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Bike Fun

By Janet Lafleur

About this blog: My love affair with the bicycle began with a crush on my first red tricycle that I pedaled in circles on the driveway. The crush grew into full-blown passion when my dad threw Stingray handlebars and a banana seat on my older sist...  (More)

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Bright Lights, Dark City

Uploaded: Nov 3, 2013
Spring forward, fall back. When you remembered to turn back your clocks did you remember to clip on your bike lights? Now that we're back on Standard Time, sunset is just after 5:00 pm and it's fully dark by 5:30. If you haven't already turned on your bikes lights for your evening commute you almost certainly will this week.

When I first started bike commuting to work years ago, the end of Daylight Saving Time drove me off the bike, but not anymore. I now have bike lights that keep me visible to others, and keep the trail or street visible to me. Like most things, feeling comfortable and safe was a matter of having the right equipment.

I've gathered quite a number of lights over the years and learned through trial and error what works for me, which may not be what's best for you. Here's what I've learned.

Putting Your Best Light Forward
A white front light keeps you visible to oncoming vehicle and bike traffic as well as to people walking. To ride legally after dark, your front light must be visible from the front and side at 300 feet away, which is about one city block or five houses away. A basic $20-$30 light with fresh batteries will meet this legal standard and is good enough if you'll be riding on slower-speed city streets with street lights. Most of these lights operate on standard batteries, but some are rechargeable through a USB connection.

If your routes take you on unlit trails or poorly-lit streets you'll do well to invest in a more powerful light rated at 150 lumens or greater. Pricing for these lights starts at about $60 and virtually all feature rechargeable batteries. You'll also want a powerful light if you'll be riding on roads with speed limits of 35 or greater. At higher speeds, drivers need to see you from further away so they have enough time to react to you.

Aimed for Success
Front lights can be mounted on your bike's helmet, handlebar or front fork. Helmet lights let you see around corners better and let you look down at your bike if something malfunctions. Handlebar or front fork lights work better in fog and don't add extra weight to your head, which can be an issue for the more powerful lights which have heavier batteries.

In either case, make sure your front light is pointed at the roadway and not blinding oncoming traffic. That's especially important for helmet lights, which are harder to adjust and mounted higher, and even more important when you're using powerful lights. Blinding drivers doesn't make you or anyone else any safer.

Brightening Up the Rear
By law, your bike only needs a red reflector visible from 500 feet to the rear, but most riders use red lights, not just reflectors, for higher visibility. Like the front lights, more expensive rear lights are generally brighter, but the range is not as dramatic. Rear lights can be mounted on the bike or clipped to a rider's backpack or pannier. Common bike mount locations are the seat post, the frame of the bike near the rear wheel (seat stay), or on the back of a rear rack. If you mount it on the bike, make sure any gear you carry or any clothing you wear doesn't block the view.

To Blink or Not to Blink
Most bike lights offer both steady and blinking options. I set mine to blinking as the sun starts to go down and then switch to steady at dusk. I find a steady front light helps me see the road ahead better so I can avoid potholes and other obstacles. Steady lights also help other road users gauge your distance from them better than flashing lights. Also, super-bright flashing lights can be very distracting to drivers, other bicyclists and people walking. One day a man walking by actually thanked me for not setting my bright front light to flashing.

I do set my lights to flashing after dark in areas with a lot of other lighting distractions or when it's raining at night. Or sometimes I set a smaller light to flash and my bigger main light to steady.

Looking for the Bright Side
Being visible from the side is often overlooked. The law only requires white reflectors on the wheels or tires with reflective sidewalls. I have both, but also have amber spoke lights for extra visibility. I'm a lot more comfortable approaching or rolling through an intersection knowing I'm visible from all directions, whether or not there's a headlight hitting my wheels at the right angle.

Back it Up for the Unexpected
Don't get left in the dark when your front light loses its charge or your rear light falls off your bike mid-ride. It's worth buying and carrying a second pair of lights. One easy way is to mount an inexpensive "be seen" front light to your helmet and mount a more powerful one on your handlebars. The same works for the rear: mount a more powerful rear light on your bike, but clip an less expensive blinkie to your bag or helmet.

Are you and your bikes ready for this week's early sunsets? What are your go-to night riding accessories?
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by student, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 8:32 am

I love bicycle helmet mounted headlights. If a car driver is harassing you, you can easily shine the light into their window and get a good look at their face. That is really hard to do with a handlebar headlight.

Posted by mike, a resident of Monta Loma,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 10:38 am

I like the strobe flashing option - I now use 3 strobes, one front (white) and two rear (red), even during daylight hours when I'm on a trail or narrow road. BTW, your readers could benefit by being aware of the sun angle, especially when commuting. Routes where drivers are looking into the sun are dangerous this time of year...

Posted by Janet Lafleur, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 10:47 am

Janet Lafleur is a registered user.

