The days are getting shorter, daylight savings time has pushed the evening commute into darkness, and here in Oregon it's raining more days than not. Winter's coming, but that doesn't mean you have to stop riding! Prepared with some simple gear and the right approach, riding through the winter can be safe, comfortable, and fun.
First we'll cover what gear you need (spoiler: you probably already have most of it), including clothing, fenders, and lights. Then we'll go into easy steps to take before and after your ride to make it more comfortable, and finally what to watch out for on the road.
I covered a large number of taillights last year, but some new products have come out since then, so I've been taking them out for some rides to get a sense for how they stack up. Almost all of the new lights in the past year have been rechargeable - AA(A) powered lights are declining in popularity, and for good reason. It's easy to spend $15-20 per year on batteries (if not more), so paying a little bit more for a rechargeable makes sense.
The winner of the 2012 tail light review was the Cygolite Hotshot. At the time, it stood out for its brightness, versatility, and for being the only reasonably priced rechargeable on the market. Cygolite hasn't released a new taillight in the past year, but there's a lot more competition in this category now - bright, rechargeable lights in the $30-50 range.
Why choose a rechargeable light over a standard light + a set of standard NiMH rechargeable batteries? (If you do go this route, get Sanyo Eneloops - everybody says they're the best rechargeable AAAs for lights.) First of all, energy density: Li-Ion batteries can hold about 3x more energy in the same space, and also retain their energy capacity over more discharge cycles. Additionally, most rechargeable lights have a built-in voltage regulator to prevent the brightness from dropping off as the battery drains. Most AA(A) lights do not have this, and start dimming almost immediately once you begin to use them. Rechargeable NiMH batteries also start at only 1.2V (vs 1.5V for a standard alkaline AAA battery), which means your light will be dimmer from the get-go. And finally, with so many affordable choices now for rechargeable lights, it's not even any cheaper to go with rechargeable AAAs, since a charger + batteries will cost more than it would cost to go for a more expensive but rechargeable light.
With that in mind, let's dive into the review and see what new lights are available:
Table of Contents:
- Data Overview
- Individual Reviews
- Additional Suggestions (lights to consider that were not reviewed)
- Recommended Setups
- Conclusions and what's next (headlight review now posted!)
Note - if you're in the UK you can watch the programme on iPlayer here.
I should probably start by saying that I'd seen a fair amount of publicity for this program (specifically this, this and this), and I was watching with a view to complaining to the BBC about it. Having watched it, I have to say it was nowhere near as bad as I feared it would be, but it could have been much better. In short - I'm not angry, just disappointed.
The programme starts with Gareth, a 24-year old cyclist. He initially comes off as a bit arrogant. A little bit later he's shown antagonising a taxi driver by banging on the side of his taxi when it passes a little bit too close. He says with a smile, "I've noticed if you touch someone's vehicle they get very possessive about that". So it appears that he knows exactly what he's doing. While I understand the point he makes - that if you can touch someone's car as they overtake you, then they haven't given you enough room - I don't think it's a particularly smart thing to do. Since the documentary aired Gareth has said that he felt it misrepresented him. Gareth's YouTube page is here.
The next section is Mark, a traffic policeman on a bicycle. This was quite interesting as we see him chase down a motorcyclist that fails to stop. While there are a couple of scary manoeuvres he seems highly skilled and in control. We also see him pulling over drivers and cyclists for minor traffic offences. There are lots of cyclists jumping red lights, Mark points out "it's not the crime of the century, but it could get you killed".
Next up is a woman who's daughter was killed while cycling, she was crushed by a cement mixer which turned left across her. This was quite an inspirational story as we hear about her campaign for better safety standards. She starts by buying shares in the company so she can speak at their Annual General Meeting, this leads to the company improving the training its drivers receive and installing proximity detectors on the sides of its vehicles.
Next there are two incidents caught on helmet camera. First there's a very scary video from Glasgow. As a cyclist approaches a roundabout a truck travelling at speed fails to give way. The cyclist slams his brakes on and the truck misses him by a few centimetres. It's absolutely terrifying (it's on YouTube here). The second incident was a road rage attack by a driver on a cyclist. The video was posted on YouTube and widely reported in the press, which led to the driver being identified and prosecuted.
The Traffic Droid is the next section. While the programme describes him as "policing the situation himself", in reality he's a cyclist who videos poor driving (and cycling) and posts it online. We see him videoing drivers who are using mobile phones and iPads and handing them flyers with his YouTube address on. He describes how he started filming traffic violations after being knocked off his bike 3 years ago, he breaks down and cries as he talks about it.
Finally we see footage of a courier race across London. The cyclists ride in what can only be described as an aggressive and nearly suicidal manner. It's this short section that seems to have caused most of the controversy, and it's not hard to see why. The sheer recklessness is breathtaking, but it's so far removed from the typical behaviour of the average cyclist. It appears to have been included simply for shock value.
