For safety reasons, your choice of tail lights is perhaps more
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.
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
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 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
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,
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
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.
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
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.
American riders traditionally prefer battery-powered head lights.
Older commercial bike lights were designed with the commuter in mind,
the randonneur. They offered lots of light, rechargeable
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
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.
European riders prefer generator systems. They know what they're
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
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
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
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
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.
From left to right: B&M IXON IQ, B&M IXON IQ/Speed, Schmidt
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
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.