The Chainlink

Don't Be a Bike Ninja

Sunday, November 5, the clocks change for Daylight Saving Time. And just like that, your afternoon commute turns into a night ride.

Even now - one month out - we're starting to ride in low-light situations shortly after we leave work. Sure, you can still see the road just fine. But to cars, you might be turning into stealthy creatures we like to call "bike ninjas."

Photo by GRB

Not only is this dangerous, but also illegal. Chicago's Municipal Code Regarding Bicycles says this:

9-52-080. Head lamps, reflectors and brakes.

(a) Every bicycle when in use at nighttime shall be equipped with a head lamp which shall emit a white light visible from a minimum distance of 500 feet from the front and with a rear red reflector capable of reflecting the head lamp beams of an approaching motor vehicle back to the operator of such vehicle at distances up to 200 feet or a rear lamp emitting a red light visible from a distance of at least 200 feet from the rear.

So, if you don't already have them, now would be a very good time to start thinking about lights and reflective gear.

"It's not about seeing where you are going," explained Eli Kuronin of Roscoe Village Bikes. "You want something that attracts attention from cars."

Kuronin explained that you don't have to spend a mint to be compliant with the law, and also more visible to cars. Basic front and rear light sets, he said, start at around $20.

He added that for a few dollars more ($60 and up), you can obtain full-featured light sets that are USB rechargeable, and are bright enough to light your way down a dark street.

Kuronin said this is a better option for people who frequently ride at night, commute home from a late shift, venture outside the city, etc.

"If you're a more serious rider, we recommend investing in a more serious light set," Kuronin said.

Adrian Redd from Boulevard Bikes (located in the Logan Square neighborhood) said if you want even more visibility to motorists, you can augment your lights with a variety of reflective accessories. These can include ankle straps, vests, flags, or even reflective stickers you can put on your helmet and bike frame.

If you're willing to invest a little more, a totally pro option is to install a front wheel with a generator hub. As the name implies, the hub generates electricity to power lights as you ride. In the daytime (depending on the connections you install), you may also be able to use the hub to power your phone, Garmin, or other accessories.

"A generator hub is an awesome way to go so you don't have to worry about recharging or changing batteries," Redd said.

Regardless what setup you choose, Redd believes a bright headlight is key.

"Based on my experience, a lot of the danger comes from cars turning in front of you or suddenly pulling out of a driveway," Redd said. "The most important thing is that they see you coming."

If you don't believe lights make that big of a difference, this video from the Active Transportation Alliance is worth a watch.

Specifically, by showing side-by-side footage of cyclists going down the same stretch of dark streets with and without lights, it really shows how invisible you can be when not lit up.

The video also offers some great information on how lights differ in brightness (measured in lumens), price, features, mounting options, etc.

For what it's worth, I tend to agree with just about everything said in the video.

For me, personally, I've blown through a half dozen different light setups in the 11 years I've been riding seriously. This was mostly due to cheap mounts that broke, damage from rain, lights simply wearing out, etc.

I'm happy to say that in my opinion, lights have gotten really good in the last few years. They are durable, bright, have better mounting options, and the USB charging has been a HUGE improvement over batteries.

The brands I use (Light & Motion, NiteRider, Knog, and Planet Bike) are readily available at shops like Boulevard Bikes and Roscoe Village Bikes, and have performed flawlessly over the past several seasons.

Quality of bike lights has improved drastically over the past several years. So, regardless which brand you choose, you can expect performance, durability, convenience, and ease of use.

In fact, they put out enough light to let me ride mountain bike trails after dark, and participate in pitch-black, out-in-the-boonies events like the Night Bison gravel ride. Here's an overview of a setup that has worked well for me:

  • When I need to "see" as well as "be seen," I add the NiteRider Lumina OLED 800, which has a beautifully-designed optional helmet mount. The Light & Motion shines where the bars are pointed, and the NightRider follows my head, which works very well.

Well, I hope this article about lights is helpful, and I sincerely hope to "see" you out riding this fall.

Brett Ratner began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping, and trail riding. 

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Comment by Mike Muczynaki on November 10, 2016 at 3:41pm

Great article, Brett.

Reelights are wonderful.  Always on, no batteries required, and no friction.  Get a set of RL700's and you never have to worry about lights again.

https://www.reelight.com/en/products/rl700/ ;

Comment by prof.gfr on October 13, 2016 at 9:20am

Thank you Brett for starting this informative discussion as the days grow shorter and the Ninjas begin to proliferate.  And thanks to everyone for their well-informed perspectives! I think we all agree that stealth Ninjas are problematic! 

Comment by Brett Ratner on October 11, 2016 at 7:43pm

Thank you for the great comments everybody! The helmet light in the photo above has been used exclusively for nighttime mountain biking (which I just learned is a thing here in Wisconsin), as well as the occasional nighttime brevet or gravel ride out in the country.

