Monday, December 21, 2015

Longest night

Today is not only the shortest day of the year, it's also the longest night. People all over the world celebrate this fact on December 25th, the date when nights begin to shorten again. It is therefore halfway through bike light season. What better time to write a few light thoughts?

For a few years I've been very happy with my Exposure Diablo light. It's very small, devastatingly bright, and can be mounted on either my handlebars or my helmet. On the helmet I can aim it directly where it will do the most good, which is sometimes directly into the vision of someone who might not otherwise know I'm there. But mostly I keep it on my handlebars, and the battery life is fairly short on retina-searing settings so I save those for off-road use.

Mine still works as good as ever mostly, but the switch is a bit fiddly and hard to turn off sometimes. It came with a quick-release mount that has worn and now rattles, as does the second one I got so I could use one light on two bikes. I have the third version of this awesome light, which is now up to version seven, and I was considering replacing my old one with the latest model until I looked at the current price. Yow!

So I turned the the universal catalog to see if any alternatives exist, and I'm happy to share the one I've been testing.

WindFire Wf-501B, with charger and mount
This generic flashlight puts out just about the same light as my good old Diablo, both in intensity and beam shape. The included clip works fine and is easy to move from bike to bike. I use it under my handlebars in a way that might knock the light loose if I hit a big enough bump, but so far it has held on. (I loop the little string around my bars so the light will stay with me even if it falls from the clip.) Runtime is excellent, and it uses a swappable rechargeable battery (the widely available 18650 lithium cells, same as used in Tesla car battery packs and flame-throwing "hoverboards") so if I do run the battery down I can get back to full charge in about a minute and/or keep very warm*. And the price, including the light and clip and one battery and a charger, is less than an extra mount for the Exposure.

It's not a perfect Diablo replacement. My Exposure light can be put into one of nine program modes, which each has two or three intensity settings, while the flashlight has a simple high-medium-low-fastflash-SOS loop. Some current models of Exposure lights have wireless remote switches - great for finding my bike in a huge parking lot, but this light has a simple clicky-button with a rubber cover. The teeth on the clip seem to want to make it point just a little off straight ahead, or maybe it's just my handlebars. There's no helmet mount. While the construction seems solid, I'm a bit skeptical that the manufacturers of this little gem fully appreciate the rough life a bike headlight lives, so I half-expect this light to die after some random bump or fall. At this price I won't be too sad - and I've already purchased a second to use as a flashlight around the house and an emergency backup headlight when this one fails. This light includes O-ring seals that appear adequate for water resistance, but I haven't tested that in anything other than light rain, so I'd at least try spraying it with a hose for a while before heading off on the next "48 HOURS OF TYPHOON CLARABELLE, WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE" ride with Pete Beers.

Summary: this is a good bike light with some great convenience features at an incredible price.

* I'm kidding. The hoverboard fires are mainly due to misuse and abuse. Battery instructions clearly explain that the cells may be hot after use or charging and should be allowed to cool before charging or use. Damaged batteries should be taken out of service immediately, but the hoverboard instructions don't explain how that's supposed to be known or done. The light and charger don't move power fast enough to create the same heating problems, and the batteries aren't kicked around in the light as much as they might be with a hoverboard.