Tag Archives: night riding
I’ve always loved black-and-white photography. Like most photographers of my generation, it’s where my roots are. To this day I hold fond memories of studying photography at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, back in the late 1970s – spending hot nights roving Central Avenue when it was still a living stretch of old U.S. Route 66, all cafes and pawn shops, auto courts and curio dealers, my Nikon loaded with Tri-X, trying to capture the beat of the city’s restless neon-lit rhythms and then later on playing around with the results, for many happy hours, in the university’s darkroom. It was such fun. I miss those days.
It is a long, long way in space and time from Albuquerque in the Seventies to a faded English seaside town on the Sussex coast in 2012 but with autumn fast advancing towards winter, and my rides unfolding in darkness each morning, I am finding myself reprising some of my old Central Avenue-Route 66 pleasures and shooting more black-and-white – or rather, developing more black-and-white, for this is the digital age when you just shoot what you like and make up your mind later on whether it’s to be colour or monochrome.
And lately when I return from my rides I find myself tilting towards monochrome. There is just something about night-lit scenes that makes me want to process them in black-and-white. Not only does the medium capture eloquently the mood and mystery of being abroad after hours, it also – on a practical level – masks a host of awkward lighting problems, such as the sickly and unappealing yellows of street lamps and other garish colour shifts. To be sure, you can fix most of these white balance and noise issues in Lightroom, but how much simpler and cleaner and truer it is to click the black-and-white toggle and find yourself seeing the scenes as they were when you were imagining them at the time – all shape and shadow, mood and mystery, the loneliness, simplicity and solemnity of night without the distortion of colour.
Now that October is with us and the hours of daylight are seriously on the wane it pays to be thinking hard about visibility and making certain you’re seen by the motorists whooshing up around and behind you and one great – nay, essential – way of doing that is to fix some sort of hard, bright attention-getting beacon to the rear of your bicycle; your own Lantern Rouge so to speak, maybe even more than one depending on where you ride and how inattentive the drivers seem to be in your neck of the woods.
There are scores of inexpensive-yet-dazzling LED taillights available on the market at the moment, in every size and shape, and the marketing bumf suggests they offer almost talismanic protection from being clipped by a passing vehicle. All of them, I suspect, work reasonably well and any of them would be better than nothing. In this post I am going to take a comparative look at four I have been using, to wit: the Cateye 1100, the Blackburn Mars-3.0, the Blackburn Mars-4.0 and the Smart one-half watt rear flasher.
I’ll start off by saying I have no real complaints about any of them. All are bright and reliable, reasonably economical of batteries and the fact that after thousands of miles of dark and twilight riding I am sitting here writing a review of these lights is circumstantial evidence that they seem to work – at least to the extent that I have not yet been run over.
My oldest and most hard-bitten light is the Cateye 1100 which sits on my Thorn eXp expedition tourer/winter bike. I have had it for several years now and it replaces an earlier Cateye 1000 of similar design but with less slightly less dazzling LEDs. This is one big chunky light, with two rows of four rear-facing LEDs and two additional LEDs, one each to port and starboard, for enhanced side visibility, making a total of ten LEDs in all. It is seriously bright.
It has four settings: three different flash modes (flashing, random, side-to-side) and constant-beam. What is nice about this light is that each of the rear-facing rows of LEDs has an independent setting; in other words you can have one row of LEDs doing some kind of flashing number, while the row below it stays on solid beam. Or have both doing different clashing and thus eye-catching flash sequences, whatever you like.
