By Brett Ratner
While last Sunday's time change got us an extra hour of sleep (which was certainly nice), it added one more challenge to those of us hoping to stay in shape through the winter.
Specifically, as if cold and snow and ice weren't bad enough, now we have pedal in pitch darkness if we want to sneak in a ride after work.
Speaking on a personal level, this was never a huge obstacle when I lived in Chicago (where all the streets are brightly lit). But now that I'm out in the country (and have easy access to top-notch roads and mountain bike trails) it's a bit of a bummer. Granted, I'm not totally adverse to working out on a stationary trainer when it's -10 degrees. But especially in mild temperatures, I'd rather be outside if possible. The solution, as you probably guessed, is a quality set of lights.
For the uninitiated, there are two types of bike lights; those you use to be seen, and those you use to see things.
Practically all of us have used the be seen type. They're compact, relatively inexpensive ($40-ish give or take), they grab on to our bars and seat posts with some sort of clamp, or rubber or silicone band, they sometimes come in sets of two (white for the front and red for the rear) and they usually blink.
Naturally, the lights you employ to see things require a lot more power. As such, they've historically been large, heavy units that are either tethered to a generator hub or to a bulky battery pack that you mount on your frame. They've also been known to carry price tags of several hundred dollars.
Since my experience with lights has almost exclusively been limited to the type that blink, I visited the NiteRider booth at September's Interbike trade show to learn more about what's available for serious nighttime riding.
NiteRider offers a variety of light options aimed at cyclists, off-road motorcyclists, and outdoorsmen (like hikers and backpackers). I inquired about their recommendations for a cyclist looking to hit a mountain bike trail or country road for a few hours after work. Shortly thereafter, a Lumina OLED 800 showed up in The Chainlink's mailbox.
The "OLED" in the Lumina OLED 800's name refers to the digital display. It offers extremely useful information, like how much time you have until the battery runs out. In this blinking mode, for example, there's six hours and 23 minutes of run time left.
In NiteRider speak, "Lumina" refers to their line of self-contained lights (no external battery pack). The "OLED" part refers to a small digital display on top of the unit. The "800" bit denotes the power of the light, measured in "lumens."
It's important to note that lumens represents only part of the picture when it comes to bike lights. How the light is projected is extremely important, as is the quality of the optics. Ultimately, you want a bike light that will provide an appropriately wide and deep field of clear vision, allowing your eyes to gather a detailed image of whatever it is you're about to roll over.
Anyway, when I opened the box, I was surprised to find that the OLED 800 was not too much bigger than the handlebar-mounted "blinky" light I use to commute.
Considering the Lumina's rugged construction and 172 grams of heft, I could definitely feel a difference. But considering this light offers four times the power of my blinky, it's astonishingly light and compact.
The unit came complete with a handlebar mount and a micro USB cable. Charging its built-in lithium-ion battery was simply a matter of plugging the unit into an outlet. Once charged up, mounting the light to my handlebar was equally effortless.
Atop the light are three buttons and the aforementioned digital display. The buttons allow you to toggle between a variety of modes.
The digital display lets you know what mode you're in, as well as estimated battery life. According to the display, "Walk Mode" gives you up to nine hours of steady light. The flashing modes give you around eight hours of run time. At the full 800 lumens of power, you only have an hour and a half (so use it wisely).
Throwing caution to the wind, I headed straight to the most heavily wooded, tight and twisty mountain bike trail I had at my disposal. To make things even more interesting, a thick layer of fallen leaves covered the trail, further adding visual challenge. Either this light was going to do the job, or I was going to wind up at the bottom of a ravine.
As it turned out, in pitch black conditions, the light worked beautifully (and I never tumbled into a ravine). Even in the most difficult zero-light situation I could conjure up, I saw plenty of detail to navigate rock gardens, hop over log obstacles, and avoid hitting trees.
True, the photo quality ain't the greatest, but it does a pretty good job illustrating the OLED 800s ability to light up a pitch black stretch of road in the middle of a rainstorm. That white flash is compliments of a Dura Ace 7700 shifter with old school cable routing.
The handlebar mount was rock solid and despite the light's relative bulk, it never budged when the bike took a hit.
The leaves did in fact make recognizing the trail challenging at times, which forced me to ride with the light at full power. As mentioned earlier, this limited my ride to an hour and a half. Depending on one's needs and riding conditions, the limited battery life at full power could be the only shortcoming of this light for mountain bike use.
The other issue I experienced was when I encountered tight switchbacks. This lead to situations where the light was temporarily pointed somewhere different than where my eyes were looking. Fortunately, this problem can be easily rectified by augmenting the Lumina with a second, helmet mounted light. Or, another option is purchasing NiteRider's helmet mount for a very reasonable $14.99. With the helmet mount, the light will always be pointed in the same direction as your head. Different riders have different preferences when it comes to helmet mount vs. bar mount. So it's nice that NiteRider offers multiple mounting options. After a little experimentation, I think it will be easy to figure out which works best for you.
The following evening, I took my road bike out on some unlit backroads. Making things more interesting was a reasonably hard rainfall, and a couple sweeping downhill sections. In this riding situation, the handlebar mount was ideal, and I could see quite easily in the low (200 lumen) mode. Since the low mode gives you five and a half hours of run time, it should be more than enough for an after work spin.
Next, I mounted the Lumina on my commuter bike, where it has since relegated my previous light to the dust bin. Already, the headlight feature has proved quite handy for an unlit stretch of bike path on my commute. And naturally, in its flash modes, the Lumina has more than enough firepower to make me visible to cars. And having up to 800 lumens at my disposal should I find myself on a dark stretch of road is a nice piece of mind.
All in all, the Lumina OLED 800 delivers on its promise to extend your riding season past the fall time change. Despite the higher cost, I would easily recommend this over a standard blinky headlight. It does everything a blinky does (arguably better), and also provides the ability to safely navigate situations where streetlights are not present (and a blinky won't cut it). Better yet, the 800 is available as part of a combo package that also includes their Sentinel 40 tail light.
One caveat: If nighttime mountain biking is your primary intention, this will do the job, but I'd suggest looking at one of NiteRider's "Pro" models, which offer more power and significantly more battery life.
But if you seek a light for occasional nighttime mountain biking and general use, the Lumina OLED 800 is a super safe bet.
Visit niterider.com for more information.
Learn more about Chainlink product reviews (and FTC-related things) here.
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.