PBP nights are long – around 10 hours of darkness at the end of August – and dark on mostly unlit roads with little in the way of white lines or edge markings. And you could have to ride through 3 or 4 such nights. Efficient and bomb-proof lighting is a must, and now is the time to start assembling a viable system for next August. For the rest of us who may only do a few night rides in a year, much of this is still good practise although it is possible to make use of other strategies on one-night rides.
Any lighting system can fail, so complete backup is also necessary. That’s two front lights, two rear, and the means to power them all. I would also advocate the use of an additional LED front light, especially for battery users who can make it help out with all sorts of run-time problems on the long night-time legs.
To deal briefly with the rear first – regardless of what system is used at the front, I hope most riders now recognise the value of a modern battery-powered LED light for the rear – especially in open-road situations. These lights are quite simply magnitudes better, in terms of performance, convenience and especially in terms of reliability, than any traditional filament lamp driven by battery or generator. A steady light is required for the PBP and I think the best multi-LED designs are much more eye-catching than the new ‘BS-approved’ single-LED models.
These things won’t fail – but they might get stolen, damaged in a fall, or waterlogged in a deluge. For this reason I would keep my backup rear light packed away in my luggage and wrapped in polythene, not tacked to the back of the bike. The Vistalite VL700 is an outstandly bright rear LED light, and is also a very tidy, compact design. But it uses AAA cells so has very poor run time compared with most. I therefore suggest two of these lights, one on the bike and one packed away, to be swapped over after the second night.
I should add that Sheila, of course, will be flaunting the best technology by running my own design of steady LED light, which is far brighter than any comparable commercial offering, a development of those used by many UK riders in 1991 and 1995. However the best commercial lights are very good, and in fact for general riding I use a commercial light in preference to my own designs, as I often like to run it in flashing mode.
At the front there are two requirements – to see they way ahead and spot the waymarkers on those dark lanes, and to be visible to oncoming road users. It’s my firm belief that no single light can do both these jobs well and at the same time (except perhaps the ultra-bright CatEye Stadium which is not really a practical proposition for PBP). The reason for this is that, in order to see the way ahead, the headlight needs to have a well- constructed beam which will be pointed slightly downwards at the road. Oncoming traffic sees only peripheral spill from this light, and that is simply not good enough.
The answer is an LED light. I know many people disagree with me really strongly on this, so I won’t go on about it too much. To me, the logic is inescapable – if LEDs work well at the back (and they do), then they can do the same job just as well at the front. Ideally you need the latest brightest Yellow or White LEDs and elsewhere I describe my prototype White LED light which was a great success on its first outing at the Doncaster 600. Commercial white LED lights are beginning to appear and the Knightlite Koncorde has had good reviews.
FRONT LIGHTING – GENERATOR
We now come to the MTB headlight, and the fascinating choice between battery or generator. I prefer batteries myself, but there is no question that a new breed of very efficient generators has come available in the last few years, and, for the specific job of getting through four nights of PBP, I think the outstanding new Schmidt Original hub generator has to be the best tool for the job – at a price. To judge from the comparative review in last February’s CT&C;, the drag from this generator would add about 1 hour 15 to a 75 hour PBP – which is peanuts in exchange for the peace of mind and consistent good quality light it would provide. And, noting Pamela Blalock’s letter in Arrivee 61, if you use an Avocet computer it’ll drive that, too!
photo thanks to Joshua Putnam
Other possibilities, although I don’t think these are in the same league, would be the AXA or Union Turbo sidewall generators, front-mounted, or the FER hub-driven generator. I worry about sidewall generators on long rides because of the tyre wear problem, but if you like to use thickish tyres they would be OK. But both the AXA and Union are very noisy. And the FER is perhaps not robust enough for four long nights on the road. But all of these offer zero daytime drag, and are the only alternatives to come close to the Schmidt in terms of overall (taking night and day together) efficiency. Some people will be surprised that I don’t include the Shimano in this shortlist, as it is indeed of comparable efficiency to the Schmidt – but this unit has the peculiarity of high daytime drag which drops the overall efficiency figure right down.
Some of these come with their own front light assemblies, but the Lumotec seems to be the best front light designed specifically for generator use. The new Oval version of this light is an interesting variation on the more familiar circular light, but does not have a switch – so would work best with sidewall or BB generators. Neither version is suitable for handlebar mounting unless you bodge some sort of special bracket. Both can optionally be bought as ‘Plus’ versions, with built-in LED ‘standlight’. In the newer Oval it’s a white LED. However these ‘Plus’ versions are very expensive and the extra circuitry is a potential point of failure, so beware.
It’s quite pointless to use the generator to drive a back light as well – that’s just unnecessary wiring, a potential source of failure, and a battery LED will do the job so much better. Just be sure the front light is well protected with a pair of zener diodes (the Lumotec has them built in). Using the Schmidt, with its ultra low drag, you can fit a second front light in series for double power on the fast sections. According to figures from Andreas Oehler, who works at the Schmidt factory, the drag when supplying two lights at 20kph is still only 8.3W – lower than that of the AXA, Union or FER when supplying just a single light!
