Monday, December 8, 2014

Making Friends with the Dark

Dark and Stormy Night
As the season of early sunsets descends upon us, many cyclists find themselves overwhelmed by the prospect of commuting in the dark. Now entering my 6th winter of relying on two wheeled transportation, I too find this aspect of things challenging - in particular since moving from a populated, well lit urban area to a remote, pitch-black rural one. But while it's certainly been difficult, it has not been impossible. And as I settle into another winter of moonlit trips along winding country roads, this time around I am finding it less daunting, more comfortable. To get to this state, it has helped to consistently follow a 2-prongued approach: (1) to always have good lights, and (2) to know the road as well as possible. It's an approach that's straightforward and commonsensical enough. But in the event this may prove useful to others, allow me to elaborate.


Taking lighting seriously
When it comes to riding in darkness, the importance of good lights may seem too obvious to mention ...except I've noticed that many cyclists tend to think of lighting as a splurge rather than a necessity. The number of times I see fancy, expensive utility bikes with cheap, inadequate headlights clipped to the handlebars like an afterthought never ceases to amaze me. This is probably because lights are still typically marketed as optional "accessories" in the bicycle industry,  portrayed as inessential to the cycling experience. But if you rely on cycling after dark for transportation and it gets dark at 4pm, then lights are in fact crucial components. Just as you need brakes that stop the bike and tires that hold air, you need lights that illuminate the road and won't conk out in the middle of a commute. Bearing that in mind, I suggest prioritising lighting in your overall budget. Save money elsewhere on the bike, but get the best lights you can: lights that are bright enough to properly illuminate the types of roads you'll be traveling on, and that rely on a charge system compatible with your lifestyle (more on that later).

Now, to continue stating the obvious... Merely owning good lights is not enough: You also need to make sure they are on your bike and functional when you need them. Even if you use detachable clip-on lights, once summer ends I suggest securing them to your bike permanently - that way you'll never forget and get caught out. Because that time you think "I'll not bother clipping a headlight on, since I'll be back before dark" will be the time you'll unexpectedly meet a friend and end up chatting or grabbing a drink, until - oops - you're stranded in the dark with no lights. Better to eliminate the stress and guesswork, by permanently securing lights to your transportation bike once it starts to get dark early.

Battery or dynamo?
The battery vs dynamo powered lighting debate, is one of charging logistics rather than brightness. And the choice is really up to you. Think of it this way: The goal is to not end up in a situation where your lights die on you in the middle of a dark commute because you haven't charged them adequately. With battery powered lights, this means that you will need to establish a religiously regular battery changing or charging routine. If you are the organised, diligent type who is good at that, then using battery lights could make sense, as it will save money and weight over dynamo-powered lights of the same brightness. However, if you're not confident in your ability to keep on top of the battery re-charging/ replacing process, or simply don't want to add yet another tedious task to your life, go with dynamo lighting and you won't have to worry.

Testing your lighting setup
No matter how well your lights are rated in industry reviews, you will need to test them thoroughly on your own bike and on your own routes to know whether they will work for you. Should the headlight be attached to the handlebars, fork crown, front rack? Where should the beam point? Will it be obscured by the front wheel or handlebar bag from certain angles? Will one headlight suffice? These questions and others can only be answered through experimenting with your setup. And don't be discouraged if getting the lights pointed just right proves difficult. Just make sure you test them in circumstances that resemble those of your actual commute as closely as possible. A setup that may seem fine in your driveway may not work quite so well when you're descending a hairpin road in the dark (a real feature of my commute, by the way)!

And when testing your lighting setup, don't neglect your tail light - after all, being visible from the rear is crucial to road safety. In particular, make sure that whatever part of your bike you attach the tail light to, keeps it stable. Saddlebag-mounted tail lights have a tendency to slip and point downward. Seatpost-mounted tail lights can rotate and point sideways if the attachment is not tight enough. Check for all of this, and again, under conditions similar to your actual commuting conditions. For example: deliberately go over bumps at speed to see whether the tail light slips.

