There is a follow-on to this article: Which Rear Bicycle Lights Should I Use? Check it out once you’re done here.
And how should I use them?
I can’t tell you what the best lights are, or what the best lighting scheme is, but I can describe what I do, and why. Hopefully this will give you a better idea of what you want to do yourself.
This topic is very much like the “Which Bike Lock?” article I didn’t want to write. “Which bike lights?” is another question that comes up soooo often, and is written about so much, I didn’t feel a need to pile on. But like with the bike locks, I find myself drawn into discussions on the subject. So here’s my take on
- How to create an ideal beam pattern
- Power source
- Safety and the actual science that backs up lighting choice.
But First… Executive Summary
Lets jump to the conclusions right off the bat.
- Whether I mention it individually or not, all of these lights can survive weather. And dirt/dust/mud being kicked up and onto them from a tire.
- Use a couple of small, steady lights, angled a hair to each side, to give a nice wide beam pattern close up, and a third, long, narrow one to reach further out. Overall, you should create a shape for urban use that is an elongated pear with the wide part being closest to the bike.
- Where legal to use, add a blinking light (that does not blink steadily, but rather blinks in a varying pattern) to minimize a SMIDSY incident. Separate it from the steady lights as much as possible: If its close to them, the steadies will wash out all but a crazy-powerful blinkie.
- Do not try and use lights that piggyback power off of your ebike battery or controller unless you have electrical skills and the desire to truly build something tailor made.
- Don’t go apeshit and come up with a powerful lighting system that needs its own li-ion battery pack (assuming you are running on city streets… have at it on trails).
- Do use USB rechargeable lights. Invest in a powered (plugin) USB hub and set aside one day per week (assuming 2x daily commuting use) to charge up all your lights.
- Pick lights that can be used as daytime running lights – use them on every ride day or night. So that means you want bright ones.
- DO NOT focus the lights straight forward. Its tempting but bike lights do not have cutoffs and will blind drivers. Focus the core of the beam to the pavement in front of you. Close and far as described below. This article has some excellent “good vs. bad” graphics on light focus. In that article they arrive at a similar result I do but with a very expensive single layered beam.
OK thats out of the way. Now lets get to the reasons why I said all that.
To blink or not to blink?
Pass a bunch of cyclists day or night in the USA and chances are good they have a ‘blinkie’ on the front. Oftentimes thats all they have. Is that a good idea?
In some parts of the world (Germany comes to mind) its illegal for a bike to have blinking lights. So be mindful of your local laws when considering blinkies.
Going back many years, cyclists in the USA began relying heavily on blinking lights. In part I suspect it is because scientific studies have shown blinking lights improve the ‘conspicuity’ of an object traveling down the road by a significant margin. Here is one of the most-often-cited ones, associated with snowplows. The very first scientific study was a different snowplow study in Denmark. While it was available for reading at one time, it seems to have disappeared off the internet. For years it was all there was, in terms of scientific evidence, to justify a blinking light.
However, time has passed. There has been movement away from blinking lights (in scientific literature, not so much in cycling circles) for a number of reasons:
- Blinking lights when used on their own makes it tougher for the driver to track you and estimate your speed.
- Blinkies can create a ‘moth effect‘ (fascination complex) which can cause, for example, drunk drivers to fixate on a blinking light and drive right into it. This effect may be written up as unproven – as it is in the link above – but more recent literature cite studies that demonstrate the effect exists, even if they still remain unable to fully quantify its impact.
- While there is specific, detailed research that acknowledges the above and also notes the increase in conspicuity delivered by a blinkie, there is no coherent research that correlates blinkies’ effects with actual increased safety (i.e. reduced injury rates in control population vs. population blinking at you).
- Blinkies just plain piss people off. Lets admit it: We all know this coming into the game, and we know why.
What a mess. The thing that clearly makes me more noticeable to speeding, inattentive missiles on wheels also makes it more likely I will get run down by one? Maybe?
I decided years ago that if steady, bright, lights are the de facto standard – what people are used to seeing, and are essential to tracking my motion – then I wanted those. Also, because of that conspicuity thing (I still can’t believe thats a real word), I wanted a blinkie to go along with the steady light. So, the blinkie makes me noticeable and the steady light gives me a decent shot at being trackable – and more easily avoided – by sober or drunk eyeballs as they speed towards me. Plus of course having a steady forward light lets me see what I am running into and over, which helps.
As for the pissing-people-off part, I consider that a benefit because thats how I roll.
OK I’m kidding about that.
More seriously, we live in an imperfect world and my lighting choices can’t be all things to everyone. I have to choose personal safety over politeness so the blinkie is in the mix.
