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The Latest Generation of Lights, LEDs to see by

by Pamela Blalock with John Bayley

The first lamps we used with our Schmidt hubs made use of halogen bulbs. Initially, we used Lumotec lamps and later the Schmidt E6 lamps. The Schmidt E6 was a marked improvement over the Lumotec, with one notable difference being the ease of changing the bulbs without tools. This was important because we often had to change blown bulbs. In addition to blowing out, bulbs would also just go dim over time.

When LEDs first came onto the scene, they were found in taillights, standlights or small lights for illuminating bike computers and cue sheets. They had many advantages, like lasting forever (so no fiddly changing bulbs on the side of the road), and using very little power, so they's run a long time on a single charge. But initially they weren't very bright. LED technology has now advanced to the point that they are brighter than our old halogen battery lights and are now the best choice for front generator lights!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We went through a few trials before finding truly brilliant front LED lights.

History/Early LED front lights

In the autumn of 2005, we read a few rave reviews from various sources about a new LED light from Dinotte Lighting which used rechargeable AA batteries. The first Dinotte had a 5W LED light in a small elegant package with a remote battery pack. We each tried it on our evening commutes, mostly as a supplemental light, but also rode with it alone on a completely dark route. It opened our eyes to what the new LEDs might someday do. It didn't hold a candle to dual E6's at speed, but this 5W LED light actually worked quite well for seeing - not just to be seen. However, like other battery lights, run time was limited.

The above mentioned battery light used a standard symmetrical lens with no special cycling specific focusing, as do most bike lights made in the USA. At around this time, Busch and Muller made a 4AA battery powered light, the Ixon. It used the same lens as the Lumotec lights, with a focused beam. At 1 watt, it was a lower wattage light that the Dinotte, but the focused beam made it compare favorably for light on the road, while allowing for longer run times. This became our choice for an emergency backup light. A short while later, B+M released the Ixon Speed, which used a separate NiMH battery back with a 10-15 hour burn time. I bought one of those in spring of 2007 and used it on a 24 event (Fleche) on a bike that did not have a generator. This light had the same optics as the 4AA powered Ixon, but lasted all night.

Around this time, I also tried the B+M d'lumotec for my generator. It reached full power at about 1.5 mph, nice for my commute with stop and go traffic. It still wasn't as bright as the halogens, so I only put it on my commuting bike and supplemented with a halogen secondary. The addition of the secondary did not affect the low speed light output, so both lights could be left on all the time. The LED provided a clear wide beam in front of the wheel. The secondary was fully bright at around 12mph or so, and provided a nice wide beam down the road for higher speeds.

The pictures show multiple lights mounted. This was for testing different lights. Not all the lights were plugged in at once! Please no more questions about how to run three or more lights!

Peter came back from Eurobike in 2006 all excited about another LED light from a company called INOLIGHT. That is the third light mounted on the fork crown in the photo on the left above. We tried these lights briefly, but returned them. The beam was very different from any other lights I've used. It was extremely focused - very wide, but not very tall. And there was no spillage, so it was like a spotlight, and when aimed out for faster riding left a very dark spot in front of the wheel that just didn't work for me. Potholes passed through the spotlight and disappeared into the dark spot in front of my wheel and then I hit them. To the right is a photo copied without permission from Peter's website, showing his solution to the problem. Not quite what I had in mind. For the second generation of these lights, they modified the beam pattern to be much longer and far more useful. We tried one of these for a few weeks, and while the beam was longer, it still had the blind spot right in front of the wheel.

Around the same time, we started hearing about Solidlights, a dual LED light that would run off a generator. I found this review very helpful. We ordered one from the UK. John had the Solidlight on his commuter for about a month before I tried it. And I loved it. The light became bright at very low speeds and got brighter at higher speeds. The light unit itself is boxy and industrial looking and has no reflector, but the standlight is brilliant. The standlight and a little reflective tape on the front of the fork blades made up for lack of reflector in the light. The light has a symmetrical beam, rather than the focused beam of most of the lights designed for generator hubs. But there is an advantage to this type of beam. One thing I quickly noticed after several years of using focused beam lights is how well road signs reflect back with a symmetrical beam. For PBP, this means the reflective arrows on route markings on signposts and in trees should be quite visible. The light was appropriately named SOLID. It is solid, industrial and tough. John took it back after a month and wouldn't let it go. He used it on the Fleche in 2007 and raved. It lived on his commuter bike and he used it on a few brevets. Unfortunately the light was not designed to be future-proof and would require a redesign to use the newer LED technology. It is a good light and was the best at the time, but newer lights are even better.

