Tag Archive for: john brooking

Shifting Gears to Accelerate Quickly

Welcome to the next in our series of beginner articles. In this one, I’ll introduce the topic of how to use your gears.

Most bicycles in the USA these days have the chain shifting across several sprockets. Many earlier bikes, and some current ones, have actual gears inside the wheel hub, “internal gears”. We’ll discuss both kinds.

Why do bicycles have multiple gears? Multiple gears can make your riding smoother and less tiring, especially if you live in a hilly area, as well as in extremely windy situations.

The point of gears is to keep your pedaling effort and speed (“cadence”) at a comfortable level. Pay attention to your effort. If you are pushing down too hard, you need to go down to a lower (easier) gear. If you are spinning uselessly, you need to go up to a higher (harder) gear. CyclingSavvy Instructor John Allen demonstrates.

Just as with a car, low (easy) gears are for starting and moving slowly, and higher (harder) gears are to keep your engine — your legs — from turning too fast as you speed up. But there are important differences compared to shifting gears in a car.

Your bike’s drivetrain: 1) front derailer, 2) crankset, 3) chainrings, 4) rear derailer, 5) cassette made up of individual sprockets

Two shifters: what’s that about?

Many bikes have two or three front sprockets (called chainrings) at the cranks (pedals), and several sprockets on the rear wheel, giving you two shifters to think about. It would be simple if you had, say, a 21-speed bike with just one shifter that went from 1 to 21. But unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

The good news is, using two shifters in combination is not as hard as you might think. Let’s say you have 3 chainrings (front sprockets, left shifter), and 7 in the back (right shifter, remember that both “rear” and “right” start with R). Don’t think of them as having 21 steps in a sequence (because they’re not): think instead of having 3 overlapping ranges of 7 steps each. Each chainring gives you a different range, and the rear sprockets let you make smaller adjustments within the current range.

  • If you have 3 chainrings, think of the middle one as your “normal” range, where you will spend most of your time. Start and stop in this range, generally with the back sprockets at or near 1 (easiest). The smallest (inside) chainring shifts the whole range down to be  easier, for when you are going up a steep hill or into a strong headwind. The largest (outside) chainring shifts the whole range to be harder, useful downhill or with a strong wind at your back.
  • If you only have 2 chainrings,  which one is “normal” will depend on you and on the specific gearing. Experiment.
  • If you have just 1 chainring, the preceding 4 paragraphs don’t apply. :-)

You can feel how pedaling gets harder as you move a shifter one way, easier the other way.

Homing in on the range

One way or the other, once the range is right for the conditions, just shift your back sprockets as necessary. (Remember, rear = right shifter). Start from a stop at the easy end, or near it. As you gain speed, you will notice at some point that your pedaling is no longer delivering much power; then it’s time to shift up. This is usually all with the same front chainring.

The outermost of three chainrings (at the cranks) should be used only with the outer four or five rear sprockets, the inner chainring only with the two or three innermost rear sprockets. This essentially boils down to: avoid having the front in the easiest gear while the back is in relatively a hard gear, and vice-versa. Keep easy with easy, and hard with hard.

The middle chainring can be used with any unless the chain rubs against the outer chainring when used with the smallest rear sprockets. If there are only two chainrings, the outer one can be used with more of the rear sprockets.

Shifting gears strategy

Think “how do I shift to get to the gear I need to use,“ not “am I in 7th gear or 8th gear.” It would be complicated to keep track of the sequence from gear 1 to gear 21; also, many combinations are duplicates and near-duplicates, so it is pointless. Typically, a “21-speed” bicycle will have a working sequence of 10 to 12 different gears, and a wide enough range for any terrain and level of fitness, with small enough steps to be comfortable. Use the numbers on twist-grip shifters only as a guide — lower numbers, easier.

The basic sequence is to start in a low (easy) gear, and shift to a harder one when the pedals get to turning too fast. Keep pedaling lightly and shift down as you slow down. This will allow you to accelerate briskly from a stop or a low speed.

When accelerating from a stop, you may need to shift as often as once per second. This keeps your cadence in the sweet spot and accelerates you quickest. You have something in common with a big semitrailer truck — listen to it as it accelerates. The driver shifts through multiple gears, because the truck also has a narrow range of engine speed which optimizes power production.

