My PBP Bike: Lights

Nothing else has changed our riding as much as modern generator hubs and LED lights. When I first started riding the almost-mythical (and now long-defunct) cross-state races in Washington – Cannonball and S2S – I ran a Nightsun battery light. These races started just after midnight in Seattle, so you needed lights. Even with a heavy water bottle full of NiCad rechargeable batteries, I only got five hours run time. Just enough to make it up the first mountain pass and see the sun rise in the east – but no margin of safety if I didn’t make the 285 miles (460 km) to Spokane before dark.

When I rode my first Paris-Brest-Paris, five hours of light wasn’t going to be enough, so I ran a bottle generator instead. It made so much noise and had so much resistance that I turned it off and rode by moonlight whenever possible. And then the ‘heavy-duty’ light mount broke from the vibrations of riding across the rough pavement of Brittany.

After that ride, I invested into my first generator hub. That was a huge improvement, but night riding was still held back by the weak halogen lights of the time. You had to choose: Either have a long beam, so you could ride at reasonable speeds, or a wide beam so you could see where the road was going even if it wasn’t dead straight. I remember descending twisty, narrow farm roads during my next PBP at 40 mph (65 km/h) on a tandem, the narrow beam reaching barely far enough to give us time to react to what popped up in front of us. Cornering was based more on intuition than on what we could actually see.

Remembering that, I’m still amazed that modern generator hubs have almost no resistance, and the best lights now cast a wide and well-designed beam that resembles a car light. Now we descend mountain passes at night as fast as we do during the day – and have as much fun, too.

It’s a common misperception to think that a brighter light is better. The beam shape is more important than the light output. If the beam is round – as it is on many bike lights – then you create a bright spot right in front of the bike. For off-road riding, that is what you want, but on the road, you need to see far ahead. The bright light right in front means your eyes don’t adjust to the darkness. That makes it difficult to see beyond the bright spot. It feels like you’re riding in fog – you can almost see what’s in the distance, but not quite. It’s very tiring.

A good bicycle light has a more complex beam shape, like a car headlight. The beam hits the ground at a shallower angle the further it gets from the bike, so it needs to be brighter to put the same amount of light on the surface. A good beam gets brighter toward the top.

At the very top, the beam should be cut off, so you don’t dazzle oncoming traffic. The last you want to do on a narrow road is blind a car driver who’s coming toward you. They’ll instinctively move away from the edge of the road – to the center and toward you.

Above is the beam shape of the SON Edelux II headlight that I use on all my bikes. It’s really amazing – at night you can see almost as well as during the day.

The best location for a headlight is low, so potholes and bumps cast a shadow, making them easier to see. I discovered this during that first PBP, when I repaired my broken light mount by attaching it to the fender bolt on the front dropout. That was great on the straights, but the tire blocked part of the beam. When I descended twisty mountain roads at night with that setup, I found that I couldn’t see the road when I turned!

A better location is underneath the front rack. We’ve worked with SON to develop a version of the Edelux that hangs from its mount. (With the shaped beam, you can’t just turn the light upside-down!) That makes for a simple and elegant light mount, and the weight of the light no longer tries to tip it forward.

We’ve worked out the light position on our Rene Herse racks so the tire shadow is not in the field of vision you need. Our special mounting bolt has a locknut, so you can adjust the light angle without tool, just by pushing the light – higher during mountain descents where you need to see far ahead even when you’re riding into a dip in the road; lower when there’s traffic that you don’t want to blind. And yet there’s no risk of the light coming loose. (The locknut keeps it tight.)

For the generator hub, I use a SON Delux. The SON Delux has the lowest resistance of any generator hub. You really don’t notice the drag even with the light switched on.

One issue with generator hubs is that there’s a lot of air inside the big hub body, and when the temperature changes, air (and moisture) get sucked into the hubs – via the bearings. I had one of the early SON hubs, and it became very rough after years of riding, and when I opened it, there was a lot of oxidation. SON then developed an ingenious system that stores the air and moisture in a separate space, and when the hub warms up again, the air and moisture goes back out. That means that the air inside the hub never changes, so no moisture can get inside… It’s brilliant, and it’s made these hubs last even longer.