Generators are ideal for those who wish to ride a totally unsupported PBP, and most UK riders do prefer to tackle this classic ride in this way. I do sometimes wonder about reliability – I’ve never had much luck with the things myself – so backup lighting is essential.
Battery systems, on the other hand, do completely eliminate the drag factor, and do offer the possibility of running brighter lights, but they bring problems of their own. The brighter you want your lights, the more problems you get. Weight is only the part of it. There is the additional stress and hassle of buying replacement batteries along the route. These will be available at all controls, but then you have to spend valuable feet-up time searching them out and maybe even queuing for attention. If you have a big system that requires new batteries frequently, you could waste as much time and energy doing this as you would have lost through generator drag. Many bright systems depend on rechargeable technology to even work at all, but of course over the long PBP haul, rechargeables are right out of the question.
Nevertheless, if I were riding PBP again, I would go with battery lights, as I did in ‘83, ‘87 and ‘91, and my guess is that the majority of riders will do the same, so now here are some of the options for battery users. Incidentally one reason for preferring battery systems is that for one-night summer events, that is, everything we ride except PBP, they can be much more fun than generators and in my opinion the balance of pros and cons tips firmly in their favour. Using the latest batteries, bulbs and circuits, really bright systems can be run for several hours, which really puts the fun back into the whole night riding experience.
The simplest, cheapest, no-nonsense approach to battery lighting is to use an integrated D-cell light. These are not as common in the shops as they used to be but the prime example is the old EverReady Nightrider. Lamps like these actually work very well indeed for PBP provided you are aware of the pitfalls. I used one in ‘83 and it was just fine. Advantages – the light will easily run right through a long PBP night and probably well into the second one. At some point you will have to buy a new pair of batteries but you can do this at any control. The beam is not great but is adequate for 20kph at night, which is probably as much as most people manage if riding alone. The drawbacks relate to the effects of road vibration on heavy lamps of this type. D-cell lamps are notorious for poor reliability, intermittent or failed switches and contacts, and annoying rattles. It helps a lot to use the trick that Helen Vecht showed me, of sleeving the batteries in old inner tube to reduce movement and vibration. Even so, when you hit a pothole the inertia endemic in a D-cell lamp can cause it to self-destruct, fly off the bike or fall into the wheel. A backup light would be essential.
Most integrated front lights you will find in the shops these days use C-cells or AA-cells. They are neater, more attractive designs, very much more reliable, and some of them give good light, but in general none of these are suitable for primary PBP lighting purposes. The problem is, very simply, run-time. C-cell lights last, at best, around 6 hours while the brightest AA lights last no more than 3. On very cold nights these times will drop even further. You have to assume it could take 5 hours of riding on dark roads to get from one PBP control to the next, so at best you would be buying new batteries at practically every night control. At worst you would be carrying spare batteries and changing them in the dark, on each night-time leg. Expensive, and not fun.
A pair of C-cell lights, used alternately to rest the batteries, and occasionally together for extra light, is just about do-able, but for the same weight I think a single D-cell light is the better option, giving longer run-time. I used a pair of CatEye 500s in ‘91. Nice lights. One fell off after 20km and I rode the rest of the event with just one, so that’s how I know for a fact that the run-time is iffy!
Several modern lights can be powered internally by 4 AAs or have a socket for external power. Using the external power option would overcome the runtime problem, and give good cheap reliable lighting, at the cost of some added complexity. A pair of basic Vista VL400s would be very neat, and could be rigged to run all night, sometimes one, sometimes both, off 2 D cells. The beam pattern leaves a bit to be desired. For more performance from a single light, a CatEye Micro could be run off a pack of 4 D cells, in fact CatEye sell a kit for this. A lot depends on handlebar space, distribution of brake cables and so on. I like VL400s very much but the underslung mounting tends to tangle up with my ‘concealed’ brake cables.
Incidentally, if space is a problem, and assuming you use drop handlebars (I don’t), consider getting a pair of Scott drop-in bars. These will give extra handlebar real-estate and should be PBP-legal (they were in ‘95). A pair of Spinacis could be used in a similar way (Sheila uses these) but it is highly likely that these will not be allowed on PBP.
Since we’re now considering externally powered, cabled systems, then there are some possibilities for brighter, high-performance lighting. Not really an option on randonnées until recently, performance lighting has one or two big advantages if you can cope with the added complexity. Obviously brighter lights are safer – and PBP does include several long sweeping downhills which may be met at night, though road surfaces generally are very good – but most of all they are fun, and stimulating. They will help you fend off sleep and encourage much faster progress at night. A 5W bulb may not seem like much of an advance over a pair of Micros (2.4W each) but the tiny sealed units used in upmarket systems such as the Vista VL500 or the minimalist NightSun SunSport give a quality of light that I have never seen in any other cycle light. The 10W versions are good enough to allow daytime speeds on fast dark descents and have the added entertainment value of picking out all sorts of startled animal life in the hedgerows. Lights like these work best off rechargeables – OK for a one-nighter – but not at all off the Alkaline batteries that will be on sale at the PBP. So how can they be used?
