Thursday, September 20, 2012

Attention-Seeking Behavior: Bike Lights & Shorter Days

A spookily effective way of seeking cycling attention: spoke lights.

It has become very clear as of late that the days are getting shorter. This means two things to me in cycling terms: the joys of autumn cycling (crunchy leaves, crisp morning air, gorgeous blue skies, and the scents of earth and smoke and ripeness), and the need to have good lighting on my “steel steed.”

For many years, I had one form of lighting on my bikes: a 1979 Union generator light set from the then West Germany. I still have it. It still works very well. It is on its third bike now, but it still purrs along just fine. The biggest trouble is finding bulbs! A primary light set is a light TO SEE things with. They come in two forms: generator- and battery-powered.

Generator light sets have come a long way since I purchased my Union model. I will likely someday upgrade to a front hub-mounted dynamo, attaching a bright LED front light and (if possible) a red back light with a built-in capacitor to keep it on while I am stopped at lights and intersections (ahhh, my old Gazelle was a marvelous bike…it came with all of this—standard!). But, for now, it’s the old Union set.

The main thing I look for in a primary light set is whether it actually helps one see the road. Lots of front lights make that promise but don’t deliver. It takes quite a bit of well-aimed candlepower to really light up black asphalt at night. This has as much to do with lens design as with raw electrical current.

Generator-powered lights have the advantage of never needing batteries…but there are some other things to consider: will the amount of power generated make the lights shine brightly (are they matched up properly, in other words)? What about when the bicycle is stopped? Some sets do have capacitors for this purpose, keeping an LED standlight going…others do not. How well sealed is the hub? Some generator hubs have had a problem, when moving from warm to cold conditions, of sucking in winter moisture that leads to corrosion (if you keep  your bike in unheated conditions all the time, you don’t have to worry about it).

Some people prefer battery-powered main lights, and there are some excellent ones out on the market. For me, the main hassle with these is remembering to keep the batteries charged. I suggest a sheet posted someplace pretty conspicuous with “last charged” dates written down. Alternatively, a regular charging/battery replacement pattern during the darker months (as well as an emergency set carried along with you) can help…if the batteries are standard types. Otherwise, you just have to be really, really responsible. Battery-powered lights do not create drag. Generators do (though this has gotten MUCH better over the years). Like most things in this life, there is no perfect solution. Pick your poison.

On the whole, I prefer generators. They simply are more dependable.

The other type of bicycle lights are those TO BE SEEN with. These build on the reflector principle by generating their own light (reflectors are the least effective way to be seen, but they are an important start; reflective sidewalls on bike tires are splendid). There are dozens of products and strategies for this sort of lighting—some on the bike, some on the cyclist.

I use a variety of battery-powered LEDs, as they use less electricity (extending battery life), take a long, long time to “burn out,” and produce a piercing, attention-seeking light.

I have a white front LED that can either function as a steady or a flashing beam. On the steady setting, it provides a marginal beam of light (it isn’t much as a main light), but on the flashing setting, it really does get people’s attention. On the back of the bike, I have a triple-LED flashing light. Some newer versions have an even more effective “random” pattern of flashes between bright and less bright LEDs. These are excellent for rainy winter biking. Both the front and back lights are easily removable, and probably should be take with one for longer unattended stays.

A little busy, but effective.

That covers the front and the back: what about the sides? This is a frequently overlooked matter, but it is pretty important. Being seen from the side is essential, and many light systems don’t provide a good option here. Reflective sidewalls on a bike’s tires are one way to help remedy this, but generating one’s own warning, apart from reflecting light, is quite helpful at night.

Last year I purchased some orange flashing LED spoke-mounted lights. They flash as they revolve with my rotating wheels, so they make a pretty vivid impression—making my bike quite visible from the sides. One night this week, on my way back from a Bible study, two cyclists said “nice lights!” as we passed in the dark. That’s high praise!

If one has reflective elements to one’s coat or shoes…all the better. I’ve also seen reflective gloves (for signaling), helmet-mounted LED flashers, valve-cap LED units, and lights built into all sorts of clothes and parts of a bike. The sky seems to be the limit.

Some cyclists seem to resent having all of this electronic gear, and I do sometimes feel a bit like a mobile Coney Island with all of the lights on my bike going full tilt. But, I think I owe it to the motorists, pedestrians, and fellow-cyclists to be seen at night: I don’t want people to say “I never saw him coming,” something no one can easily say about me now!

Rechargeable batteries have been a blessing!

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