In summary, I have mixed feelings about this documentary. The section about cement mixer safety I thought was positive, as it highlights a particular danger to cyclists and shows that if the will is there then these issues can be tackled. I thought the section with the cycling traffic policeman was interesting and it was also good that it showed him being even-handed in his dealings with cyclists and drivers. His clam approach and ability to defuse situations was a marked contrast to some of the other participants in the documentary.
I felt the central premise of the documentary, a war between cyclists and drivers, was flawed. The majority of cyclists are also drivers - 87% of British Cycling members own a car and the president of the Automobile Association is a keen cyclist. How can two groups be at war when so many people belong to both groups? I thought the other main failing of the documentary was a lack of context. For example a few cycling accident and death statistics were mentioned, but there was no comparison to other activities such as walking, or to accident and death statistics for cycling in other countries. The documentary would have left viewers with the false impression that cycling on Britain's roads is a very dangerous activity, I hope my mum hasn't watched it.
I also felt that the documentary missed an opportunity to discuss cycling facilities and road layout, which can be a cause of conflict between cyclists and drivers. There were a few incidents shown were a cyclist in a narrow cycle lane was overtaken by a vehicle which passed closely to the cyclist without actually moving into the cycle lane. One of the road rage incidents shown occurred after a driver was unable to overtake a cyclist through a traffic calming system.
In the US, May is National Bike Month, and next week (May 14-18) is National Bike to Work Week. This is an awesome opportunity to challenge yourself to commute by bike more often, and with the weather getting warmer, it's the perfect time to get back into the habit of using your bike to get around.
Individual communities have bike challenges, with prizes sponsored by local bike advocacy groups, cycling shops, and bike groups. The League of American Bicyclists has a webpage where you can look up official Bike Month events in your community. Not all events are listed on this site, so you should also do a web search for bike to work <city name> and see what you can find. For example, Oregon has the Walk and Bike Month Challenge, New York City has Bike Month NYC, San Francisco Bay Area has a Bike to Work Day, and dozens of other communities across the US have their own programs.
Not every city's Bike to Work events are on the "official" dates, so make sure to check for local events right away so you don't miss out!
As you get geared up for spring commuting, don't forget to ask Bicycles Stack Exchange when you have questions about setting up your bike!
If there are local events in your area, please leave links in the comments below and we'll add them to the blog post.
UPDATE: This review is a couple years out of date! For frequently updated bike light recommendations and reviews, visit The Bike Light Database.
Whether you bike to work every day regardless of how dark it is outside, or only let dusk catch you on the occasional evening ride, every cyclist should have lights. They're required after dark by law in almost all regions, and are a crucial piece of safety equipment even where they're optional.
Remember that although spending $30-50 on good lights may seem like a lot of money, the medical costs from a single accident would far surpass that initial investment. If you bike at night (or even bike on busy roads during the day - several of these lights are daytime visible), a bright light is a must-have!
Choosing a light can be a difficult task though - there are countless options to choose from ranging from cheap $3 flashers to blindingly bright $200 powerhouses. The internet already has some good comparisons of bike headlights, but there's a surprising lack of comprehensive taillight comparisons, so I decided to make one. For science.
In total, I reviewed 16 different taillights from 8 of the top light manufacturers. I chose which lights to review based on a survey I conducted on the parent site for this blog - Bicycles Stack Exchange, a Q&A site for everything about bicycles, and also asked on Reddit's /r/bicycling. The incumbent in this race is the Planet Bike Blinky Superflash. Everyone has this light (myself included). Not only is it the light most people own, it's also the most-loved - 20% of respondents said it was their favorite. In terms of what people wish they had or are considering buying, the Planet Bike Superflash Turbo, Portland Design Works' Radbot 1000 and Danger Zone, and the Niterider Cherrybomb were all high on the list. Many people expressed an interest in DiNotte's lights, but unfortunately we were unable to acquire one for this review and the company declined to loan a light for the review.
I'm sure you're all dying to know which light is the best, but first, let's take a look at the contenders.
Table of Contents
Most urban cyclists have probably encountered the problem of triggering traffic signals once or twice. Most of the time, sensors at traffic lights detect bicycles right away, and are often helpful in reducing wait-time. I know of a few intersections where the sensors are finely tuned so that the light turns green before you even get there, if nobody is coming the other way. What happens though when one of these sensors is out of whack?
I go to school in Corvallis, OR, which currently holds the record for the highest percentage of bicycle commuters nationwide. There's a particular intersection here where the under-pavement loop-type sensor simply wasn't working for me. Some friends had mentioned having problems at the same intersection as well. The sensor is for a left-turn arrow in a turn-only lane, so it probably doesn't get huge amounts of bike traffic, but I use the turn lane there, as do others. You can see the intersection in the streetview image below:
As you can see, there's a pavement indicator for where bikes should stop to trigger the signal. There is also one for the bike lane on the right. It's difficult to see in this image, but there are pavement cuts which indicate a buried sensor loop, which works by magnetic induction, not a visual cue. When I arrived at the intersection, I stopped just past the marker, and waited for the light to turn. It never did. Fortunately, the intersection has one of the new "flashing yellow" sequences, so I was able to turn left when there was a break in traffic, although I did have to wait two light cycles before I was able to make it across.
