A guide to choosing a light that fits your needs
For both day and night riding, for help in seeing and being seen, lights are an important accessory for cyclists, but some that are often overlooked. With so many options and types available, there is a lot to think of when it comes to choosing the correct light. Good lights are not cheap and are an investment just like everything else, but this doesn’t mean you need to break the bank.
In addition to a helpful breakdown on light technology, we’ve also assembled a group of light systems that reflect a broad swath of current options that will assuredly let you ride safer, day or night.
A MEASURE OF POWER
To start off, it’s important to know that light is measured in three different ways, and the first of those is the lumen. So, what is a lumen? Lumens measure total luminous flux or the total output of a light source in all directions that it points. Lumens are measured using an integrating sphere, which is a scientific instrument that uses a reflective sphere to normalize the light beam and measure its intensity.
Next is candela (candlepower), and it’s the measure of the maximum brightness at a point or the amount of brightness in one direction. This can vary depending on the angle of the light, but not the distance.
And finally, light is measured in lux, and that’s lumens per area. It’s the total amount of light hitting a surface, then divide by the area of the surface. Lux is dependent on distance, so for its value to be relevant, you must know the distance the light is being projected onto the surface.
What does all of this mean? There are many ways to label a light or manipulate its measurement, so a side-by-side comparison would always be best. One beam might be narrow and pinpoint an area, while another might flood a larger area without the center hot spot. From our experience, a slightly wider but less intense light feels the most natural when riding. Also, consider where you’re going to mount the light—whether it will go on your handlebars, the top of your helmet, or maybe lower on a fork or front rack. All of these things will affect the way the light is cast onto the road and the width of your beam.
If you are using a helmet-mounted light and you’re getting the flying-through-space sensation, it may be too bright for your circumstance. Think of it like driving your car in the fog; if your lights are bright, you see less as the light reflects back so close to your view. But, if you run your lights on a lower setting and maybe lower to the ground, you can see considerably better. This also applies to cycling as well, so think of running a bar light bright and the helmet light on the lower or lowest setting.
When it comes to positioning your light (on the handlebars), remember to point them up a bit higher so you are focusing on what is about 10–15 feet in front of you, not directly in front of your tire. Think of it as in the way you ride at your regular pace. If your light is focused on the road only 3 to 5 feet in front of you it will be brighter, but your reaction time is sacrificed, spreading the light out a bit, and down the street further may not feel as bright but gives you much more time and distance to observe the road in front of you. It’s also worth taking into account that when setting up your headlights, if they are pointed too high.
The rule of positioning tail lights is to ensure that they are seen from behind. A taillight that is super bright but is partially blocked by your seat bag is not maximizing its effectiveness. Also, think of where you’re positioned on the road relative to the traffic. Most of the time cars will be approaching you from the rear and passing you on your left side, so position the light to be optimized for the left side and to be seen at least 100 meters directly behind you.
Many saddlebags have an area to clip a light to them, and if you choose this option, make sure that the light is not drooping and pointing down at your tire. A great feature found on the Niterider Sentinel 150 is highly visible laser lanes that, when positioned on the bike correctly, will shine a virtual bike lane on the road around you.
Mounting the light you choose can be just as tricky if your bike doesn’t have the traditional round handlebar and seatpost. Aero bars and seatposts can be difficult to accommodate, so look over your bike and choose a few spots to maybe attach your lights. A helmet-mounted headlight and a seatstay-mounted taillight might be your only options. To make sure you get the right fit, you could bring your bike in to the dealer with you and have the sales associate help mock up the install.
Next on the list of considerations is a light’s run-time versus brightness. A 2000-lumen light is great, but if it only lasts 30 minutes and your rides average two hours in the dark, you will have to use a lower setting to extend the life of the battery. Now if that same light will last two hours but is only 100 lumens, you will have to decide if that is enough light for you to ride safely. Some lights will have removable batteries, and for an extra fee you could get another one as a backup. If it doesn’t have that option and you forget to charge your light or maybe you accidentally leave it on a bright setting and it depletes the battery faster than expected, you could be without sufficient lighting.
THE DISCOUNT TRAP
Most of the time a less expensive light has a cheap battery matched with a cheap charger, so choose brands that are reputable. Just like with hoverboards and the new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 that catches fire, cheap lights with their cheap batteries can do the same. Don’t fall victim to the knockoffs and the “great deals” that you find on the internet. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. When you get 1000 lumens for $19.95, most likely it’s either not 1000 lumens or its comprised of parts and components that are not suitable for its application and may lead to failure. Also, these lights tend to have very focused beams and lack substantial mounting options.
Choosing lights can be a bit overwhelming, so it’s important that you first prioritize what your needs are, as the wide variety of choices will narrow significantly. Are you just looking for daytime running lights, or more powerful lights to ensure a safe commute home in the dark? What are the mounting options to consider?