The fact is, I was t-boned by an inattentive motorist in late 2017 in a classic SMIDSY where the driver – who I made eye contact with – looked through me and not at me, it turns out. That driver accelerated from a dead stop right into me despite my being in a bike lane, traveling relatively slowly and having three steady, front-facing headlights during evening rush hour (it was still daylight). I asked myself afterwards “what the hell more can I freaking do to get these morons’ attention?”
Not much, really. My answer was to add a blinkie. I just didn’t have any more spaghetti to throw against the wall than that.
Sidebar: Here's a detailed look at the SMIDSY risk, and how to actively avoid it, beyond passive methods like a blinking light.
What kind of blink?
All blinks are not created equal. Most traditional blinkies do so at a steady rate. But modern lights have been developed after recent study that use an asymmetric type of blink (Trek calls this effect an ‘interruptive blink’). The idea is that a non-steady blink is superior to a steadily repetitive one. All of my blinking lights use this form of non-steady/variable/asymmetric/interruptive blinking, and I consider it a required feature of blinkies. This severely limits the number of lights I consider for use since most do not offer this feature.
So now you know what my basic layout for lights should be: Steady lighting and blinking lighting, together. What else matters here?
Battery (Power Source)
Please note, what follows in this section applies to the general consumer. There are some very smart and capable people out there in the world who can build their own custom lighting systems from scratch. For those people, none of what I’m saying just below applies.
I see some people with ebikes fixating on using lights that wire into their existing ebike main battery or controller system. This is not a lighting quality decision, its a convenience decision where the rider is trying to consolidate his or her recharge efforts (I classify dynamo hubs and similar systems that provide real-time power generation in this same league). I think this focuses on the wrong thing: convenience rather than safety.
I prize a proper beam pattern more highly than I do charging convenience. After all the point of lights is their output, which might just keep me alive and un-maimed. Everything else is a distant second.
Going that hardwired/generator route also means the number of beam choices goes way down. Maybe to only one option. And typically it means wires. Wires running from the front light, wires running to the back. Ebikes can be a maze of wires and zipties as it is. I’m not making that any worse with more wires.
Most often, people ask “what light should I buy? Singular. As noted earlier I have given up on finding one single bike light to completely light up whats in front of me.
And believe me, I’ve tried:
Instead, I pick a variety of front lights that each do different jobs. Usually a couple of wide beam lights, focused a hair to the side and down a tad more than I’d go if they were my sole front light. Then I add in a narrow center beam of some kind, focused a touch further out and illuminating dead center whats in front of me. The net result is a long pear-shaped beam that gives me good coverage of the ground in front of me. To ensure I don’t run face first into something well-lit, I have that center beam reaching out some distance. But not so far out or overly powerful I am blinding oncoming motorists.
Worth special mention is the fact that up close, wider is better. This is something I learned over time, and thankfully before I hit anyone. I have had some real shocks using long, narrow beams that show me a clear path, but then I whiz past a pedestrian or some motionless bystander having a smoke in the dark. I had no idea they were there until I passed right by them.
To keep that from happening, I started using my closer-in ‘sidecar’ beams, for lack of a better term and they solved the problem. Sure I have a bunch of lights on the front of the bike, but they are pointed in different places and for a specific reason.
Over time, I have reduced the cost of this approach. Its still not cheap, but its not as godawfully expensive as it used to be.
Brightness (daytime running lights)
I run my lights day and night. At night to see and be seen, but also in the day to be seen by motorists. For this reason, all my lights are relatively bright. I do not, however, blind oncoming traffic by focusing the beams straight ahead. Rather, I try to focus to a useful distance on the ground, which lights up what I am rolling over in the dark. With multiple beams doing this work, I can leave them individually set to their lowest level, which lets me wait awhile to need to recharge them. My standard is one day each week (Friday) I pull all my lights off and recharge them in my office garage.
I have done a variety of front light setups with the above in mind. Lets look at some, along with prices:
2Fat’s front lighting (present day)
- Lower focus, wider beam: Blitzu Gator 390 (2)
- Center, narrow dual beam, Longer focus: Victagen bike headlight (1)
- Center Blinkie: Knog Blinder Square, with mode set to variable/asymmetric blink.
The Blitzu Gator is a cheap little light that is surprisingly good. It has a nice, broad beam that you can use as a solitary light if necessary, at its higher settings. I set it on low intensity and its good for a week’s commute riding. If I ride in a park, beach or rural area with no streetlights, there are two higher output settings that give me all the forward peripheral light I could ask for.
At under $16 each these are a great deal. They are also easily removable so when I go to the store – and pull everything off the bike that is not nailed down – they are easy to pop off and back on again.
