Lighting and how to remove the ever present need to consume batteries

At this time of year, bicycle lighting becomes more and more vital.  Only last week I was driving along a quiet road near to where I live, in late afternoon, when the light was fading.  A guy, I noticed eventually, was riding a mountain bike in front of me, with dark clothes, nothing reflective and no lights on.  Even at 40 mph, it’s hard to deal with this in a car.  How anybody riding a bike can be so dumb I don’t know.  You’ve got to defend yourself on even the quietest roads.  Most of my night-time riding is along this same road, so it set me thinking about the subject.

Now, due to the ridiculous distance I have to travel to do my job, I am not a regular cycle commuter.  Much of my riding in darkness is to and from the local Pub.  Which is a form of commuting, I guess, but I shall not push it.  About a year ago, I invested in what was supposedly one of the best sets of battery lights you can get without paying out silly money – the Cateye TL-530 front light, and the Cateye TL-D1100 rear light.  Both are battery powered [2 x AA], and both employ LED illumination, which has now become the way to go since LED’s do not require replacement on a regular basis like old bulbs used to.

Both lights are good – the rear one especially so.  It has two rows of leds, and also has 2 side mounted leds to enhance visibility from the side.  You can run one or both rows independently, in either static or flashing modes.  It really does inspire confidence; you know that you will be seen on a dark road, in fact it is probably able to make life a little uncomfortable for approaching car drivers.  The front one, whilst one of the brighter battery-powered lights on the market in the sub £80 price range, also makes night riding easier.  It has a wide throw and, as long as you don’t intend to ride too far and too fast, it will get you home in a safe way and also make you visible to oncoming traffic.

The only real downside from a practical point of view is that, being battery – powered lights, you are always aware that the power is slowly reducing and the attention is required in order to make sure you don’t get caught out with a dead light miles from home, thus becoming one of those mostly invisible saps I moaned about as a prelude to this article.  And so it was that my curiosity toward the world of human-powered lights was, if you will, lit.  My German experiences of cycling in the summer made me recall that the dynamo is the default method of lighting a bicycle in Europe, so much so that they are a standard fitment on most bikes.  I recall my childhood, where my pedalling progress was suddenly reduced by the application of a humming bottle dynamo, whose rotasting generator wheel could be flicked into contact with the side wall of a tyre, thus making a usually faint, but always variable glow emit from the cheap front light on my German bike.

How things have changed.

My research has, unsurprisingly, led me to Germany again, but this time indirectly.  You see, whilst ‘bottle’ dynamos are still available, and indeed there are high-end models that will cost you the equivalent of a night in a very decent hotel, peanuts from the mini bar included, it is now more typical to find the front hub containing the electrical generator.  This enables better sealing, less dynamic interference and lower rolling resistance.  The actual light units themselves, and I concern myself purely with [front] headlights here, are also a world away from those of my childhood.

Hub Dynamos: Generating the Power

There are basically two categorisations of hub dynamo that you may wish to consider; these are delineated by geography.  Germany and Japan are the sources of the main brands, these being on the Teutonic side, Schmidt, whose gorgeous anodised and rounded hubs are considered the finest available, and from the East, Shimano who have taken their vast experience in making both road and mountain bike hubs for pretty much every bike on the road, and added some engineering knowledge to produce reliable hubs with dynamos inside them.  The type you choose will, as with most things, depend upon how much you intend to spend.  The typical standard output will be 6 volts and 3 watts of power – which is adequate to power almost any headlight available today.  Considerations include:

Remember that unless you are a skilled wheelbuilder, you’ll have to have that hub built in to either an existing or a new rim before it’s any use to you.

How many miles do you ride – are you a 250 mile a week commuter, or a weekend cyclist who sometimes ventures out after dark?  A £200 Schmidt hub may be hard to juistify if you’re the latter; but if you rack up the miles then it may be worth the extra cash.
Within the Schmidt range, quality is less varied.  They all cost the earth, but they’re all manifestly fit for purpose.

Shimano’s range goes from around £90 down to around £25.  As you can imagine, like their normal hubs, you get what you pay for.

You can probably guess by my preamble that I am not in the market for the German hub – it’s just not worth it for me.  My choice has been the Shimano Nexus DH-3N72 [what a mouthful] which, if you equate it to a normal ‘road’ hub in quality terms, claims to be at Ultegra level in terms of the seals and bearings.

The 3N72 is the benchmark ‘everyman’ dynamo hub and comes with quick release skewers and connectors for the light wires.  It’s available in either 32 or 36 holes, to suit your chosen wheel specification.

For convenience, you might be interested in taking advantage of the deals some shops are now offering to supply a front wheel with a hub ready-built.  I noticed that Spa Cycles are offering such a deal with a menu of rims and hubs available. It saves the extra hassle of getting your LBS to rebuild your front wheel around another hub; it’s probably worth taking advantage of the situation to replace the rim anyway.   I thought I would go for this option, given that my rims are now around 4 years old and, although they haven’t covered a massive mileage, it was worth a change.

My other finding was – shop around!  With ebay and other web vendors, you do not have to restrict yourself to the UK either.  As I said earlier on, Europe is the home of dynamo lighting.  Shops such as Bikester, Bike24 and others offer really good pricing on dynamo hubs and indeed full wheels.  It might be worth combining with a friend as the postage is considerably reduced by doing it this way.  I have found a deal on Bike24 for a Mavic 317 rim with the above mentioned Shimano hub for just £90 delivered to the UK in today’s money – the hub alone will set you back up to £85 in the UK.

Headlights: Maximum Output

There is a lot more choice where headlights are concerned.  In the early days of my research I ordered what seemed like a bargain from SJSC: a Schmidt E6 light reduced from £70 to £30 with bulb included.  Then I was put straight on the Thorn forum; the reason it was so reduced was, as well as being an old model, it was not an LED light and so it was very much yesterday’s technology.  I canceled my order and thought again.

Yes, the basic rule is that LED is where it’s at as far as Dynamo powered lights are concerned.  The benchmark every day light as at now is the Busch and Muller IQ Cyo, in various guises. It is generally agreed that the Cyo is a usable and very bright light which allows you to keep up a decent speed while not feeling that the light output cannot keep up.  It is available in three guises – the basic Cyo, which is not great in the near field but very strong in the wider field of vision; the ‘Nplus’, which combines switchability and a standlight [it keeps shining even when you stop for a couple of minutes, unlike my old childhood bike lights which dimmed as I slowed down], and the ‘Senso’ model which switches itself on and off based on its calculations of the available ambient light around it.

You have to be careful which model you go for, especially on line.  All lights seem to be constantly acquiring new features, so any ‘bargain’ prices may hide the fact that they are not actually a current model.  Check the model numbers and you should be ok.

Once again, if you can combine the postage, Europe s the place to look.  eBay can reveal some bargains, and very occasionally the CTC or Thorn forums will carry secondhand adverts.

My choice is to keep the Cateye rear light and move to dynamo at the front.  I’m going to see how successful this is, and if necessary I can also extend to a rear dynamo light, which involves some complicated cable routing – but again Busch and Muller offer some rather desirable rear mudguard-mounted lights.

Some useful posts on various fora [I think that’s the correct plural of forum?]:

Headlights and Thorns

Yet Another Cycling Forum – pretty much the definitive post!

Hub Dynamos and Wheel-Deals

Front Headlight Beams Compared by Peter White

Rear Dynamo Lights by Peter White

Stay bright and safe out there!!!


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