BACK IN BLACK
We slice through winter's drape of darkness with the full spectrum of useable lights.
It's a combination so ancient, its roots date back to man's first two inventions-fire and the wheel. Only recently, however, has man's ability to corral light evolved to the point where it's actually feasible to trek into the darkness of night with any real confidence. For depth perception and the ability to see both the direction you're currently traveling as well as the direction you want to be traveling, light manufacturers recommend a dual-source setup-one on the helmet and at least one on the bar. Recent advances such as better batteries-most of which are Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) -"digital" technology (which allows power-output adjustments) and lamps so powerful your riding buddies go home with a tan are becoming more and more abundant. These four systems represent just about everything that the notoriously creepy, Radio Shack-visiting "lighting guys" have come up with to date.
BLT GAMMARAY N H 40 PROS: Clean controls and routing
CONS: No horizontal-aim adjustment; low-power setting provides a mere half-hour life extension
IDEAL BUYER: You're a dedicated night owl looking for a simple, do-everything lamp.
WEIGHT: 545 grams
CONTACT: 604/552-2930; www.blt-lights.com
LIGHT AND SIMPLE
The BLT's custom 4.8-volt "MR-11" sealed halogen bulb can be adjusted to either 5 watts (with a 2.5-hour burn-time) or 15 watts (with a burn time just shy of 2 hours) of digital brightness via a large red button at the back of the simple-looking lamp. A quick-release bar mount facilitates snappy installation, but aiming the NH 40's beam in the horizontal plane does require the use of a tool (a small tool, in gloved hands, in the dark ...draw your own conclusions). A long and narrow NiMH battery, weighing a scant 395 grams, easily straps to the top tube, though the hook-and-loop fasteners may have to be threaded around top-routed cables. A low-battery indicator light on the battery gives plenty of warning when it's time to head for the pits.
The good thing about NiMH batteries is that they can be charged or stored at any stage of their life cycle. The NH 40 furthers that level of convenience with a smart charger that uses what many companies refer to as "trickle technology," meaning, you can leave the battery on the charger longer than the 7-hour charge time, and a green light confirms that everything is kosher. As BLT warned, our system took three (BLT cautiously says it could take five) charging cycles to give us our full 2.5 hours of illumination.
Light and simple are perhaps the best words to describe the BLT. Like the Light and Motion, there's one wire, one button and thus no late-night confusion to bear with. The light is as bright as any single halogen unit we've tested in the 15-watt setting, the only caveat being that you'll want to use another (preferably helmet-mounted) lamp for increased depth perception-in the lighting world, two sources are almost always better than one, no matter how powerful its beam. For this, BLT recommends the XRay, the helmet-mounted brother of the Gamma-Ray (the Gamma-Ray could also be converted with the purchase of an XRay helmet-mount kit.)
LIGHT AND MOTION ARC CABEZA
PROS: Bright as all hell; superb mounting; multiple light levels
CONS: The price
IDEAL BUYER: You can afford it.
WEIGHT: 710 grams
CONTACT: 831/645-1538; http://www.bikelights.com/ (also available as a bar-mounted unit)
BRIGHT AND PRICEY
Nestled in central California, Light and Motion has developed the amazingly bright ARC Cabeza, utilizing HID (High Intensity Discharge) technology and custom reflectors to pump up the 13.5 watts (max) to create a smooth pale light that's comparable to halogen systems with three times as much power. It's the only HID on the market with multiple power settings-the high mode yields a three-hour burn time and the low mode (11 watts) milks another half hour from a slender jersey-pocket-fitting NiMH battery. The expertly engineered, horizontally adjustable helmet mount is set on a ratcheting rocker for easy tilt adjustment, and uses a single hook-and-loop strap at the bottom of the mount to fit nearly every helmet on the market. Unlike some HID systems we've tried, the mount is positioned directly under the lamp, keeping unwanted movement to a minimum.
Light and Motion's HIDs come with the brilliant Turbo Charger, which can reach full power in a seemingly premature 3.5 hours, and the battery can be forgotten about without the worry of overcharging. Like a countdown to darkness, the ARC Cabeza is designed to protect its battery from "deep discharge." At 15 minutes of remaining light, the on/off switch will begin blinking (and the light will dim to its low power setting). Before overexertion, the unit will shut itself off.
