Your essential guide to what to look for when buying bike lights
Unless you only ride during the day then bike lights are essential all year round, but obviously far more in the autumn and winter when there are fewer hours of daylight.
There is increasingly talk in the cycling industry about lights being needed at all times, which is something to consider when conditions dictate the need for day time illumination.
Bright sunshine can be cited by motorists as a reason for not spotting a more vulnerable road user, a factor that can be negated by a set of bike lights switched on during the day to show where the rider is against the bright backdrop.
New bikes are sold with reflectors and many people dress in high visibility clothing, which are good additions but in no way make up for a bike with no lights. Bicycle mounted illumination is essential for safety and to keep you on the right side of the law. A decent set of bike lights can be the difference between riding home safely or not getting there at all.
The law regarding bike lights is governed by the Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations, first published in 1989 but amended six times since, which says that as well as your pedal reflectors and rear reflectors (the side and front reflectors aren’t actually a legal necessity) night-riders will also need lights front and back.
The lights have to be mounted on the bike centrally or to the offside, positioned up to 1.5m from the ground, and conform to British Safety or EC standards.
Both front or rear lights can be flashers, but if so they must emit at least four candela. “But bike lights tend to be rated in lumens or Watts, what’s a candela?,” we hear you cry.
It’s not a particularly easy subject to explain, and they’re not directly convertible units. But simply put: as long as you buy decent quality bike lights, fit them properly, and remember to switch them on, the law shouldn’t be a problem.
Our pick of the best front bike lights
Exposure Sirrius front bike light
The Exposure Sirius front light shows that you don’t need to over-complicate things to create a great light. Everything is contained within the slim body (so no unsightly battery packs) and yet it still manages a decent two hour battery life even on its highest 550 lumen setting.
Cateye Volt 1200 front bike light
It might not look pretty, but the Cateye Volt 1200 is incredibly effective, pumping out 1200 lumens that is enough to light up the darkest of country lanes. If you’re riding in town then there are a number of other less powerful modes to choose from, each with a pretty good battery life.
Hope R4 LED front bike light
Some might be put off by the external battery pack, but they should be won over by the astonishing brightness of this Hope light. Even good enough for a bit of off-roading if the mood takes you, the battery life is also excellent, giving 2.5 hours burn time even on the highest setting.
Exposure Toro front bike light
Technically designed for mountain biking, the Exposure Toro is an exceptionally bright front light that won’t leave you in any doubt where the road is going if you’re exploring some new lanes after dark. It will pump out as many as 2,400 lumens at its centre, while there is also a display on the back that shows battery life.
What do you need to consider when buying your bike lights?
We’ll look at specialist lighting options in a moment, but for now, let’s assume you’re a road rider or commuter who wants to see and been seen when the sun sets. What do you need to consider when buying your lights?
Most modern cycle lights use LEDs rather than old-school bulbs, and such has been the advancement of technology, these can be blindingly bright.
Of course light power is an important part of your buying criteria, but don’t let that be the be-all and end-all. Beam shape and the effect of the light lens can make a huge difference — we’ve seen lights of supposedly lesser power trump rivals when it comes to real-world performance.
All these factors are of most importance if you’ll be using your front lamp to actually light your way. But bike lights perform another function: to warn other road users of your presence.
If you’ll be riding on lit roads, you may find the need for an ultra-bright constant beam is unnecessary and a flash function at the front is perfectly adequate.
Battery life and charging
For your rear light, the flash function is ideal. But if you’re a cycle commuter, with both front and rear lights also consider how effective the lamp is in terms of side lighting, as this will make you more visible from more angles and help avoid the “sorry mate, I didn’t see you” excuse from a turning or emerging vehicle.
It’s still generally a case of the brighter the better, but you also need to consider other qualities that will make your life easier. Look to see how many flash settings the light has; what the run times will be on a single charge or one set of batteries; and see if it has a rechargeable power source.
In this case, check if it needs its own special charger or if it can be recharged via USB, which aids convenience immensely. Some lights even have a helpful gauge showing how much power they have left.
