Your guide to the best front lights for cycling

Whether to see or be seen, here's everything you need to know about what to put on your bars...

by Dave Atkinson   October 18, 2012  

Light and Motion Urban 300.

road.cc reviews

The clocks are going back so it's now officially lights season on the bike. If you're in the market for some bike lights there's a bewildering array of lights out there to choose from, ranging from a few quid to nearly a grand, so what's the best bet for your riding?

To help you choose here's road.cc's quick guide to the technology and the options available for lighting your way on two wheels put it together with our beam test comparison data for over 40 of this year's top lights and you should be well on the way to finding the best light for you.

It's LEDs or LEDs these days

A few years ago you had a choice of different bulb options to consider, but LED lights have improved to such an extent – and come down in price too – that there really isn't a choice any more. LEDs tick all the boxes for a bike light. They're tiny, they cost tuppence to make, they last for ever, they're rugged, they run cool and they're easy on the juice. No wonder that everyone's using them these days. There's LEDs and there's LEDs – the bulbs in a cheap flasher that look like the ones out of your old 100-in-1 science set are a long way removed from the high-spec emitters in top-dollar off-road lamps – but nowadays you'd be hard pressed now to find anything that's not LED powered. Outputs have shot up in the last year or two as well, with the brightest lights claiming outputs of over 1,500 lumens, more than a car headlight. More general purpose lights range from 50 to about 500 lumens, with basic commuter lights and emergency lights weaker still; they're mostly to be seen by, though, not to see with.

Setting the standard.

Technically, all bike lights must be fitted to comply with the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations (RVLR). For the record, here's what those regs say...

Front Lamp
One is required, showing a white light, positioned centrally or offside, up to 1500mm from the ground, aligned towards and visible from the front. If capable of emitting a steady light it must be marked as conforming to BS6102/3 or an equivalent EC standard. If capable of emitting only a flashing light, it must emit at least 4 candela.

Rear Lamp
One is required, to show a red light, positioned centrally or offside, between 350mm and 1500mm from the ground, at or near the rear, aligned towards and visible from behind. If capable of emitting a steady light it must be marked as conforming to BS3648, or BS6102/3, or an equivalent EC standard. If capable of emitting only a flashing light, it must emit at least 4 candela.

You also need a rear reflector and four pedal reflectors to fully comply with the RVLR.

In practice, not all bike lights are kitemarked. The specification for lights dates back to 1986 and is designed to apply to lights with filament bulbs. That doesn't mean that LED lights can't meet the requirements – some do – but lots of them aren't specifically tested for the ageing Brititsh standard, especially those that are for the worldwide market. Since the RVLR was amended to allow cyclists to fit flashing LEDs we've heard very little about cyclists being stopped for having non-compliant lights.

Choosing a light: things to consider

What am I going to use the light for?
Are you going to be pootling down to the shops, or do you detour through the woods on the way home? You need to consider how much light you need, and where you need it to be put. Brighter is generally better, but look for lights with good side visibility if you're riding a lot in town. On-road lights tend to have a narrower beam, off-road units a wider spread.

If you're going to be doing a lot of swapping between bikes, consider how easy that's going to be. Are the mounts quick release? Are there lots of wires to deal with?

How regularly will I use the light, and how long per day?
If your commute is an hour and your light gives out after 50 minutes then you're in trouble. If it has a proprietary charger rather than batteries or a USB charge option, then it needs to last to where you're going and back again. Think about when you'll recharge the light and how long that will take.

Many lights have low-power options that will extend battery life, so it's important to work out if these will give you enough output for certain sections of your ride. Many lights have fuel gauge displays to let you know the state of the battery, these can be very useful if you ride regularly and aren't good at remembering to charge your lights.

What conditions will I use the light in?
If you're riding every day, come what may, your lights will take a beating. They're very exposed to rain and spray at the front of your bike. Generally the more expensive lights are better constructed with more effective seals, so spend as much as you can afford. If you think you might break your lights from using them in all conditions, check what the warranty is like.

The gamut of glare

Okay, so you've got to buy some lights. What kind of lights do you need? here's a quick run down of the basic types you can get your hands on, and who they're aimed at.

