Follow or subscribe to our blog to get notifications of updates to this site
as well as more frequent insightful, pithy commentary


bike logo



Taillights, battery-powered head-mounted lights, and well everything old is new again - let's revisit battery headlights

by Pamela Blalock with John Bayley


Reflectors/Reflective Tape

I don't believe you can ever have too much reflective stuff on a bike. I put reflective tape on the forks, stays, racks, rims and pedals. Because they move and attract more attention pedals, shoes and wheels are really good places to have reflective material. I really like products from Lightweights.


If you think I must have giant bins of discarded headlights, you should see our box full of taillights. Maybe if I didn't constantly check out new ones, I wouldn't have so many discarded old ones! Several years ago, we found this nice taillight from Cateye, model TL-AU100 BS. The BS stands for British Standard and unfortunately this taillight isn't sold in the USA (but is available mail-order from St John's Street Cycles in the UK). I believe it is unfortunate because it is a great taillight. It has 6 LEDs, one of which seems to have an extra focusing element. It also has a nice reflector, and still comes in a compact package. It takes two AA batteries and as a result has reasonable burn time. (Keep in mind that lights using AAA batteries won't burn as long as those with AAs.) It has steady and a flashing (socially unaccetable) mode. It has good seals to keep water out and a nice secure mounting, yet it is easy to remove. The switch is big enough to operate while wearing gloves, and located at the bottom on the back. We've used these taillights on various bikes for a while now and have received very positive comments about their brightness (bright enough, but not too bright).

There are loads of newer small taillights (without reflectors). I have so much reflective stuff on the bike that I'm not too worried about having a reflector in the taillight. The Sigma light shown below uses replaceable camera batteries. It also has a solid, but easy to move mounting system.

Blackburn have a few nice compact lights. The flea is USB rechargeable. The Click uses common 2032 batteries

The Niterider Stinger is similar to the Blackburn Click.

I have all the lights shown above mounted on various bikes. But they are also easily moved from bike to bike, and on more than one ocassion, I have removed one to loan it to a fellow rider in need. I can do this, because I always try to have two taillights.


There is also a tendency to make ridiculously bright taillights. These may be OK if riding in city traffic or all alone, but if you are riding in a group, remember that the riders behind you may be blinded by the searing beam coming from your taillight! I have one of those too bright taillights from PDW. Fortunately the batteries burn out quickly, making the light inappropriate for a brevet! The Planet Bike Superflash is another super-bright light that is cursed with a failure mode from water ingress, also making it less than ideal for brevets, since they are frequently cursed with rain. If you must use a very bright taillight, please be sure that it is aimed staright back, not up into the eyes of a rider behind you, and please set it to steady mode.

I rode behind someone recently who had this Opticube taillight from Cateye. It has good visbility from all angles, but also had the great feature of being very bright from a distance, but less bright when drafting right behind. This has to be the most group considerate taillight I've seen.


My favorite taillight for bikes with a rear rack is the 4DTopLight taillight by Busch and Muller. This TopLight series of taillights are designed to be mounted on racks. Tubus racks (but not the stainless steel ones) have mountings for taillights. The Tubus Fly has a separate clamp that attaches to a threaded hole on the underside on the rack, and the Tubus Cargo racks have a plate predrilled for taillights. The drilling is to German standards, as are the Toplight mounting points. There are quite a few different Toplights, some work with generators, some with AA batteries; some sense when to turn on and off; and some have more LED's than others. I have the simple battery model. I got the 4D model with 4 LED's, designed to give good off axis visibility. I have a standard one and even decided to try a senso model, which senses motion and darkness and turns on and off automatically. While this seems like a handy feature, I haven't had such good luck with the switch and trying to figure out if it is on or off can be tricky, so next time I'd just go for the simpler standard switch. We have put these taillights on a few of the bikes we have with racks - both our winter commuters, the expedition tandem, and my brevet bike. These are very bright and visible from many angles. They also have a very large reflector which can do no harm.