So, what to do when a sensor seems to be malfunctioning? In hind sight, I should have tried again before seeking help, but having heard similar reports from other cyclists, it sure sounded like there was a problem. Fortunately, it's easy to contact the city public works and get problems checked out. I sent an email on a Sunday afternoon, and on Monday I got a response back from them:
Thank you for the description of the concern you have at location. We went today to test the southbound left turn loop. This movement of the intersection uses a quadrapole loop for vehicle detection. In layman's terms, a loop is essentially an antenna in the pavement, tuned to a specific frequency, to detect metal objects. When a metal vehicle passes over the loop the frequency of the loop is changed and acknowledged in the traffic signal controller. A quadrapole loop looks like two long narrow rectangles, placed side by side, with a common line in the middle. We have a bike marker placed on the pavement, in the center of the quadrapole, at the very front, behind the stop bar. The bike's crankset should be placed directly over this marker. We use a Specialized MTB from Public Works to perform our bicycle detection. We feel this type of bike represent the majority of commuter cyclist in Corvallis. We did not find any issue with the southbound left turn loop at location. Every time we installed or removed the bike from the detection, it was acknowledged in-kind at the traffic signal controller. If you have any questions or concerns please contact me via email or phone.
Wow! In less than 24 hours, a work crew was sent out to check the sensor, and verified that it's properly working. I was slightly embarrassed to hear that the loop is functioning just fine and that I had not been triggering it properly, but that feeling was vastly overshadowed by how impressed I was with the city's quick and helpful response. This is the same city where a police officer was dispatched to cut loose my friend's bike when her lock got jammed (after proving ownership of course), and where the University just finished installing about 500 new bike racks across campus. No wonder so many people bike commute here!
I have yet to return to this intersection since filing the report, since I don't bike that direction often. The next time I do, I'll be sure to try the public works official's tips for positioning the bike to properly trip the sensor. It's odd that this problem occurred, since I've never had trouble with any other intersection. It's possible that the light timing is slightly different and if I had waited another cycle, I would have gotten an arrow. It's also possible that I was just not paying close enough attention to where I was positioning my cycle - if I had originally triggered the sensor, but then moved off it slightly, it might have thought that I went through the intersection during the flashing yellow cycle.
Regardless of the true cause of the light mishap, which I now know won't happen again, the lesson learned is this: if something looks amiss, don't hesitate to contact your municipality's public works department. They're here to help you out, and if my experience so far is any indication, they'll be more than happy to help.
Lately, I’ve been commuting to rehearsals on the Delaware and Raritan Canal trail. It’s a great way to get away from traffic and potholes for a good chunk of the eight-mile ride. It’s also cooler, as much of the path is covered by trees. The only problem is that it adds ten minutes to the ride, if not more.
The other only problem is that Hildy, my touring bike, has standard touring tires. She’s reliable and fits me like an old, shirt, the kind that’s getting a little ratty, but is too comfortable to get rid of despite the worn hems on the sleeves. She can handle a little gravel, but she’s fickle. Loose gravel or uneven stone will make her say: “Neil, you might consider getting off and walking—or I’ll toss you on your ass.” Yeah, that wouldn’t be pretty. I walk over those nasty bits of path.
Last week, after riding this bit of towpath every Monday for several weeks, I decided that it was time to put my knobby “winter” tires back on Hildy. While the recent resurfacing of the path made it possible for us to ride it on those 700x32 tires, there are still small sections of gravel where I’ll walk the bike, not to mention spillways. My first ride on the towpath with the knobbies I got for last winter was—there’s no other word for it—fun! And Hildy said barely a word until I got to that thousand-foot overgrown rock spillway. I didn’t even wait for her to tell me, I walked that one. (Along with the last spillway where one has to balance on rocks in the Raritan River to get to the other side.)
A patch of coarse gravel or sand became damn awesome, and these are no longer barely-balancing jaw-clenching moments. There’s something exhilarating about riding over an uneven, ephemeral surface.
Of course, there’s a price for all this. The ride takes about five to ten minutes longer now. (Fifteen, with today’s headwinds.) And there are still stone spillways I can’t ride over, although that’s down to two (from five previously unrideable rock-and-concrete stretches.) Also, the bike doesn’t corner as well on concrete. But that’s okay. I’ve gotten much faster at swapping out tires.
I’ve just ordered parts for my mountain bike build again, and may soon finish my offroad project of the last three years. Imagine the fun I could have with proper two-inch knobby tires on that 1994 Stumpjumper frame! No dirt or rock would be unclimbable. Those helmet-cam mountain-maniacs I see on Youtube may be insane, but I can’t argue that they’re not having a good time.
Whoops! Sorry, Hildy. You’re still my favorite, I promise. Maybe it’s time we did an offroad tour.