Gear range wide enough?

Is your bicycle’s easiest gear easy enough? That depends on the terrain where you ride, and on your fitness. On most bicycles, it is possible to replace rear sprockets and widen the range. There is no shame in using an easy gear. It shows that you know how to take care of yourself.

No matter how many speeds your bicycle has in theory, you can use only one at a time! “21-speed” does make a nice advertising slogan, though, doesn’t it?

Derailer Complications

Most multi-gear bicycles in North America use derailers at the cranks and the rear wheel. Those mechanisms push (derail) the chain to one side or the other, from one sprocket or chainwheel to another. The derailer at the rear wheel has pulley wheels to take up slack in the chain produced by the different-sized sprockets. (Clever, right?)

A derailer system has some complications:

  1. Shifting works only when the chain is moving forward! If you shift without pedaling, including when stopped, you will get a lot of grinding once you start pedaling, as the chain finds its way to the right spot. That is tough for the chain and sprockets, and embarrassing for you. If you did not shift down before stopping, the bicycle will be in a high gear and starting will be hard.
  2. To shift smoothly as you slow down, keep spinning the pedals but without putting any force on them. When accelerating or holding speed, reduce force on the pedals momentarily as you shift.
  3. You backpedal to step forward off the saddle when coming to a stop. (See our post about starting and stopping.) Finish shifting before you stop. If the chain and derailers are not aligned, the chain will jam as you backpedal. Test by backpedaling lightly. Sometimes you can adjust the shift levers even after stopping.

Internal Gears

Instead of a derailer, some bicycles have gears in the hub of the rear wheel, or sometimes at the cranks. Usually a shifter and cable connect to the internal mechanism; some two-speed hubs shift by backpedaling. 3-speed internal-gear hubs were very popular in the mid-20th century. Now 7 and 8-speed internal-gear hubs are common, and some have even more speeds.

An internal-gear hub shifts best when the chain is not moving, just the opposite of a derailer system. Coast or backpedal slightly for a moment while you shift. You don’t need to worry about downshifting while slowing to a stop; you can do that after you stop. It’s one less thing to concern yourself with. The sprocket can be changed with internal gears, in case you find that the range is too easy or too hard (usually, too hard). More about internal-gear hubs.

Shifting gears – Summary

Now that you know how shifting works, keep the goal of consistent cadence in mind as you ride. If your bicycle has more than one chainring, remember that the easy range is for uphill or headwind, hard one for downhill or tailwind. Middle (if you have 3) is for all other conditions. Use the sprockets at the rear wheel to adjust within the range as necessary. Easier gears are also good for creeping along while maintaining control, and being ready to accelerate, for example if a red light turns green before you reach it.

The idea is to keep your feet turning at a constant rate. A follow-up article will help you feel in your legs what that rate needs to be.

emergency braking, shiftingweight back

Bicycling Skills: Braking and Cornering

Our previous article covered  three essential bicycling skills. Let’s move on to a couple of other skills which will improve your riding.

Bicycling Skills: Better Braking

A bicycle, like any road vehicle, should have two independent braking systems, in case one fails. Most state statutes do not require dual brakes for bicycles, but it’s a good idea for safety. On a bike, both front and rear brakes are required for maximum stopping power (stopping in the shortest distance).

Most modern bikes have dual handbrakes. Some bikes have a coaster brake on the rear and can have a handbrake for the front. Fixed gear bikes use the drive train to stop the rear wheel, but should also have a handbrake for the front.

If your bicycle has dual handbrakes, the best strategy at first is to use both more or less equally. Squeeze the levers gradually. If you are braking to a stop, remember to coordinate braking with the dismount off the front of the saddle described in the previous article.

With a coaster brake, pushing back on a pedal stops the rear wheel. The bicycle should also have a front handbrake for greater stopping power, and so you can keep the bike stopped when you place a foot on the forward pedal for a power-pedal start. Same with a fixed gear bike.

Front brake has most of your stopping power… and the power to dump you on your head.

Bicycling skills" braking practice.

If you must brake suddenly, avoid pitching over the handlebars by sliding your weight back. We practice emergency stopping in “Train Your Bike,” CyclingSavvy’s bike handling skills session.

