Unlike a car where the choice of lights are barely a consideration, a cyclist must carefully choose the right lights depending on the riding conditions, the type of riding, the bike of choice and the duration of the ride.
With this helpful guide, we aim to outline the terminology you need to know, the difference between lights to see with versus ones to be seen, the unique requirements of road riding, mountain biking, and commuting, and also give you an idea of how far your budget will stretch.
Lights to be seen vs Lights to see
There is one fundamental question you need to ask when shopping for lights - do I need my lights to 'be seen' or 'to see' with?
Lights that are used to see with will have increased brightness, a larger battery to power the brighter light, and a narrow beam angle to see into the distance. Lights that are used to be seen will have a focus on being seen from more angles, with features such as a wide beam and side illumination. The number of lumens is generally lower as the priority isn't to see far into the distance. As a result, be seen lights are often lighter, with smaller batteries, fewer lumens, wide beam angles and lower cost than lights that are used to see with.
And while you may think you only need lights in the dark, a reported eight out of ten cycling accidents occurring during the day, and the use of lights during the day is the number one thing cyclists can do to make themselves safer according to a Denmark-based study. According to Bontrager’s white paper on the matter, to classify a light as one suited to daytime use, it needs focused optics, an interruptive flash pattern, and a visible distance during the day of at least 400 meters. Bontrager claims – “Using a flashing tail light in the day makes you 2.4x more noticeable than with no lights at all and 1.4x than in steady mode.”
- Related Reading: The Best Daytime Safety Lights.
Light Terminology Explained
Lumen: The number of lumens represents the total amount of light emitted by a given source.
Lux: Lux is the measure of the intensity of light on an area or surface, most commonly this is measured at a distance of between one and ten metres. If you imagine that 'lumens' represents the total amount of light emitted by a bike light, lux measures the amount of that light that gets transferred onto a surface a distance away. So assuming that the number of lumens in a light remains constant, the larger the surface area, the less lux. However, the opposite is also true. A light with the same amount of lumens will have a greater lux-value if the surface area the beam is directed at is smaller. This aspect is particularly important as we discuss beam angle and bundle later in this article, and which light is best for different cycling disciplines.
Beam angle: The beam angle gives an indication of how much the light spreads from the original source. Some lights have an acute beam angle that focuses directly ahead (increasing a light's lux), while others have a broader beam angle that spreads (decreasing a light's lux). This is sometimes referred to as a 'bundle'. The wider the bundle, the broader the beam angle and disbursement of light; the smaller the bundle, the narrower the beam angle and light disbursement.
Beam Type / Setting: Super, High, Full, Standard, Regular, Low, Flash, and Pulse are just some of the various beam types or settings you may encounter. Brands describe the kind of beam exiting the light their own way, and so it pays to delve a little deeper into these descriptive terms to find out what each name represents and how that impacts on run time. For example, a light may promote it has a five hour run time (sometimes called burn time), but that may be on 'flash' mode which emits a small amount of light intermittently, whereas the same light on 'full' or 'high' that is emitting light invariably may only last for 30 minutes.
Burn time: How long a light takes to go from full charge to flat on a given beam type or setting.
The differences between lights for the road, mountain biking and commuting
Road riding and off-road riding require different approaches to lights. Road riding generally is done in straight lines with few obstacles along the way, so a light that directs its focus straight ahead is ideal. Conversely, off-road riding requires a broader light bundle to illuminate the area directly around you to see tree roots, rocks, and other obstacles.
The primary purpose of having a light on the road is visibility, so that should be first on your list. Does it increase your visibility and enable drivers and pedestrians to see you? To do this, a light needs to have a broad enough beam to be seen from the side and acute angles, as well as front on.
Australian Road Rules give a clear indication of the minimum lights requirements when riding a bike at night. If you are riding a bicycle at night, you must have a white light (flashing or steady) on the front, a red light (flashing or steady) on the back and a red reflector on the back. The lights must be visible from 200m and the reflector visible from 50m. The 200m rule is the critical requirement to look for when purchasing lights, regardless of whether they are to see or be seen.
Once you've established the light provides sufficient visibility, factors such as price, size, weight, durability and the intended use will all play a role in choosing the right light.
It worth ensuring that you don't always get sucked into the lumens per dollar decision, a light's optical design - lens, LED's, beam angles - are as influential on brightness as the lumen number. We suggest that whichever light you choose needs to fit with the type of riding you do first and foremost. In addition to those essential items, things like good water resistance, USB rechargeability, and quick release mounts are features worth searching for.
