Outside magazine, September 1999
Midnight Rambler's Ride
If there's one sentiment all cyclists share, it's the melancholy that comes with autumn's shorter days: There are fewer and fewer hours in which to ride, until finallyùwoefullyùthe end of daylight savings time puts an end to the season. That is, unless
you're acquainted with high-powered bike lights, halogen lamps that, in most cases, get their juice from rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries and light up your route like a runway. Many of the latest models have conveniences like low-battery indicators and handlebar-mounted controls. All five systems below are good for commuting, and many can illuminate a midnight
ramble down your favorite singletrack.
Of course, wattage indicates brightness, though it doesn't give you the full picture. What's revealed along your path is dictated by a given light's design. Fifteen watts from one light can look like 20 from another, depending on the beam angleùthe degree to which the bulb's dish-shaped reflector is canted toward the bulb. As a general rule, eight to 12
degrees throws a fairly narrow spotlight, while 13 to 19 is more of a floodlight. You'll want the former for flying down narrow trails and the latter for riding on roads, both paved and dirt.
||PLANET BIKE INSIGHT
||NITERIDER DIGITAL HEAD TRIP
||CAT EYE NC 250
||VISTALITE VL540W ANDROMEDIA
||A single lamp clips to the handlebars, throwing 9, 12, or 15 watts with each push of a remote, bar-mounted button. It's powered by a water-bottle-shaped, six-volt, nickel-cadmium battery with a handy low-charge indicator.
||The five-ounce lamp attaches to a helmet bracket so that the beam (6, 10, or 15 watts) points wherever your noggin does. The unusual nickel-metal hydride battery weighs less than 11 ounces and has a 15-minute "reserve tank" to keep you from winding up juiceless in the back of beyond.
||Handlebar mounts secure a 12-watter and a 20-watter, which swivel independently for micro-tuning. Turn on one or both with a separately-mounted handlebar switch. A single 12-volt nickel-cadmium battery runs the lights from a water-bottle cage.
||One 15-watt light mounts to the bars and runs on a six-volt nickel-cadmium battery that slips into a water-bottle cage; another 15-watt unit affixes to your helmet and uses a separate but equal battery that fits into a hydration system or saddlebag.
||Lavish. You can mix and match two 15-watters and a 10-watter between handlebars and helmet. Two six-volt nickel-cadmium batteries supply power, one in a bottle cage and one in a satchel that hangs from the frame.
||2 pounds, 5 ounces
||2 pounds, 13 ounces
||3 pounds, 11 ounces
||5 pounds, 4 ounces
||1.5 to 4 hours
||1.5 hours to 3 hours, 10 minutes
||50 minutes to 2 hours, 20 minutes
||2 hours, 6 minutes each
||1 to 3.8 hours
||...around town. The 14-degree beam reveals wheel-stubbing potholes, speed bumps, and carousing cats, and alerts drivers coming from the side. Just the right balance of spot and flood for a dusky final mountain-bike stretch, but not bright enough for a midnight epic.
||...as a featherweight supplement to a handlebar-mounted floodlight, for anticipating the next stretch of singletrack. The 12-degree lamp pinpoints a line 30 feet ahead of the front tire, but not what lurks in the margins.
||...when navigating suburbia at night or slowpoking on familiar off-road routes. Since both beam angles are set at 12 degrees, dive-bombing the abyss will feature strong patches of light but scary dark corners.
||...in just about any setting. The 19-degree beam on the handlebar floods peripheral coyote dens while the 12-degree beam from the helmet spotlights the path ahead. If you ride faster than the speed of this light, maybe it's time to slow down.
||...with one 15-watter on the helmet and the other lights on the bars. Your riding partner may not even need a light while climbing ahead. All three beams have the same angleù18 degreesùbut together they cast enough light to flood every root in your path.