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Lights

by Pamela Blalock with John Bayley

Readers Digest Condensed Version: Get a Schmidt Dynohub and one of the new LED lights! This article has evolved over time and received a major, well deserved rewrite in December 2011.

History

John and I have tried many different lighting systems over the years in search of the nirvana of lights, including bottom-bracket generators, sidewall mounted generators, hub generators, and all manner of disposbale battery powered lights and rechargeable lights.. Like most everything else, bike lights have evolved over time, so we have a few boxes containing used and discarded lights. We have lights mounted on almost every bike we own. We use lights for commuting, tours, long unsupported rides like brevets and even occasional nighttime mountain biking.

For the sake of full disclosure, we get the standard club/good customer discount at our local bike shops. We give our local shops lots of business in bikes, components, clothes, etc. So I may have bought lights at a nominal discount. In some cases, we have discovered lights elsewhere and then shared information with our local shops.

We are not in the bike business and we don't sell lights. We do not get free lights or clothes or bikes to review. If we say we like or dislike something, it is because we like or dislike itt. There is no financial reward for our appraisal. And rest assured we have actually logged substantial distance with lights (bikes, etc) in real-world conditions. These assessments are not theoretical.

Schmidt SON

The problem with battery lights: They run out of steam long before we do, plus we have to actually remember to recharge or replace the batteries. Then after recharging, we must remember to put the light or batteries back on the bike before riding to work! Duh! Generators eliminate this memory issue/hassle. Prior to 1998, generators tended to be a drag - not very effiecient, noisy, and not always compatible with our favorite tires.

In the winter of 1998, we started hearing about the Schmidt generator hub. We heard through the Internet that Chris Juden of the CTC had written a rave review of this 65% efficient dynamo hub made by Schmidt. Before we even received our copy of the magazine in the mail, we phoned the CTC shop and ordered two. I believe Chris Juden is one of the best and most objective reviewers of all things bike related, and his recommendation alone was good enough to get us to mail-order two of these hubs from England. Once the box arrived, we took our new hubs to Peter White to have him build up the two wheels that night. We got in our first test rides later that night. My first impression was WOW. And many years later, it still is. The drag is, for all practical purposes, unnoticeable. The light was brilliant. Prior to switching to the hub generator, we had been using the most efficient, at the time, sidewall mounted generators, which sometimes didn't work well with our preferred tires, and made a loud whine at high speed. Now, we could use any tire we wanted, and the icing on the cake - no whine! And let me just repeat, no noticeable drag. In the years since, the SON hub has been improved and is even more efficient. But I didn't notice drag then and don't notice drag now. Don't email me and ask me about drag!

The Lumotec lamps that we got from the CTC in 1998 focused the light nicely on the road in front of the bike, and had a voltage regulator to prevent blowing out bulbs at high speed. The lights weren't as bright as our battery powered lights, but these lights only ran out of steam when we did, where our bright battery lights might only last 1 or 2 hours. Eventually we learned of a way to run two 3 watt lamps (off the single hub) with full brightness at moderate speeds. This meant we could have one light aimed close and one aimed farther out for higher speed travel. We used these lights on our tandem for both commuting and brevets, including some pretty fast descents at night. We were so impressed with our new hubs and lights that we encouraged and convinced loads of folks in the US to mail order them from the CTC shop in England. After hearing of some Americans reluctance to mail order from England, as well as our glowing reviews, Peter White slowly realized there was a market for these hubs in the USA. His first order was for 5, with us promising to take 1. He sold them all before they even arrived. He has now sold many hundreds of these hubs to American randonneurs, tourists, and commuters, and became the North American importer for Schmidt.

We now have a fleet of wheels with Schmidt hubs as well as a recently acquired 16 inch wheel with a Shimano hub. We have used our dyna-wheels for commuting, touring and many long distance events including several PBPs and BMBs. In 1999, the year after getting our first SON hubs, we rode PBP using the SON with dual 3 watt Lumotec headlamps on our tandem. We took the 9:45 PM tandem and recumbent start and rode through the first night and well into the second night before taking a sleep stop in Brest. We hit some pretty good speeds that first night and it was nice to have brilliant lights. It was also great to have continuous light with no need to stop to change batteries. Our original thought was to just have two wheels (one for each of us) and move wheels around to various bikes. But different rim and tire sizes and preferences on various bikes made it more convenient just to build more wheels, and now we have too many to count. Thanks to a commute into dowtown Boston, I also have a Bike Friday Tikit with 16" wheels and a narrow spaced fork to make for a more compact fold. Fortunately both Shimano and Schmidt make narrow versions of the hubs for Brompton, which conveniently fit my Friday. I chose the least expensive Shimano wheel for this bike. Among our fleet of SONs, we have 32, 36 and 40 hole drillings, as well as different selections of rim widths and diameters, as well as some hubs with disc mounts. The tandem and commuters have the beefier rims, while our single brevet wheels tnd to be a bit lighter. Collecting wheels isn't a cheap hobby. So I will emphasize that it is easy to move a wheel from bike to bike, if the wheel sizes are compatible, so you don't have to go crazy like we have.

For the budget minded cyclist, Shimano now make dynamo hubs at a much lower cost than the Schmidt. Shimano have also improved their design greatly over the years and have multiple offerings. I understand the high-end model is very efficient. My little 16" wheel is built with the lower quality hub and I'll admit to noticing the drag on this wheel. If I'm still using the folding bike in a couple of years, I may look at more efficient hubs (both front and rear) for it, or I may just get amazingly strong!

To see the article that originally inspired us to try the Schmidt, click here.

 

Where to get them

Your friendly local shop can get Shimano hubs from their usual sources for other Shimano stuff. They can get SON hubs and various lights from Peter White, the US Importer. Then they can build the wheel for you or you can build the wheel.

If your local shop just doesn't want to know, I recommend Elton Pope-Lance (elton at harriscyclery.net) and the other fine folks at Harris Cyclery, who learned quite a bit from the late Sheldon Brown, both about practical cycling equipment, lighting, fixed gears, etc. As they are a few blocks from my home, I often meet Elton and others from Harris on the road, commuting with lights. So they tend to know what they are selling because they actually use the stuff!

Also, St John's Street Cycles in the UK carries a wide selection and variety of all types of lighting systems, including Schmidt hubs and many other types of dynamos. They are able to handle shipping worldwide quite well. (We have bought many things from them, including a bike frame, and shipping to the us in Massachusetts was as fast as getting things shipped here from the west coast.) Their prices include VAT, most of which would be deducted for export. We've found their prices to be quite competitive.

There is a wealth of information on both the Schmidt web site.