Knowing the road
Lighting-related advice aside, I cannot stress enough what a huge, huge difference familiarity makes when cycling in the dark. The more remote, less illuminated, and trickier a road is, the more this applies. Luckily (and unlike, say, randonneuring) cycling for transportation typically involves everyday routes which we ride again and again. It is only a matter of time before those routes become familiar to us in the dark, under the limited illumination of our headlight beam. But it's possible to hasten that process by practicing dry runs along a commuting route that's either new or not yet familiar. This can be done first in the daytime and then in the dark, at a time when you're not in a hurry to be somewhere and can go slowly, or even turn back if need be. The more often you travel on any given road, the better you will know its contours, ascents and descents, the locations of its potholes and other danger spots - until you're eventually able to anticipate these things by rote memory. That tricky bend, that slippery railroad track, the unexpected stop sign at the bottom of a steep descent - you will discover you body anticipating them upon approach even before your powerful, well-angled headlight beam illuminates them before you.

Cycling in the dark - proper dark - is an advanced skill that not everyone is immediately comfortable with. But for those of us who rely on the bicycle for transportation, it is a necessary skill. And with some pro-active behaviour when it comes to lighting setup and route familiarisation, we can come to enjoy a new level of comfort and freedom in night-time commutes.

I think I realised that I had made friends with the dark when I deliberately turned of onto a forest path to get home one night. If I had thought the road was pitch black, this quickly put that idea to rest. It had just stopped raining and the droplets were glistening on the crooked black tree branches under the glow of my headlight like a scattering of tiny festive lights. I pedaled along the winding slippery path, as wet leaves made surprised squishing noises under my tires - finding it all beautiful and not at all scary, and humming "Hello darkness, my old friend."

37 comments:

  1. There's one more important factor when thinking on dynamo vs battery. Most battery lights use a symmetrical beam that shines a round circle of light. Most dynamo lights have a horizontal cutoff that limits the amount of light shining above the horizon, much like a car or motorcycle headlight. This is because most dynamo headlights come from Germany, and German bike lighting requirements dictate the horizontal cutoff.

    Over time, I've been persuaded that symmetrical beams aren't really unsafe (i.e., "blinding the driver, leading to an accident"), but it is annoying as heck, just like someone driving with their highbeams on. Given that I'm riding amongst urban drivers that already may not like me very much simply because I'm on a bike, it's worth it to me to make sure I'm not giving anyone a reason to hate me more.

    That said, the brightest dynamo lights won't ever be as bright as the brightest battery lights. I have found myself coveting the portable suns that some of my fellow commuters use... just as long as we're not riding in opposite directions. However, cutoff beam headlights do punch above their weight, since much the light that would be going out high is reflected onto the ground.

    If you're going to go with a high-powered symmetrical beam, at least mount it low (crown, or preferably on the fork or rack). If you feel the need for an "aimable" headlight (i.e., helmet mount), go with a secondary, only moderately-bright headlamp.

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    1. I don't have strong opinions on the asymmetrical vs symmetrical beam debate. I use both, and find that overall brightness makes more of a difference than this feature. But I know others don't agree, so to each their own. I do tend to mount my lights low in any case.

      Oh - and where I live the roads are so dark, that drivers use high beams as standard lighting, "dipping" them only for oncoming cars, if they remember. Somehow I doubt a symmetrical beam cycling headlight would bother them.

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    2. Battery powered Supernova Airstream and Airstream 2 have sophisticated asymmetrical optics. Supernova now makes a nice tail light as well.

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    3. That's right, I forgot about that. I have the original Supernova Airstream, and it is excellent, though a bit heavy for my liking.

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    4. The German beams also put more light on the road in front of you, instead of lighting up the bottoms of tree crowns, where I at least rarely ride. My dynohub/German LED setup has made night riding, which I've always loved, a pure delight. And allows me to run lights in murky daylight conditions without worrying whether I'll have enough battery power to get home at night.

      The other basic of night riding: slow down. I ride 16-18mph in the daytime, and slow down to 12-15mph at night.

      Also, don't count on familiarity too much: potholes can develop overnight from heavy rain, truck traffic, or simply unseen erosion under the asphalt that finally has an effect. Slippery mud or sand can wash down from road cuts, as often happens here in Los Angeles. Things change; it will be a different road tomorrow.

