The days are just now beginning to get longer again, but I’ve been riding and skiing in the dark for a while now and will continue to do so for some time. I have gravitated toward a few lights that have gotten me through a lot of very dark riding, but, as I’m leaving for cyclocross nationals in Madison in the dark tomorrow morning and won’t be doing any more early or late cyclocross training rides this season, I won’t have nearly as much need for them after this weekend. So, I’ll let you know what I think while the subject is still fresh in my mind.
The thing I dislike about writing magazine reviews of bike lights is that editors always want them in summertime so that they can go in an early fall magazine, the thinking being that that’s the time that people would be buying bike lights. But I, for one, do not ride at night in the summer, and even if I were to do so, the temperatures and conditions are so much gentler on equipment then that it does not offer as useful of a test. When it’s 10 degrees and pitch dark and cars are zooming past while I’m trying to negotiate the ice chunks, snow piles, and deep sand along the road shoulders, then I can truly appreciate a good bike light.
I don’t have a dedicated night bike all rigged up with lights; I’m riding a cyclocross bike that I will yank the lights off of as soon as it becomes light, so I’m looking for convenience (ease of quick installation and removal) dependable, bright light in front that doesn’t poop out as I’m struggling home at night, and dependable, visible tail flashers that stay on when I turn them on and keep flashing for months without new batteries.
Super Quick, Easy, and Bright: The Exposure Joystick
When I just want to hop on my bike or my skis in the dark with a minimum of preparation time and plenty of light, I always grab either my (four-year-old?) Exposure Joystick or my (two-year-old?) Joystick Maxx LED headlights. Both of them are completely self-contained units with good light output and plenty of battery life.
The original Joystick is fatter than the Joystick Maxx, and what I love about it is that it has a pivoting clip-in cradle that snaps onto the bar as well as onto the light. The snap-on cradles were available in both handlebar diameters, but Exposure now no longer offers them.
Various of its current lights have handlebar mounts that the light snaps onto, but the bar clamps are no longer plastic snap-on units but rather a screw-on type. Call me a slacker, but when I’m running out the door to meet an early-morning cyclocross group training/practice race session, I’m not going to mess around with a clamp that has to be screwed on, especially since I probably already have my gloves on and am running late. That snap-on bar mount is key at that time, as well as when it becomes light, and I can yank it off and not worry about breaking it while slithering around on an icy course with dozens of other riders.
The other unit I’ve used for a couple of winters is called the Joystick Maxx. It has been replaced by the Joystick Mk.6, which seems to be almost identical.
Anyway, it has a snap-on mount for the light that screws onto the top of a helmet. I don’t use this mount because I do not like screwing it on and off with its long plastic screw, nor do I like the look of the thing on top of my helmet. Instead, I use the headband that comes with it. It has a little loop to hold the light, and I can slip it over my cap and then put my helmet straps and (clear) glasses earpieces over it. It’s not in the way and is simple to put on and take off. The button, which you push twice to light it and hold down for a few seconds to turn it off, is also easy to depress with gloves on. It offers plenty of light for riding on the road or relatively slowly on a trail, as well as skate- or classic skiing.
At $260, it’s a chunk to spend on a light in such a small package, but it packs a wallop and seems to last just fine through years and years of repeated charging, abuse, cold temperatures, and being dropped. It also is simple and quick to recharge and indicates when it’s charged.
The Mother of All Bike Lights: The Lupine Betty
I used to have the previous incarnation of the Lupine Betty, and it was an incredibly bright halogen light with a water bottle battery. After many years of hard use, it developed some problems, so I upgraded to the LED version of the Betty, using my same old water bottle battery. Like the halogen version, this thing turns the night into day, but now it runs much longer on the same charge.
The Betty has different ways of mounting it, but I just use the tangle of long Velcro straps attached to a flat platform the light pivots on to weave through my helmet holes or to stick it to my cap when cross-country skiing (with the battery in a water bottle belt holder) at night. This gives me the convenience of removing it and installing it only when I need it and not having it banging around on my head when I don’t need light. The thing is so bright that when I start leaving the parking lot after night skiing on our local Eldora trails, I keep trying the high beams because the light seems so dim ahead of me, despite being bright Audi headlights!
