Brevet Lighting

Rear Lighting

For safety reasons, your choice of tail lights is perhaps more important than your choice of front. Fortunately, there are good off-the-shelf solutions. Red Light-Emitting Diode (LED) technology is continually advancing. If you've been using the same tail lights for a few years, you probably owe it to yourself to check out the current crop of lights. They are probably much brighter and more efficient than what you're using now.

Taillights
From left to right: Planet Bike Superflash, Cateye LD1100, Dinotte (less battery pack)

Typically, commercial tail lights are powered by two AA or AAA cells. They become quite dim toward the end of their advertised runtimes. If you use a AAA-powered light with an advertised 30-hour runtime, be prepared to replace the alkaline batteries after each night of riding. The runtime of an AA-powered tail light can be extended through four nights of a 1200K ride if you replace its alkaline batteries with LiFeS cells (sold primarily to power digital cameras).

Most commercial tail lights seem to be made out of cheese. It is very good idea to use two lights, one set to flashing and the other left solid. Each will serve as a backup to the other.

The minimum system I'd consider is the Vistalite "Super Nebula 5". If properly aimed, it is adequately bright. Vistalite's "Total Eclipse" is essentially the same light powered by smaller AAA cells. The corresponding models from the Cateye line are their LD1100 and LD600, respectively. All four use an array of five to ten tiny plastic LED emitters controlled by a low-power computer that can flash the array in various patterns.

Some newer models use higher-power LEDs which have only recently become widely available. One example is the Planet Bike Superflash (0.5W) and the Dinotte (3.0W). The latter uses a six-volt external pack; the light head itself is fabricated from a solid aluminum billet that also serves as a heat sink for the single LED.

Whatever tail lights you choose it is critically important they can be aimed correctly. LED tail lights achieve most of their brightness by focusing all their output into a very narrow beam. Some lights are meant to be mounted to the seat tube and cannot be aimed properly if mounted on the seat stay. Take your bike with you if you're not sure or be prepared to return or discard lights that don't work where you intend to mount them.

Mount your tail lights rigidly to your frame or rack, and aim them so their beam is exactly horizontal and exactly behind you. Test the aim by shining your tail lights onto a wall or the garage door. The brightest spot should be at the level of the light, directly behind your bike. You want to be obvious to an overtaking vehicle a mile behind you.

Don't aim the beam sideways for the benefit of a vehicle 20 yards behind passing on your left. If the driver hasn't seen you by then, it's too late anyway.

Don't aim the light upwards either, even if a poorly designed chainstay mount seems to demand it. You have little to fear from overflying aircraft.

Don't depend on a light clipped to your bag or jersey. It won't stay aimed properly.

And whatever you do, check that your brevet paraphernalia (seat bag, rack bag, panniers, etc.) don't block your tail light. The brightest tail light you can buy does little good illuminating the front side of your brand new rack bag.

Reflective Gear

pbp start

To augment active lighting, passive (reflective) gear helps overtaking vehicles identify you. The brighter you appear, the more room vehicles are likely to give you. This is what you use for the sake of those vehicles 20 yards behind passing on your left.

A "Sam Browne" belt has two straps: one around the waist; the other over the shoulder. Reflective versions of this belt are preferred by European riders, but they are somewhat hard to find in the US. They are light and roll up into a very small package.

A suitable replacement is the cyclist's reflective vest -- a lightweight version of the garment worn by road workers. Your local bike shop should have these or be able to order them for you.

Reflective ankle bands (that typically fasten with velcro) can be quite effective. Their reciprocal motion helps identify you as a cyclist.

triangle

A recumbent cyclist knows the standard reflective gear doesn't work for them. A workable alternative is the slow-moving vehicle reflective triangle; these can be had in cloth versions and attached to the back of the riders seat or seat bag.

Finally, you can buy reflective tape or fabric, often at your local auto parts store. Use it to liberally festoon your bike, your clothing, your hydration pack, your helmet, etc.

Front Lighting

American riders traditionally prefer battery-powered head lights.

Older commercial bike lights were designed with the commuter in mind, not the randonneur. They offered lots of light, rechargeable batteries, and a 1-hour runtime -- just enough to ride to work before dawn or home after dusk, but probably not both. To get enough runtime for an overnight jaunt was either a technical challenge or a logistical nightmare. For maximum efficiency, older incandescent lights ran so hot they were just about to burn out. Bulb life suffered, and carrying a spare was always necessary.

Modern white LED lights make the battery-powered option much more attractive. LED efficiency actually increases as their temperature decreases, and the designer's main problem is keeping the emitter cool enough to work well at a given power setting.

Older LED designs incorporate multiple plastic-housed, low-power LEDs and cast an ill-focused beam that's barely adequate. Newer designs use a single higher-power LED that can be more readily focused into a somewhat tighter beam.

