Don't Be a Bike Ninja - Remember Your Lights!

  • Now that it's getting dark much earlier, your afternoon commute turns into a night ride.

     

    Even now - one month out - we're starting to ride in low-light situations shortly after we leave work. Sure, you can still see the road just fine. But to cars, you might be turning into stealthy creatures we like to call "bike ninjas."

     

    Photo by GRB

     

    Not only is this dangerous, but also illegal. So, if you don't already have them, now would be a very good time to start thinking about lights and reflective gear.

     

    "It's not about seeing where you are going," explained Eli Kuronin of Roscoe Village Bikes (Chicago). "You want something that attracts attention from cars."

     

    Kuronin explained that you don't have to spend a mint to be compliant with the law, and also more visible to cars. Basic front and rear light sets, he said, start at around $20.

     

    He added that for a few dollars more ($60 and up), you can obtain full-featured light sets that are USB rechargeable, and are bright enough to light your way down a dark street.

     

    Kuronin said this is a better option for people who frequently ride at night, commute home from a late shift, venture outside the city, etc.

     

    "If you're a more serious rider, we recommend investing in a more serious light set," Kuronin said.

     

    Adrian Redd from Boulevard Bikes (Chicago) said if you want even more visibility to motorists, you can augment your lights with a variety of reflective accessories. These can include ankle straps, vests, flags, or even reflective stickers you can put on your helmet and bike frame.

     

    If you're willing to invest a little more, a totally pro option is to install a front wheel with a generator hub. As the name implies, the hub generates electricity to power lights as you ride. In the daytime (depending on the connections you install), you may also be able to use the hub to power your phone, Garmin, or other accessories.

     

    "A generator hub is an awesome way to go so you don't have to worry about recharging or changing batteries," Redd said.

     

    Regardless what setup you choose, Redd believes a bright headlight is key.

     

     

    "Based on my experience, a lot of the danger comes from cars turning in front of you or suddenly pulling out of a driveway," Redd said. "The most important thing is that they see you coming."

     

    If you don't believe lights make that big of a difference, this video from the Active Transportation Alliance is worth a watch.

     

     

    Specifically, by showing side-by-side footage of cyclists going down the same stretch of dark streets with and without lights, it really shows how invisible you can be when not lit up.

     

    The video also offers some great information on how lights differ in brightness (measured in lumens), price, features, mounting options, etc.

     

    For what it's worth, I tend to agree with just about everything said in the video.

     

    For me, personally, I've blown through a half dozen different light setups in the 11 years I've been riding seriously. This was mostly due to cheap mounts that broke, damage from rain, lights simply wearing out, etc.

     

    I'm happy to say that in my opinion, lights have gotten really good in the last few years. They are durable, bright, have better mounting options, and the USB charging has been a HUGE improvement over batteries.

     

    The brands I use (Light & Motion, NiteRider, Knog, and Planet Bike) are readily available at shops like Boulevard Bikes and Roscoe Village Bikes, and have performed flawlessly over the past several seasons.

     

    Quality of bike lights has improved drastically over the past several years. So, regardless which brand you choose, you can expect performance, durability, convenience, and ease of use.

     

    In fact, they put out enough light to let me ride mountain bike trails after dark, and participate in pitch-black, out-in-the-boonies events like the Night Bison gravel ride. Here's an overview of a setup that has worked well for me:

    • When I need to "see" as well as "be seen," I add the NiteRider Lumina OLED 800, which has a beautifully-designed optional helmet mount. The Light & Motion shines where the bars are pointed, and the NightRider follows my head, which works very well.

     

    Well, I hope this article about lights is helpful, and I sincerely hope to "see" you out riding this fall.

     

    Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, The Nashville Tennessean, The Nashville Scene, Guitar Player and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping, and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he also occasionally races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.