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    5. I've generally found people out on country roads much more courteous than urban commute drivers. For the later, I think there's honestly no limit to what people will be potentially bothered by. ;)

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    6. > Things change; it will be a different road tomorrow.

      True, and road conditions here can change from day to day as well. Fresh chipseal, remnants of cows crossing the road, flooding, frost, spilled sand. Nonetheless I find it very useful to at least know the contours of the road, as well as where the dips, rises, and various other unusual or caution-worthy stretches are. For some reason, going over an unexpected pothole in the dark does not phase me, whereas navigating an unknown bend at speed in the dark can completely unravel me unless I slow to a crawl!

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  2. We will never see generator hubs and lights on Walmart bikes, for sure, as that's where every dollar counts. But I wonder when do we see more and more urban bikes with generator lights as a standard feature. Now this "option" (as you noticed) is reserved for upscale models. We probably have to reach a certain critical mass (I don't like this expression) of year-round commuting cyclists to demand basic bicycles with built-in lights.

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  3. Excellent advice. I love riding in the dark, on empty roads. It's like being alone in the world, drifting along in the dark. Mot unlike the experience Beryl Markham had while flying in the dark in Africa in the early 20th century -- the world was below her, and she was the only inhabitant.
    It would be great if cyclists would stop using those very bright strobe headlights at night. During the day they make sense, but at night, you're as visible as you're going to be with your light on steady. Some drivers will still not see you (and watch out for them, please) but please don't dazzle the rest of us.

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    1. Flashing/ strobe bicycle lights are a pet peeve of mine, and I don't believe they should be used at all. Unfortunately for my eyes and seizure-predisposed brain, this is not a popular opinion on the N American cycling scene.

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    2. Count my vote against strobe lights as well.

      I am light sensitive. Strobe lights always leave me seeing spots for a while after passing the rider.

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    3. I can't stand strobes either. To call them distracting is an understatement and I don't believe they attract the type of attention we would choose. When I see a flashing light of any type while driving I immediately assume something is "wrong" and I have to be prepared for some type of emergency. I would prefer the drivers I share the road with to see me as something normal to be dealt with in a calm un-flustered manner rather than a road hazard or something to be rubber-necked.

      I also have to admit to being prone to drift(just a little) toward something unusual and worrisome that I am trying to figure out, especially driving after dark. And I'm an EXCELLENT driver, just ask me if you don't believe me.

      Spindizzy

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    4. On my commute home a couple of months ago I was totally distracted by a cyclist behind me, with his strobe light flashing. I said that I hoped he didn't blind the drivers in facing him. He responded with "maybe the lights will blind you, too". Nice Cambridge/Somerville commuter.

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  4. Excellent rundown. Try buying a car with no fenders and no lights. It wouldn't make sense. Or, if there are lights on the car, they can only run if you've remembered to recharge them. That would be crazy!

    Bike lighting is an area where precedent affects clear thinking. We are not used to seeing robust integrated lighting systems on bikes--and are therefore they are seen as outliers, specialty, unnecessary, etc... The nutty thing is, a solid light set-up opens up a whole new magical world of biking. Imagine if our belief system was such that almost no one considered it normal or possible to drive at night? Why are bikes be any different? The main issue is one of economics. A dyno hub wheel and lights are a hefty investment to put down when you can just buy a cheap blinkies and such. Nonetheless, I'm convinced the investment is absolutely worth it, and for the time that I run my lights (read: all the time), I'm certain the payback in not ever having to think about batteries or recharging, not to mention avoided anxiety that they might lose power, is not so very long.

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  5. The front & rear light combo I'm using this season cost me nearly $500 USD. Spending that kind of money on "accessories" made me flinch a bit, it's still less than I paid for a pair of race-ready cyclocross wheels. Plus, I know from sad personal experience that inadequate lighting leads to accidents.

