Are All Studs Equal?
Lights aren't really a winter cycling issue, but since
it is dark longer in winter, you tend to need bicycle lights in the winter. You want to be
sure that your choice works in the cold.
Remember, that if you ride the roads, you need brighter lights than on the trail,
because roads tend to be cleared of snow and ice, making the surface darker, taking more
light to illuminate it Snow is very bright. Even a wimpy light provides enough
illumination for snow covered trails and roads.
On the other hand, if your winter has much rain, there is nothing darker than a wet
road at night, and the bigger the lights the better.
Vision is affected by age. What is adequate light for someone in their twenties is very
likely inadequate for someone over 40. As we age, the lens of our eyes grow stiffer,
and less elastic. The pupils can no longer dilate to the degree it did in youth.
This means we simply need more light to see well.
Road surfaces normally reflect light in all directions, including back toward the
source. That portion reflected back toward you is the only part that does you any
good. The rest is wasted (other than allowing other road users to see where you
are). Wet or icy roads, especially roads covered with a thin layer of black ice
reflect almost all light forward. Very little bounces back to you. If you want to
see the road surface you have to but more light on it.
Finally, cold weather affects both bulb output and battery output, making lights
dimmer. We will address this below.
All of these factors argue for bigger and brighter lights for winter riding. Yet
there are folks who can get by on just three watts. It depends on age, road surface
and snow cover.
To avoid being blinded by oncoming headlights a high beam of at least 20 watts is very
useful. It will usually illuminate the road a few feet ahead even in the "teeth"
of oncoming cars.
But bear in mind that, just because you can see, does not mean that others can see you.
Lots of motorists are of an age where they can not see as well at night as younger
people. Further, the headlight in the eyes from oncoming cars that makes it so
difficult for you to see the road also makes it more difficult for overtaking motorists to
Remember, half the job of lights is to make sure motorists
Performance of Lights in Winter
|Cold temperatures will affect battery performance. With
Lead-Acid batteries, serious cold, anything from 20 degrees below freezing on down, can
actually damage the battery if not fully charged. In all batteries, energy output will be
reduced by the cold.
Lead Acid batteries are more affected by cold than are NiCads. The
amount of power a lead acid battery can produce is greatly reduced by the cold. At 0
degrees Fahrenheit (-17.8degrees Celsius), lead-acid battery will deliver only about 40
percent of the power it would at 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.7 Celsius). If a battery
is not fully charged, the electrolyte can freeze and damage the plates or crack the
container. Batteries at usable states of charge will not freeze at temperatures above 20
degrees Fahrenheit. (Source: Exide Battery FAQ.)
Nicads, under the same conditions are producing 78% of the power they would produce at
This fact alone makes NiCad better for ICEBIKING.
This is not so much of a problem if the battery is kept indoors until you are ready to
ride. NiCad batteries will produce internal heat as they are being used (exothermic)
and this is usually enough to keep it operating efficiently. However, if you leave
the bike outside for several hours, you may find that the battery will produce lower light
output, or, in extreme cases will not work at all. After being warmed up, it will work
again. Lead Acid batteries are endothermic, they do not produce internal heat when being
drained. This is another strike against them for serious cold weather use.
The Battery Rant
A number of posters on the ICEBIKE mailing
list were concerned about battery disposal and the materials used in batteries. Typically
lead or Nickel-Cadmium, each type has its own disposal requirements. If your battery dies,
consider sending it back to the manufacturer for disposal, or take it to a battery store
and ask advice there. Some cities have recycle programs for dead batteries. In some states
(such as Alaska) any place that sells batteries must take them back for disposal, even if
you purchased them elsewhere.
Some riders (and dog mushers) keep flat battery packs inside their jackets to keep them
warm for maximum running time.
Also affected will be bulb performance, especially if you are using Halogen bulbs.
Tungsten-Halogen lamps feature a tungsten coil filament mounted in a quartz glass
envelope that has been filled with an inert gas plus a trace of halogen (normally
This gas creates the halogen cycle:
- Tungsten that has evaporated from the filament combines with the halogen gas.
- Convection currents within the bulb carry this gas to the quartz wall where it is cooled
and then returned to the proximity of the filament.
- The heat of the filament causes the tungsten and bromine to separate, and the tungsten
is then deposited on the cold portion of the filament.
This regenerative process prolongs the life of the filament considerably, and also
eliminates blackening of the bulb by preventing the evaporated tungsten from condensing on
the envelope. Tungsten-Halogen lamps must be operated at voltages that maintain an envelope
temperature between 250 and 350 deg. C. Cooler temperatures will not allow
the halogen cycle to take place, tungsten is simply deposited on the inside of the glass,
not re-deposited on the filament. This causes bulb blackening and shorter life;
higher temperatures will cause oxidation of the conductors and lead to premature lamp
Bike lights typically are hard pressed to maintain that high temperature in seriously
cold weather. Expect to replace bulbs every other year or so as they grow dimmer.
When do you need lights:
In most states and provinces you need lights beginning a half hour after sunset till a
half hour before sunrise, or any other time that persons or vehicles are not clearly
discernable on the highway, (this could include heavy snow falls).
On nights where there is a good full moon you can ride on snow with no lights at all,
but just make sure there are no cars around. Frozen solid lakes where roads have been
plowed or the wind has blown the snow off can be especially enchanting on a moonlit night.