The Wide-Body version has wider flanges, which makes for a stronger wheel. That way, I can run fewer and thinner spokes, yet the rim doesn’t rub on the brake pads when I climb out of the saddle. And there’s less risk of taco-ing a wheel when riding on gravel and having the front wheel slip and then catch…

We couldn’t find a taillight that we liked, so we made our own. Inside is the proven circuit of the B&M Seculite Plus, with a bright LED and a standlight circuit. The LED shines through a reflector. Not only does this provide extra safety in the (very unlikely) event that the taillight fails, but it also creates a more diffuse light – just as visible from a distance, because the light output is the same, but easier on the eyes of the rider behind when we’re riding in a paceline.

Mounted on the rear of the seat tube, the taillight is well-protected, yet visible by cars approaching and passing you at all angles they need to see.

The final piece of the puzzle is the light switch that’s inside the stem. It’s always bothered me that I had to stop when I wanted to turn on my light – or reach down in the vicinity of the spokes, which is a distinctly bad idea. (And on bikes with battery lights, I need to turn on each light separately.) In my car, I can operate the lights easily and safely even while driving.

Since I made the first light switch for my Urban Bike in 2007 and published the blueprint in Bicycle Quarterly, the idea has inspired others as well. It’s simple: There’s a rotary switch inside the steerer tube, and turning the stem cap switches the lights on or off. In the future, we plan to offer our own version – together with the Rene Herse stem.

As the days get shorter here in Seattle, I’m glad that my riding no longer is compromised just because the sun goes down. Whether it’s heading out with Lael Wilcox on a 210-mile (335 km), 20-hour ride across the Cascades, or simply riding home from work, cycling at night now is as much fun as riding during the day.

Other parts in this series:

Photo credits: Nicolas Joly (Photos 1, 2, 5, 7, 8).

 

34 Responses to My PBP Bike: Lights

  1. Allen Potter November 16, 2020 at 9:44 am #

    Thanks for all of this, but my main takeaway…

    OMG you’re gonna make the RH stem? With a lightswitch? That’s so great!!! I can’t wait for that!!!

  2. Ed November 16, 2020 at 10:05 am #

    Great post. Would love to hear some about your wiring, especially the head tube details…where the brushed connection and switch are.
    Peace.

    • Jan Heine November 16, 2020 at 10:14 am #

      The wiring is the hardest part, but once it’s done, you never think about it again, because all wires run inside the tubes, where they’re protected. The only exposed wire is the short piece right above the headlight.

      Here’s how this works: From the dropout, the wire runs inside the fork blade, then into the fork’s steerer tube. At the top of the steerer tube is the light light switch. From there, two wires run back down the steerer. The wire for the front light comes out of the bottom of the fork steerer, goes into the rolled edge of the fender, and exits right above the light. The wire for the rear connects to a brass brush is inside a tube brazed onto the steerer. The brass brush connects to an insulated ring inside the head tube, right above the lower headset cup. That way, the current can get transmitted, yet the fork can turn. From the ring, there’s a wire to the taillight. The return current goes through frame, fork and rack. It would be nice to offer the brass bush and insulated ring as a product – we’re working on that.

      • Robbie Fargo November 16, 2020 at 1:41 pm #

        Thanks for sharing these details Jan.

        These are the fantastic little things that make a bike just so.

        I’m having a Chapman Cycles made for me in a couple years and features such as the brass brush and headtube commutator, internal wiring and integrated switch are all must have features for me. Hopefully the products you’ve alluded to will be available by then!

  3. Drew November 16, 2020 at 10:41 am #

    Are you using an external cam QR skewer?

    • Jan Heine November 16, 2020 at 10:48 am #

      Yes, on this bike I wanted to make it as light as possible. It works OK – the Nivex dropouts face backwards, so there isn’t much clamping force required.

  4. Daniel M November 16, 2020 at 10:53 am #

    Just yesterday I wired up my friend’s old Bianchi Volpe with a nice used SON 28 wheel that he got for a great price, plus an Edelux 2 up front and a Herrmans H-trace in back.

    Why the Herrmans instead of a nice Toplight or something similar? It takes AC rather than DC. Which is to say, it has its own AC to DC rectifier, rather than relying on the headlight’s. This simplifies wiring tremendously, especially if the headlight is mounted anywhere other than the crown.

    Time will tell how it compares to all of the DC taillights I’ve previously set up, but I really like the idea of an AC “wiring harness” that runs from the hub to the fork crown to the rear of the bike (rack or fender is my preference), with headlight, taillight, and optional USB charger simply junctioning into the harness wherever is convenient, with no need to run a second DC line from the headlight to the taillight.

