All Bike Lights Are Crap

Controversial title. All of them..? Really? OK, not all of them but most of them in my experience.

It’s fairly simple: I want a light that can be attached/detached easily, I want the battery to last a reasonable time with a fair amount of light thrown out and I want it to remember the last mode I used so I can get going with minimum faff.

Pretty simple eh? You would be suprised how many bike light manufacturers do not get these basics right. Oh and I’ll throw in one more – it should be easy to turn on and off while wearing gloves! Yes, gloves – because we don’t all live in sunny California. You might as well ask for a moon on a stick because this simple thing seems to be met with “…Wow, really? Thats crazy talk!” by most light manufacturers.

OK WG relax. So which lights would I recommend? Read on…

IMG_20190406_120059Lets start with the best first. The CatEye Volt 400XC is a fantastic front light that pretty much meets all my criteria. It’s also priced reasonably (I think I got it for £25 from Amazon). I’ve probably charged it just once since buying it a month or so ago with weekend use even during the day. It will flash the power button in red once battery is low which is very handy and it has a common micro USB charge port.

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It can be detached and re-attaced with gloves fairly easily and throws out just the right amount of light (400 lumens is the sweet spot for most suburban cyclists) to illuminate the path ahead without being blinding to others. I’ve tested this cycling through Southampton Common at night (there are no streetlights in that park so it gets very dark). It also has a visually pleasing day-pulse mode which saves battery when using it in daylight. The body is tough shiny plastic rather than alumnium but thats fine as it saves a bit of weight. I normally carry a laptop bag and bike lock so saving weight and being efficient is important to me.

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Following that is a decent and simple LED rear light from ApaceVision – again from Amazon. It has several light modes but I just use the blinking one to keep it simple. The LED light is bright and makes you feel safe that you are being seen. What I liked about it is the memory function and the “it just works” factor. Also nicely waterproof and comes with plenty of rubber mounting bits for different size tubes. ApaceVision customer support was also very good when I lost a rubber clip thingy and needed a replacement. It uses a Micro USB charge port. I would have liked some indicator of low battery though because it has mysteriously lost all charge sometimes…

I tend to keep this light attached to the bike when I lock it. The reason is that it does not stand out a great deal and unlike the Lezyne Microdrive below, it is not that expensive.

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Moving on we have a ViaVelo LED front light which I bought from Tesco for £15 some years back. Unlike the others this one uses 3 AAA batteries rather than USB charging. Now this light is not going to win any awards for the amount of light it throws out (maybe 150 lumens) but what it does have is a visually pleasing 3-flash pulse mode for daylight rides :) It also has a quick release handlebar clip which many other lights (even the CatEye) do not have. You could easily mount two of these for a kind of “car headlight” effect and get better light output, in fact I saw a rider have just such an arrangement this weekend.

I use this ViaVelo light on my fast training bike for daytime rides. The downside is the light it throws is pretty poor for dark areas with poor or no streetlights. The upside is that on/off switch is easy to use even with gloves, it has a positive microswitch-style button. This model seems to be made by generic Chinese manufacturers under the name M-Wave Apollon 1.3 1W Front LED Light and I have seen good UK traders selling them on eBay. A good choice for a simple no-nonsense, mainly daylight, front light.

Sidenote: I would love it if CatEye XC400 had a seperate quick-release bracket like the ViaVelo above. It has a clip and rubber mount which is pulled around the handebar to make a secure loop. It fairly easy to clip it on and off but not as easy as the ViaVelo one.

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Moving round to the final light is the Lezyne Microdrive rear light. This little guy is compact and solid with a metal case and USB charging. It has it’s own holder clip bracket which stays on the bike thereby allowing you to easily and quickly remove it. The on/off button is a large rubber blister which is easily accessed even with gloves. The button will briefly glow green, yellow or red depending on the charge level – very fancy! It has a Micro USB charge port. All this shows it’s premium Lezyne brand heritage but you pay for it in the price. It’s a fine light and I might use this rather than the ApaceVision is that one ever gets stolen.

The absolute best thing about the Lezyne though is the lighting modes – it has one mode which is like an angry red pulse and reminds me of the murderous A.I. “HAL 9000″ from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”

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Which Lights I had trouble with…

Lezyne Microdrive front light – I actually got this as a pair with the Lezyne rear light described above. I bought it from well-known UK bike retailer Halfords. It throws out a serious about of light, about 500 or 600 lumens. I bought it for evening and night mountain biking. However I found that attach/reattach was a bitch and the button did not have a positive feel so turning it on and off was not easy wearing gloves (you kinda have to hold it down hard). I think newer models have improved this but try it out yourself in-store. I also lost the rubber USB charging port cover at least once :/ It’s kinda this big hunk of rubber with no clip attaching it to the light body. It’s really just suited to mountain bike riding in my opinion where the lights need to stay firmly attached to the handlebars while subjected to large bumps and shocks.