It runs on AA batteries with a claimed run time of 50 hours in constant beam and 100 hours in any of the flash sequences, and from my own use, I would say those claimed times are not all that far from real life, not unreasonably so at any rate. The unit is solidly built, although I would have preferred a better made seat-post mount and screws whose heads that are less likely to shear and tear when you are trying to tighten or loosen them. One of the reasons I had to pack in the original and very bright Cateye 1000 and buy the even brighter 1100 is that a jammed and sheared mounting screw rendered it unusable. (The specifics are too complicated to describe here; let’s just say it is now useless, although the LEDs still flash if I wanted an entertaining paperweight)
Shoddy mountings aside, the lamp itself is tough and weatherproof. The toughness I have tested the hard way. Because my using saddlebag on the winter bikes makes mounting taillights on the seatpost impractical I have mine belt-clipped onto either a loop in the saddlebag or a metal plate on my rear rack, which is not the most secure way of mounting a light. As a result several times over the past few years the lamp has popped out when I hit a particularly bad pothole and despite its landing hard on the bitumen each time, it continues to do its thing – which is nice, since at £29.99 it is the most expensive of my taillights. At 116 grams, including batteries, it is also the heaviest.
Next in line are the two Blackburn taillights – the Mars 3.0 and the brighter one-watt Mars 4.0. I have the 3.0 on my Pegoretti road bike and the new 4.0 on my (new) Enigma tourer. Both of these are bright and sharp and snappy – definite attention-getters on lonely misty roads or city streets at twilight. Both have amber side LEDs for side visibility. Both run on AAA batteries and claim run times of 50 hours on constant beam or 150 hours flashing. That run time might be a teensy bit generous, but to be honest that’s just a hazy impression of mine formed over a couple of seasons and sets of batteries; I’ve not really measured it out. A set of batteries certainly lasts a long time; I’ve no complaints.
Both of these Mars lights mount nicely onto the seatpost (and come with belt clips as well) and both have a solid reassuring feel. They are both narrow, however, as befots a sleek road bike and bright as they are I think that if I were relying on these for a lot of night riding I would prefer to have two of them, whereas the big Cateye 1100 on its own is wide and chunky enough to throw a larger and I suspect more easily noticed pool of light. On the other hand, the chunky Cateye (which screams ‘winter bike’) would look like hell, I think, on a racy lightweight summer ride (in my case the Pegoretti or Enigma randonneur). The rrp for the Blackburn Mars 3.0 is £19.99 while the newer brighter one-watt 4.0 will set you back £24.99
My newest light of all is the Smart 1/2 Watt Rear Light, which I bought partly out of curiosity as I had heard good things about Smart lights and partly because when I was making an order for something else I was a couple of quid short of what I needed for free shipping; since the light was on sale anyway the math worked out that buying it was a no-brainer. You can never have too many taillights and this seemed a good chance to try out a new one.
It has proven to be a good one too. The Smart is small, lightweight and dazzlingly bright, not too dissimilar to the Mars 4.0 taillight in size and brightness although without the amber side LEDs. It runs on a pair of AAA batteries (included) and boasts a run time of 30 hours constant beam and 190 hours flashing. I’ve not yet run through a set of batteries so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the run-time claims, but from what I can see so far the light itself seems to justify the high praise I have heard for it. It appears to be well constructed, weatherproof, mounts securely (seatpost mount, belt clip and seat stay mount included) and God knows it’s bright. Dazzlingly so. The regular retail price for this light is £16.99, making it the cheapest of the lights I’ve tried and a real bargain on a bang-for-buck basis.
My sole criticism for it would be the same as for the Mars lights (and a good many of the others I see on the market) and that is that it is very narrow and small – too much so I think for a serious winter bike or commuter where (at least in my opinion) a taillight should be big as well as bright, for a bigger more visible footprint on the road. That said, either of the Smart and Mars lights would be perfect for whippet-lean road bikes and those times when you’re out on grey autumnal mornings or afternoons, or those long rides in summer where time gets away from you and you find yourself heading into the twilight.
No place amongst the many places that I ride do I feel more assured of finding perfect contemplative solitude than I do when I am pedaling along the lonely old road across the Pevensey marshes at quarter to five in the morning. It’s a world that’s mine and mine alone. So I could hardly believe my senses this morning when all of a sudden in the midst of a reverie I heard a whirr of another bicycle coming up briskly beside me. I glanced around, startled out of my dolly-daydream, to see a preternaturally early-bird commuter with backpack and helmet sweep by me on a road bike in a kind of stately rush, without so much as a glance or a nod in my direction.