Light & Motion IMJIN 800
The Imjin 800 from Light & Motion is an 800-lumen lamp with an external battery. With the included two-cell battery pack (larger options are available), there are three constant modes and one flash mode. At 800 lumens you get two hours of burn time, at 400 lumens you get four hours and at the constant 200 lumens it jumps to eight hours. The flash mode is only 200 lumens but has a burn time of 16 hours. The external battery is small and can easily be strapped to a top tube, or if the light is helmet-mounted it can be put in a jersey pocket or backpack. The headlamp and battery both use rubber-strap-type mounting brackets for easy positioning and removal, while the headlamp does also have an adapter to fit onto a GoPro mount. The battery has a claimed charge time of a little under three hours with the included charger.
Ethos Components 600 Lumens
The Ethos light features a carbon fiber body with anodized aluminum ends. The 600-lumen model can be ordered with a
trail beam (wide) or as a spot beam (center focused). When powering on and changing modes the light vibrates, letting you know you have changed modes. The rear of the light has a micro-USB port for charging and also sports a full-sized USB port so it can be used as a backup battery for your phone or other gadgets. The build quality of this light is exceptional, and with the tube shape it can also double as a handy flashlight. Made in the USA.
Serfas TSL-950F TRUE SERIES
Serfas has given their True Series headlights a facelift with the addition of the Flash line. The TSL-950F represents the daytime-flash lumen setting that, if used, has a 45-hour run-time. The 950F is still a great headlight, too, with a high setting of 700 lumens for 1.5 hours, a medium setting of three hours and a low setting of 180 lumens for a run-time of five hours. It also has an assortment of other flash settings, including an SOS mode that we all hope we will never use. Serfas has also added a light sensor to the light that can be set up to turn your light on automatically when the ambient light gets low enough. This light comes with Serfas’ new handlebar mount that fits round and aero bars. The light has a claimed charge time of four hours through micro-USB and features a removable battery so you can purchase an extra in case your ride extends past its burn time or you forget to charge the light between rides.
Niterider Lumina Micro 450
The Lumina Micro 450 offers a great price point with five modes. There are four solid modes and one flashing mode to choose from. The battery is internal and uses a micro-USB port for charging. The Micro 450 weighs only 130 grams and comes with a handlebar mount.
Serfas E-Lume 200
Serfas now has the E-Lume series and the 200 is the most economical. At 200 lumens there is plenty of light in its daytime flash mode that has a burn time of 50 hours. There are also four other modes to choose from. The Serfas weighs 142 grams and takes 2.5 hours to charge.
The Fabric FL300 is more than just a 300-lumen headlight; it can also double as a taillight. The unique mounting bracket allows the light to be mounted in many different positions. The tube-shaped light has the 300-lumen headlamp on one end and a turn dial on the rear to control the modes with an on/off push-button. There are four LEDs running along the body that are two parts—one is a white light that is a to-be-seen/ get-home light, but it can also be red for use as a taillight.
Serfas Scorpius 70 Taillight
The Scorpius 70 is a taillight with seven modes to choose from and a rechargeable battery that ranges from 1.25 hours up to 17 hours. The brightest setting is 70 lumens and is a daytime flash mode that will burn for 16.5 hours. It is a two-flash burst with an extended pause between flashes. Charge time is a claimed two hours through a micro-USB port. The Serfas also features a light sensor that allows the light to be set up to turn on automatically when the ambient light gets low enough. The mounting bracket is aero compatible as well as includes a saddle-rail mount.
Niterider Sabre 50 Taillight
The Sabre 50 is a lightweight taillight that offers daytime-focused light. There are six modes—three solid and three flash—with a longest burn time of 7.5 hours. The light also features mini side lights for added safety. The Sabre 50 takes 1.5 hours to charge and weighs only 28 grams.
Niterider Sentinel 150 Taillight
In addition to four regular modes, the Sentinel 150 also has a laser light that projects a bike lane onto the ground on both sides of the bike. This has three modes for a total of seven individual modes on the light. The light has a burn time of time up to 21 hours and takes four hours to charge via micro-USB.
Knog Blinder Mini Set
The Blinder Mini is a great choice for the cyclist looking for a minimalist design that can be left on the bike all the time. They are quick to remove if needed and feature an integrated USB plug, so no wires are needed for charging. The Knog has three different LED patterns, and they are 100-percent waterproof.
Price: $54.95 per set
Bontrager Ion 100 R & Flare R City Light Set
Bontrager brings us a great solution for daytime running lights in a small but powerful package. The Ion 100 R and Flare R City feature focused optics for visibility day or night with solid and flashing modes. The compact design houses an internal battery that has a burn time of up to 15 hours and is USB rechargeable.
Price: $69.99 per set