With so much technology on the market today and so many options, selecting the appropriate item for the task at hand can be daunting. Next time you’re in a bike shop, take a look at a hand pump, for instance, and count how many “technologies” there are associated with that product. And that’s just a hand pump! Wait until you get to the counter with all of the LED Lights. If you get through the basic questions like front light only, light set, and brand, then you’re on to the heavy hitting questions, which are:
- How many lumens do you need and/or what do you plan to do with it?
- How do you want to mount your light?
- Do you want a light with an external battery pack or fully self-contained light?
What is a Lumen? A Lumen is a measure of the total “amount” of visible light emitted by a source and is the most widely accepted industry standard in terms of measuring light output. Serious light manufacturers (read “Lezyne” and “Light & Motion”) test their lights AND their competitor’s lights in what is called an Integrating Sphere. It is essentially a large, white sphere that measures light output over a battery’s charge cycle until it dies. While the lights are running, they are running on their highest mode and in the midst of controlled cooling, meaning every light gets a fair and controlled chance to prove its worth. However, many light companies simply CLAIM Lumen output based on what components they are using without conducting actual testing.
SO! How many Lumens do you need? This will be determined by whether you are commuting or participating in “performance-based” cycle sports. And if you’re participating in performance-based activities, one thing that needs true consideration is how fast you’re going or how fast you’re planning on going. And this isn’t the you of your dreams…this is the everyday rider you, so keep it based in reality. As you go faster and faster, you’re going to need to see what’s further ahead on the road or trail to allow you time to plan accordingly. You don’t want potholes or rocks jumping out at you mid-turn when you’re going full-tilt boogie! So as a rule of thumb, the faster you go, the more light you will need for both safety as well as riding pleasure. Downhill, enduro, and super fast roadies should grab an extra few hundred lumens to be safe.
As a commuter, you must first decide on whether you want to SEE or BE SEEN. Lights that help you be seen typically have less than 250 lumens (front)/15 lumens (rear) and are designed to make you street legal…not much else. If you’re commuting often and want to actually see what’s ahead of you (read “avoid potholes and crashes”), then it’s worth investing in a light with an output somewhere between 250-650 lumens for the front and 25-100 lumens for the rear.
A commuter’s best bet is always a light set. Not only do front and rear lights increase safety exponentially, but laws also require front AND rear lights. On top of all this, buying lights as a set rather than as individuals saves you a bunch of money. For the more serious commuter out there, Lezyne just released the Macro Drive 600/Strip Drive Pro 100 combo. Utilizing 600/100 actual Lumens, these lights sport full USB rechargability, bombproof CNC machined aluminum bodies and co-molded parts, full weatherproof-ness, and easy to install/remove rubber mounts. You couldn’t ask for any more features at that low of a price, especially if you’re logging a lot of miles and logging them frequently. But if the pricepoint is a breaking point, then the Lezyne Hecto Drive 300/Strip Drive 25 combo will meet your needs. If your loyalty lies with Light & Motion, or you simply like their awesome colorways, the Urban 350 and Urban 650 combos provide you with USB rechargability, true-to-claimed lumens, well-built bodies, and easy mounting systems.
Things get a bit more complicated once we get into the performance category of lights. Typically, performance lights range anywhere between 500 and 3000 lumens, with 500 being the bare minimum that will keep you safe on the bike and 3000 being a nighttime equivalent of daytime.You now have to determine how many lumens you want, if you want to run it/them on your helmet or handlebars, AND whether you want a light with an external battery pack or a self-contained light.
Performance lights can be run either on handlebars or on helmets, but one thing to consider is weight. Some of the heavier lights will become obnoxious and intrusive if run on the head, not to mention an occasion hazard if there are low trees and some body english to be done.
Lights ranging in power from 1500 to 3000 lumens usually require external battery packs to provide you with all of that power and light. If you end up getting a light that’s between 1500 and 3000 lumens, then that one light will be more than enough to light up the entire trail on its own. However, there is actually an advantage to having two lights that TOGETHER total the output of a single light. And what I mean by this is, the best of both worlds can be achieved by running both a handlebar light (500-800 lumens) and a helmet light (800-1500 lumens). Bar mounted lights work fine for road biking, however when winding down a single track your handlebars will not necessarily be pointed where you most need light. Sharp turns and high speeds require a little prior planning. Helmet mounts allow the light to shine wherever you are looking, meaning that if you’re in a turn and looking down the trail (where you should be looking), you’ll actually have light to see the trail by…meanwhile, your handlebar light is illuminating the bushes.
EXTERNAL or SELF-CONTAINED
Why one over the other?! Having already decided on what lights you want mounted where, this question is typically the easiest to answer because it’s a matter of convenience and weight. Self-contained lights are incredibly easy to install, provide an incredibly clean and cable-free cockpit, and store away with total ease. The downside of a self-contained light is that they become a bit cumbersome and heavy once they get into the 1000-1500 lumen range, meaning they can be comfortably be run ONLY on your handlebars. If you want a light that can truly deliver every mounting option under the sun, then getting an light with an external battery pack will be the way to go. It’ll just take a little longer to get set up and a little more effort to keep tidy both on AND off of the bike.
Any performance light over 800 lumens will usually have an external battery and require you to either use a hydration pack, wear a jersey with pockets, or mount the battery to your frame somehow. If you already wear a hydration pack, then you can easily stash away your light’s battery into your hydration pack without having any extra cables running around your cockpit area, or if worse comes to worse, you can mount the battery in your water bottle cage or strap it to your frame…the inconvenience here being the cable that connects your battery to your light. Running lights that need external battery packs tend to also weight a bit more with all of the cables and high-powered batteries that are involved. The king of external battery lights is Light & Motion, offering incredible helmet-mounted options. The Stella 500 and entire line of Seca lights provide plenty of power in a convenient helmet-mounted package.
Having self-contained lights like Lezyne’s Super Drive 1200XXL or Power Drive 900XL are great handlebar-mounted options. They have a hard-mount (that won’t wiggle with trail bumps/chatter) and are so easy to just throw on and get out. If having a hard-mount (aka NOT rubber) is not important to you, then check out the Taz 1200 or Taz 1500. It can be run on either the helmet (sold separately) or the handlebars and is fully self-contained. No packs, no cables, just a light. Turn it on and go! If you don’t need a high-powered helmet light, you could also run something like the Lezyne Macro Drive or Light & Motion’s Urban 500 on your helmet as a fully self-contained light setup.
With modern LED technology and the rates at which both Lithium Ion and Lithium Polymer batteries are advancing, you can almost blindly point at anything on the shelf and you’d be really well off. To really maximize your night riding experience, ask yourself these questions: how many lumens do you need, how you want to mount your lights, and do you prefer an external battery or fully self-contained. And last but not least, don’t forget that the faster you go, the brighter the lights you need. Nobody likes surprises that hurt.
Once you’ve figured it all out, have a look at Art’s Cyclery’s selection of lights, then get out and shred in style this winter.