I'm also paranoid about taillights and always have two, as I mentioned above. If riding alone or in the back of a group, you cannot easily tell if your taillight has gone out. We found Spanninga taillights in France after PBP in 1999. These are great little lightweight battery lights designed to mount on mudguards. All our fenders sports these lights, as well as lots of reflective tape.


In the past I said that don't like wired taillights. But I did try the wired tallight from Supernova because it was so tiny. It is mounted above my DToplight with plastic clamps from my local hardware store and pictured below. It's impressive enough that I was willing to deal with the hassle of running a wire to the back. I got the nice quick release wiring, making it reasonable for disassembly and packing.

My pet peeve about flashing taillights:

Let me just say that flashing in a group is just not socially acceptable behavior. Please set your taillights to steady when riding in a group. Looking at a flashing light for hundreds of km's gives me homicidal thoughts regarding the owner of said flashing light! It's also important to aim the lights properly. The light should be visible from a car well behind you, so it should be pointed back and level. It should not be aimed up and into the eyes of the cyclist drafting you! This is especially important the brighter the light is.

And I totally do not understand a flashing headlight. How can one see when the light goes on and off and on and off and on and off. Yet, I regularly encounter bike commuters on the path in Boston using front lights in this way. Whatever about doing in in daylight on the road, to do this at night on the bike path is totally obnoxious. If this describes you, please stop flashing!


Standlights and Helmet Mounted lights

I've also found the very small led lamps like the one pictured below are handy for many things. These are useful when stopped, since the generator powered light stops too (if your lamp doesn't have a standlight). You don't really need a powerful light to see down the road when you are stopped, but you'd certainly like other road users to see you, hence a continuously powered light. There are loads of good tiny front LED's that will do the job.


One more helpful light is a helmet mounted LED. Black Diamond and Petzl both make very bright helmet mounted LED lights, which are bright enough for reading cue sheets, computers, doing repairs and looking at cars to get them to dim bright headlights. While most aren't powerful enough to illuminate the road, they do a remarkable job of providing light with minimal batteries. They are great for nighttime roadside repairs, and walking around in the dark.

Right before BMB in 2002, I found the Black Diamond Ion light, pictured below. This thing is tiny. It comes with an elastic band for use as a headlamp, but I removed the band, and just cable tied the light to my helmet. It weighs nothing, and still lives on my helmet. It is hinged, so can be adjusted up and down. It uses a camera battery, that you likely won't find in a convenience store in the middle of nowhere, but does have very long life. I would recommend carrying a spare battery if you plan to leave it on for extended periods of time.

One should remember that helmet lights are also anti-social. If you are riding with others, turn off your helmet light. If you look at the other rider, with your helmet light on, you will blind them. For this reason, I recommend against all high power helmet lights for group riding (and on bike paths).


Backup Headlights

Thanks to advances in LED technology, there are now loads of good options for battery powered headlights - small, lightweight, bright and long lasting. A backup light is never a bad idea, and ... well, despite all my waxing poetic about generators, I don't have them on every bike, and it can be handy to be able to put a battery light on a race bike for the ride home from the evening training ride. Currently we have a few in the stable that are worth mentioning. The newest is from Lezyne. This is the superdrive model. They make two others. It is USB rechargeable and therefore not really good for a long brevet, but is nice for a 300km with an early start and just a few hours in the dark.

We also have the Supernova Airstream. I'm not thrilled with the mount. The light is heavy enough that it rotates down when hitting bumps. We have modified ours to use a more solid and permanent mount.

And I still have my Ixon Speed, with a small external battery pack.



In summary, I'll mention that I use the SEYMOUR unit of light. It is a Subjective Eye Measurement made while OUt Riding. Can you see enough? Can you see more? Will it last long enough? Does it mount easily, securely? Are batteries/bulbs/whatever easy to change or is that unnecessary? Does it fit your budget? I'll just emphasize again that bike lighting really is subjective. Lots of sites show lots of measurements with f-stops and lumens and lights shining on white sheets on a wall, but what it's really about is what YOU see on the road when you are riding, and how well it works for you. You have to ride with it, and see by it. Go with your experience.