    Interested if you or anyone else has thought about or experimented with this or any other AC taillights.

  5. Sebastian Taege November 16, 2020 at 3:12 pm #

    I enjoy my SON components on a daily basis. I will never get back to a battery powered front light, as these ingenious generator hubs and lights make life so much easier. Imagine all the batteries that would have been required for my commutes.

  6. Dave November 16, 2020 at 3:19 pm #

    Kryptonite recently released a line of shaped-beam battery headlights at low price points. I hope this becomes a trend, and we eventually have better beams for the great majority of people who will not be buying SON equipment.

    I’ve been looking for battery lights as good as the Edelux II for specific situations (shorter rides, moving between bikes, wanting both a shaped beam but at the same time brighter light, just trying something different as I already have multiple dynamo bikes) and came across a company called Lupine. Their lights appear well-built and use an aspheric glass lens instead of reflectors, which appears to make an even smoother beam. They also have a High-Beam function, which might be useful for those really tight turns where the cutoff doesn’t work well as the bike leans. Any opinion on these lights or other battery options with good optics and build quality?

  7. Matt November 16, 2020 at 3:31 pm #

    But why do you not stock the taillight? Schmidt makes a solid taillight and I find it bizarre that you do not carry them. Its a nice low profile light that comes as a seatpost mount or rack mount.

    • Jan Heine November 16, 2020 at 8:44 pm #

      We have a great relationship with SON, and many of their products came out of this. The Wide-Body Delux generator hub became available only after we said that we needed it, and then placed an order for the entire first production run. The same happened with the hanging Edelux I and II lights. We developed our taillight before SON started working on theirs. As you say, the SON taillight is very well-made, and we’ve been thinking about carrying it. The only thing that makes us hesitate is that wiring a taillight that’s mounted on the seatpost is difficult. And there isn’t much demand for a light that requires a rear rack for mounting, since most of our customers use front racks. But we’re still thinking about it…

      • Johannes November 18, 2020 at 4:27 am #

        Schmidt makes their taillights also for mounting to the fender, never seen?
        You are working on an internal connector for the taillights? Great news!

        • Jan Heine November 18, 2020 at 7:04 am #

          The SON taillight was designed for German ‘Trekking’ bikes, and its style doesn’t quite match what we’re after. For fender mounting, we prefer the plastic lights that are easily available, work as well, cost far less, and look better. This doesn’t just apply to the SON taillight. I know it’s difficult to make a nice-looking taillight that mounts on a fender and has enough room inside for the standlight capacitor – we’ve tried! – but many of the aluminum taillights for fender mounting, while beautifully made, look more like cancerous protrusions on the fender than something that adds beauty to the bike. Maybe that’s just our personal opinion, but everything in the Rene Herse program carries our full endorsement because we also use it on our own bikes…

  8. Andrew November 16, 2020 at 5:13 pm #

    Although the switch in the stem is cool, I don’t ever switch my light off. It’s a B&M IQ-X, and has a daylight mode. At least 70% of my riding is commuting in a big city so front & rear lights are useful at all times!

  9. Jon Blum November 16, 2020 at 7:23 pm #

    I feel more visible at night than during the day, thanks to lights and reflectors. And today’s lights have greatly reduced the risk of hitting something in the dark. But I still worry about impaired drivers. Fatal crashes peak in the evening (including after midnight, when the bars close) on Friday and Saturday nights. In contrast, midnight to 4 AM is a relatively low-risk period during the week (presumably due to fewer drivers on the road and less drinking). I don’t think similar statistics are available for bicyclists, but we are at risk, too, from intoxicated drivers. You can see the numbers at https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/overview/crashes-by-time-of-day-and-day-of-week/. I think it makes sense to consider this when planning rides at night.

    • Jan Heine November 17, 2020 at 8:47 am #

      I agree: Route planning is probably the most important factor in night-time safety. I refuse to ride events that have me ride on highways at night. Where we usually ride, there’s little traffic during the day, and even less at night. FDuring a recent ride with Lael Wilcox, we rode 100 miles and 7 hours over two mountain passes at night, and we saw fewer than a dozen cars all night.