Emergency lights

small enough to leave in your bag for when you need them, emergency lights normally attach with a stretchy band to the bars or frame and are powered by button cells. They don't put out a great deal of light but as an get-you-home solution if you get caught out or your main lights fail, they're a lot better than nothing.
Try: Cateye Loop Lights, Electron Backupz, Knog Frog

Small flashers

The next step up is a bar/frame-mounted flasher. Most of these are capable of putting out a steady beam too. They're a bit bigger and sturdier than an emergency light, and they generally take AAA batteries which last for ages. You can pick them up cheap so they can be better value all round – in terms of buying and running – than emergency lights. Nearly all rear lights fall into this category.
Try: Cateye TL-LD170, Blackburn Flea, Niterider Cherry Bomb, Blackburn Voyager Click

Torches

There's lots and lots of choice when it comes to torch-style front lights. Powered either by AA/AAA cells or a rechargeable battery pack, they tend to put out a bit more light: if your riding takes you anywhere you need to see – rather than just be seen – you'll need at least one of these. Often manufacturers will bundle a torch-style front light with a rear flasher, seeing to both ends of your bike and scoring you a bit of a discount in the process. Rechargeable units often come with a mains adaptor but USB chargers are becoming increasingly common, allowing you to juice up your light at your desk.
Try: BBB HighFocus 1.5W LED Supernova Airstream, Cateye OptiCube Uno EL-010, Smart Lunar 25 set, RSP Asteri 3

Rechargeable systems

These tend to be characterised by a separate battery pack attached to a smaller head unit that's a lot more powerful than a standard torch. They start at around £50 but you can pay the best part of a grand for the really high end stuff. If you want to go out and train after dark on the lanes, or venture off-road, then a rechargeable set is probably your best bet.
Try: Cateye Nano Shot Exposure Strada Mk 3 Lumicycle System 4, Niterider MiNewt 600 Cordless, Light & Motion Vega

Dynamo lights

If you want your lights to be a permanent fixture and never worry about batteries then you can't do better than a dynamo. Hub dynamos are the pick for low maintenance and decent output; most will supply 2.4-3W which is plenty for a bright light front and rear. Pick a system that stores some of the energy from the dynamo so you don't go dark when you're stopped at the traffic lights.

Another way to run a light from dynamo power is to use a USB system like Tout Terrain's Plug and a light that's USB-chargeable; many lights can be charged this way nowadays.
Try: Supernova E3

Head torches

Fitting a light to your helmet means you can point the beam where you want it, making the light a lot more useful. Some of the smaller rechargeable systems come with a helmet mount, or you could go for a more general use headband-type light and ziptie it on.
Try: Light & Motion Vis 360, Silva L1

The light comparator

If you have a nice big screen you can click here for the widescreen version (1400x1000px)

7 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

I searched for 'dazzle' and it was nowhere to be found. It is imperative to alert all road users and particularly cyclists because of the nature of bicycles in the UK, that most come without lights. Therefore most lights are after-market lights. A any light is as good as any other, or perhaps not.

There seem to be more and more idiots who buy a 'face-melter'*, super-bright off-road light and proceed to use it on the road. (*I quote http://tinyurl.com/d5nrzan).

As someone unfortunate to meet such morons, the lights are not only incredibly bright, most of the light is wasted, shining into the faces of oncoming drivers and cyclists.

Off-road lights are characterised by conical beams - technical discussion here: http://swhs.home.xs4all.nl/fiets/tests/verlichting/index_en.html#licht-b...

Needless to say there are numerous retailers (many apparently as clueless as their customers) who are offering these for sale as bicycle lights for commuting.

Since as far as I can see that no mention was made of the requirement that lights must not dazzle, this article was irresponsible and reckless.
-------------------

Relevant legislation: The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989
No. 1796
PART III
Regulation 27
Restrictions on the use of lamps other than those to which regulation 24 refers

27. No person shall use, or cause or permit to be used, on a road any vehicle on which any lamp, hazard warning signal device or warning beacon of a type specified in an item in column 2 of the Table below is used in a manner specified in that item in column 3.

TABLE

(1) (2) (3)
Item No. Type of lamp, hazard warning signal device or warning beacon Manner of use prohibited
1 Headlamp
(a) Used so as to cause undue dazzle or discomfort to other persons using the road.