I first purchased a pair of these little Gator lights when I was looking for a pair of lights for a bike and did not want to spring $100+ for another pair of Niterider Luminas. These are not anywhere near as good as the Niteriders, but then again they are also a small fraction of the cost.
The Victagen bicycle headlight is a relatively common design sold under many names. Its 3000-lumen peak output is not to be believed, but if you have been shopping for lights you already know most lumen claims are baloney. In this case, the light uses two Cree bulbs that are *rated* for 1500w each, which is not the same as them actually putting out that light level. Still, in conjunction with the two Gators, this light works great as a part of the team.
On the street I use it on its lowest setting. This preserves battery life and is still plenty bright for city use. It has an aluminum casing and two 18650 cells inside that make it relatively heavy, but also gives good battery life. Its digital (percentage-remaining) readout is constantly on so you’re never wondering how much power is left. There are two higher settings useful if riding without streetlights helping out.
A third, square center light is a little forward flood. It is handy on rural trails to light up the landscape ahead – just barely enough to be useful. Not something you want to use with oncoming traffic, but helpful on pitch-black trails.
Despite its heavy weight, the screw-down mount keeps the light from jiggling. It charges with a readily available USB C cable and contains an output plug so you can use it as a power bank for your cell phone if necessary.
I consider this Victagen light the natural, low cost successor to what was my preferred buy in this class: The Niterider Lumina, which I still use on a few bikes. Luminas typically go on sale around the end of the year but even so they come in at double the cost of one of these Victagen lights (as of today I own 5 of them, so I’ve saved quite a bit).
The Knog Blinder Front Square. Look closely at Figure 2 above and you will see a yellow square, on the front of the rack, just above the tire in the lower right corner of the picture. Thats my Knog Blinder, run as a blinkie – in variable blink mode – and set as far away from my steady lights as I can get it. the Knog lights come with a number of modes pre-programmed, and some of them can be set up custom via an app that connects to them and allows you to come up with your own pattern (I did not need this as one of the pre-programmed patterns sufficed).
Knog is an Australian company that specializes in bicycle lighting. What they sell is sophisticated, capable … and expensive. Still, they have become my default standard for rear lighting (both steadies and blinkies. I will cover rear lights in a separate article) and, in a couple of different forms, are my chosen light for front blinkies.
The best price on these lights is not found on Amazon. I get mine from seller Abaxo on EBay. I own maybe a dozen of these Blinder lights – front and rear versions – spread across several bikes. For now, I will only discuss the Front Blinder Square. The Amazon link I am using for one front and one rear is a pretty good price, though. And if you follow my lead, you may want to pick up at least one of those deals. But you’ll need to also read my rear lighting article to see what I am using, and why.
2Fat’s front lighting (recent past)
My use of the self-contained Victagen, and the Knog Blinder, is fairly recent. Formerly I used a pair of different lights – across several bicycles – that are worth mentioning.
My favorite light from a narrow, long beam standpoint is not the Victagen. Its this light, which is reasonably priced, Perfectly bright for street use at its lowest setting, and VERY bright on ‘hi’ for rides thru the park. The beam is also very narrow and very sharp-edged, so it makes a perfect long-reach beam that does not blind oncoming traffic. It has a big battery pack so it can go easily 2 weeks without recharging. The mount on this light is unusual in that it is very sturdy, adaptable and not subject to breakage over time. Why did I replace it? Because it requires a special USB cable to charge and over the years I have managed to lose all but one of them (I have four of these lights, two of which are mounted on the forks of the Lizzard King, and can be seen at the top of this page and in the next example below).
I have tried buying USB cables that match the cable ends required of the light and no dice. There’s some kind of unique wiring in the cable that a generic cable does not have. And the charge cables are not available separately. Without its special charge cable its a paperweight, so I moved away from using these.
Worth noting: You can solve the charge-cable issue by switching to a power bank such as this small $25 model from Anker, which I have done successfully. It gives a further advantage of having even greater capacity than the original factory pack, and charges with a standard cable. Trouble is it adds $25 to the cost of a $32 light, and these power banks overload if you try and plug two lights into one bank, so you have to do one per light. You have to really want this particular light beam to go this route.
Before I decided to spring the big bucks on the Knog Blinder Front Square, I used this little Night Provision front light for a few years. It is highly water resistant even if the rubber plug cover falls off (happens about half the time). Its battery life falls within my magic 1-week window, it is rated for 120 lumens which seems optimistic. It is usable as a blinkie in the day, and it is cheap at under $14 each. Here again I used the rear version of this light x 3 in the back of my bike before I went to the Knog Blinders. And again I’ll discuss those separately in a future post.