  10. Thorsten November 16, 2020 at 7:30 pm #

    I’ve used a Schmidt hub and light since 2012 and find the “senso” switch position works well for my needs. Would you mind commenting on why you prefer/need a stem switch? I’m wondering if I’m missing out on an improved setup or outlook about lights.

    • Jan Heine November 16, 2020 at 8:47 pm #

      When the light is mounted underneath the handlebar bag, the light sensor doesn’t work, so the hanging version doesn’t have one. Beyond that, I like to be able to switch the light off when a car comes the other way in the mountains (where my light is set high enough to blind them). Then I ride with the standlight (and the beam of the oncoming car), and turn it back on when the car has passed. But that’s a minor issue – the light sensor can be quite useful.

    • Andy Stow November 18, 2020 at 8:34 am #

      I use a stem switch from TMAT with my Edelux II light. I have it mounted similar to Jan’s and would rather not reach down there for the switch on the light body, which I can’t see through my front bag, and accidentally put my fingers in the spokes.

      The reason I want the switch is that I also use the hub to charge my electronics on long rides. The SONdelux really can’t run the charger and light simultaneously at low to moderate speeds. I have a power connector mounted to my front rack, and when I plug in my USB charging adapter I can turn off the light at the stem. I only really need to charge in daylight, so this works well for me.

  11. Carlo Schibli November 16, 2020 at 11:21 pm #

    My concern regarding the side mounting of the front light (as you do on the front carrier): to have good vision, the light must be mounted on the left side (at least in the USA and Europe). This, however, greatly limits passive visibility from the right side. I have the feeling that I’m not beeing seen as easily as I would like from traffic coming from the right side.
    I had a bicycle with the front light attached to the handlebars. Even there I felt unsafe because visibility from the side was limited.
    At the moment I mount my front light centrally above the front wheel. So I can easily mount a handlebar bag, but not a front rack.
    What are your experiences with this?

    • Jan Heine November 17, 2020 at 8:45 am #

      Since you are moving, traffic from the side needs to see you as you approach the intersection, not while you are right in front of the vehicle. So it’s important that the light is visible from an angle. That’s why we mount it far enough forward that it’s not blocked by the front wheel in that direction. You can check this – you see the shadow cast by the front wheel.

      As to which side the light should go on, there’s no real rule. Since we ride on the right side of the road in the U.S., I prefer to have the light on the left. I often ride close to the edge of the road at night, and the white line painted at the edge of many U.S. roads is reflective. If the light is right above the line, the glare gets very tiring over time. By having the light on the left, the shadow of tire falls exactly where you’d otherwise have the glare. It’s not a big deal, and either way works fine.

      • Scott November 17, 2020 at 10:13 pm #

        How about mounted to the fender? That would put it almost as low to the ground, there wouldn’t be any shadows or blockage, and since the light would be close to where the rack reinforces the fender there shouldn’t be any undue vibration etc.

  12. Mark November 17, 2020 at 12:18 am #

    For many years I used SP dynohubs. Recently, on a new bike, two of these each failed after less than 200 km. I bought a SON Delux Wide Body and combined with an Edelux II couldn’t be happier with its performance—and the stronger wheel. (On long rides in remote areas I also carry a battery trail light as back up & for sharp descents etc; older eyes sometimes need brighter & wider spread lights.) I’ve recently heard second hand reports that some riders who’ve made the 20 plus hr plane journey from Australia to Europe for PBP or LNL have had problems after arriving—their SON hubs either did not work at all, or took some days to work. I’ve no idea how many hubs this happened to, I was just told ‘some’. Speculation was that perhaps the pressure equalising mechanism was ‘confused’ by the extended time at high altitude and/or the multiple landings/take-offs (most AU–EU flights involve at least one fuel stop at somewhere like Singapore or Dubai; some connections might require as many as four stops). Thanks to Covid, I’ve not yet traveled with my new hub, so I have no experience. Have you heard of or experienced anything similar?

    • Jan Heine November 17, 2020 at 8:41 am #

      Between the BQ team, the Seattle Randonneurs and others we know, there’ve been virtually hundreds of flights with SON hubs, and we’ve never heard about this problem. Not only are the cargo holds of airplanes pressurized, but even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t hurt the hub.

      Usually, problems with generator hubs and LED lights are in the wiring – a bad connection somewhere. We recently got an Edelux headlight back under warranty, and when we tested it, we realized that the connector had not been crimped on tight enough. Over time, water got in, and the connection corroded.