I sat up, marveling and watching his blinking tail light and reflective vest bobbling along in the darkened mists a few metres ahead of me, receding slightly with every turn of the cranks, wondering where on Earth this guy had come from and where he might be going. This was certainly a first. Occasionally, not terribly often, and usually on weekends, I’ve encountered cyclists out here on my homeward leg, when it is an hour or so later; keen riders out for what probably seemed to them an early morning spin. But never before had I encountered anyone heading out into the lonely emptiness of the marshes at the same ungodly hour as myself, let alone been passed by such a rider.
While I don’t mind anybody passing me, they’re welcome to it, his having done so like this, when I was off with the pixies and dawdling along, set up a socially awkward situation from my point of view. A matter of etiquette, face, and not wanting to appear ridiculous. You see, now that I was fully with it again, alert and snapped-out-of-it, my natural inclination was to resume my customary ground-covering cadence and rhythm – one that was somewhat faster than the pace I had been setting and which, unless I missed my guess, would bring me level with him within a few hundred yards, maybe passing him, s-l-o-w-l-y, or maybe, even worse, hovering on his wheel. In neither way was that going to be very classy. Who wants to come across as a pathetic Mr Bean-like character who couldn’t stand to be passed, but had to fire back, even on such a lonely road as this? How toe-curlingly awful would that be? What’s more he didn’t strike me, when he swooshed by, as a man who craved puppyish company any more than I wished to provide it. And so I felt obliged to throttle back and dawdle, consciously now, unlike before – and that’s something that’s easy to do – until at last his red tail light eventually faded from view around a distant bend, and I could breath again and feel free to ride.
I spotted them as I spun along Grand Parade this morning: a knot of hard-eyed loiterers, break-and-enter all over their faces, slouching on a wall beside a bus stop and watching my approach behind furtively cupped cigarettes. I could feel their eyes on me as I swept by. A bronze statue of Queen Victoria frowned at them from the other side of the street. I didn’t dare. Hastings can be kind of a chancy town these days, not at all the genteel seaside holiday spot it used to be back in her day.
You want to watch your step here now, especially if you keep the hours I do, pedaling through the town’s deserted centre in the smallish hours of the morning, when the drunks and rowdies are wending their way home after their big nights out, awash with cheap beer and adolescent hormones and just aching for vicious amusements.
And there you are, pedaling along these darkened lonely and virtually un-policed streets, all by yourself, on an obviously expensive lightweight bicycle – with no witnesses anywhere, or at least no one who is likely to want to get involved. Weekend mornings are the chanciest, especially during the summer months when the nights have been hot and sultry, but given the exceptionally mild temperatures we’ve enjoyed thus far this winter the lowlifes have remained active far later into the season than they normally do – kind of like the way the camellias at the bottom of our garden have continued to bloom despite it’s being January.
So far, knock on wood, I’ve never been robbed or assaulted on my pre-dawn swings through town, although over the years I’ve been subjected to enough drunken threats and abuse, seen enough ugliness, and had enough rocks and half-empty beer cans hurled my way to make me leery of coming through here too early on weekend mornings. Experience has taught me to leave the gritty urban segment of my loop to the latter part of the ride, when it’s later and there’s a bit more light and life about, and even then I keep a canny look out, ride well out towards the middle of the street and slow down rather than stop at red lights.
I always move right along, too, purposefully and aloof. As a result, the one time (so far) that anyone genuinely and aggressively had a go at me in town I was able to outrun them pretty handily. But on that occasion I’d ridden up behind this particular group of drunken yobs as they strode along the gutter, and so, by the time their booze-addled brains had registered that an opportunity to commit aggravated assault and robbery had just passed them by, I was a good twenty metres or so further up the road and moving away at a lively rate of knots. They stood no chance whatever of catching me and even the rocks they hurled in frustration clattered far short.