The last consideration is mounting. Smaller bike lights may be simply mounted using a rubber or silicon strap, whereas big lamps — especially front lights — may require a proper bracket. Truly powerful front lights may even feature an external battery pack that will also need to be accommodated on the bike.
In any case, if you’re planning to leave your bike parked up in public for any length of time, make sure your lamps can be easily removed.
Rear bike lights
Thought the amount of power you’ll need for your front light will vary depending upon where you’re riding, no cyclist should be without an adequate rear bike light. Rear bike lights will usually omit around 30 lumens or more, and generally have several modes: steady light, flashing, or a combination between the two. All options are safe and legal, but a flashing mode will usually help to save battery life.
There’s particular argument for using a rear bike light even in the day time, because it will help drivers pick you out from behind. It’s also a sensible idea to double up on rear lights. Though it’s unlikely, you won’t be quite so aware if your rear bike light fails as you would be in the case of a front beam, so having a back-up fitted can provide extra security and peace of mind.
Our pick of the best rear bike lights
Knog Blinder R70 rear bike light
There’s nothing complicated about this Knog rear light, but it ticks all the boxes we look for when testing rear lights. It’s nice and bright, has multiple modes, a good battery life, is USB rechargeable, and will even fit the aero seatposts of the most aero of aero test bikes. Absolutely faultless.
Bontrager Flare R rear bike light
When Bontrager launched this light it intended for it to be used in the day, but thankfully it works just as well after dark too. The 65 lumen output is spot on for a rear light, and the 23 hour battery life (in the night-time flashing mode) should be enough for a couple of weeks worth of commutes.
Exposure TraceR rear bike light
At £49.95 there are certainly cheaper rear lights on the market, but there aren’t too many better. Despite its dimunitive size the TraceR can still pump out 75 lumens, which is more than enough for a rear light, and the tool-free mount is ingenious.
Cycliq Fly6 rear camera bike light
Finally something a little bit different, not only is the Cycliq Fly6 a 30 lumen rear light, but it is also a camera capable of shooting HD footage of what’s going on behind you. A useful feature is that if the built-in accelerometer detects that you’ve been in an accident it will automatically keep the footage, providing you with evidence to give to the authorities.
Back-up bike lights, helmet mounted bike lights and extra brightness
The typical cycle commuter on urban streets will only need a relatively simple set of front and rear lights. There’s still every reason to buy the best you can afford, and even double up with an extra set of cheap emergency-only flashers front and back. But if you’ll be riding off road or on unlit country lanes, you really do need to go for the bigger, more powerful lamps with wider beams.
To augment their bike-mounted lamps, many riders also opt for helmet-mounted lights. These can be very effective and have the added benefit of directing the light wherever you are looking. However, these should be in addition to those on the bike, and not your only source of illumination.
Another sensible option is the dynamo light. This uses a compatible hub or wheel-rubbing bottle dynamo to convert your forward motion into electricity which then powers the light — so no need for batteries. Bottle dynamos can be disengaged in daylight hours so they don’t drag unnecessarily, and at night-time it means you’ll never need to worry about run times or recharging again.
Super safe accessories
Night riding isn’t just about illumination. In recent years a whole industry of associated safety accessories has come about.
For example, the Blaze laser light combines a high-powered rechargeable front lamp with a warning image of a cyclist projected by a built-in laser onto the road ahead of you. Similarly, the Xfire Bikelane looks just like a typical LED rear light, but it uses lasers to project virtual bike lane markings either side of you.
In Cycling Weekly we’ve also got See.Sense lights, incredible front and rear lamps that use inbuilt sensor technology to flash brighter and faster when cyclists are in potentially dangerous scenarios.
Finally, although it’s only a relatively simple rear light, SpyLamp doubles up as a GPS tracking device should your bike get stolen. Think of it as an emergency flasher with hidden talents.
There are more innovative products appearing all the time, so do enjoy exploring the world of cycle lighting. Just remember, the basic rules haven’t changed: be safe, be seen.