See the bolded text for the bottom line, if you want details, continue reading. Red text indicates a future article.
Do I need a light? If you are riding in reduced visibility conditions (dusk, dawn, dust, fog, at nightÖ), you need a light for your own safety. In many locations, a light is required by law. Check with your local officials to find out what is legal in your area. Commonly, the requirement is for one white light in front and a solid red light behind. Front and back blinking lights, while attention getting, are not always legal. At the very least, a light will make you more visible to pedestrians as well as vehicles and could keep you out of trouble. Motorcycles have their lights on and still have cars pull out in front of them all the time. Vehicle operators are just not looking for bicycles. Bottom line: You need lights to see or be seen.
What types of lights bulbs are out there? (back to top) There is an overwhelming amount of information out there concerning light systems. Weíll break it down for you. Each section below can be taken separately or all together depending on your interests.
There are three common bulbs in use, each with advantages and disadvantages. Light Emitting Diodes (LED) (see Wikipedia entry) are coming into their own over the past couple of years. These are long lasting, efficient, very durable bulbs that produce a nice light. Because there is no filament, the LED bulb will withstand impacts normal bulbs will not. LEDs are very efficient which makes them a good choice for commuters that want a minimum hassle and reliability. In the past, LEDs have not put out enough light to satisfy mountain bikers, but recent advertisements claim, yet again, that LEDs have taken a step forward and may provide enough light, this time, it may be true. LED lights are either on or off. The dimming function of LEDs is achieved by cycling the LED on and off at a slower rate, to the eye, the light produced is dimmed. This also extends battery life. Bottom line: LEDs have good efficiency and are bright enough for most applications.
High Intensity Discharge (HID) (see Wikipedia entry) bulbs are the standard to which other systems are measured. HIDs are bright and have a good burn time, but, the bulbs are expensive to replace, are easily damaged and take some time to achieve full brightness. In mountain biking, itís common to dim the light while climbing (to preserve battery power) and increase light while at speed. HID bulbs don't lend themselves to this technique. Mountain bikes are also subject to jarring terrain (think 'rock gardens'), that could damage a HID bulb. HID bulbs throw a good flame of light out there, but has been described as a bluish light which may not be optimal for all riders. The circuitry to run the HID bulbs also increases the cost. HID lights may actually be too strong for legal street use in some locations. Bottom line: HIDs have top performance for top dollar.
Halogen bulbs are the more familiar type flashlight bulb. The bulb can run at a higher temperature than a standard lamp without loss of operating life and the bulb is slightly more efficient than a standard bulb. Iíve run a halogen bulb for over two years with a heavy NiCad battery. The light is good and has a good run time. It does not have the long run times of the LED lights or the retina searing output of the HID lights but works for most situations. Bottom line: Halogen bulbs are good for most applications.
What type of attachment systems are out there? (back to top) Lights commonly mount to either the helmet or handlebar. There are other lights available that attach to the frame (mostly back lights and Knog lights); into the handlebar end caps, pedals, there are even red lights that fit into the back vents of your helmet.
The prime advantage to the helmet mount lights is the light is directed where you look. While street riding, you can get a driverís attention by looking right at the driver (again, this may be prohibited where you ride). While trail riding, as you round a curve or prepare to change direction you can ďseeĒ around the corner prior to you turning your handlebar in the direction of the turn. After experiencing a twisting trail with a helmet mount light, I canít imagine returning to a handlebar only set up for most situations. While riding at night, Iíve also appreciated the look and point capability when encountering strange nocturnal noises. The helmet mount lights are nice when you have to dig into your pack at night or fumble for your keys. There are a few disadvantages to a helmet mount light; the cable can get hung up, the light tends to ďwash outĒ (fewer shadows) some of the terrain you are covering as the light is in line with your eyesight and is coming from above. In fog, rain and snow, a helmet mounted light can reflect quite a bit of light back into your eyes. Often, while riding up and passing through a low cloud or fog clinging to a mountainside, Iíve had to turn off my helmet light because of the light reflected back into my eyes prevented me from seeing the trail! Iíve also noticed this during rain and snow (yes, I ride in the snow, too). Having a weight on a helmet can be uncomfortable, particularly if the light is mounted forward on the helmet. Lights mounted more towards the center of the helmet are more balanced, but, also produce a higher profile. You may have to duck lower than youíd expect with these lights to miss a branch. During an accident, the helmet is designed to slide over obstacles. With a light strapped to the top, the helmet may not perform as designed. Jet lights have added a breakaway design into their lights to help address this. These systems are attached to the helmet with straps, hook and loop strips or a combination of the two. Some models currently come with remote handlebar mounted switches to activate the helmet light. That feature is very cool and convenient. I donít know if those remote switches are illuminated. Commonly, the batteries for these lights are compact and fit easily into a rear pocket or backpack. Bottom line: Helmet mount lights are a step up from handlebar mounted lights for most situations.
Bar mount lights show the terrain better or differently, in that the shadows from rocks and dips are exaggerated by the slant of the light. The angle between the ground and light is less than with the helmet mount. The batteries may be larger and have longer run times. You may be able to leave the batteries on the bike while they recharge. Some of the disadvantages: The bar mount lights canít turn around a bend until you enter the corner, occasionally, Iíve whipped my bar quickly to the left or right just to get a glimpse of what Iím heading into. Handlebar attachment can be an issue when climbing and the tendency is to turn the handlebar left and right, your light will swing across your field of view and can be very irritating. *NOTE* When purchasing a handlebar mounted light, make sure the mount fits your handlebar. Usually, they will fit a range of diameters. Your bar has to be within the limits. Bottom line: Bar mount lights are second to a helmet mount light for most situations.
*Please send additions, submissions, or corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.