Well, Sheila and I have been running 5W or 10W VL500s throughout the last season. On one 400 I set out to match the performance of Sheila’s superb 5W system (using NiMH rechargeables) by using Alkalines, thus proving a viable system for PBP. I used a pack of 8xC cells in series, run through a Willie Hunt voltage regulator as described in detail in Arrivee 91. I got a run time of just over 6 hours at full brightness plus 2 more hours of usable, if less bright, light. This in combination with some less dramatic secondary lighting, would be fine for PBP. You’d need a new set of 8 batteries after the long first night, and probably a third set at some point – but for those that enjoy bright lights this is the way to go. The pack weighed 630gm, only 110gm more than Sheila’s lovely NiMH pack.
Note that without the Willie Hunt regulator this is simply a non-starter. Run-time would be half and the quality of light would be dismal.
I’ve proved a 10W system as well. Simply use D cells instead of C cells for a similar run-time. Rather a heavy pack this, at over 1200gm, but no more expensive to run. With 10W lighting you would get a lot of attention from your fellow PBP riders – in fact you would find yourself on the front of any group you ride in, which could get a bit tiresome after a while. To be honest the 5W system is so good that the added light obtainable from the 10W is, in my view, not worth the extra weight and bulk over such a long haul.
With any of these systems using separate packs and cables, one thing you should carry is a spare cable – they are all too easily damaged, and not always easy to repair. And on the subject of spares, on PBP you are required to carry several spare bulbs. The sealed units as used in the VL500 or SunSport are very bulky and quite fragile at the pins end, not to mention expensive. They do however have 10x the life expectancy of a ‘normal’ halogen bulb, and even more when used with a Willie Hunt regulator, which is very kind to bulbs. So I would pack just one of these (protect it with a plastic film canister) and, to satisfy the scrutineers before the start, some of the smaller bulbs for your backup system.
FRONT LIGHTING – BACKUP
I have referred to backup and secondary lighting. These are two slightly different but overlapping concepts. Any serious lighting system requires a backup system. If you run performance lighting, then this primary system needs to have a secondary system, with lower power and longer runtime, to make the whole thing workable through a 10-hour night. Fortunately there is no logical reason why a single lower-powered light cannot perform backup and secondary functions equally well, so it’s not really necessary to have a third or tertiary light unless you are of the kitchen sink mentality.
But there are one or two options where you might find you get to this situation anyway. For example, regardless of your primary lighting – be it generator, D-cell lamp or performance system – a popular choice for backup/secondary lighting might be the CatEye Micro, which gives the best and brightest beam of any light in its class, and is a wonderfully small and lightweight package. Runtime is inevitably rather limited, and it would always be prudent to carry a spare set of batteries – 4xAAs – for this little light. In fact, the light is so small that, if you are going to carry spare batteries anyway, you really might as well keep them packed safely away in – a spare Micro. You now have spare bulb, spare light, spare batteries, all in one convenient package, and this constitutes a tertiary lighting system.
Elsewhere in this issue is an account of a Boston-Montreal-Boston (same distance as PBP) by Jim Halay. His lighting system, primary, secondary and tertiary, consisted simply of three CatEye Micros fitted with Lithium batteries. He says “the combination of light weight, simplicity and long lasting batteries made the combination almost perfect”. I wouldn’t argue with that though the beam thrown by a single Micro is very narrow. He also says he bought four complete sets of batteries for the ride – presumably he was using the bag-drop facilities. That’s 48 Lithium AA’s – at rock bottom UK prices that would be well over £80, go to the wrong suppliers and you could pay three times that. Plus £19 each for the lights. He only used half the batteries – looking closely at his story I estimate he rode about 14 night hours in total. With the Micro you must carry some spare bulbs. The light is very bright and efficient, but this means that the bulbs are highly stressed. Carry spares. At least they’re tiny.
Personally I think that runtime with the Micro really is a bit of a problem. You couldn’t get away with the all- Micro system above, using Alkalines. For backup/secondary purposes I would use the less highly-tuned Vista VL400 which will go for well over 4 hours with Alkalines, probably enough to get you from one control to the next. No reason why you shouldn’t soup this up with Lithiums, too. The CatEye 1500 would be another good choice – this seems to offer the best of both worlds with its two brightness settings, choose a bright 2.4W beam or a dimmer beam with longer runtime if you have to. Another BMB rider, Mike Delong, wrote “I rode with 2 mounted CatEye 1500 halogen headlights and since I was riding behind riders for all of my night riding, I just activated one, on low (1.6 watt) power. You can’t imagine how many unused AA batteries I have left over.”
Spare front lights are much bulkier than the rear LED backup I mentioned earlier, and they inevitably have this secondary function as well, so these are carried fitted in position all the time, which keeps them ready and available, and saves space in the luggage.
Perhaps the best option of all for backup is a bottle or roller generator. With zero daytime drag, and light weight overall, it’s always there when you need it. No need to wire it to the back light – just make sure the front is protected with diodes. (Don’t forget to carry a hand torch too.) The Union Turbo is especially lightweight and would probably be my choice. I had a roller generator for backup in ‘83 and ‘87 – and never used it. In ‘91 I decided to travel light and do without – and my battery light fell off before it even got dark!