Braking body position illustration from Bicycling Street Smarts CyclingSavvy Edition for Kindle

Braking body position from Bicycling Street Smarts CyclingSavvy Edition for Kindle

Front- and rear-wheel brakes may look the same, but they perform differently. Are you afraid of going over the handlebars if you brake too hard with the front brake? You’re not alone if you are. Lots of people avoid the front brake because it actually can send the rider over the bars. But it also has a lot more stopping power!

When you brake, weight shifts from the rear wheel to the front wheel. The rear brake alone has very little stopping power, limited to the rear wheel’s skidding. Using the front brake along with the rear allows the front wheel to contribute, as it is carrying additional weight.

But that’s where the danger lies. If all of your weight is off the rear wheel, it will lift. You and the bike can rotate over the front wheel. Yikes!

You can avoid this by shifting your weight back as you brake. If you start braking well ahead of time and gradually, this should not be necessary. But in an emergency, you may have to brake hard and fast. If you can train yourself to thrust your weight back behind the saddle (like the illustration above), you will stop in a shorter distance without flipping over the bars. Even with gradual braking, you’ll need to shift your weight back when you are going downhill (mountain bikers know this).

A future discussion of bicycling skills will go into more detail about developing braking technique.

Bicycling Skills: Cornering

To turn a bike, you turn the handlebars and the bike follows, right? Well, not really. That’s how you turn a car.

Cornering -- an important bicycling skill

Practicing cornering during “Train Your Bike,’ CyclingSavvy’s bike handling skills session.

When you steer a bicycle to one side, it actually leans to the other side. You probably don’t notice this on low speed turns, because you subconsciously adjust the steering to maintain balance. Actually, you are just steering so the bike follows the turn that the lean already started.

Why does this matter?

At low speeds it doesn’t, much. Most cyclists ride for years without being aware of it. I did. But what happens when you’re cruising downhill and there’s a curve? Sure, you could slow down, and certainly you need to know your limits.

cornering image

Inside pedal up. Look into the turn.

At higher speeds, starting the lean is harder. You can get the bike to help you by intentionally countersteering slightly to start. Briefly steering away from the turn will cause the bike to lean into the turn. So to initiate a right turn, push the handlebars very slightly and briefly left. Once the bike leans, just go with it. Turn your head and look into the turn; the bike will follow. It’s best to stop pedaling when making a sharp turn. When the bike is leaning, the inside pedal can hit the pavement at the bottom of the stroke. So once you initiate the lean, push the outside pedal down and keep it there.

It’s very important to look in the direction you are turning, because your body will naturally go where you’re looking. This will help you keep your turns tighter.

Beyond basic braking and turning

In case you want to go into more detail, this page from noted bicycle mechanic Sheldon Brown describes special circumstances in which to use one or the other brake, and different ways of leaning in a turn.

In the next article in this series, we take up the topic of effective use of gears.

CyclingSavvy group at Woodford Corner, Portland, ME

Springing Forward with Spring Courses

As the weather warms, thoughts turn to bicycling. CyclingSavvy spring courses are happening. Classroom sessions are being held online — which has proved to be, all in all, an advantage: people don’t have to travel, and can join from anywhere. Instructors and students can hang around longer at the end of a session.

On-bike sessions with Covid precautions are ramping up too. Here’s what we have as of now.

Savvy Cycling Now April Series

Instructors John Allen and Pamela Murray are hosting a Savvy Cycling Now online series on two Wednesday evenings, April 21 and 28. This will cover the same material as the “Truth & Techniques of Traffic Cycling” classroom session of our regular 3-part course, and qualifies students to proceed to the Train Your Bike in-person session anywhere, anytime and with any instructor. Students in this round will qualify for the Boston course described below, if space is available; we’ll arrange more sessions as needed. On-bike sessions will be discounted if you take Savvy Cycling Now to qualify for them.

Here’s a video clip from an August 11 2020 session of Savvy Cycling Now:

“Truth & Techniques of Traffic Cycling” contains a lot of information and ideas. They are easy to digest in a series of one-hour sessions, spread over four weeks. This format has proven itself.

St. Louis, April 21-25

Instructors Karen Karabell and Matthew Brown are running a full three-part course April 21-25. The classroom session is online and the on-bike sessions will be adapted with Covid precautions.