For finding your way along a twisting singletrack trail, I've found the light absolutely has to be pointed where your head is. When mounted to the bars, there are a lot of moments where the light is pointed off in a direction I'm not planning to go.

For the city, I've always used a bar mount, and to me that seemed to be sufficient. For helmet-mount use in the city, I could see it as a plus (getting a driver's attention as Anne and P.J.C. suggested) or a minus (temporarily blinding a driver as Jim and prof.gfr argued). I'd imagine if you do use one, it would at least have to be at a low light setting.

Anyway, thank you again!

Comment by Anne Alt on October 7, 2016 at 9:49am

I like to use a small single-LED headlight mounted on my helmet. It's not very bright, just enough to get a distracted driver's attention but not enough to blind them. If someone appears NOT to see me, I point it at them briefly, then turn it away. This works!

Comment by Juan 2-8 mi. on October 6, 2016 at 12:27pm

What a lovely looking ninja on Milwaukee ave.

Comment by Jim Reho on October 6, 2016 at 12:21pm

A really informative article.  I agree with almost everything in it, but I'm with prof.gfr on the subject of headlamps in the city.  As a driver, I dislike them.  When a cyclist with a headlamp looks at a driver, which he should be doing, the headlamp automatically shines in the driver's eyes.  It may shine less if it's low powered, but it is aggravating and potentially dangerous nonetheless.  Reasonable minds may differ, but I come down against headlamps, at least in the heart of the city.  It's another argument whether your rear light should be flashing or not.  There are points on both sides of that one.  Flashing lights up front may make cyclists think they are extra-visible, but they can be confusing to drivers as well.  But anything is better than those ninjas.  I guess lights and reflectors are against the fixie aesthetic.

Comment by P.J.C. on October 6, 2016 at 10:30am

Based on personal experience, I believe a front light mounted on my helmet is essential to riding at night in the city. I have experienced fewer close calls from drivers pulling out right in front of me, or nearly onto me, with a helmet mounted light than without. Because a cyclist's position on the road is generally to the right of auto traffic, parked cars (and/or drivers' general refusal to specifically look for cyclists) can obstruct the visibility of a cyclist with a decent light mounted on the bars and pointed straight ahead from the point of view of a driver positioned to enter the roadway from a street, driveway, or alley from the right side. In this situation, having a light on one's head allows the driver to see the cyclist sooner in part because the driver can see the glow over the parked cars or other obstacles. Additionally, a quick look over at the driver helps communicate that the cyclist is approaching and that it is not clear for the driver to enter the roadway. The headlamp does not have to be outrageously bright so as to "blind" the driver (I ride in the city on the "low" setting, which I think is less than 100 lumens on my particular light but who knows). It is also possible (and most beneficial) to mount a light on a helmet so that is pointed down towards to road ahead when in one's normal riding position and so that the glances to the side to alert drivers of one's presence do not bear the direct beam of the light.

Comment by prof.gfr on October 6, 2016 at 9:26am

May I also offer, please don't be the opposite of a bike ninja, aka the bike Christmas Tree. I've seen too many people with a headlamp plus multiple front handlebar lamps, all turned on to flashing pulses.

Firstly, headlamps are dangerous and should never be worn in the city, where they shine directly into the eyes of drivers and blind them (especially at today's headlamp lumens).  They're fine for off road biking and late night randonneurs but have little place in the city. 

Secondly, multiple lights pulsing at different rates creates the effect of target fixation (see link) in which you inadvertently stun pedestrians (not unlike the use of bright flashlights with pulses to disorient attackers) and cause drivers to fixate on your position at the expense of the rest of the road (and potentially other cyclists, pedestrians, and cars).  

Thirdly, there's a reason in Germany that they outlaw pulsing lights at all. Because other vehicles on the road don't have them and because they're dangerous. Ride your bike like a car - have your headlights pointed down at the road in front of you and don't set it to pulse. Most lights these days are so bright that this "halo" in front of you provides significant safety and advance warning of your presence, in addition to the benefit of seeing road debris. You should NEVER point your light parallel to the ground, and therefore into the eyes of other cyclists and drivers, as it will blind them and potentially cause an accident.  

Sometimes less is more. A single, high lumen front light pointed at the road, and a single, high lumen red taillight. Both set to steady beam so they don't distract. As the author of this post points out, it also helps to wear high visibility clothing.  

My children and I almost got run over by a cyclist covered in lights in Lincoln Square yesterday because a group of pedestrians in front of us got so distracted by his multiple pulsing lights (including a ridiculous headlamp that tustve been 750+ lumens) that he caused a pedestrian traffic jam (and the cyclist showed no desire to slow down for us! Jerk!). We are veteran cyclists and we were even distracted by his bright lights, and several cars started swerving erratically around him.  It was actually less safe for everyone on the road, although the cyclist obviously thought the opposite.  

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