Back woods roads where the snow cover is not too deep are almost magic to ride at
What do you need?
|Well, we each have our own preferences, but my personal first
priority is brightness. Not just because its hard to see, but because being seen is even
more difficult. If you are doing city riding, you need more light than country riding. 6
watts is adequate on a dark country road, but would be totally overpowered in a city
Don't make the mistake that just because there are street lights that you
don't need much lighting on your bike. In the city, or dense urban areas 6 watts is
minimum. And, a headlight is way more important than a tail light, but most states
and provinces require both. Don't discount the effectiveness of
reflectors, reflective clothing and reflective patches on your shoes These things get
noticed. The NightRider Tail Light is the brightest in the
business as of this writing.
Blinkie tail lights, like the VistaLight 700 (under $20), one of the brighter of small
self contained units, work best in pairs. This is because
they will get our of sync with each other, and appear to dart back and forth. This
gets noticed much farther away and holds attention longer. These things are
seldom affected by cold.
Special Winter Cycling Needs?
Are there special lighting needs for winter
riding? Not normally, but when it is snowing heavily you might consider a strobe.
These produce a "Ball of Light" around you as they reflect off of the falling
snow. This lets motorists see you a lot further away (squinting out of the
little frost free patch they scraped on the windshield).
There are several strobes on the market which can be found at sporting goods stores.
Click on the strobe pictured at right for one possible source.
The legality of these for bicycle use is questionable, but if you attach the strobe to
your arm and not the bike you probably won't have a problem. I've never been stopped by
police for being too safe!
Some people say these strobes can irritate drivers. Good! Perhaps they will stay well
away from me. The strobe can be irritating to you the cyclist as well, so keep it
behind you, out of your direct field of view. Group rides at night should rely on
the tail end charlies to run the strobes.
Additional winter concerns regarding light are waterproof housings and
connectors. Water and even road salt will get into everything. Quick release battery
attachments are nice because you often want to bring your battery (if not your whole light
set) inside so as to prevent theft and keep the battery warm.
You will also find that switches are harder to operate with gloves on, so avoid
recessed switches or tiny hard to get at and fragile little levers.
No Battery Solutions:
In addition to Lead-Acid, NiCads, and NiMH batteries, there is another
solution for an energy source. The Hub Generator. This is a generator built
into a front hub, becoming part of your front wheel. These generators produce
electricity only when you are moving, but the better units have enough associated battery
power to keep you lights (or substitute lights such as LEDs) burning while you are
stopped at stop lights.
These units are unaffected by cold weather, and have no run time limitations.
While expensive, they are competitive with the higher priced lights, when you factor in
the cost of replacement batteries every two or three years.
Typically, these systems use much smaller wattage than the battery systems. They
attempt to compensate for this small output by having a much more sophisticated light bulb
technology, producing a very focused beam just where you need it. See the excellent
write-up on one such system located at ICEBIKER Peter White's
The Best Bike Light Comparison:
Probably one of
the better evaluation of various bicycle lights can be found in back issues of the old
Bicycle Guide Magazine at your Library. Ask for the October 1996 issue. The
information in there is somewhat dated, but it has good images of the light patterns of
several lights, many of which are still on the market. Bicycling Guide was acquired by
another magazine which has dropped the article, which was becomming somewhat dated anyway.
Some brands to consider:
|Model and Features
|TurboCat Lighting Systems Various models, some
running 6 volts some running 12. TurboCat purposly overdrives their bulbs to get
better light output. Thumb switch easy to use with mittens or winter gloves. Run
times as long as 6 hours with some battery-light combinations. Very nice mountings.
Informative web site.
||Shorter bulb life, but this is allowed for
in their bulb rateings.
Replacement bulbs average about $23.
|NightSun: (Various models) High powered (up to 45 watts) and
good run time (on low beam). Quick battery disconnect. NiCad. Mounts make it difficult to
steal. Dual beam. Durable. Run time up to 3 hours. Works well in the cold.
||Difficult to dismount when changing bikes,
connectors are wimpy, Factory folks can be difficult to deal with.
|NiteRider Cyclops Pro-6 - 15 watt
single beam, 160minute runtime NiCad., totally waterproof - about $150. Battery in water
bottle. Claims 1000 recharges.
||15 watts is more than you need on the
trail, perhaps adequate for wet roads.
|VistaLite VL420 and VL500 10 watt single beam with beam width
adjustment. 95 minute run time, about $60, good entry level light. Lead--Acid.
||Short run time, one power setting.
A wide variety of lights including the hot the Stadium light.
||One of the industry leaders..
|The X-Light A Do-It-Yourself cycling light that
yields an excellent ICEBIKERS light. Complete plans for building a light cheaper than
Designed by Jørn Yngve Dahl-Stamnes of Trondheim Norway.
|You build it yourself - you pocket the change.
|Berger/Deveau Home Brew
bike light recipe
||You Build it
|Serfas Night Hawk 10/20/30 watt waterproof, sturdy connectors
lead/acid 120min run time at 10watt, 60min at 20watt 35 min at 30watt $150
||Durability Suspect. Battery heavy and
only lasts about a year.
Links to other Bike Light Information:
Probably the single most comprehensive source of detailed bike
lighting information is The Bike Currents Mailing lists. There is a FAQ provided in
html form. It is rather new, but it covers the collected wisdom of several years
worth of postings to the mailing lists. If you want to learn more about bikes and
batteries and bulbs do Read the Faq.
The mailing list itself is available here:
Currents Mailing list Archives discussions on lights/electronics on bikes.
Archives also available on Alex
Reviews of Night
Sun and NightRider helmet mounted lights by Marty Goodman.
on Bike Lights from the Francis Cooke's pages
Jim Burnett's Home Made Bike Light How-To.