Boston area, May 14-15

Instructors John Allen, Bruce Lierman and John Brooking are running a full three-part course May 14-15. As with the St. Louis course, the classroom session will be online. The in-person sessions will be in Waltham, 10 miles west of the Boston downtown area. Both on-bike sessions will be on the same day, May 15.

Check Out Ride Awesome!

Ride Awesome!CyclingSavvy’s premium online course — is … awesome. There’s truly nothing like it. During the pandemic, lifetime access to Ride Awesome! is half price. This is the best fifty bucks you’ll ever spend.

This too qualifies students to proceed to discounted on-bike sessions anywhere, anytime and with any instructor. With enough requests, we should be able to have on-bike sessions within driving distance for most U.S. participants. Let us know if you want to complete the course. Contact us

The Top Three Essential Bike-Handling Skills

This post continues our series on A Beginner’s Guide to Bike Safety. Today we cover three essential bike handling skills that will keep you safe, and enhance your enjoyment of riding.

Nasic bicycling skills: hand signaling

Wherever you ride, certain bike handling skills are essential.

These bike handling skills are essential whether you are riding on a multi-use path with other bicyclists, or on a road with cars. After you know how to balance and steer, these top three bike handling skills will serve you well.

Essential Bike Handling Skill #1: Starting and Stopping

It sounds simple, but do you know the best way to start and stop on your bike? Many people don’t.

If you’re only starting out from in front of your house and rolling through stop signs in your neighborhood, not knowing the best way to start and stop might not be a problem. But what about when you get out on a trail and interact with others, or when you get to a stop sign and actually must stop for a motorist who got there first?

If you’re on the road at a red light, knowing the best way to start lets you move out faster when the light turns green. Confidence in your stopping and starting is an essential first step.

The commonly recommended start is the “power pedal” start, which CyclingSavvy Instructor and author John Allen describes in this post. Besides being the most stable way to start, it’s the only method I know of that works on an uphill grade.

Power pedal start

Power pedal starting technique: Standing in front of the saddle, push down and release the brakes as you start pedaling and shift your butt onto your seat.

Best Way to Start

Stand over your bike. On most bikes, if you can sit on the saddle while standing over your bike, the saddle is too low. If you create or have a free Savvy Cyclist membership, look for the excellent one-minute video on starting and stopping, which includes a visual demonstration of proper saddle height.

You must create an account at CyclingSavvy — at the “Free” level or higher —  to watch this video, and all the useful videos in the free Essentials Short Course.

While you are standing over your bike, use the top of your foot to move one pedal to a “two-o’clock” position — but no higher than your bike’s down tube. This is the “Power Pedal” position.

With one foot in the “Power Pedal” position, your hands will be lightly holding your brakes. When you’re ready to start, you’ll perform three maneuvers at the same time. As you release the brakes, you’ll use your foot to start your “Power Pedal,” and you’ll lift your butt gently onto the saddle.

Putting a foot down for a landing

When stopping: With one foot in the “six-o’clock” position, put the other foot down to land.

Best Way to Stop

Take one foot off the pedal, put the other pedal down to the lowest “6 -clock” position, brake gently, and slide forward off the saddle, landing on the foot you took off the pedal.

Once you’re logged in to CyclingSavvy (with your free Savvy Cyclist or any membership), watch the one-minute video titled “Starting and Stopping.” This visual demonstration will speak a thousand words.

For a deep dive on this subject, see this article on Sheldon Brown’s website.

Essential Bike Handling Skill #2: Riding in a Straight Line

Do you wobble? You can practice holding a straight line in a lined parking lot, following a parking line. You’ll find it’s actually easier the faster you go.

Why is this important? Riding in a straight line is more predictable. Wobbling around makes it harder for you to control your bike. It also makes others on the road or path with you nervous, because they don’t know what you’re going to do.

Once you are okay with straight-line riding, practice riding with one hand, using the other to make a hand signal, maybe ring your bell or pick up and put back your water bottle, if you have those things.

Stability and straight line riding when hand signaling is an essential skill.

Essential Bike Handling Skill #3: Turning Your Head

This is key to your safety and confidence, because obviously you must be able to see what’s going on behind you before you change your line of travel. Even with a mirror, a head turn is essential, for a couple of reasons.

Mirrors have blind spots. Also, looking over your shoulder serves as communication. A shoulder check allows you to confirm that you have the attention of drivers (or path users) behind you. You let them know that you are aware of them, and alert them that you may be about to do something different.