Tom Sullivan from BBB says there are three things you should be checking when selecting a light. Do you want to see, or be seen? What light ‘bundle’ do you need? How long will you be riding?
According to Tom of BBB, "the best 'to be seen' lights utilise ‘COB’ (Chips on board) LEDs, these allow for a super bright light in a small package. And for a light to see with, ensure the light you select has a quality lens that produces the desired light bundle." Regarding a specific light bundle, "some lights offer a tight ‘hotspot’ which are great for helmet mounting, while others have a more extensive bundle which is more suited to mounting on your handlebar." And regarding ride duration, "ensure the light you choose can maintain a constant output throughout your ride" for safety purposes says, Tom.
In terms of brightness, if you are road riding or commuting and want a light to see with, you should be looking for a higher lumen count and narrow beam angle. This will narrow the focus down the road helping you see well ahead. If you are mountain biking and looking for the best approach to see, a dual light option is best - one handlebar mounted light with high lumens and full beam angle, and a helmet mounted light with high lumens and narrow beam angle. This combination will throw a good amount of light broadly around your current position, while the helmet mounted light can be used to see far ahead and prepare for corners or obstacles that may be in the distance. It can also be used as a spotlight to focus on specific items in the distance.
If you are commuting during the day or along paths that are well lit and only looking for a light to be seen, opt for a low to moderate amount of lumens with a broad beam angle. This will help drivers and pedestrians see you from acute angles. Tom suggests using a modern reflector to provide "great forward and downlight, with a definitive horizon that helps prevent blinding oncoming traffic."
Factors to consider when buying a light
Lumen is the most common descriptor you'll find on a light, and while it doesn't tell the whole brightness story, it's an excellent place to start. The more lumens, the more light that's emitted. There's a lot more that goes into brightness than the number of lumens but all other things being equal, the higher the lumen count, the greater the intensity. Bicycle lights start with as low lumen count as 30 and can go well beyond 2,000.
How bright is too bright? For regular commuters, having a bright light that can be seen night and day, that doesn't blind oncoming traffic, is essential. As a result, if you opt for a light with a high lumen count, be sure to tilt it downwards slightly so that it's not directly in the oncoming driver's eye line. Another idea is to run two sets of lights, one bright light to see with that can be turned off or down when traffic approaches, and another less powerful light that remains on at all times in flashing mode. Having a light in a 'flashing' mode makes it easier for drivers to differentiate you from street lights, and has the added benefit of saving power to last longer between charges.
Most bicycle-specific lights will easily mount to the majority of handlebars and seat posts, but for those with aero bars or aero seat posts, the mounting of lights becomes far more difficult.
Most lights are either secured in place with velcro, a screw that tightens a bracket around the handlebar bar or seatpost or, are mounted using a stretchable rubber strap. As mentioned, if you have a standard circular bar to attach to this presents no issues, but non-circular surfaces could present a problem as could larger than standard circular diameters, such as double wrapped handlebars. As a result, it's important to make sure each light and its mount are compatible with your bike.
Many people mount a second rear light to the seatstays for extra visibility, in which case, you need to be confident the mount is secure and won't turn into your wheel. Look for mounts that easily enable you to adjust the tightness for a secure hold. Also, look for lights that come with interchangeable mounting straps for the different post and handlebar diameters.
Also, consider if you are mounting to aluminium or carbon. A carbon frame can crack if over tightened (which is why you should always use a torque wrench when working on carbon bikes), so a mount with a stretchable rubber strap or velcro is the safer option, as opposed to a screw and bracket method.
Most lights will either be USB rechargeable or require batteries. Most modern lights are USB rechargeable with a Lithium-Ion or similar battery, saving you money by not having to purchase batteries and also being easy and convenient to keep charged. For lights that require batteries, it's worth making sure they are easily attainable from the supermarket or service station.
Some high powered lights will require a battery pack be carried and plugged into the light for it to work (see above image). If you need such a light, be sure you can either mount both items to your bike or mount one and carry the other. After you have installed a light, GPS computer, and bell to your handlebars, there may be little real estate left to mount anything else. Tom suggests this option can be advantageous for mountain bike riders as, "using an external battery helps keep the weight of the light down and off the riders head."
Simply put, the higher the capacity requirement (in terms of overall brightness and run time) of the battery, the greater the size and weight will be.