That was good luck on my part, bad luck on theirs, I guess. Which leads me to wonder what might have happened if they happened to have been coming the other way, down the street, facing me, and, sensing opportunity, had fanned out as I approached. Or what if, in making my escape, I had unshipped my chain at the crucial moment á la Andy Schleck on the Port de Balés. What would have happened then? It doesn’t bear thinking about. But I think about it anyway and often and although I don’t like to borrow trouble, I find myself rehearsing in my mind various potential stratagems so as to be ready to act swiftly and surely should the need arise.
Which is all very well of course but the sad truth is that none of the tactics that I can dream up on my own hold much appeal, at least not in the heroic sense, leaving only ignominious flight and hoping for the best as my safest and most likely option. The other day though, I came across a slender volume of self-defense tricks, written back in 1899, that at least put a smile on my face. It was called the Manly Art of Bartitsu and was written by one E.W. Barton-Wright, a globe-trotting Victorian gentleman and man of the world who’d spent a bit of time in Japan, studied ju-jitsu whilst there and adapted these Oriental techniques for use by Englishmen back home, with pointers on how best to employ one’s umbrella and stout walking stick when confronted by troublemakers. The resulting book, with its chapters on ‘How to Deal with Undesirables’ and ‘The Use of the Short Stick or Umbrella’, and photographs of gentlemen in straw boaters adopting parry-and-riposte poses with their canes, was an immediate best seller, with Bartitsu schools and clubs springing up everywhere. Indeed a working knowledge of Bartitsu was credited with saving at least one famous life at the time: that of Sherlock Holmes who, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle later revealed, used his skills at Bartitsu to throw Professor Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls.
It was Chapter Eight, though, in this delightful reprint, that caught my eye: Self Defense from a Bicycle. Seeing as how this book was written during the height of the Victorian cycling craze, it was only natural, I suppose, for the author to include cyclists in his brief. “A cyclist is potentially easy prey for a highway robber,” Barton-Wright warns, “His conveyance may be upset quite easily – a stick in the spokes of his wheel, a sudden jerk to the handlebars, and he is thrown inevitably. However the cyclist who is a skilful rider, who possesses pluck and dash, and who is armed with a knowledge of how to use his machine to the best advantage as a weapon, may rest content that he is able to defend himself perfectly when attacked under the majority of likely conditions.”
Naturally, being a proud possessor or pluck and dash myself, I read on and in the succeeding pages learned how best to use my bicycle as a shield when “challenged by a ruffian at close quarters’ and how to counter-attack with my bicycle “when accosted by a ruffian at close quarters”, this latter bit involving springing backwards off your machine while raising the handlebars and charging into the startled ruffian who, we are assured, will almost certainly jump back from sheer surprise and lose his balance. Whereupon you can make good your escape or, as the gung-ho Barton-Wright puts it: “offer him whatever physical punishment seems appropriate.”
My favourite though – to read about, that is, not necessarily to do – was the “direct method of defense when a narrow path is blocked by a ruffian”. In this you spring forward like a tiger, leaping off the pedals, over the handlebars and tackle your would-be assailant at head height and at speed, letting your bicycle go where it will and relying on the ruffian’s body to cushion your own fall. Aside from enjoying the element of surprise – nay, shock – the author points out: “You will come upon him with a irresistible momentum, as though you had dropped from the sky, and if you have not sufficiently damaged him when he strikes the ground, you have the advantage of now being on top, which advantage you may press home in any way you please.”
Egad! All good grist for the thought mill, I daresay, and images of such ‘damaged’ ruffians warm me down to my ankles, but I think if the occasion ever arises I’ll choose dash over pluck and put on a turn of speed in the opposite direction that will make Mark Cavendish shake his head in wonder, and leave the ruffians to die of pneumonia from the breeze.
One of my favourite poems when I was a child was Windy Nights by Robert Louis Stevenson, better known for being the author of Treasure Island. In the poem, a little boy – probably Stevenson himself as a child – is laying snug in his bed when he is awakened late on a wild and stormy night by the galloping hooves of a mysterious rider who passes beneath his window bound on some urgent mission or other – a spy, a smuggler, a soldier-of-fortune, we don’t know for sure, but we can imagine him: a dark figure on horseback in dripping oilskins and tri-corner hat, his flintlock pistols kept dry and at the ready beneath his cloak.
