Buyer's guide - finding the best cycle lights for you

The clocks are going back, the nights drawing in... you need some cycle lights!

by Dave Atkinson   October 28, 2011  

Jole Rider 12hr - Tony passes the camp fire

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 40 of this year's top lights and you should be well on the way to finding the best light for you.

LEDs win the war

A few years ago you had a choice of different bulb options to consider: There was standard filament bulbs, LEDs, Halogen bulbs and HID units all vying for shelf space. Only one of them has really come on in recent years though, and that's the LED. 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

11 user comments

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Ai ai ai!

No helmet Tony? Surprise

seabass89's picture

posted by seabass89 [235 posts]
28th October 2011 - 18:04

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Its a review of lights, Seabass. Whats the fuss about helmets?

posted by szegerely [5 posts]
28th October 2011 - 18:33

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Put the light on his helmet...forgot to bring it aint it?!
Surprise

The_Kaner
FREEEEEEEEDOM!

The _Kaner's picture

posted by The _Kaner [294 posts]
28th October 2011 - 19:32

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I suspect most of these lights are illegal for road use through inappropriate beam geometry and dazzling oncoming traffic, but on the road is where where many of these will be used. From reading the blogs it is clear that many people seem to believe in large numbers and that 'more is better' - which is of course a fallacy. This is further confounded by the multiplicity of different and confusing ways in which the output of bicycle lights are stated.

Please remind your readers to try and be legal, remember that being legal means safer. The German StVZO approved lights will be road legal in the UK. I have the B&M Ixon IQ and the B&M dynamo-powered equivalents and they are plenty bright enough at ten metres and are road legal too.

Properly designed road-legal lights need to be off-axis visible over a wide arc, many off-road lights will not meet this and other criteria.

For information about dynamos and bicycle lights including beam shots and extended road tests including dynamo powered versions, see:
http://swhs.home.xs4all.nl/fiets/tests/verlichting/index_en.html

posted by Recumbenteer [136 posts]
29th October 2011 - 8:46

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There's two sorts of illegal. One is if they don't conform to relevant British standards. This can be overcome by using a second light that does conform to the standards. The other is if you could get done for using them even if you do have a legal light as well. Which are these? Are there any that are in the second category?

posted by horizontal dropout [133 posts]
29th October 2011 - 10:46

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I'm with Recumbenteer here. It's not the most powerful light that's the best; its usefulness is also dependent on the beam's shape. The additional advantage of a properly shaped beam is that the lamp gives you the same actual amount of light while using less energy from the batteries.

What's more, too bright a light can blind a driver and make them misjudge the distance, which is obviously dangerous, especially when it comes to rear lights and overtaking (confirmed by my workmate who said my o,5 W LED rear light was so bright on fresh batteries that he was not sure of the distance while overtaking me in his car).

A simple red LED light (such as a 10 GBP Cateye lights) is easily visible from 200-300 m so there's no possibility a driver could not see it in normal conditions. If they don't, they're probably so stupid/blind/careless anyway that they could hit you even if you looked like a Christmas tree.

blog rowerowy - my blog about bicycles (written in Polish, but feel free to visit me! Smile )

mikroos's picture

posted by mikroos [159 posts]
29th October 2011 - 11:58

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@horizontal dropout while some of these lights probably don't conform to British Standards (the lack of a side lens of some description will do for most lights because so few other countries require them) none of them are going to get you stopped by the law. If you want to have a set up that conforms you simply need to add a back up light that does.

In this case I don't agree with recumbanteer that legal means safer - brighter means safer. Erm, and if you look at our beam comparison engine and data mikroos you can judge the beam shapes for yourself. http://road.cc/content/news/46538-big-roadcc-lights-test-data as for rear lights being too bright? Hmm… Thinking

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posted by Tony Farrelly [4102 posts]
29th October 2011 - 14:30

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@tony

Brighter absolutely does not automatically mean safer. A light is never going to be safe if it is blinding and/or strongly distracting to the other people. For a moment they don't even know where they are going so they can hit either you or anyone else. Moreover, you're going to be much safer if you use reflective elements on your bike (especially on the wheels) or your clothing - they are much more visible because they are in constant motion.

And when it comes to the graphs (which are very useful, by the way), please remember that they describe light intensity only in one plane and that there's a lot of lamps which send a very strong beam to the road but only a small amount of light to the front - they are bright enough to be used on unlit roads but they are not blinding to the others. IMHO this is the best solution for commuters and roadies.

blog rowerowy - my blog about bicycles (written in Polish, but feel free to visit me! Smile )

mikroos's picture

posted by mikroos [159 posts]
29th October 2011 - 16:17

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Your light can be legal and dazzling for other road users if you point it in the wrong direction.

I'd wager that pretty much anyone offering to sell you lights has little idea what the real legal requirements are in the UK, and even fewer cyclists know. So I'm pretty much with Tony on this one: a bright light makes you seen, and if it dazzles oncoming drivers, that's hardly any different from endless new Audis and Range Rovers (and Citroens) with those lines of super bright LED style lights which trash my night vision.

Two wrongs don't make a right, but I'd advise any cyclist buying lights to buy something they think will be seen in the distance they need to be seen in. Faster roads implicitly suggest you need more basic power to be seen further away, both front and rear.

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posted by timlennon [225 posts]
30th October 2011 - 9:05

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Surprise
Please to note the requirements for cycle lighting apply to cycles manufactured after certain years, not of a necessity toall cycles
. The Historic Vehicles Associationgained immunity for compliance with later regulations , provided the equipment used was legal at time of the cyles manufacture.Do remember a cycle and the term includes unicycles, tandems, quadricycles and tricycles are all vehicles in the eyes of the law.

Sián

posted by barogerl [26 posts]
30th October 2011 - 14:33

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Basic thoughts;
Not having an excess of cash to buy £200 of lights to adorn a commuter bike and also not wanting to go
... Arse
------
Tit

i.e. only being seen but unable to see, leads to a compromise. The answer being E-bay!!. So take a tip have a look for Cree or Ultrafire. For £35 you'll get a ruddy good torch two batteries, charger and bike mount. Yep it don't look pretty but it'll work and very well. No pose value though.

Cheers.

To slo to live, to slo to die! ::-}

posted by OldnSlo [118 posts]
11th November 2011 - 23:55

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