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/1989/1796/regulation/27/made

posted by Recumbenteer [146 posts]
4th April 2013 - 9:06

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Thanks for an excellent article. The 'chooser' really helps. I don't suppose it could be updated for this year as I'm on the prowl for a net light setup for the coming darkness?

posted by zam [11 posts]
12th September 2013 - 12:25

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PS. Agree with the above' 'Dazzle' is really important for myself as a roadie.

posted by zam [11 posts]
12th September 2013 - 12:26

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Dazzle is an issue in some cases, but it is ALSO an issue with poorly maintained motorised vehicles.
Also, I understand that the Police recommend that motorcyclists ride with full beam(?).

As a driver - and cyclist - I dislike being dazzled. I use a German standard front light - no dazzle when corrected mounted. However, I am also fully aware that "normal" commuter lights often go unnoticed at junctions and roundabouts making it dangerous. I do not ride by the kerb but position accordingly, but still feel that drivers are not seeing me - based on the movement of their vehicle and on where they are looking.

Personally, I am looking for a front pulse light to be more visible

Marky

Marky Legs's picture

posted by Marky Legs [107 posts]
16th October 2013 - 13:16

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My wife had a Light & Motion Vega (£100) and the battery stopped holding charge after a few years. Found an on-line company called Recell Your Battery who changed it for a higher capacity one (approx £35). Saved buying a new light.

Shades

posted by Shades [197 posts]
28th October 2013 - 15:23

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I've just bought an LED3si (now called Freeway) to go with my existing Lumicycle battery. It replaced a 20W Supermarket Special halogen bulb. I was trying to decide between this and the Apex which has a brighter wider beam.

The chooser above is really interesting. At the moment mine pointing quite low giving the bright spot a short distance ahead and more width closer to the wheel. I can see this makes sense. I don't think it dazzles. In effect my beam pattern will be the one shown in the chooser but shifted down so the entirety of the bright area is below horizontal.

Lumicycle claim that the LED3si is less likely to dazzle. I compared it with the Apex, which has a wider beam and twice the output at 1.5 times the input current, except in the around town LOW mode where it matches output for less current. Lumicycle warn that the Apex could dazzle unless left in its lower power modes and not pointed towards the opposite side of the road.

My observations after two nights with the Freeway (LED3Si):

* Power isn't really needed. I can ride comfortably on unlit roads with the LED3si in MID at 2.6W, 300 Lumens. I typically ride between 15 and 20mph, more towards 15 at the moment on winter tyres. HIGH (600 lumens) is nice at around 30mph. I don't think BOOST (850 lumens, another half an f-stop for photographers) is needed. Even on Sustrans paths in the dark I don't need the high power. The wider beam Apex may need more power as it's spread thinner. It would be interesting to compare Lux on the road as we see reported for some of the German lights. I wonder if Apex's MID (3.2W) would match Freeway's HIGH (6.7W) in use and be quite useful.

* On the first night I felt I was turning into darkness. Also steering wobble meant the spot moved around. Less noticeable last night, maybe having the light at a better lower angle. Consciously leaning the bike when I turn seems to help. This is one area where the wider angle Apex may be better.

* I don't think it's as dazzling as a car headlight even on dipped beam. An advantage of running on HIGH on open roads as opposed to MID is that after you've been blinded by an oncoming car you find you can still see the road with your own light.

* It lit the hedge on my side of the road quite well last night. It didn't light the hedge on the other side. Road signs are very visible so even pointed down it is throwing a reasonable amount of light forwards and upwards.

* It was nice to have it on LOW even in daylight as a running light in the grotty weather this morning - and at 0.8W it should do that continuously for a day or two on my old battery pack.

I've not had any drivers flash me or make comments yet.

posted by m0rjc [35 posts]
5th December 2013 - 13:44

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I have recently bought The Fluxient 3xU2 from http://www.bikelightsuk.com/ . One of its amazing features is upgraded LED’s that make it throw a 20% brighter beam of light! You are getting an output of 3000 lumens which is probably the highest by a front bike light. What I like the most about this light unit is an 8800mAh battery offering a run time from 3 to 10 hours depending upon your selection of the power level!

posted by AdamJackson [3 posts]
2nd July 2014 - 19:29

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