All these years later I still know by heart the opening lines, and indeed most of the rest of the poem, which seems to have been written to a rhyme and meter calculated to bring to mind the galloping of a horse:
Whenever the moon and stars are set;
Whenever the wind is high;
All night long in the dark and wet;
A man goes riding by….
I loved to imagine myself ias that mysterious rider, abroad on a wild and windy night, on urgent business of my own, and I longed for the day in the vague ungraspable future when I could be out there having such adventures for real. As the wise old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Now that I’ve grown to a man’s estate, and go out for thirty-mile rides through the Sussex marshes each morning, I find that I have abundant opportunities to live out my old Windy Nights fantasies – far more often than I’d like, in fact, most recently this morning as I lay in bed at half-past four listening to the gales tossing the tree tops outside and the rain lashing the window.
Alas there was no midnight rider to marvel at. That was left to me to provide. I did so a few minutes later, reluctantly, setting out into the storm and down the street aboard my doughty old black-and-cream tourer, all rugged up in my Goretex waterproofs against the wind-driven rain. I don’t mind rain so much, as I mentioned in a post the other day. In fact, I rather enjoy, and can even look forward to, a long ride in an atmospheric drizzle. But gale force winds are something else again. Those I can do without. However romantic a windy night might have sounded in that old poem, when you are actually out there in the dark and wet being buffeted around by a stiff sea breeze or wrestling a crosswind, all the derring-do and poetry goes right out of it. I’ll always answer the call, I guess, but frankly, in my considered opinion windy nights are nights best spent snug in bed, listening to the wind and lashing rain, imagining some other poor sod out there playing the midnight rider.
So goes an oft-quoted stanza from a Robert Burns poem – addressed to a louse, in point of fact, one that he saw crawling on a fine lady’s bonnet in church one Sunday in 1786. While the comparison with cyclists might be a little invidious, I nevertheless couldn’t help but think of that poem and its final stanza the other night when I was driving home from picking up my wife from the train station over in Battle – and there up ahead in the blustery dark, was an oh-so-feeble glow of a bicycle taillight bobbing along in the gutter, nothing more, just this faint insignificant flicker, easily lost in the glare of oncoming headlights and the steady stream of cars, of which ours was one, whooshing past this rider’s elbow.
I was about to make a cutting remark about the idiocy of anyone who wears dark clothes and expect to survive a rush-hour ride in the wintry dark down Battle Road when I happened to notice, as we sped by, that the guy was actually wearing an ostensibly bright, lemon-lime green windcheater – the sort of thing one might reasonably expect to be visible to a car headlamp, but in fact was not visible at all, on a rainy night and in a rush of oncoming cars.
All there was to telegraph his presence along the roadside was the feeble taillight.
I had little chance to notice anything else about him as we swept by, other than a fleeting impression he was on a decent road bike and wearing a helmet, and that he had a rather more powerful blinker on his handlebars flashing hot white light.
It occurred to me as I watched his blinking front light recede in my rearview mirror that this guy was probably a fairly experienced rider, a regular commuter who more than likely just come off the same train down from Charing Cross my wife had been on, and that he probably considered himself well visible to traffic as he made his way home along busy but familiar Battle Road.
His scary near-invisibility made me think of my own red-and-orange Goretex softshell – and how tempted I am to rely on its bold design and bright colours, which surely anyone can see (Ha!), and forego the detested, garish, plastic-and-nylon Hi-Vis vest I bought to go over it. And in re-thinking too my nip-cheesy way of draining every last bit of charge from a set of double-A batteries before replacing them, so that my theoretically dazzling Cateye 1100 taillight runs down to a dull flicker before I put finally spring for a fresh set of Duracells. And I was grateful for this brief gift of seeing myself as others might see me – or not.
It’s quarter to five on a dark and frosty December morning, and I’m spinning along the grand old Edwardian seafront at Bexhill, past the flood-lit coronation pavilion, with a waxing gibbous moon floating high over my left shoulder and the lights of Eastbourne twinkling in the distance, all still and solemn and slumbering in the great starry hush. Nobody is about but me. The old seaside town’s dead asleep, the promenade deserted and silent, the shops all shuttered up.
