Thursday, October 14, 2010

5 Tips: Bicycle Lights

Although this weekend marks the end of the season for our Night Rides on the Towpath Trail, for many cyclists, this is the time where they need to start thinking more about riding at night. Here are some tips to keep in mind for selecting and using a bicycle lighting system:

1. Do you need a light "to see with," or just "to be seen?" Consider your needs and your riding conditions (and not just your budget) when deciding what lights to purchase. There are many choices for lights ranging in price from $25 to several hundred dollars. All of them work well for their intended uses, but different types of riders and conditions need different lights. Are you riding on streets or dedicated bike paths? Are there ample street lights, or are there some sections of complete darkness? Are you mountain biking? Are you commuting, or trying to squeeze in extra training miles in the morning or evening? Are you doing long distance touring or endurance racing? These are the questions we will ask you before recommending any specific light system.

2. A flashing taillight is essential to ensure being seen by passing motorists, but a headlight is just as important. Many who ride on the streets after dark worry most about the cars coming from behind. However, statistics show that the majority of bike vs. car collisions occur when an oncoming car makes a left turn in front of a bike, or when driver a pulls out from a side street. So, being seen from the front, back, and sides are all equally important.

3. Plan ahead: Check or recharge your batteries the night before, test your lights before leaving home, and carry spare batteries and/or a backup light. Many bike commuters like to get all of their riding clothes and other gear ready the night before a ride to keep their departure smooth and help eliminate excuses to not ride. Make your light set-up part of this pre-ride routine. If you start a ride when it's light out, a non-working light doesn't do you any good when you discover it after it gets dark outside. If you've got a very nice high-end rechargeable light that meets your normal needs, it may be worth it to toss an inexpensive battery-operated light in your pack just in case. If you must ride no matter what, plan for the worst-case scenario.

4. Position your headlight high enough so that it illuminates the road or trail far enough ahead that you have time to react to obstacles, but low enough that it does not cause glare in the eyes of oncoming users. While standing still on your bike, adjust the angle of your headlight so that the main spot is a comfortable distance ahead of your bike. What is comfortable for you will vary depending on where you ride and how fast your typically go. It may take some trial and error to find the right height; take a brief test ride up the street and make adjustments as necessary. If cars are flashing their high beams at you, your light may be aimed too high!

5. Helmet mount or handlebar mount? Or both? The advantage of a handlebar-mounted headlight is that it always points the same way your bike is pointing. A helmet light always points the same way you're looking. One or the other are enough for most people, except that both are recommended for mountain biking. A helmet light is useful is want to be able to read a map or cue sheet while you're riding. It's also handy if you have to stop to take things in and out of your bike bag often at night, if you have to stop to change a flat tire in the dark, or locking your bike to a bike rack on a dark street or parking garage. If you're using a helmet-mounted light and riding with a group of friends, be careful not to look directly at their faces while your light is on--you could temporarily blind them!

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