Run time or burn time gives an indication of how long the light will last from being fully charged to flat. The table below shows the variation in run times of lights based on different beam types using the Lezyne Power Drive 1100XL front LED as an example. As you can see, there is almost an 18 hour differential between the run time at the brightest setting, compared to the lowest output on pulse. Be sure when comparing the run times of various lights you are comparing the same beam type.
If you're one that needs all the light you can get, it's worth paying attention to how lights handle their run times. BBB refers to a concept called 'constant output' when describing their run times. Some other lights will start at a set lumen amount and then gradually decline linearly as the battery loses charge. BBB and many other high-quality lights, however, stay at a set lumen for some time before activating a 'get-home-safe' option, whereby after this set period, the amount of light output is lower to save the battery life. For example, some lights will start at 500 lumens and lose 10 lumens per 15 minutes until the battery is flat. BBB's approach is to have a slightly lower starting lumen number, but keep it constant over a set time, for example, a light will start at 500 lumens and stay at 500 lumens for 2hours before the 'get-home-safe' option kicks in and it steadily declines.
LED's are mostly responsible for lighting in modern lights, replacing the halogen bulbs. LED's are far more efficient than halogen lights, using less energy to produce the same amount of light. High powered HID bulbs made a short appearance in high-end bicycle lights, but much like luxury cars, have since been phased out due to developments in LED technology.
Lights will vary in weight depending on their brightness and battery size, 'be seen' lights can weigh as little as 15g, and 'see with' lights upwards of 150g. Expect front lights to weigh a little more than the rear ones as they generally have more brightness to light the way.
Below we outline what you can expect from your light within a set price range. While these ranges give a good indication of what's available, it's important to know that manufacturers may prioritise different things, and therefore assessing all aspects of the light is crucial. Some may prioritise lumens, others may give greater importance to beam angle or battery life. In all cases, be sure to compare lumens, beam angle, battery life and type, mount compatibility and design before making your final decision.
Within this price range, you'll likely find lights that are purely used to be seen. The lumen amount is likely to be no greater than 100, which isn't suitable to see with on poorly lit roads. Look for lights with a broad beam angle to enhance your visibility at all aspects, with plenty of light settings (over five) including a pulse or flash mode. The benefit of these lights is they will be lightweight and have good run times because the brightness isn't overly high. Good lights within this price range will have water resistance and use a stretchable rubber strap to mount.
Lights within this price range get much brighter, and some can be used to see with on poorly lit roads, although using them to see on unlit roads or while mountain biking is best left to the next price range. Expect lumen totals to be as much as 600, with various beam angles available, an increased amount of light settings and good run times. The available mounting types increase within this price range as robust screw and bracket mounts become available. Waterproofing will also be improved. Rechargeable batteries are nearly expected at this price.
Lights used to see-with in all conditions and across all disciplines become available within this price range. Lumen jumps to four figures, there are multiple beam angles to chose from, light settings and options become more advanced (some even pulse like a heartbeat to signal to drivers that cyclists are people too), and run times improve yet again. Because the battery and lights are getting bigger, you're likely to see more screw and bracket mount options, with some off-road designated lights also requiring a separate battery pack to maintain their high power output.
As well as improvements in the amount of lumen, beam angle options, run times and mounts, lights in the price are built to last and feature premium components and build quality. You're also in the price range of combination light and video recording devices like the Cycliq Fly 12 which provide peace of mind by filming your ride, with built-in accelerometers that trigger in the event of a crash to save footage for later. The footage can also be uploaded, and metrics liked speed and distance overlayed onto video.
So what's most important and how do you choose the right light?
Well, the answer is it depends. The type of riding you do, the specific discipline, what time of day you ride and on what kinds of roads all play a part in selecting the right light for you. Refer to the below checklist to help you choose the right light for you.
Set your budget. There's no point looking at lights you can't afford.
Decide on whether your lights will be used to see or be seen, that will dictate the lumen and beam angle required. It may also dictate the price.
Figure out how long you will need the lights to run for, i.e. all day, short commutes, bunch rides - that will dictate the approximate run time required and battery of choice.
Does the battery have USB rechargeability or will you require batteries? And if so, is the type of battery needed easily accessible?
Check the different mounting option to ensure it is compatible with your bike.
And finally, do you like the look of it? Vanity may be a curse but's it's one we're all guilty of. If we’re putting something on my bike, we’d rather it looked like jewellery than a lump of coal.
Thanks to BBB for providing samples and insight in creating this article