I love being out and about at this hour, on my own and moving along the road, free, clear and beholden to no one while the rest of the world is home in bed. I suppose it is just as asleep at this hour of the morning during summer too, but it’s different then; it’s light at quarter to five on a summer morning, whereas in winter it’s as dark as a yard up a chimney, and to my romantic turn of mind there’s nothing like the dark of night and the twinkling lights of a distant, sleeping city to add that bit of drama and restless intrigue to a ride. I revel in it. It draws me onward and outward and makes me fidgety and eager to go places and get things done. By the time I roll up in front of the house again, maybe two hours or so after I left, and with thirty miles of long-after-midnight riding behind me, I feel alive, as though I’ve been travelled, had an adventure.
Like the Boy Scouts, I go prepared. I use my old Thorn tourer, my expedition bike, on these cold dark winter rides. I like its sturdy 26″ wheels, and the way their chubby (559×40) Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres cushion the potholes and smother the unsighted cracks and treacherous frost heaves in the bitumen. I generally keep my tyre pressure at about 55 to 60psi, somewhat below the manufacturer’s recommended 65psi, but all the better, I find, for gripping wet or frosty roads. For illumination I rely on my Lupine Betty to lead the way – set its ‘low’ 600 lumen setting in town and clicked over to ‘lighthouse’ on the unlit country lanes and across the marshes. Blinking on the rear rack is a Cateye 1100, my lantern rouge.
Since mending flats by starlight is not my idea of a good time I always use the Marathon Plus as my winter tyre of choice. Some people don’t care for their ‘heavier’ handling qualities and rolling resistance but I’ve never found that a bother; it’s merely a matter of horses for courses. Marathon Plusses are not high performance road tyres but are an old reliable stand-by for tourers and commuters the world over and they need to be thought of in that light. They last forever, roll well enough to do century rides on loaded-up tourers, and while I don’t want to jinx things by shooting my mouth off, let’s just say that in thousands of miles of winter riding, in the dark and wet, the number of punctures I’ve suffered with these tyres is less than one.
Even so, I pack along a spare tube, patch kit, tyre levers, and mini-pump just in case, plus a couple of spare links for the chain and a dependable penlight – one of those sturdy aluminium mini-Maglights – to see by, just in case I really do have to make an unscheduled roadside stop. I could always use my headlamp, I suppose, but the Maglight is small and bright, handy to use and hardly a burden to carry.
As for tools, I pack along a set of folding hex wrenches, a Leatherman and a collapsible chain tool as well – Park Tools’ CT-6, a nifty piece of kit that folds up to something no bigger than a Swiss Army knife, but nevertheless functions with shop-quality precision. You want a good chain tool when you are out on your own like this, on darkened country lanes far from home; it’s the only thing that’s going to be able to clear a broken link should you suffer one, and frankly the chain breakers that come with most mini-tools just aren’t up to the job. And so I carry a dedicated one that is.
The whole kit and caboodle fits into a zip-loc bag which in turn tucks neatly into a sturdy canvas saddlebag – a Carradice ‘Barley’, to be precise; seven litres in size, olive green with honey leather straps, roomy enough to carry all my tools and spares and still leave space for my camera and mini tripod. That’s all I need, just that, and I am ready to go, out the door and down the darkened street, headlamp aglow, full of jaunty expectancy and with all those delicious nighttime miles ahead of me; truly, an embarrassment of riches.
A cold, clingy, ground mist was shrouding the marshes this morning on my ride over to the ruins of Pevensey Castle, throwing a note of caution in the air along with a nip of frost, but at the same time adding a pleasurable touch of misty, moody Hound-of-the-Baskervilles atmosphere. I kind of like riding in the fog, or at least I do when I am pedalling all by myself down a lonely country lane at quarter to five on a cold dark winter’s morning.