Current LED Lights

In late 2008, I saw a posting on the randonneuring email list that mentioned another German light, the Supernova E3 along with a link to a site with photos comparing various new LED lights. I loved the simple elegant design, and those photos were impressive. I ordered one in mid-December. It was outrageously expensive and the shipping was equally high, but I decided to give it a try. There was a substantial delay in getting the light, but it finally showed up and was quite impressive, so much so that no supplemental secondary was necessary.

I've long promoted the focused beams, because they put your limited amount of light where you need it, but as low power LED generator lights get brighter and brighter, it is less essential to have such tight focusing. One thing I like about the symmetrical beam lights is that they can be mounted upside down, and this makes things a bit easier when trying to find space on the handlebar or other nice elegant mounting options. I also really like the way they illuminate street signs. I like being able to see stop signs and street signs on my commute! The supernova E3 became my top choice for a generator powered light.

Shortly after getting my Supernova, I showed off the light to Elton Pope-Lance at Harris Cyclery. Elton ordered one for himself right away, and I met him commuting with his several times. He was as impressed as I was and got Harris to start importing them soon afterwards. These lights quickly became popular with randonneurs.

In the fall of 2010, Supernova announced a new improved LED, and offered to upgrade existing lights for a nominal fee. This was a nice feature of the light, designed to be upgraded. At this stage we had 5 supernova lights, one of which was a triple. We sent 4 in for the upgrade, while we kept one for a tour we were doing the next week. I already considered these lights the best of breed. The upgraded lights are even better. We later sent the remaining original light in for the upgrade.

When we got our upgraded lights, we also got a new catalog that mentioned the new Terraflux (asymmetrical) lens. I was curious to see how it compared, and Elton offered to let me try it. I bought it after my first ride. As background, I mentioned my new commuting bike earlier in the article. It is a bike Friday Tikit, with 16 inch wheels and a single sided front rack that allows me to leave the pannier on when folding the bike. With 16 inch wheels, the fork crown is very close to the ground, and that single front mounted pannier. With the light mounted at the fork crown, the pannier was blocking part of the light on the right side. I commute along a riverside path that is a bit twisty and narrow. Mounting the light higher would solve the light blocked by pannier problem, but would complicate folding. So I picked up the new Terraflux light, put the Shimano connector on, coiled up the excess cable and took the bike out for a spin. This light casts a very wide beam (but still moderately long), and makes the perfect light for this bike and this commute. The shadow cast by the pannier is now only a small corner of the wider beam, so I have plenty of light out to both sides. So for narrow twisty paths, this lens really shines! As an asymmetrical light, it also doesn't shine in the eyes of the runners coming toward me on the narrow path, but it does mean that sometimes I may not not see a person who doesn't have reflective stuff on their shoes until I am very close - a problem I have observed with all the asymmetrical lights.

I still prefer the symmetrical lights for pure road riding, but I am impressed with the Terraflux lens, and for those who want an assymetrical light for legal or other reasons, I can recommend this one.

I'll also mention their new rechargeable light, the Airstream. We bought one of those as well! Sometimes we need a light on a bike that doesn't normally have lights! And of course there is the need to have a backup light in case you taco your wheel or something daft. This light uses the same Terraflux lens and has multiple setting to run for up to 7 hours. So it's not going to replace the generator for an all night light, but it's great to throw on the racing bike to get home after an evening club ride, and good for temporary backup.


The other two contenders

Schmidt came out the the E-delux about the same time I got my first supernova. However, there were supply problems and they were delayed a bit initially. A lot of supernovas were sold to folks who couldn't wait. The E-delux has an asymmetrical beam and a very elegant and small case. Elton lent us a light to try before they became widely available. We both tried it and liked it. We couldn't buy it, due to limited supplies, and besides we were and are quite happy with our supernovas. The E-delux is a very impressive light, and I can recommend it as superior to the old halogen lights.

I have also ridden a Fleche with two riders who had the B+M CYO lights, so had lots of time to do side-by-side comparisons. I found these equally impressive. I ended up buying one last year to use on my Seven. The CYO is light and far less expensive than the other two and since it's so light, it works great mounted at the fork crown.

More on mounting...