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ApaceVision Eagle - on the face of this, this combo of front and rear lights looks like a winner. Waterproof with multiple light modes etc… However I found the battery life was just average and the lighting modes were either too bright or too dim. The pulse mode was also too bright and I remember passing one pedestrian who remarked “I’m glad I’m not epileptic!”. The on/off button was a bit fiddly too but at least had a memory mode. I found the light also got warm after 30 minutes use, not sure whats up with that.

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FWE Evans front light 450 lumens – I really wanted to like this :( It is keenly priced for a 450 lumen unit, throws out an excellent amount of light, has a smooth premium aluminum body and a nice microswitched on/off button which is backlit with a blue LED when it’s switched on. It even has a seperate handlebar clip so you can attach/reattach quickly… So what was the problem? For one the battery did not last very long or maybe I had a duff unit – this was a big source of annoyance because after charging it I went out for a ride and on getting on my bike in the evening… only to discover that the battery had died! I do not need to tell you how nerve-wracking it is to cycle on roads at night without a bike light. In the dark areas on the way home I actually had to let it accumulate residual charge and then switch it into pulse mode, after which it died after 30 seconds. At least my rear light was charged and OK… Anyway, that experience led me to return the light. A real shame as in all other areas this was almost up there with the CatEye XC.

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I later read in some of the reviews on the Evans website that newer lights have an upgraded Samsung battery so maybe I had a non-Samsung one? At any rate, it was bad quality control and put me in a dangerous situation so I was majorly put off.

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BTwin CL 500 LED clip light – as an additional/backup light you really can’t go wrong with these little bad boys! Keenly priced, waterproof and with micro USB charge port. They also have several clip options so you can attach them to BTwin brand pannier bags or your handlebars. The light has both white and red LEDs built in with two modes – constant or flash.

To the Isle of Wight and back… the Green Way

One recent weekend I took a boat ride to the Isle of Wight for a spot of lunch. How very civilised… right? As you can see from the photos the weather was ideal. Did I take car ferry and relax on the top-deck? Or did I take a high-speed catamaran?

Nope – something different… I crossed in a hybrid-electric powered water boat!

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The boat is owned by a local company called REAP Systems who are pioneering hybrid electric marine engines. So after registering my interest in joining one of the test rides, the day finally came and thankfully it was a fine, sunny Saturday morning.

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I cycled from my home to the Southampton Dry Stack where the boat was being kept – I needed to keep the “green” theme to the day! I thought I was running a bit late so I picked up the pace, cycling hard, powered past St Mary’s Stadium… half-expecting there to be an impatient group of people waiting for me… only to find that it was just me and Denis from REAP Systems. No worries though – this meant I could pester him with all my newbie questions.

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A German-born engineer, Dr. Dennis Doerffel patiently explained the technical operation of the boat to me. Essentially, the main (“fast”) power is a 6 cylinder, 24-valve diesel engine from car-giant Hyundai that has been adapted for marine use under the brand name Seasall.

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The “hybrid” nature of this engine refers to the addition of an electric motor plus battery that charges itself from the diesel engine. The electric motor can also provide an alternative propulsion source.

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It would be an over-simplification to just say “oh, they just added an electric motor and battery to a car engine” because alongside this is an array of sophisticated electronics that control, monitor and measure both the diesel and electrical system. It is this which is the “secret sauce” of REAP systems.

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The cockpit of the boat has been retro-fitted with a colour-coded touchscreen display that lets the driver select between the two power sources. It also gives momentary operating data such as battery-level, power output, fuel consumption rate, engine temperature and so forth. Denis also told me that among the electronics is a telemetry/logger unit that is powered by Linux running on a humble Raspberry Pi!

Denis and I got talking about the business side of REAP and he explained to me the challenges facing REAP systems. Their vision is to produce well thought out hybrid-electric “kits” which manufacturers can order and follow to adapt their own combustion engine systems. To do this requires good, reliable, repeatable steps and documentation that covers different scenarios. We all know that engineers never “do documentation” that well (this is also true of Software Engineers – my own profession ;).

However, in the “cut and thrust” of the enterprenurial business world, documentation is the kind of stuff that is important to customers. Furthermore it’s not easy to attract the support of serious investors. One novel idea to promote the project is to take the boat to the Venice Film Festival to hopefully attract some of the more Green-inclined stars. Apparantly the actor George Clooney is a big proponent of green/electric vehicles and was one of the first to own a Tesla car.

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Back to the boat ride,I originally thought that I would be a passive passenger, sitting on the couches in relative luxury and sipping some iced lemon water as we cruised across the Solent… Not so! While on-board, Denis gave me short induction of the safety features and other basics. I was really pleased because it made me feel like I had a purpose and that Denis trusted me, a complete stranger, to help run the boat. I get bored easily so that was another reason I was grateful. Anyway, it turned out to be very wise thing to do because it was an eventful trip.