I like it much less when I find myself pedalling along an urban street bustling with early bird traffic, as I did on the homeward leg of my journey. For while I had been pedalling westward down the old marsh road, revelling in the romance and solitude, that clammy mist must have been creeping east and thickening to a dense sea fog along the coast. Bexhill Road, which earlier had had only a few faint tendrils of mist swirling amongst the streetlamps, and even a scatter of faint stars overhead, had become thick with milky white fog.
And by then too traffic was picking up. You see, Bexhill Road, also known as the A-259, is the main thoroughfare for anyone travelling into Hastings from the west although you mightn’t guess at it’s importance by the condition of the road itself. It is narrow, patched, potholed and lumpy, with cars closely parked along both sides, and a kind of shabbiness clinging to the houses and businesses along here, unfairly really because it seems to come not from neglect but from the soot and stink of so much auto and truck exhaust, for once it hits its stride, this is one busy, busy road. And by six-thirty in the morning, when I’m coming along it, homeward bound from my ride, it is well and truly waking up – and I’d better be too, looking alive and waking up from any reveries I might have been indulging in on the lonely marsh road.
Add a nice dense pall of fog into this mix and you have yourself the makings of a pretty harrowing ride, even if, like me, you’re lit up like a county fair with powerful headlamps and tail lights, and a hi-vis rescue orange and lime-yellow reflective safety vest. You can’t be visible enough. Or at least that’s my thinking on the matter. But then perhaps I am a man of too much imagination and too little faith. For what do I see this morning as I am negotiating my way through Bexhill Road’s fast and impatient tide of halo-ed tail lights and headlamps, but a couple of fellow cyclists – dressed head-to-toe in dark clothes, with no lights, lamps, reflectors, whizzing along without a care in the world or a brain in their (helmet-less) heads.
These weren’t hoodies on BMX bikes, either – I mean, you kind of expect that sort of thing from them, although in their case they are usually spinning recklessly down the footpaths and not on the road. No, these were grown-ups, on road bikes, one of whom seemed to be out on a training ride, for he was down on the drops, pumping out the watts, living out his Mark Cavendish fantasies as he hurtled head-on into the fog-bound traffic for all he was worth. The other two just seemed to be out for a ride, commuters, perhaps; it was hard to tell. I could barely see them. And it leaves me wondering how many more might have been out there that I simply never saw at all.
I see that the new season’s bicycle headlamps are now hitting the pre-Christmas stands with manufacturers boasting more dazzling brightness and beam intensity than ever before. We’re up to 3000 lumens now for Niterider’s very brightest, top-of-the-range headlamp – surely overkill for all but the fastest, most dangerous late-night MBT descents and twenty-four-hour mountain bike races. I cannot imagine a circumstance where anyone would need that kind of luminosity on the road, and I speak as a cyclist who not only rides thousands of miles each year down darkened country lanes but who also likes to have plenty of light to see by when he does.
My first serious bicycle headlamp, bought several years ago when I first started riding through the long dark English winters, was a Lupine Edison 4 which threw out a claimed 900 lumens at full beam. It was a dazzling light, by far the brightest on the market at the time and beautifully engineered, too, in Germany, by a small firm that specializes in high-end lights.
I remember my first night ride with it, and how amazed I was to see reflective road signs aglow several hundred yards away – amazed to the point where I would wiggle my handlebars to see if it really was my headlamp that was lighting them up like that; I didn’t think it possible. The lamp itself wasn’t much bigger than a large duck egg, and yet it was throwing out a beam like a car headlamp. And what was really nice about that was that motorists would dip their beams when they saw you coming, on the assumption that you were a motorcycle and not some lowly no-account cyclist; with one of these lamps on your handlebars a cyclist could get some respect on the roads at night.
Alas the burn time for the old Edison 4 on high-beam wasn’t long enough for me to keep it on ‘dazzle’ for the full length of my two-hour rides, so I usually rode with the lower setting of 600 lumens and saved the lighthouse stuff for the darkest stretches or, deeper in winter, when there was likely to be black ice on the roads – slippery, shimmering stuff I wanted to see well in advance.
