With the days getting shorter, I suspect that we'll find ourselves riding in the dark more often. After all, we are the crazy ones who see nothing wrong with riding a bike through the night.
I was in my shop last night rummaging through 30+ years of bicycle stuff, and I came across a bunch of my old lighting equipment. As I looked at the stuff, I was amazed at the advancements that have been made in bicycle lighting. I've been an engineer for 30 years... and that means tinkering is part of my psyche. I've been messing with bike lights across the years and I started thinking about the time line of the developments and how it has impacted my riding and cycling in general.
The first light system that I had was a Union bottle dynamo and light combo that I bought in 1983. I bought that setup for my new Trek 520 with commuting and touring in mind. The yellow tinted light that the tiny lamp put out was sort of like putting a lit candle on front of your ride and expecting to see where you're going. But the battery powered lights of the day ate up batteries like candy, so the little dynamos were the best option for continued light for more than an hour or two. The paltry amount of light output meant that your night rides were slow and careful. I really found that the better option was to ride under clear moonlit skies when possible and rely on the lights to be seen more than to see by.
Then advancements in bulbs and batteries brought along the next phase of lighting. Halogen bulbs coupled with rechargable lithium ion and nickel metal hydride batteries made really bright bike lights possible. But they were expensive in the early days... some of the best systems ran upwards of $1200. I built a homebrewed system that used motorcycle fog lamps fitted with 20W MR16 bulbs and a 4 lb 14.4V rechargable battery. I used a digital control board that gave me three light levels and an overvolt setting. In the overvolt setting, it ran the 12V bulbs at 14.4V and nearly doubled the light output of the halogens. Oh yeah... it also cut the life of the bulbs by about 80%. But that system put out so much light that it was scary. It also generated so much heat that you could hear raindrops sizzle as they hit the bulbs at night. And it drained that big battery in about 45 to 60 minutes on the overdrive setting.
Then LED technology started changing things... first by making battery powered systems brighter and smaller. But then LEDs started bleeding over into dynamo lighting. This was the dramatic paradigm shift that we'd been waiting for. Dramatically bright lighting for a bicycle without heavy batteries or limited runtimes. And dynamos were getting better and more available too. I have two bikes fitted with hub dynamo/LED lighting setups. I use IQ Cyo lights because I love the bang for the buck that you get with them. I hardly see how you could need more light for road use. Maybe if you like 50MPH night time descents, I guess.
But things are changing again.
LEDs are getting even more efficient and batteries even smaller and more efficient. That means that battery powered lights are viable when it comes to providing long duration lighting. There are many lights out there that take up little handlebar room and weigh hardly anything... yet provide hours of light sufficient to ride by. That used to be possible only in a light with a big strap on battery pack. And many of those high quality rechargable lights can be had for far less than I paid for my SON dynamo hub alone. I'll still opt for dynamo lighting on my distance and commuter bikes (just flip a switch and there's light), but these new generation battery lights are great for turning any road bike into a night time machine.
All in all... this has changed my riding habits. I ride with no worries about when sunset is. I live out in a rural area, and I love riding at night. It is a world all its own.
How has improved bicycle lighting changed your riding? What do you use and why?