Practice “shoulder check” in a parking lot with a spouse or friend. Ride one in front of the other. The person behind can hold up fingers while the person in front looks over his/her/their shoulder, and shouts out how many fingers are held up.

Whether on a road or on a path, look back. Don’t rely on a mirror.

Turning your head without swerving can be hard to do. Maybe that’s a reason many cyclists don’t do it. Practice makes perfect!

Different people look back in different ways. It also depends on the geometry of the bike. Like most physical actions, looking back is hard to describe, and it mostly just takes practice. Here are some ways you can practice, to see what works best for you:

  • Keep both hands on the handlebar, and attend to keeping your arms straight.
  • Mentally counteract the temptation to swerve left by imagining steering slightly to the right, without actually doing it.
  • Whichever shoulder you are looking over, take your hand off that handlebar and place it on your thigh. (If you are looking over your left shoulder, you’d take your left hand off the handlebar.)
  • Instead of simply rotating your head left, lean it a bit forward and down while looking back. This works especially well with road bike geometry, when you’re already leaning forward. Some road cyclists riding in an extreme aerodynamic position even look under their armpits!
  • However you do it, you’ll be more stable and perhaps able to concentrate better if you stop pedaling momentarily.

scan back on sidepath

Shoulder check is an essential skill.

As with other straight-line riding, you can practice this in a parking lot, riding along the lines. In class, we make it fun by having pairs of students ride one behind the other. The one in back holds up a certain number of fingers, and the one in front has to look back and tell the other how many fingers. Try it with a friend!

You’ll usually be looking behind to the left, but you may sometimes also need to look to the right, so practice that, too.

And onward…

Next: we’ll move on to a couple of skills which build on the basics: braking and cornering.

Optional equipment for safety’s sake

Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series directed mostly toward beginners. The introductory article covered checking the bicycle for safety,  and each article links to the next. So far we’ve covered lights, rear-view mirrors, and bells. Lights are required by law at night. Mirrors, and in most places, bells, are optional equipment.

Optional Equipment: Policy and Good Sense

The American Bicycling Education Association requires that everyone wear a helmet in its on-bike sessions, but makes no policy statements about any legally-optional equipment. Such statements can do as much harm as good. Convenience (“just hop on the bike”) can be at odds with having to manage equipment and change in and out of special clothing. Expense may be a concern.

So: You decide what measures you will adopt to improve your comfort and safety, beyond what the law requires. Generally, longer rides merit more preparation, as comfort takes on more importance. The special clothing that recreational and racing cyclists wear isn’t just for show. But some options apply to any ride.

Bright & Tight

There’s no doubt that some colors show up better than others. Although bright-colored clothing is optional — and no substitute for lights at night — it can’t hurt. Retroreflective surfaces on your clothing or on accessories such as panniers are even more helpful to a driver whose headlights are shining on you.

Dorky, or super practical? You decide.

When I talk to kids about bike safety, I sometimes ask for a show of hands: “How many of you have ever gotten your shoelace caught in the chain?” There are always a few.

This is the meaning of “tight”: Make sure you don’t have any loose straps or clothing dangling, especially if your bicycle doesn’t have a chainguard. I like to take care of long shoelaces by tucking the extra length into the sides of my shoes.

You can roll up long pant legs, or secure them with rubber bands or straps, or tuck them into your socks. You must wear long socks to allow this. Some people think this is dorky, but it is super convenient, and only the socks ever get chain stains.

Many pedals lack retroreflectors. Reflectorized legbands not only substitute for these, but also are visible from the sides.

reflectorized legbands: optional equipment but can substitute for pedal reflectors

Reflectorized legbands: bright and tight.

Secure any hanging strings or straps from backpacks or panniers. Do not dangle baggage from the handlebar, where it risks getting caught in the spokes of the front wheel.

Those who wear dresses can tuck extra material under the saddle, or use this cool trick to make the skirt into faux pants with a penny and a rubber band. Some European-style bikes eliminate this issue with a full chainguard as well as a “skirt guard” over the rear wheel, but these are not common in North America.

Wear a helmet?

In the Five Layers bike safety model, a helmet is included in the last layer, “Injury Reduction.” Protective equipment helps only when all the previous safety layers have failed.