@student I've had to point a helmet light toward a driver that was about to pull out of a parking lot, but looking behind me for a faster-moving vehicle. It was very effective.

@mike As you say, the strobe option works well during the day in low-light or dappled light conditions. But I think it's a bad idea to run a powerful front light on strobe at night. It can be distracting to other people on the road to the point of being dangerous.

Posted by 100% bicycle commuter, a resident of another community,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 1:33 pm

If your lights use AA or AAA batteries, consider using rechargeables. I've been using the same set of AAA rechargeables, with basically daily use, for >5 years. That way I don't produce a steady stream of electronic waste.

Posted by Janet Lafleur, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Nov 4, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Janet Lafleur is a registered user.

@100% bike commuter Good idea! My problem is that my spoke lights use the coin shaped batteries and I've never seen rechargeable versions of those. The good news is that they last about a year even though I ride at night year-round.

Posted by Tian Harter, a resident of Willowgate,
on Nov 5, 2013 at 12:25 am

Excellent points in the above! Thank you Janet. That comment "have two lights so that if one goes dead you still have something" is wisdom to be heeded. has some great spoke lights that work on AA batteries. I've put them on all my bikes since I discovered them and never had any problems. Great splash of revolutionary color! I get "nice lights" comments on them often.

Posted by Tian Harter, a resident of Willowgate,
on Nov 5, 2013 at 12:35 am

A great time saver is having enough batteries that you can just take dead batteries out of the bike, put them in the charger, and then put charged batteries in the bike light. After those charge take them out of the charger and you're ready to repeat the next time a light dies. I find having four more AA batteries than I'm using and 2 more AAA batteries than I'm using is usually enough. If you don't have those spares sometimes you're in a situation where you have to wait 8 hours for the things to charge before your bike is fully ready to ride again.

Posted by ItinerantRick, a resident of another community,
on Nov 5, 2013 at 6:54 am

A few points after riding Stevens Creek/Bay Trail last night.

* Way too many bikes without lights.
* Way too many cyclists with lights aimed way too high. Hitting other cyclists and drives in the retina with a bright light from 50-100 yards away is counter-productive. Lights are to see or be seen, both better accomplished if the light is aimed at the ground a reasonable distant in front.
* Batteries can be avoided. Generators and generator driven lights mean never having to worry about batteries. My wife and I have been using generator driven lighting systems for about 10 years. Always there, environmentally friendly.

I am a bit conflicted on blinking. It does make things more noticeable in dark conditions, but a lot of evidence that drivers impaired due to drugs or alcohol are attracted towards blinking lights. For now I am running lights in non-blinking mode.

Posted by Janet Lafleur, a resident of Rex Manor,
on Nov 5, 2013 at 9:53 am

Janet Lafleur is a registered user.

@Tian I'll have to look into rechargeable AA batteries again. The last ones I had didn't work very well.

@ItinerantRick I don't know how people can ride without a headlight on the Stevens Creek Trail. It's so dark there I always make sure I bring my higher powered light.

Dick has generator lights on his WorkCycles Dutch bike and I'm jealous. I don't have generator-driven lights on any of my bikes. They're not easy to find. I think the Nexus hub on my red Dutch bike can be modified for one.

Posted by Eamonn, a resident of another community,
on Nov 5, 2013 at 10:23 am

I don't see the point of blinking. I'd imagine a solid light is easier to see in all circumstances, whether it's twilight or absolute darkness.

Posted by mike, a resident of Monta Loma,
on Nov 5, 2013 at 10:43 am

Blinking lights have been contraversial since the 60's when hazard lights on the side of the road were thought to attract other drivers. The human eye is attracted to movement and blinking lights - one needs to decide which is appropriate in different places. Blinking red tail lights simulate brake lights - but they can seem to be farther away than they are. A steady red light can also seem far away if it is too small. A combination of lights can confuse drivers who's perspective is compromised by darkness, rain, etc. Hard to figure if one is better or not...

Posted by ItinerantRick, a resident of another community,
on Nov 5, 2013 at 11:56 am

@Janet - Our switch to generator lights was abrupt. I had used a sidewall generator back in the 70\\\'s and 80\\\'s. That was good but not compelling. Our current setup started after Sarah got stranded when her battery died about 4 miles from home. I drove over to pick her up, then ordered a wheel with a hub generator and lights the next day. As soon as she got hers I ordered mine. Both are built on the SON, the high-end. I later built a wheel on the Nexus. I just rebuilt Sarah\\\'s original wheel as the rim was pretty worn after 10 years and 20+K miles. Nominally the importer of the SON considers me a dealer, but I have never sold any. But I do like them; a bit spendy relative to the Nexus but sealed bearings and rock solid. Only change we made in 10 years when moving from halogen lights to LED lights about 4-5 years back (still have the halogen lights if you want to try them).

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