Actually, the title of this post is a lie. If you are a cyclist you know there is no end to the puzzle; there are always new gaps to be filled, new pieces to add. I may, for example, have in the past occasionally mentioned my lack of matching leather bar tape once or quince. But I finally added the last major set of components I need for Gypsy Rose to be fully ready to rando: a full-scale lighting system.
The shortest brevet (200K) can, unless you are having a really bad day, typically be completed mostly in daylight in the summer, and even in the depths of winter you will end up biking for a few hours only in darkness. That is doable with a good set of battery powered lights. But for longer distances you end up biking for many hours in darkness. For really long distances you might bike all through the night. You could rely on battery power for all that. But that means extra weight to carry, for starters and not a few other potential aggravations. So the solution that a lot of riders turn to is a dynamo lighting system.
This is not your granny’s dynamo
Now, I know, I know. . .those of you of a certain age and who have lived in places where cycling was encouraged when you were kids (so that means mostly outside the US) will have fond memories of dynamo-driven bike lights, the kinds of fond memories that still mean you wake up screaming even after years of expensive therapy.
When I was a lad biking around the towns and city streets of New Zealand I had a series of dynamos. Most of these were made in the UK, big and bulky, attached as inconspicuously to the side of the bike as a sidecar on a Vespa. If you were biking along at 15mph and engaged the dynamo your speed would instantly be reduced by 14mph. They looked not unlike something manufactured in the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, these dynamos had less in common with the robust, bomb-proof constructions of Lada and Skoda and more in common with those of British Leyland. In that they would often stop working for no apparent reason.
Things seemed to take a giant technological leap forward when I was able to replace these tire sidewall dynamos with one that attached to the bottom bracket and could be engaged against the rear wheel from below and then disengaged again. Alas, it was still the same old British Leyland technology. So a bike ride often went this way. . . You’d be biking along, and then you would hit a bump; the dynamo would be momentarily knocked away, and the sudden voltage drop would knock out the rear light; when the dynamo would re-engage the voltage surge would knock out the front light. The old dynamo lights also had other wonderful characteristics such as not lighting up at all when you were stopped turning you into an unlit bump in the road for one of the many drunk drivers populating New Zealand’s roads when I was young.
The Triumph of Teutonic Toughness
Well, fortunately things have moved on since then. In fact they have moved on a lot. The state of art is now hub-mounted dynamos, with the best being made in Germany. I had the fine folks at Bicycle Space build me a new front wheel around a Schmidt Son 28 hub and a Mavic A317 rim. These dynamos put out a lot of power, are extremely rugged, but, most impressively, have very little resistance. Engaging the dynamo produces no feeling of losing power. Of course, this bike is a tank so you could probably lash a tractor to it and I wouldn’t notice the difference!
The dynamo is wired to a Busch and Muller Luxus U front light. Now this is where the technology starts to get kind of cool. Most of the dynamo lights I had when I was younger put out enough light to read by. . .if you brought your own candles. The one really bright light I had lasted as long as a Vegas wedding. By comparison the Luxos U is almost like something out of the future.
Doesn’t look like much, does it? But it puts out a lot of light. It is rated at 70 lux, and I’ve tested it on a pitch black Mount Vernon trail and it lights up the trail as if you are biking through a well-lit neighbourhood. Better, actually, because it is a pure white beam rather than murky sodium lighting. In short, just the ticket for biking along unlit country roads. But wait, there’s more. The light senses how fast you are going based on the speed of the dynamo; at slower speeds it throws more light out to the side, and then when you speed up, it narrows and extends the beam further down the road (as you go faster you need to be looking further ahead). But there’s also a free set of ginzu knives! For places where you need a little bit of extra illumination (where you might be going from light to dark and your eyes haven’t adjusted, for example) it has a floodlight function that boosts the output by an extra 20 lux. I didn’t think it would make much of a difference but it produces the kind of serious spotlight capable of scaring randy teenagers out of the backseat of cars. And here’s the call-now-operators-are-standing-by cool part: it has a daytime running light mode. When the sun is up the dynamo powers a series of those small superbright leds that you find on them fancy foreign cars. That’s right, my bike is now basically a BMW. The light has a built in sensor that automatically switches from daylight to dark mode (including when you go in and out of tunnels).