With my big water bottle battery, it runs longer than I’ve ever ridden or skied with it at the highest output; Lupine literature puts it at around 2:50 at 2600 Lumens at 26 Watts and 3:40 at 1590 Lumens at 15 Watts.
One of our testers, Chris Rebula, did some 24-hour racing with the unit, and here is what he has to say:
1850 Lumen – Incredible light output, literally shocking other riders that I would pass. The beam is powerful and usable, I was extremely confident descending rough terrain at the same speed as I would during the day. On slower speed terrain running the light at a lower wattage (22W) was more than sufficient, extending battery life. The head unit only weighs 129 grams, so mounting the unit on a helmet does not cause the helmet to move all over your head.
Beam Angle – The head unit comes stock with a 16-degree beam angle, plenty of light on the periphery to pick out upcoming corners, even at speed on unfamiliar terrain. Lupine also offers a 22-degree lens to spread the light over a larger area.
Helmet mount head unit articulation – The helmet mount holds the head unit securely without auto adjustment over rough terrain. The light attaches to the helmet or bar mount with an EPDM ring, the interface allows the head unit to rotate on the mount without the necessity of triggering a locking mechanism. The mount allows the light to be easily repositioned as speed changes, farther out for higher speeds and closer in for low speed technical stuff.
Light on/off/dim switch – Programmable power setting (I had it set up stock with 24W and 22W) allows you to extend the battery life by using a lower power output when speeds are lower. The switch is conveniently located on the top of the light, pressing the switch has a defined click and is easily triggered with full finger gloves. Toggling between output settings involves simply pressing the button once (you do not need to hold the button down) and there is no risk of shutting the light down at an inopportune time.
Charging data/Charge One – The charge one head unit controls the rate of charge (Input Amperage), and outputs the state of charge (Amp Hours). Lupine offers a wide array of Li-ion batteries from the emergency backup 0.7 Ah Nano to the 14.5 Ah bottle.
Programmability – Infinitely programmable power output settings.
Directions: There is a lot of control over the head unit power output, but you have to do a little studying to actually make changes.
Cost: Retail for the unit with accessories is over $1,000 USD. I paid the same amount for my newest car with part-time 4wd, power windows, AM/FM radio, 5spd manual transmission, and two headlights with high beams, although a couple of Lupine Betty IIs would be a major upgrade.
A Bust: Knog Boomer
This thing worked fine when new. I liked that I could strap it onto my seatpost in a second and pull it back off as quickly, but it was no fun to use in its second season. The button became so sensitive that I could not shut it off, despite having all sorts of tricks to do so, like placing it on a flat surface and trying to touch only the button and nothing else. When I finally thought it was off, I discovered later an obnoxious flashing red light when I next opened my closet.
Worse yet, sometimes it would shut off of its own accord while riding, shattering my preconception that drivers could see me from behind. The upshot of all of this turning on when not intended of course resulted in it running out of batteries when I most needed it one dark night. I was not about to go buy new batteries for it; I just left it right then and there at the trash can at the ATM I’d ridden to (and rode home wary of every car overtaking me). It’s $30 not well spent.
Out of This World: Topeak Alien
This little thing I love. My younger daughter, during her days working at a bike shop, bought me one for my birthday or Christmas or something. It looks cool as can be, does not have a whole bunch of different flashing cycles to click through when turning it off, and it straps on in a flash with Velcro. It is so easy to carry along in case dark descends, that I usually do so. It burned for umpteen night rides over a couple of years before I finally had to replace the pair of flat watch batteries inside.
At $10 retail, I plan on buying a bunch more of these, because now my older daughter has absconded with mine. The one my daughter stole from me is green, but it comes in lots of different colors, since aliens, of course, come in lots of colors as well.
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Technical writer Lennard Zinn is a frame builder (www.zinncycles.com), a former U.S. national team rider and author of numerous books on bikes and bike maintenance including the pair of successful maintenance guides “Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance” – available also on DVD, and “Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance,” as well as “Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikes” and “Zinn’s Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips and Skill Building for Cyclists.”
Zinn’s regular column is devoted to addressing readers’ technical questions about bikes, their care and feeding and how we as riders can use them as comfortably and efficiently as possible. Readers can send brief technical questions directly to Zinn.