    The first happened 25 years ago. I'd gotten back from a long ride on my "fast" bike, showered, eaten, and headed out for an evening meeting on my "commuting" bike -- the one with lights. State of the art lighting in those days consisted of a Sanyo generator set. Although I'd found this to be scarily inadequate for dark rides in the country, it seemed more that adequate for a quick jaunt across town on residential streets. I was out of the saddle, pushing a big gear when my front wheel came to a sudden stop, pitching me over the handlebars onto the pavement and instantly snapping my right clavicle. A quarter-split piece of firewood had fallen out of someone's truck and landed bark-side-up on black asphalt. It was completely invisible in the puny light from my Sanyo headlamp, and I hit it square at probably 17 mph. It was eight painful weeks before I could ride a bike again, and I still can't wear most bib shorts due to the right strap irritating the break site. Lesson learned.

    Progressively better lighting rigs helped me keep rubber side down for the next two and a half decades. Then, two months ago, I was beginning my commute home from work when a high school girl in a borrowed SUV made a left turn in front of me as I was going straight through an intersection at 24 mph. You can probably guess the story: I had the right of way, but she "didn't see" me until I T-boned her right rear quarter panel. This is one of the two most common bike-car collisions that happen to experienced cyclists, the other being a "right hook" ("left hook" for those in the UK). Knowing this, I have a strategy of running a pulsing front lamp when riding though busy shopping districts, even during broad daylight. I've had many fewer near misses since I started doing that, but it didn't help me on the afternoon in question because it was 45 minutes before sunset and the sun was directly behind me. My little AAA-powered LED blinker just couldn't compete with the glare. I also had a "real" headlight on the bike, but it was an older high-voltage ballast type that won't blink, so I was saving it for actual darkness.

    Note to Jon Webb: I've now switched to 1500 lumen LED headlamp that includes the "strobe" mode you hate. No, I don't use it at night, but I do use it in daylight and just prior to sunset. If I'd had such a lamp on the afternoon of my recent accident, the collision might not have happened. This headlight also has a less obnoxious "ramp" mode that I think is ok for pre-sunset use on open roads, but I don't think it's noticeable enough to use in business districts where there's potential cross-traffic every few feet.

    I've read similar on-line critiques of the DiNotte taillight I'm running on the rear: "too darn bright". In my view, these complaints are due to the owners of these lights not using them correctly. Lights like this have multiple operating modes for a reason, and I choose the correct mode and brightness depending on current conditions: medium flash for daylight on open roads with shoulders, bright flash in business districts or on roads with no shoulder and sunset coming on. Once it's dark, I switch to steady mode and modulate the brightness depending on traffic speed and amount of external "light clutter". But I also switch on a smaller LED taillight in "strobe" mode. It's mounted down near my chainstay where it's not going to blind anybody, but it does make other drivers notice me in a way that a steady light can't.

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  6. Riding at night is such a magical experience, it would be a pity to forego it because your lights aren't good enough. We are in summer here in Australia now and night time is often the best time to ride, as it's so exhaustingly hot during the day. Or there is a huge electrical storm. But a fine summer night? Get on the bike and get riding.

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  7. Picking up on the magic experience theme, one of the most memorable nights of my life (on two wheels) was all made possible by bike lights. In fact the ride takes its name, in part, from the Dynamo itself! http://eatbikenap.blogspot.com/2014/07/dirigo-dynamo-2014.html

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    1. So glad you enjoyed the Dirigo Dynamo. The inaugural 2012 ride was one of my most memorable cycling experiences and made me feel that anything was possible on a bike. I still remember crossing the MA/NH border and being greeted by fireworks!

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    2. I see the Dirigo Dynamo was inspired by the Dunwich Dynamo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunwich_Dynamo) a ride from London to Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. The Dunwich Dynamo is also an amazing ride and I can still visualise the red lights of the bikes in front of me snaking through the hills, lanes and woods of Suffolk to the coast.

      However it is held in July so the night is a lot shorter than Northern Ireland in December!

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    3. An overnight ride in the dead of an Irish winter would be interesting. ...Though I doubt many participants would be ecstatically wanting to repeat it after enduring it once!

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    4. If you wanted to start before sunset and finish after sunrise then this is over a 12 hour ride in the dark this time of year. For the Dunwich, it is only about 7 hours between sunrise and sunset, so quite a difference.

      I think the direction matters as well. The Dunwich ride goes east so you are riding towards the rising sun and the night progresses from black, to "is that a hint of dawn or am I hallucinating" to "yes, definitely dawn" to, if you are lucky, a glorious sunrise.

