Theory & Practice: Dynamo Bike Lights

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Whether we admit it or not, as Americans, we all aspire to be self-sufficient. At age three, my son’s favorite phrase was “me do!” As an adult, I find that virtually everything in my life is connected to something that I can’t control. My house relies on water, gas, and electricity from other sources. Aside from what little I can grow, my food comes from distant farms. Even my beloved sail and oar boat needs a car and launch ramp to get it to the river.

My bike on the other hand, can ride on both man-made and natural surfaces and can go thousands of miles without the need for outside interventions. Except in the dark.

For years I bought a variety of increasingly effective head and tail lights, but they always relied on relatively short-lived batteries that needed to be replaced or recharged, often at unexpected or inconvenient times. Nearly 20 years ago I experimented with generator lights that relied on the generator being in contact with one’s tire to make juice, but they seemed awkward and dim at best.

More recently I began to envy my friends’ modern dynamo/hub generators which are advertised as low drag and even have capacitors so that the lights will stay on while stopped at a traffic signal, but the price kept me from taking a gamble. However I recently rationalized that I bike more than drive my car and that it could be worth investing the princely sum of $300 for a generator, headlight, and taillight to achieve bicycle self-sufficiency. A month in, I’m feeling practical, smug, and vulnerable.

Practical. Andy Bike proclaimed, “you’ll feel like it should be expected; standard on a bike, once you have it.” He was right. Unlike basic battery-powered lights that are quickly removed, the components are solidly bolted to the frame. I don’t have to remember to bring them with me when I lock up or go someplace, nor do I need to keep up with mental calculations of how much run time is left on my lights. They’re always present on my vehicle, ready for service. I’ll never go back to my miserly way of restricting when I turn on my lights, waiting until the last minute before darkness falls.

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Smug. The Bush & Muller IQX headlight comes to full power with a few pedal strokes and stays bright at speeds over five mph. I can’t feel any drag when generating electricity. The light is mounted just above my front wheel and has a broad, refined, rectangular beam of light. It easily illuminates the area right in front of me for navigating immediate challenges, as well as shining dozens or even hundreds of feet ahead towards distant obstacles. There are no over-bright hot spots, unlike previous high-end lights I’ve owned. Car drivers also seem to notice the beam, but because it is aimed towards the road, they aren’t blinded. It’s also bright enough that as I pass other riders, the IQX’s beam will often engulf the light of weaker lights. That’s when I really feel like a bike hero.

The Toplight Line Plus tail light, lights up with just a few rotations of the wheel. Its two steady, red LED lights are vibrant without being searing. And thanks to German regulations, they don’t have an annoying strobe option. When I’m riding along, I feel smart and superior to even the brightest of my battery powered brethren knowing that in two or three hours, I’ll still be pedaling brightly while they’re seeking a charge.

Vulnerable. When I slow to a stop, the tail light stays at full power, but the headlight flickers a bit, then remains on in a very dim form. (Both lights stay on for about three minutes once at a halt.) The IQX appears more like something that glows in the dark, than a light that would catch anybody’s eye, unless they were looking for it. I’m disappointed that I’m going to need to get a secondary battery-powered light for my commute.

In theory the generator system is bright and endless. In practice, it is, unless you stop. In theory, self-sufficiency is yours. In practice, it can be, for a price (that I think is worth it).

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