What does the “U” stand for? Well it could stand for a lot of things. Unreal. Unlimited. Um-a-gonna-piss-all-over-your-little-battery-powered-blinky-thingy. But in fact it stands for USB. The light/dynamo combination is controlled via a button on the handlebar that also houses a USB port for charging your electronic devices like phones and cyclometers. The light itself has a cache battery (which you need to provide steady charging current for these kinds of devices) which is usually an entirely separate unit.
When you aren’t using that cache battery to help charge devices, it can power the floodlight. But its most important role is one of the light’s coolest features. It stays on when you are stopped, eliminating one of the major safety drawbacks of the dynamos of yesteryear.
The Luxos is connected to a rear tail light, a Bush and Muller Topline Line Plus.
The red bit is not the actual light; that is simply the reflector. The light is the “white” piece at the top. When illuminated by the red LEDs inside, from a distance the entire top forms a bright red line (hence the name). This is the cheaper version of the light; the more expensive version senses when you are braking and pulses. That seemed like a great idea in theory, but given that motorists are terribly confused and frightened by even the sight of a bike on the road, a bike with pulsing lights is so unusual on this side of the pond that it didn’t seem to add much safety value. The rear light is equipped with its own capacitor which means that it also keeps glowing for several minutes when the bike is at a standstill. While the front light doesn’t control the rear one, it does communicate with it and there’s an indicator light that tells you if the rear light is lit, a nice touch so that you don’t have to keep screwing your body around to check it all the time.
In Germany they have strict laws about. . .well, strict laws about most things, as far as I can tell. And that also includes bike lights. But the laws are both sensible and based on safety research. Lights with symmetrical beams (the kind that most cyclists use over here) are banned. So the Luxos, for example, has a flattened top to the beam, which means that you can direct it down at the road and the light won’t then be blinding oncoming motorists (or riders or runners, if you are on the trail). You also won’t be wasting a lot of your power illuminating the tree tops in front of you as so many lights tend to do. Flashing rear lights are banned because it is much harder for following traffic to estimate distance based on a flashing light as opposed to a steady one. Sceptical? Try it some time. If you bike on any of the local DC trails at night you’ll have any number of opportunities because there are a lot of idiots out there whose idea of illumination on a pitch black trail is to ride with a flashing front light. While playing “now I see it, now I don’t” with the trail surface might be fun for the brain dead (or soon to be so) it does actually make it not only very difficult to estimate how far away they are but even where they are relative to the trail.
My setup isn’t quite optimal. The fork crown is a good compromise place for a light. Much better than the handlebars, because the lower you can get the light the more it will show up bumps and holes in the road surface. Some people have them mounted right on the wheel hub, but then the front wheel casts a pretty substantial shadow to one side, which can create seeming acres of black when you are turning in that direction. I’m getting a shadow cast by my front wheel straight out front, but it is relatively short; if I am looking that close in front of my bike for obstacles then I am riding like an idiot anyway. I am also getting a little side shadowing from the position of the gear cables. Optimal position would be if I had a front rack and the bike were mounted to the front of it. But I don’t have one of those. At least not yet.
The rear light is an experiment. On the one hand, the lower bar of the rear carrier cuts off a bit of the reflector. But this set up allows me to still use the top platform of the rack to carry a bag. And given that rear lights tend to take a few knocks, I am kind of happy that the light is caged and protected.
And the process took some time. There is basically only one US distributor for all this high-tech German stuff, Peter White Cycles (you can read up on more of the options for yourself). So it took quite a while to get hold of all this stuff (and even then I wasn’t able to get the black hub I wanted, and had to settle for an anodized silver one (but for all you “Look at ME! types, SON makes an awesome anodized red dynamo hub as well).
The setup wasn’t exactly cheap. That said, everything is relative. It is the most expensive component set on this bike. And it is relatively expensive compared with what many cyclists spend on their lights ($20 at a Walmart post-Christmas sale). But it is dirt cheap compared with what many cyclists spend on even one race wheel. It is cheap compared with what they spend on the latest Super-Light Gold-Foil Lined Helmet with 300 Vents and a Built-In Coffee Maker.
But there are many grades of this kind of equipment if you are interested. There are also, apparently, some extremely effective sidewall dynamos and lights made by these same companies.
I just couldn’t bring myself to relive that painful part of my past.