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    5. "...Though I doubt many participants would be ecstatically wanting to repeat it after enduring it once!"

      The Seattle Randonneurs have been doing an all night 200k on the winter solstice for the past several years. It draws more people every year. Here's a nicely done video from a couple years ago: http://vimeo.com/31356319

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    6. Nice!

      Just wondering, does Seattle get 70-80mph winds in the winter months? Cause that's what's happening outside my window right now... : (

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  8. Yes, as I said way long time ago, redundancy is security.

    Yew want to aim your lights all over, for best results. Looking like a Christmas tree is no crime.

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  9. I live in a rural area travelling through towns with lights, rural, semi rural with little or no lights, so agree on both points. Funnily enough, I find I bike faster at night because I am riding more on memory which somehow makes me feel more bold somehow and there is much less traffic on the road. I am also on familiar routes all the time, so know the roads very well, I know when to slow down for that pile of scary metal garbage, or when to avoid potholes and piles of gravel etc..
    One thing I see over and over is cyclists cheaping out on lights. Many a time I have been at a big outdoorsy store in Vancouver and observed people looking at bike lights. i would give advice on getting a really bright light, but time and time again, people would get the cheap little 1 watt things, or tiny cute blinky lights that serve no purpose whatsoever. I have a 500 lumen bike light and it really is not bright enough, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to see. Yes, that 500 or 600 lumen light might LOOK really bright in the store or looking at it on your friend's bike, but when actually riding you will think, is that it? Especially in bad weather! Plus the most powerful setting might only last an hour! Riding in moonlight is fun and I sometimes turn the light off altogether until a car comes. Consider heavy lashing rain, fog, smoke from all the woodstoves and fireplaces, and the dreaded glare of oncoming traffic can cancel out any light you have at all.
    As for dynamo, it is an expensive investment, but the light options are more interesting and you can have proper beam patterns whereas battery powered lights are essentially expensive flashlights with too much light wasted where it does not need to go.

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    1. > ...heavy lashing rain, fog, smoke from all the woodstoves and fireplaces,
      > and the dreaded glare of oncoming traffic...

      Sounds eerily familiar!

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  10. "Save money elsewhere on the bike, but get the best lights you can"

    I would love to hear your thoughts on where to save and where to splurge when ordering a custom build!

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    1. A question we've all sought answers to for sure. It's a very personal thing, but I'll try to think of a way to address it in a post on a general level.

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  11. To see, or to be seen, that is the question. Wheather 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings or arrows of blinded motorists, or to take arms against a sea of unseen pot holes and by opposing end them. Lights are only part of the soliloquy to safe travel at night. What we wear on our bodies is equally important, if not more so. I live in a climate where we only get about 9 hours of sun a day in the winter, so my commutes are completely in the dark. I find that most tail lights are woefully under powered, but what's worst is no reflection or lighting on the side of the bike or rider. I see countless numbers of riders who cross my path wearing dark clothes, and using lights to only guide their way. These aren't just the people on rusted out department store bikes, they are also the cyclists on steeds I'll only ever dream of riding. I believe it's not only important to shine a light on the objects in front of you for the world to see, but when the light is shone on you, that you glow in the dark from a few hundred yards away.

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    1. > To see, or to be seen, that is the question.

      Of course both are necessary. But why choose? If a headlight cannot be angled in a way that allows it to perform both functions, two headlights can be installed.

      You also raise a question of degree. When it comes to seeing, it seems pretty straightforward to me: Whatever a given rider feels is sufficient to see the road is sufficient for that rider. As far as being seen, there seem to be 2 dominant schools of thought. One says the more hi-vis the better. The other says there is an optimal degree of visibility to aim for, after which adding more can actually become detrimental (see target fixation, esp w tired/drunk drivers). From personal experience, I am more inclined to subscribe to the latter. But I'd love to see more actual research on this topic.

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    2. I think hi viz (bright colour) clothing isn't much use after dark anyway and reflective elements are more important than the colour.