Your chances of needing a helmet are pretty low on any given trip, especially if you follow all the other safety advice. But the consequences can be dire if you hit your head without a helmet. Many cyclists have stories of crashes in which they feel their helmet saved their life. I have had less severe crashes, thankfully, but I have had a few solo falls in which my helmet tapped the ground. It happens.

In North America, most states require a helmet for children and younger teens, but it is optional for adults. Should you choose to wear a helmet, make sure that it’s certified by the U. S. Consumer Protection Safety Commission, CPSC. (If you want a deep dive into geekiness, here’s the CPSC’s technical document on the subject.) Replace your helmet every few years, when it has begun to deteriorate, and of course whenever it’s involved in a crash. There is little difference in effectiveness between the better inexpensive helmets and a $200 helmet with all the latest features — though weight, ventilation and appearance vary. For comparisons, check out the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute’s reviews.

Helmet fit and adjustment

A helmet needs to be snug on your head. It must be level on your forehead, not pushed back. The strap must be snug under your chin. The ear straps should come together just under your earlobes.

Two easy ways to remember helmet fit are the “two finger test”, and the “eyes, ears, and mouth” test.

  1. Eyes: Your helmet should come down on your forehead about two fingers’ width above your eyebrows.
  2. Ears: Each ear strap should come together just under and slightly in front of your ear, as if you were making a letter V with your fingers under it.
  3. Mouth: The strap should be just tight enough to fit a finger (or two side-by- side) between the strap and your chin. When you open your mouth, you should feel the strap tighten.

A helmet may have a visor — helpful when the sun is low, and at night. Even without one, your helmet can help block glare if you tilt your head down. And as described in a previous article, a helmet is a convenient place to hang a rear-view mirror.

Footwear: So many options

Open-toed shoes can really mess up your toes in a crash. Insecure footwear like flip-flops can also impair your control of the bike, if they slip around or fall off while you’re riding.

Different shoes work best with different kinds of pedals:

  • Rubber soles are slippery when wet on pedals with smooth metal platforms, but fine on pedals with teeth that grip.
  • Leather and hard plastic soles slide around on anything other than rubber-block pedals.
  • Toeclips and straps work well with most athletic shoes, but can leave marks on the uppers — not good for your fancy shoes.
  • Clipless pedals need special shoes with cleats. Beginner cyclists do better to postpone foot retention. Learning how to safely use clipless pedals on roads and trails is a skill in itself.

Bicycling gloves: optional equipment but they can prevent injury

Fingerless cycling gloves are a wise option in warm weather.


Gloves increase comfort and avoid injury if you break a fall with your hand — and not only injury to the hand. You’ll be more willing to put your palm down if you know that the pavement will not sandpaper it.

Gloves are not only last-resort passive safety equipment, either.  At night, a glove with a reflectorized back makes a super blinking turn signal for drivers behind you. Just stick out your arm and turn your wrist back and forth. Many gloves and mittens have reflectorized patches; few fingerless bicycling gloves do, though you can add reflective tape yourself.


In the next post in this series, we move on from equipment to riding technique.

Diagram of light beams from cars and bicycle

Bicycle Lights: To See and Be Seen By

This post about bicycle lights is the second in a series about basic equipment and skills.

In October, as this post is published, hours of daylight grow shorter where most of our readers live and ride. My previous post explains how to check out your bicycle and determine that it is safe to ride.

But, is it safe to ride during hours of darkness?

Laws require lights for night riding, and lights are crucial for safety. Even if you don’t think you’re going to ride at night, it’s a good idea to have lights. Someday you may get caught out after dark unprepared. Besides, night riding can be quite enjoyable with the proper bicycle lights. There is often less traffic, so it can be very relaxing, if you can be confident that people can see you.

There are too many different lights to get into in much detail here, but I’ll try to help you make a choice.

a shaped-beam headlight. Note the scoop-shaped internal mirror.

A shaped-beam battery-powered headlight. Note the scoop-shaped internal mirror.

How Bright the Light?

Any taillight sold at a bike shop will do. Many bicycle lights are sold in packs of one headlight and one taillight.

Bicycle headlights come in a wide range of brightness. If you will be riding only in town with streetlights, you can get by with a headlight just bright enough to alert people to your approach. But, on rural roads or on trails at night, much brighter headlights are necessary — and available.