      • Mark November 17, 2020 at 9:39 pm #

        That’s reassuring. It may have been a case of distorted whispers. I’m looking fwd to being able to travel overseas soon.

        Apropos side mounted lights: mine is mounted centrally on the mudguard ahead of the bar bag, but i wonder if because of this it gets more rain, grit etc blown back off the leading edge of the wheel (even with extended length ‘guards).

        • Jan Heine November 17, 2020 at 10:16 pm #

          The water and grit shouldn’t be a big deal – although it’ll hurt your visibility when you’re riding in the rain at night. What I found was that on really rough terrain, the handlebar bag bounces a little, and that tends to move the light.

  13. DavidS November 17, 2020 at 5:37 am #

    Not only does the AC from the generator need to be converted from AC to DC, there also needs to be protective circuitry to prevent overvoltage/overpower the light when going downhill to prevent burning out the light. This adds cost to the system. Taillights that take AC have been made over the years, but many of them have inadequate protective circuitry and have a reputation of burning out. For the right price, it can be done. For most folks, a light system for a bicycle is price sensitive and the hassle of running DC wires to the rear light is an acceptable tradeoff.

  14. Garth November 17, 2020 at 5:37 pm #

    Thanks for all the great products!

    I notice what looks like vinyl electric tape on your handle bars – perhaps I’m mistaken because it tends to get all sticky after a while. I’ve found the cloth electric tape doesn’t get that way and is more aesthetically acceptable.

    Though the rule of thumb is “tape is a temporary fix.” I wonder if there is electrical shrink tube of large enough diameter that would provide a permanent solution?

    • Jan Heine November 17, 2020 at 6:40 pm #

      That is Maware leather tape on the bars. You’re right, I wouldn’t want to grip electrical tape for 50+ hours of Paris-Brest-Paris! You can read more about the bar tape in this post.

  15. Owen November 17, 2020 at 10:31 pm #

    A little off topic, but since you mentioned it: I remember hearing about the Cannonball and S2S when I lived in the Northwest but never had the chance (or the legs) to participate. Since you’ve done both, which did you prefer, and also which direction is best for riding across Washington, west-east or east-west?

    • Jan Heine November 18, 2020 at 6:48 am #

      Back then, there was far less traffic, so even riding on the Interstate (I-90) for Cannonball was OK. With a 3 a.m. start, we were far into the sparsely populated eastern Washington by the time traffic picked up. (I also think we had a much greater tolerance for noise and flats than we have now!)

      S2S went over Highway 2 (Stevens Pass) and was a much nicer route – that one, with a few modifications on the western side of the Cascades is a route I could even envision riding today. S2S was more challenging, too, with 30 miles of no services (or was it 50?) and the amazing ‘Sulphur Canyon’ in the middle of that. It was like the setting of a Western movie… I once rode back after completing S2S, and realized why those rides all go West-to-East: The headwinds were pretty vicious! Where the race in one direction had taken less than 16 hours, the return was about 24. Climbing Stevens Pass at night was grand, though. There was a thunderstorm with flashes of lightning a few valleys over, illuminating the whitewater of the river and the cliffs, but only a few sprinkles of rain.

      • Owen November 19, 2020 at 12:51 am #

        Thanks Jan, that’s what I figured re. the wind, but great to hear your stories nonetheless!

  16. Dane Morrison November 19, 2020 at 6:42 am #

    Hi Jan – Can you tell us the Geometry on this latest build? I see you mentioned it has about 5mm less trail. I’m having a similar bike built with many of your parts, that will carry a load up front – but not that heavy – overnight at most.

    I’m assuming 73 seat and HT angles?

    What is your new fork Rake?

    430mm Chain stays and about 68mm BB drop?

    And BTW what do you think of the new Berthoud Sans Decaleur bags?

    Thanks

    • Jan Heine November 22, 2020 at 1:32 pm #

      From memory, the head angle is 73°, fork offset 70 mm. Seat angle something like 72.5°. Chainstays are 435 mm. BB drop is whatever it takes to get to a 265 mm BB height…

      Haven’t tried the new decaleur-less bags from Berthoud. You still need a rack to support it – the advantage is that the bag has an internal frame that allows it to stand on the rack, rather than attach firmly to the bars.