery to be converted to heat, which changes the structure of the alloys in the battery so they can not reproduce as much voltage. The result is a dimmer, more yellow light.

NiMH batteries are the newest technology powering bike lights. They're significantly lighter than Ni-Cads meaning that they can provide longer run times without excess bulk. A significant drawback to NiMH batteries, however, is that they are difficult to charge correctly. Whereas Ni-Cad batteries can handle continuous charging with relatively little effect, NiMH batteries can be damaged by overcharging. This is why NiMH powered lighting systems typically include "smart" chargers. Note: Any system using NiMH batteries that does not have a charger that automatically shuts off will over- or undercharge your battery without a watchful eye.


Bulbs

Incandescent Light (inert filament bulbs):
The basic premise of an incandescent light is to heat a small wire so hot that it starts to glow like coals in a campfire.
The small wire, called a filament, is typically made of a material called tungsten because of its resistance to melting and evaporation at the 4,000+ degree Fahrenheit temperatures required to produce light. When the light is switched on, the filament is essentially burning, so to control how fast it degrades, incandescent bulbs are either vacuum sealed or filled with inert gases, such as argon and nitrogen. Eventually the filament will burn to the point where the wire breaks and the light stops working.

The primary drawback of incandescent lights is that they're extremely inefficient. The energy that's used produces more heat than light, which means that they're not very bright and they require a lot of battery power to operate.

Halogen Light (filament bulbs containing halogen gas):
A halogen lamp also uses a tungsten filament, but the gases used to fill the bulb are from a group of elements known as halogens. These gases actually combine with the tungsten vapor as the filament burns and redeposits the tungsten back onto the filament. This recycling process preserves the filament and allows it to burn longer and hotter, meaning you get brighter light and a longer-lasting bulb.

However, inert and halogen bulbs both produce much more heat than light, which means that the power being supplied to the filament is not being used efficiently to produce light alone. The yellow hue of the light produced by a tungsten filament can also dull or distort the appearance of objects on a trail.

H.I.D. - High Intensity Discharge Light: Also known as
Metal Halide or Xenon Charged Bulbs, H.I.D. lights use an electrical arc between two electrodes to ignite gases in a sealed bulb, rather than heating a filament to convert electrical energy into light. These lights produce a very bright white or slightly blue light that is more intense and much closer to natural sunlight than incandescent lights.

Although they are sometimes called xenon lights, there are several types of H.I.D. systems and not all are xenon charged. Xenon is only added to some systems because it ignites more quickly and operates at lower temperatures to provide instant-on and -off functionality. Because they don't produce as much heat as a byproduct of producing light, H.I.D. lamps use power up to 3 times more efficiently than even the best halogen incandescent lamps, which results in much lower power requirements and longer battery life.

However, some limitations of H.I.D. systems include
up to one minute of warm-up time before reaching full power and replacingH.I.D. lamps is more expensive than incandescent bulbs. And although the working life of H.I.D. lamps decreases with each use and turning them on and off frequently can damage the lamp, H.I.D. lamps typically last 3 to 5 times longer than Halogen bulbs.

We look forward to showing you our selection of bicycle lighting!