Unlike the Knog Big Cobber that you can see below on the Lizzard King, this little light is not bright enough to be mounted between or anywhere near your steady lights, and must be mounted low and away from them to be visible.
The Lizzard King’s front lighting
This one turned out a little weird, but thats largely due to the unusual nature of a frontloader and partly because, as described above, I have a couple of those extra-tight-beam lights not doing anything.
Due to the unusual configuration of a frontloader cargo bike, its not unusual to see a single light mounted on the fork bridge, relatively low given the 20″ wheel size. I tried adding a special mount on the bridge to put a light in that spot, and for reasons unique to my bike it didn’t work well. With these versatile mounts, this particular light is a perfect fit to mount on a semi-round fork blade, and since they have to go on the side, two of them to balance out the beam was an easy – and for me, cost-free – choice.
For the upper lights, I used what I once considered to be the best self-contained light on the market: The Nightrider Lumina. I have three sets of these. Two of them are the full sized Lumina 900 and a third is the smaller Micro 750. I’ve also owned lower-powered versions of both form factors going back many years. Of the two, I prefer the smaller Micro as they balance better over the handlebars.
The beam patterns on the Luminas are excellent. Their mounts have an internal ratchet that let you inch their focus right or left by a hair to widen their spread. Again they last my magic standard of a week without a recharge, and they can be at their lowest power level when used as part of a team effort. One drawback: The mount that is sold with them is junk. You have to spring for the upgraded screw-clamp mount they sell separately, and this adds another $11 to the cost of each light.
Lastly they are sturdy and water resistant. Easy to remove and re-attach, they make great standalone flashlights, especially when working on a flat tire at night on the side of the road.
BUT… They aren’t cheap. When the Victagen-style lights came onto the market, with their similarly sturdy casings, rich feature set and strong mounts… for $25 a pop. Well, you can see why I jumped ship.
Knog Big Cobber
This is one big, badass blinkie. I mean… its freaking big. And bright. Maybe too bright but I haven’t been arrested yet so maybe not.
The Big Cobber can be tied into their app, and before you think that an app for a bike light is stupid, it isn’t for this light. Using the Knog app, you can set the light to ‘eyesaver’ mode, which disables it across 1/3 of its 330° arc of light. Three Hundred and Thirty degrees. If you don’t run eyesaver mode, you are going to get this thing blinking in your face. I found I needed to use eyesaver AND to tape over the top part of the light because even though those LEDs were not firing, there was still enough backwash from what was running to annoy me. Once I did that, its a near-perfect light. I am using the short, sharp, intense ‘day flash’ mode with eyesaver.
And it sure isn’t cheap, either. With that said, its the best fit for the bike I have it on, so it stays. This is a VERY sophisticated and high quality light, so if what it does works for you, you’re not going to be disappointed.
The Surly Big Fat Dummy’s lighting
What I did here was unusual given the front rack on this bike, along with the inverted suspension fork that has no bridge to affix a blinkie down low.
Victagen Dual Beams
You have seen these used earlier. Since I ride multiple bikes, I keep a set of lights permanently on each rather than swapping them around. This is where using lower-cost but still effective lights pays off. I found putting two of them off the front edge of the rack induced too much shaking (you can still see the mounts, at top right and left on the front). So I built up the sides of the rack with silicone tape and hung them off those. It was easy to angle them so I have a continuous swath of light in front of me and there was no need for a separate, long-range steady beam. For a blinkie, I have…
The Knog Big Cobber
With no way to properly separate the blinkie from the steadies thanks to the use of thhe Wren Inverted fork, I needed a bright badass blinkie to keep it from being washed out. The strong Knog light is that light, and once again has been set to ‘eyesaver’ mode and taped at the top just like the other one on the Lizzard King. Its worth noting this light puts quite a bit of its output straight down onto the ground which still magnifies my visual presence to some degree.
If you have been counting lights, you will have realized my once-weekly recharge party at my office garage is something of an event. It is but it isn’t. I need to spend about 5 minutes pulling lights off and attaching them to …
My powered USB charging hub. I have two of these 10-port powered hubs. One at home and one at work. I usually only do this at work. Despite making the mistake of trying a much more expensive one, found these to be perfect.
- I have one Knog light up front and up to three more in the back for a potential total of four. These four short USB extension cables plugged into the hub cover those 4 lights.
- This six-pack of 1-foot long micro USB cables covers anything else I want to plug in with some left over. Usually that means my front dashcam and two of the little Gator lights.
- The Victagen light comes with its own USB C charge cable.
So… skipping the failures and the mistakes, thats what I am using or have used for front lights, and why I’m doing them that way. What I use for the back dovetails neatly into my choices for the front, but you’ll have to read that separate article to see exactly how.