Winter riding: Bike light etiquette.

It’s that time of year again.

You’re travelling along the cycle path. You know the one. You probably use it most days. It’s probably got its fair share of debris. It’s certainly covered in wet, slimy leaves. Before 8am it enjoys a half light. After 5pm very little light at all.

So you’re twiddling along at a sensible pace. A corner approaches. An outstretched tendril of light searches the corner.  Rounding the bend you find yourself caught in stadia floodlights. You can’t see a bloody thing. You wince, look down, mumble something negative (you’re very, very polite and really can’t be bothered with any form of confrontation). The world is a super nova and bright colours are now etched on the back of your retina; a Jackson Pollock only you can see.

With bike lights packing as much punch as a pocket lighthouse, how should we use them? When is great visibility your luxury and someone else’s headache?

There’s a huge spread of power across bike lights. A cheap as chips front light can offer 150 or 200 lumens; enough to be seen but not enough to illuminate obstacles and pot holes (certainly in poorly lit areas). High end bike mountain bike lights can offer well in excess of 1000 lumens with some touching 5000.

For comparative purposes, a car with its full beams on and will be producing around 1200-1300 lumens (less than a third of that very high end mtb light).

With prices dropping, it’s not unusual to pick up a really powerful light for a song. But should you really be running that thing on full gas? Let’s face it, no-one likes being caught in the stare of full beam car headlights. Or at least I don’t. And when I do, it involves much swearing and gesticulating.

So let’s talk about etiquette. On a dark trail, I wouldn’t suggest for one minute that you shouldn’t enjoy the fruits of your purchase. Bang those lights on. Throw light into the darkest of corners and make wildlife scuttle for cover. However when pedestrians, other riders or cars in the distance are concerned, do moderate your output. If your light has a lower setting, flick it over briefly. If it doesn’t and your big portable dwarf star  has only two settings – off or on – nudge it down toward the floor, or do as I do and partially cover the lens with one gloved hand. You will make an instant friend in your fellow commuter and potentially prevent them from falling into the undergrowth. My mantra is ‘See, be seen, don’t blind’.

To finish up, here’s a rough guide to use/argue over:

200 lumens – Will get you seen on a road but isn’t enough for dark cycle paths.

500 lumens – Will get you seen on a road and illuminate a fair bit on a dark cycle path.

800 lumens – Will get you seen for a real distance and illuminate everything, thank you very much.

1200 lumens – Will get you seen from miles back and allow you to read the small print on a terms and conditions document at 20 paces.

5000 lumens – Will get you seen from Inverness when you’re on the Taff trail in Cardiff. 

8 replies »

  1. Cardiff? Dude, NASA will see you with 5,000.

    I ride a 350 and that’s plenty for the road – I don’t even use the highest setting (I use the third)… Anyway, being a road rider I always point my light a bit toward the ground. The last thing I want to do is blind a motorist!

    • Quite right. I think that the power of lights has grown so exponentially, that its taking a while for some cyclists to get over the sheer thrill of such great visibility. On the Cardiff section of the Taff Trail – our biggest and best commuter/recreation route – you can be properly blinded by gigantic lights. Easily sorted through using the approach you outlined above 🙂

  2. Couldn’t agree more – I save my own Mega Death Star for when I really need it, the wooded, pitch black bits of my route and have a smaller, flashing light simply to get me noticed by other road users.

  3. Bravo! I have a 1200 lumen light that I use on the lowest setting in the mornings with my blinkie and on the 2nd setting on the way home from work. This works well for the road, even for inattentive clowns behind the wheel of a car in my part of the UK. The dipping of the lights is something that I applaud and do regularly on my rides-there is nothing worse for me than to be blinded by someone approaching who thinks that they need all of that light when in reality they don’t

  4. I have an 1800 light, our are is full of hills, potholed and roads full of hedge cuttings (flat last night) so it’s needed, especially for super steep, fast downhills with all the attendant risks. There’s also been the recent ice patches. I love sunset rides so before the sun sets I use a flashing light & flip the light down for approaching vehicles, after sunset it’s usually the low setting unless the road is fast o dodgy, but definitely a quick dip for oncomers. On our narrow roads many cars stop to let me go past, unlike the daytime when they try to squeeze past.

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