Although you can get by with less, I recommend at least two 1-watt LED head lights. Examples include the Planet Bike 1-Watt Blaze, Princeton Tec IOS-Bike, and the Cateye HL-EL530, pictured below.

1-watt LED head lights


European riders prefer generator systems. They know what they're doing.

Many of the best systems come from Germany where people actually use their bikes to get from place to place. German law requires each bicycle sold to be equipped with a generator light system and demands the headlight meet rigid specifications so as not to blind oncoming drivers.

For the 2001 brevet season, I switched to a German hub dynamo: Schmidt's Original Nabendynamo (SON for short). I will never go back to a battery headlight. There is no perceptible drag. You need not worry about changing batteries. You just ride, and there is light.

I bought my hub in Germany. In the US, Peter White Cycles is the sole distributor of these hubs, and thus it is quite difficult to negotiate on price. Of course, to the price of the hub, you must add the cost of a built-up wheel, but it certainly will give you great peace of mind.

Alternatives to the hub generator include various bottle generators. These higher-end products are nothing like the bottle generators you strapped to your Schwinn as a kid. These are quite a bit larger and much more efficient. One catch with any bottle generator is the potential for slipping in wet weather. In Germany, one can buy a variety of replacement rollers, brushes, etc., that purportedly remedy this situation in various climates. In the USA, you just hope for dry weather.

Peter White sells a German bottle generator, the B&M S6/12. Unlike the Schmidt, it may be available through other channels.

With any generator system, you must purchase the headlight separately. Many riders are still using incandescent (halogen) bulb systems. Of these I recommend the Lumotec. The Bisy (or the Schmidt E6, which uses the same optics) casts a light pattern which precisely illuminates the road from edge to edge. I find this property annoying and prefer the more diffuse pattern of the Lumotec. Don't forget your spares for these overdriven bulbs.

New in late 2008 is an LED alternative: the Schmidt E-Deluxe. At first glance it seems to be a mechanically rugged design with a byzantine set of features including a standlight (to keep the light illuminated for a short time while you're waiting for a stop light to change) and a sensor that turns the light on automatically at night. The beam pattern is superb; it features side-firing optics and a very sharp cutoff which you aim at the horizon. Not a photon of light is wasted shining into the trees or annoying oncoming traffic.

german lights

From left to right: B&M IXON IQ, B&M IXON IQ/Speed, Schmidt E-Deluxe

The three German lights above are available from Peter White Cycles. All share the same side-firing optics design. The first two are battery-operated and thus illegal for use as a primary light source in Germany. The unit on the left incorporates a rechargable battery pack; the unit in the center uses a detached pack.

Choosing Battery Chemistry

Battery-operated headlights mostly use the ubiquitous AA cell and sometimes include rechargable versions as part of the package. Tail lights use either AA or AAA, but few are rechargeable. (The Dinotte is a notable exception; they are often bundled with rechargable batteries using a variety of chemical reactions to power them.) Both AA and AAA are available in rechargable and primary (disposable) versions.

I have terrible luck with rechargable systems. I try to do everything right, but I can seldom get more than 10 charges from a set of cells. Thus I have abandoned rechargables for my tail lights. I had to do hand-to-hand combat with the Dinotte salesman to get him to sell me a tail light with a AA battery holder instead of a Lithium pack.

If your karma with rechargables is better than mine, I applaud you and encourage you to use them.

Mounting the Front Light

The front light should be mounted to a part of the bike that steers: the handlebars, stem or fork. Affixing it to the headtube works okay when you're riding fast, but during low-speed maneuvering, it doesn't point to where you're going; it points to where you would have gone. (This mistake is most common for recumbent riders because there's often a lot of frame out front of the steering bits. As a recumbent rider who's tried it both ways, I can assure you that it's worth the trouble.)

That said, the final mounting position is a tradeoff. To maximize your visibility to oncoming vehicles, mount the light as high as possible (typically the handlebars). To lengthen the shadows cast by obstacles and potholes, mount it as low as possible (typically just above the fork dropouts).

Personally, I choose the latter approach. All but the smoothest roads appear to me as the surface of the moon. If I steer around the major craters, I get a pretty smooth ride. With some experimentation, you may find an intermediate position that suits you better.

Helmet Lighting

The bike-mounted light is good for seeing the road, but it is miserable for reading street signs and cue sheets. For that reason, many randonneurs mount a light to their helmet. A tiny keychain LED flashlight is adequate for reading the cue sheet, but something a little bigger is useful for street signs. I have used the Princeton Tec Impact. I attach mine to my helmet with a Velcro strap. It's a little heavy, but I can quickly remove it after the sun rises. This particular model has been replaced by a more-powerful successor, the ImpactXL.