Since their extremely bright light simply overpowers any halogen system, it's hard not to gush about HID units in general, and the ARC is the best out there. Where other units
can be bulky, heavy or use a separate; extremely cumbersome remote ballast, Light and Motion has succeeded in its quest for a lightweight, elegant and powerful unit. Now it's time to start working on that price.
PLANET BI ALIAS SC
PROS: Compact and efficient; bar-mounted on/off/battery indicator
CONS: Wires everywhere
IDEAL BUYER: You subscribe to PC Gamer magazine; you're technically inclined.
WEIGHT: 500 grams
CONTACT: 8661256-8510; www.planetbike.com
Planet Bike's futuristic-looking lamp offers four light modes that are adjustable via a remote switch; a 15-watt hi beam with a 1.9hour burn time; a 12-watt setting with a 2.5-hour burn time; an 8-watt output level that is great for climbing (up to 3.4 hours of it); and a flashing mode to keep the cars away from twilight commuters. A plastic quick-release mount worked flawlessly and was easy to adjust (even in the dark), but it lacked the horizontal adjustment feature that's so handy when dealing with riser bars (which have sweep and tilt angles that can be a bit tricky). The NiMH battery is similar in appearance and mounting restrictions to the BLT, though the Alias SC's power-gauge indicator is located on the bar-mounted on/off switch rather than on the battery itself. Charging can take upward of 10 hours, with a green LED letting you know when the battery is at capacity. Like the other NiMH chargers we've tested here, the battery can be forgotten while still attached to an outlet with no cause for concern.
In the woods, this little light packs a heck of a punch and proved itself a versatile workhorse over the course of our testing. The Alias' design shields the rider's eyes from direct rays, while still enabling light to wash over the immediate foreground. The 15-watt setting is plenty capable of tackling more demanding trails; used as a backup, the overall unit is small enough to be thrown in a jersey pocket for a bit of insurance when ride lengths resemble the limits of other equipments' burn times. Our only gripe is the mass of wires and connections that have to be strapped to the stem, the bar and wherever else there's room.
SIGMA SPORT MIRAGE X
PROS: Good illumination for a great price
CONS: Monstrous girth; battery requires charging awareness
IDEAL BUYER: You're a time-conscious, penny-pinching insomniac.
WEIGHT: 960 grams
CONTACT: 888/744-6277; www.sigmasport.com
HEY, IT WORKS
The Mirage consists of two lamps, a 20-watt and a 5-watt, feeding off one large and somewhat cumbersome lead-acid battery. Each lamp has its own easy-to-find, in-line on/off switch located a couple inches from the unit. Run only the 5-watt lamp and the system's burn time soars upward of 3.25 hours, but when you need to switch on the 20-watter, you'll put the hurt on the power source and drastically reduce burn times (with both lights drawing power, darkness comes in less than 45 minutes). The lamps attach to virtually any sized bar via plastic clamps that can be ratcheted snug in seconds, but there is no concession made for horizontal adjustments. The oddly shaped lead-acid battery can either be strapped to the frame with massive amounts of hook-and-loop straps or slid into most water bottle cages, though it should be secured with some kind of strap (not included) to prevent rattling loose.
The Mirage charges up in roughly six hours. I say "roughly" because that's what Sigma Sport specifies, but there is no form of indication, either on the charger or on the battery, to tell when the battery has completed its charge or even that the battery is charging properly. A simple LED would be a welcome improvement, especially since lead-acid batteries shouldn't be stored in a discharged state. For the price, however, an LED may be something you could live without.
These burning questions remain. Does this thing work? Can I really save hundreds of dollars by buying it and still do "real" night rides? The simple answer is yes, so long as the rides aren't too long. The Mirage is heavy, cumbersome and annoying to re-power, but it provides ample light when the battery still has juice. Where it works best is on rides with a long climb to the top where the low-power light will do, and a sub half hour descent to the trailhead.
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Copyright © 2008 Art Beckman. All rights reserved.
Last Modified: March 9, 2008