How so? For one thing, the engine overheated about 15 minutes into the trip. The temperature gauge read 110 degrees centigrade and the engine cut out suddenly. A look towards the engine cover showed some ominous white smoke coming out… this looks bad. The back-up boat driver, Brian, came up alongside and pointed out that the water cooling system was ejecting “green” liquid. It was actually the coolant and antifreeze mix. What had happened was that the coolant hose had come loose at the last service. This drained the coolant tank and prevented the engine from staying at a safe operating temperature.

“Oh crap” I thought, was this the end of the trip? Thankfully no… I learnt that boat owners tend to accept he need to make ad-hoc repairs and fix problems on-the-fly.

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Brian towed us to Hythe Fueling station where we docked and filled up several plastic water bottles with regular water. We used this to fill the coolant tank and let the engine cool down. I could tell that Denis was calm on the exterior but there was some underlying anxiety of permanent expensive damage done to the engine from the overheating…

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Denis explained to me earlier that he always takes the hybrid boat out with a volunteer back-up boat. In fact, that morning we set off a bit late because he had trouble getting in touch with Brian (the back-up boat driver). I realise now why he was keen to hear from him, since we definitely needed backup that day. Brian had a “RIB” boat which was very fast compared to our humble hybrid machine. He was accompanied by his girlfriend, Gloria.

Both were friendly folks and Brian was an experienced sea-hand. I later learnt over lunch that Gloria was from Argentina. All the more surprising is that Brian is originally from the Falkland Islands (surprising because the UK briefly went to war with Argentina in 1982 over sovereignty of the Islands). While talking to him, I could not quite place his accent but this must be how all Falkland Islanders sound like.

Brian was full of humorous sayings: he told me that the phrase “boat” is actually an acronym meaning “Break Out Another Thousand”. He also told me that owning a boat is enjoyable exactly two times – when you buy it and when you sell it!

So, back to the overheated engine. after we got the engine temperature down we used a spare jubilee clip to secure the coolant pipe to the engine. It seems that some sloppy maintenance caused it to come loose. I mentioned to Denis that one of the Southampton Dry Stack staff pointed this out to us before we set-off but we dismissed his warning thinking that he was referring to the overflow valve :(

This photo from just before the ride shows the un-attached coolant feeder port.
This photo from just before the ride shows the un-attached coolant feeder port.

Anyway, with the engine cooling down we were able to get it going again and were soon powering our way over the waves of the Solent toward Cowes. Brian was powering ahead, showing off a bit by making effortless wide circles in his fast RIB craft. I was amused to see Gloria lying down at the front of the RIB during all of this, calmly taking selfies.

I have cycled over the Itchen Toll Bridge a few times... here I am going under it for the first time!
I have cycled over the Itchen Toll Bridge a few times… here I am going under it for the first time!

I have to say that for the rest of the day I felt like a sailor – I had never seen the Solent from this aspect before, I got involved with tying down the boat to dockside using secure knots, I was bringing the fenders up (and down) from the side of the boat on orders from Denis. It was a bit of an adventure.

We made it to Cowes without incident and had a relaxing lunch at a Tapas resteraunt. It was here that I got to know these folks a bit better. We all shared some stuff happening in our lives. Paradoxically, I felt I could open up to these guys more exactly because they were strangers – since I may never see them again there was no risk attached. It was funny that at the start of the day they were strangers… but by the end of lunch they became likable, normal human beings with normal problems.

Thankfully the return journey back to Southampton Dry Stack was uneventful. We were treated to some semi-scary close-ups of 4 or 5 absolutely huge cruise ships which Southampton is famous for. Brian was having a lot of fun in his RIB, jetting alongside the huge cruise ships so that Gloria could take some photos before nimbly jetting away.
I spotted one of the biggest, the Independence of the Seas. At one point we were directly in it’s path as it turned in the shipping lane …yeah, this would be a bad place to have another over-heating problem.

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Other water craft spotted included some jet-skis, a huge and very expensive looking luxury yacht (with tinted dark windows, the kind owned by Russian oligarchs and James Bond villains) a sleek powerboat and a Red Jet. Red Jet is a 30 minute catamaran hi-speed ferry service that runs between Southampton and Cowes and operated by Red Funnel.

I also spotted some interesting birdlife – black cap terns which are like more delicate, sleek seagulls, however these ones prefer to keep close to the sea, never really venturing inland like regular seagulls. Denis told me that he has spotted wild seals in the Itchen river.

We made it back at about 7pm, the late hour due to being under electrical power for most of the return journey. This meant we cruised at a sailboat pace back to Southampton Dry Stack – this was OK for me as it gave me time to appreciate a different view of the city I’ve called home for the last 12 years. The tide was coming out so we had to overcome some resistance from the current.

I thanked Denis for the day and wished him well, then unlocked my bike and cycled home in the cooler evening air for some dinner.