Seeing In The Dark

Today is a significant milestone for me: it’s the first time I have ever done my entire commute, in both directions, running. It’s five and half miles, most of it on muddy footpaths through fields. There’s no question that running on slippery and uneven surfaces and splashing through puddles is harder than road running, even in the right shoes, but the run home added a whole new dimension to off road running: at this time of year it’s completely dark by the time I leave the office.

The fact that I didn’t fall in the stream, lose the path, or break an ankle in a rabbit hole is something I owe completely to my head torch, which is something I came across while researching ultra-marathons. I had considered using one when I used to run a few years ago but worried that the movement of the light as I was running would make me feel ill. (I also admit to being concerned it would make me look stupid. For some reason I’m less bothered about that these days!) It turns out my head doesn’t move that much when I’m running, so the light stays pretty steady.

I use an Alpkit Gamma:

Inexpensive but highly effective runner’s head torch

When I’m not doing something quite as silly as running to work, I usually commute by bike, and the lanes I cycle on have the same need for effective lighting. Cycle lighting varies wildly from the superbright beams that cost as much as a good bicycle, to the cheap and feeble token lights commonly sold with the toys in the supermarket. With that in mind, it isn’t surprising that I get asked quite often to recommend lights.

My Audaxes and 24hr Time Trials are all lit by a couple of Fenix LD20s. Essentially they’re torches, but Fenix sell some simple bike mounts for them and they provide, in my opinion, the best balance of light and run-time for a light at that price point. They’re also quite small, and don’t spill much light sideways so ideally you’d have a cheaper and relatively dim light that you’d use alongside it to make you more visible from the side (I have an old Cateye lamp that I use for this purpose).

A light bright enough for time-trial speeds, that will run all night on two AA batteries.

When it comes to commuting and utility cycling, replacing and/or recharging batteries gets boring very quickly and it’s too easy to forget and end up with a light that peters out in the middle of nowhere. The best solution is a dynamo. Not those horrible little things that press against the tyre and whine as you cycle along, but a hub dynamo where the generator is built into the front wheel of the bike. This isn’t a cheap solution, but it is fit-and-forget. The lights are always there when you need them and they never run out of power.

The main problem with a hub dynamo is that, having bought the hub, you need to build it into a wheel. I’ve built a hub dynamo wheel myself before and it isn’t too hard to do it right, but I’d still prefer to have someone else do the hard work for me. The Germans are the answer. They have created a silly law that requires bicycles to have lights on even in the daytime. Naturally this means most German bikes have dynamos, and the larger volumes mean they can provide them more cheaply than in the UK. A ready-built wheel with a dynamo hub from a German vendor like Rose Versand is often cheaper, even after importing it, than the hub alone from a UK supplier.

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