The better bright headlights have a shaped beam pattern like that of a car headlight to spare input power and avoid blinding people. You can identify the beam pattern quickly by shining the light at a wall. Brightness is most often measured in lumens — total light output. But many very bright headlights (up to 1000 lumens) have a round beam pattern. These lights are preferable only for riding off road, or for additional visibility in daytime.

Shaped headlight beam throws a long beam without blinding people.

Shaped pattern throws a long beam without blinding people.

Round beam glares into people's eyes unless aimed low

Round beam glares into people’s eyes unless aimed low.

For many years, the most common taillight in the USA was the “blinky,” pioneered by Vistalite. It attaches to the standard US two-hole reflector bracket.


A “blinky” as pioneered by Vistalite

A common type of taillight these days attaches in a variety of locations with a stretchy rubber strap. Unlike the Vistalite, these lights do not include retroreflective panels.


This taillight slips out of its bracket for security or to charge the battery. It does not include retroreflective panels.

Reflectors: useful, but no substitute for lights

Why should you use lights in town with streetlights? Because without your own lights, you are surprisingly invisible whenever you are not directly under a streetlight. And car headlights do not necessarily reveal you.

Now, your bicycle probably has — or had, when new — reflectors, those plastic, jewel-like pieces attached at the rear, the front, to the pedals and the spokes. Some bicycle tires have retroreflective strips on the sidewalls, and you can buy retroreflective stick-on tape and clothing.

Reflectors use optical trickery to send light back in a narrow beam in the direction it came from. When the headlights of a car point at a reflector, it will shine brightly for the driver.

But, more often than you may realize:

  • A motorist is planning to cross in front of you: worse yet if the car is backing out of a driveway!
  • A motorist opposite you at an intersection is preparing to turn left, and you are all the way over on the other side of the road from the light source;
  • You are approaching someone who has no headlight — pedestrians, especially.

Diagram of light beams from cars and bicycle

Without a bicycle headlight, these motorists would have a hard time seeing the bicyclist soon enough. Reflectors won’t help.

Rear- and side-facing reflectors can help make you visible. Laws sometimes require them too, but they don’t substitute for bicycle lights. Though the headlights of a vehicle approaching from behind point toward you, drivers of some large vehicles sit high above the headlights. Fog, rain, dust, or water on a bicycle reflector’s surface can reduce its effectiveness. Also, the standard rear-facing reflector is rather small. Still, your taillight could go out without your noticing, and you wouldn’t want to be without rear-facing reflectors then. Even if your taillight includes reflector panels, it’s smart to use additional rear-facing reflective items. Many people run two taillights, in case one fails.

How Bicycle Lights Are Powered

Bicycle lights have any of three sources of electrical power:

Power Source Brightness Run Time Price
Replaceable alkaline batteries Least bright (some only to alert people, not to see by) Longest (50-100 hours) Cheapest (under $50)
Integrated rechargeable batteries (by wall plug or USB) Moderately to blindingly bright 2-6 hours; longer for taillights Moderate to expensive (up to $200)
Generator Moderate to bright (may go dark at a stop but not all do) Unlimited :-) Moderate to expensive ($20-$800)

Most battery-powered bicycle lights are easy to install and remove. Generator lights are permanently attached to the bicycle. The generator may be of the old “bottle” variety, mounted near the wheel and driven by the tire when engaged. Newer generators are built into the hub of the wheel. We strongly recommend purpose-built bicycle lights, as opposed to jury-rigged flashlights, or lights attached to clothing or backpacks. Bicycle lights attached to the bicycle stay attached and aligned better.

Bicycle Light Settings and Modes

Many lights have different power settings and modes, which can also affect the run time. Modes include steady, blinking, or other kinds of fancier blink patterns. Many cyclists use a blink pattern to get people’s attention better, but blinking makes it harder to track motion, and may also induce seizures in some people. My personal preference is for a steady light front and back after dark, but blinking when there is still some daylight: dawn/dusk, rain, fog, heavy cloud cover.

Generators supply power only when the bicycle is moving, but many generator lights have “standlight” energy storage, and shine at reduced brightness for a few minutes when the bicycle has stopped.

Also see my original FreeBikeHelp post.

Next: use a rear-view