A friend of mine was recently returning from an evening ride he was pulled over by the cops for not having the proper rear lighting. When he explained that he had been up mountain biking in Ash Canyon, and that his tail light had bounced off the mounting bracket, they cop eyed him suspiciously and said, “Don’t you think it’s a little late to be up there riding a bike?”
As kids, our parents gave us permission to go out on the bike “as long as we were back before dark”. Today, many people cut rides short, leave social events early, and scramble to get home when the sun starts going down. Far too many people enjoy the downtown social life using their cars to get home when they shouldn’t be. But cycling is still possible after dark. For the price of a tank of gas, you can buy some decent bicycle lights and keep bicycling year round, day or night. Lights can extend the hours of available mountain biking too. This is important to many riders, now that the sun is setting so early.
I suspect a lot of people don’t know that riding your bike at night can be a lot of fun. Whether you’re pedaling through the dark woods, along a moonlit mountain singletrack, or cruising city streets beneath the neon lights, riding at night is an all new cycling experience. A feeling of floating rather than rolling. Less to look at and far fewer distractions. Many of your usual visual cues are not visible, and you may forget where you are momentarily if you let your mind drift. Your other senses are heightened. You might really feel the wind in your face, or notice just how loud a creek is for the first time. The trail you ride everyday may seem very unfamiliar at night, giving that same old trails new life. It can even be a little spooky at times.
High-end lighting technology has come a long way. Thanks to LED lights, batteries are a lot more compact than they used to be, are quickly recharged, and have long burn times. Batteries are now small and light enough to be clipped onto your stem, bars, helmet, or other convenient location. Some batteries are even contained within the light, removing the need for a separate mount.
How much light you need is based on what type of riding you’ll be doing. A cheap $15 light might produce just enough light to alert motorists of your presence, but not provide you much illumination to light up the road. This may be ok if you plan to slowly cruise the city streets, but you can quickly overrun your lights if you pick up the pace. A light system costing a few hundred bucks will light up your world, and will allow you to ride at the same speed you might during full daylight. Lights of this caliber would be a good choice for racing or negotiating technical terrain.
My current headlight is somewhere in between. It’s a 110 lumen MiNewt from Nite Rider. For around $100, I got the light, rechargeable battery (can also be charged with a USB outlet), mounts for different sized handlebars, and a helmet mount. It’s more than enough light for riding around town at full speed, and provides me with enough light to enjoy the few night time mountain bike rides I do each year. It mounts/un-mounts easily with no tools, and fits in my pocket if I want to take it off once I reach my destination.
Bar Mount vs. Helmet Mount
Some lights come with mounting hardware that allow you to mount the light to the handlebars or the helmet. Mounting a light on the handlebars shines light where your bike is headed. A light on the helmet shines light where you’re looking. Handlebar mounted lights are convenient and adequate for most urban riding, but many mountain bikers prefer running both. Riding technical trails at speed requires that you see what’s in front of your bike, but also what’s coming up around the next turn. When doing a fast turn in the daylight, we look through the turn and use our peripheral vision to see what is directly in front of us. Running two lights allows you to do this when it’s dark. The helmet light is also nice for peering into the bushes and making sure that twig you just heard snap isn’t a mountain lion or some other large, purely imagined, carnivorous mammal.
Taillights and Other Lights
Taillights are much more affordable than headlights, since their main purpose is just to make you be seen. I went with a Planet Bike Superflash for around $26. It’s a bit more expensive than some of the other taillights, but it’s very bright. It’s a good choice for all season visibility, and has worked good even during snow storms. Some companies make little lights that can mount pretty much anywhere on the bike. You can get creative with these; for example, you might stick some on your seat tube to help increase visibility from the sides.
Some Tips for Night Riding
- Check the forecast before you leave, and be aware of what the temperatures will be after the sun goes down. It can cool down quickly after nightfall. Wind vests, arm warmers, and headbands don’t take up much room in your pack, and keep you comfortable if you need them.
- It’s still a good idea to have eye protection after dark. Get some clear lenses, or wear your eyeglasses. I don’t see very good after dark without my eyeglasses, so I prefer better vision at the expense of a little wind protection.
- You don’t need a taillight for off-road riding, and sometimes they can bounce off the mount if you do take them off-road. I keep one in my pack though for the ride home. Once I return to the city streets, I just clip it on.
- If you’re wearing a light on your helmet, cover it or turn it off when you look at people to talk to them. It’s easy to forget the light is up there, and your riding buddies don’t appreciate being blinded.
- Don’t leave your expensive lights on your bike when it’s unattended on the bike rack. You could easily lose your investment and have to ride home in the dark.