      I'll see if I can dig up the stats but SMIDSY (sorry mate I didn't see you...) collisions are far more common than drivers seeing but not avoiding. Here is an article with an explanation for why drivers "look but don't see". http://www.londoncyclist.co.uk/raf-pilot-teach-cyclists/

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    3. I'm much more worried about the drivers in back of me than the ones coming towards me at least I can see them. I think I'd rather have a tired/drunk or tired drunk see me well down the road, instead of supprising them as they are running me over. Also, in this litigious world we live in, it may be easier to get your medical bills paid for, that is if you live through such an ordeal, when you get placed into the ambulance you can prove you tried to make yourself as visible as you could, not just your bike. I see a lot of people riding with olny blinkies on the back of their bikes, and I can see where that could cause a fixational effect for drivers coming up from behind. I have a theory on why that is, but it's not scientific and it's only a matter of opinion, so I tend to keep it to myself. I only use one 3k lumen light pointed down at the ground on the bike, but I try to make it noticable to the drivers without blinding them, and a 1 watt helmet light to read maps and look at the computer, I also use the helmet light to get the attention of drivers coming up on cross streets. I wrap two inch long refective tape around 4 spokes on each wheel. And I use a 3 watt solid beam taillight, because I just hate riding behind blinkies myself. And anytime I know I could be riding at night I carry a light weight vest and refective ankle bracelets, because a drunkard I used to work with, a very very very long time ago, told me when he would drive home from the bar, he said the pedal reflectors caught his attention the best. And for all the time I knew him, he never hit a bicyclist.

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  12. Although you did allude to it in your post, I am forever bemused at the sheer number of cyclists who neglect rear lighting. When out cycling or even driving at night it's not uncommon to see these amazing front lights with fantastic lumen output and wonderful beam patterns only to be let down with a budget rear light. To be honest I'm not sure why people think a few pounds can be saved in this area, for me rear lighting is as important as having a bells and whistles front light. I think I remember one of your previous posts relating to this subject. Within my own club it's an area with put an emphasis on, we try and get club members to notice rear light types while out driving and take a look at their effectiveness.

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    1. Funny enough, I see more of the opposite: a tail light with no headlight. Usually it's roadies returning from a club ride that ran late.

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  13. I think until you live in a very rural area you can not appreciate how dark it can be. I too now live in rural Oxfordshire, previously in Taiwan. And in both cases I cycle more than 10 miles each way to work. In Taiwan lights really weren't needed. In the countryside of Oxford even walking to the pub you need a torch.

    One of the beauties of night riding home for me is on a single lane road with no large hedge row so I can see far head on the curving road if a car may be coming. On a clear moon lit night I sometimes turn my front light off just to enjoy riding by moonlight. Of course my two very bring back lights are on.

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  14. I do like to see and be seen. I have both a dynamo B&M headlight and tail light on my bikes, and a battery powered LED head light and tail light. I live and ride in the city, and my 57-year old eyes plead with me to "let there be light".

    I've found that my dynamo head light is just not bright enough to see after dark, especially on the faster descents here in hilly Seattle. Yes, my B&M dynamo headlight is of middling brightness, but even the top of the line dynamo lights sold today are only about one tenth as bright as a good LED battery light. Therefore, I supplement the dynamo light with a 1600 lumen, battery-powered, DiNotte LED light.

    I do like that I can leave the dynamo lights on all of the time, including day time - especially important during this dreary, gray time of the year. The dynamo headlamp flashes and the tail light glows bright red during daylight - adding to my visibility to others. A benefit to my safety with the two-ton "wrecking balls" I witness careening through the streets, piloted by drivers mesmerized by their cellphone conversations or latest text message on their smartphone.

    I appreciate the proponents that wish to limit "light pollution" and during my younger, pre-age 45 years, would not have required the levels of light I now need. These days I spend part of my time in Tucson, AZ, where night time lighting is limited by city ordinance to facilitate star-gazing. The night sky in the desert is breathtaking, however, it also sometimes takes my breath away when a bicyclist, or skateboarder for that matter, appears from no where out of the darkness as I drive my car. Oh, to believe I was indestructible again.

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  15. This cool little product can give you 360 visibility with any tail-light:
    https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/sombra-the-lampshade-for-your-bicycle-tail-light?src=lovleybikeblog

    Hope you like it :)

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