But while I was off using my super-bright headlamp on the darkened lanes of mid-winter Sussex, the boffins at Lupine and various other companies around the world were evidently working like beavers to make their bicycle headlamps ever brighter and more dazzling, and their burn times even longer. I paid no attention; my headlamp issues were all sorted very nicely, thank you.
Eventually though, the bulb burned out on my trusty headlamp and I was obliged to shop for another. And here I began making some belated discoveries. Technology had made a lot of strides while I’d been off by myself all those winters, riding those darkened country lanes. HID lamps, like my old Edison 4, were yesterday’s news. The world had moved on. Sweeping advances in lighting technology had taken place. It was all super-bright high-tech LED stuff now. Lupine no longer even made replacement bulbs for the Edison. And they hadn’t for some time. They were sympathetic, and offered discounts on their new line of LED lamps for those of us who had been caught out by this sea change in headlamp technology, but the hard truth was if I wanted to keep riding through English winters I was going to have to bite the bullet and buy a whole new lamp. There was no other way. Obsolescence had rendered my old lamp into a costly paperweight.
On the bright side, so to speak, the new generation of lamps were not only pumping out far more lumens, and for far longer burn times, they were also upgradeable and since LED bulbs last for thousands of hours anyway, I was most unlikely ever to be caught out like this again. So I splurged. I stayed with Lupine and bought myself their top-of-the-range Betty-7 with its three programmed settings: 700 lumens, 1100 lumens and a dazzling 1850 lumens, once again, at the time, the brightest lamp on the market. And this time with long enough burn times to keep it on high beam, if I wanted to, for the full length of my rides – and then some.
But I seldom want to. To be honest high beam on the Betty-7 is a bit over the top – handy, I must admit, on certain moonless and misty nights coming through the marshes, mid-winter, but otherwise rarely used. I generally keep to the two lower settings. They provide plenty of light to see by, without the risk of blinding on-coming drivers, or fellow cyclists. The lamp itself isn’t overkill though. The Betty’s seven LED bulbs provide a much nicer and more even spread of light over all of its settings than, say, the company’s similar-generation Wilma lamp whose (then) top-setting of 1100 lumens was provided by just four LEDS. This nicer spread of beam, and the fact that its on-off switch was built into the unit rather than a separate thing to attach to your handlebar, together with the longer burn times, is why I went for the Betty, not for its top-whack 1850 lumens. In fact, had I been able to buy replacement bulbs for my old Edison lamp, I’d have been quite happy to stick with it and its now very pedestrian 900 lumens.
All this was over a year ago. Given the overall build quality of my new lamp, its waterproofing and reliability, the long burn times even on high beam and the fact that LED bulbs practically last forever, I’m well satisfied and, barring accidents, not likely to be shopping around for a new headlamp for a long, long time yet.
In other words I am speaking purely as a disinterested bystander, not a potential purchaser or price-moaner, when I take this broadside at the mad scramble for more and more lumens, as though the ability to blind and dazzle were the only criteria of a decent bike light; the greater the number of lumens the better the light must be. It reminds me of the way camera manufacturers race to cram in more and more megapixels, in what appears to be a (sadly) largely successful bid to sell an undiscriminating public on the idea that quality is something that can be quantified, and that more of something good is always better. It isn’t.
Perhaps though there is light at the end of the tunnel – if you’ll pardon the wholly intentional pun – for I see that even some of the industry spokesmen at the recent Interbike Bicycle Show in Las Vegas are saying now that they are reaching end-game in terms of the number of lumens they can feasibly generate on a bicycle light, and will have to start focusing their competitive energies elsewhere – heat management, perhaps, or battery life, or maybe even, God forbid, affordability.
For now though I am just looking forward to the first time somebody transfixes me in the beam of their dazzling new mega-watt headlamp. Fortunately given their pricetags – £850 for Lupine’s latest, greatest, 2600-lumen version of the Betty – there won’t be many of these out there, otherwise I fear welder’s masks will have to be joining helmets and headlamps as essential safety gear for riding at night.