Cycling Lights: What You Need To Know

Cycling Lights: What You Need To Know

Right now in the Midwest, we’re experiencing an exceptionally balmy late winter. We may not need studded tires anymore, but we’re still contending with short days and dark rides. Cycling lights are especially important during this time of year.  For riders looking for lights, there is one essential question you need to ask first: do you need to be seen, or do you want to see?

To Be Seen:

Flashing notification lights are great for helping you be seen by others on the road, but they do not have the power (lumens) to help you see the road in low-light conditions.  These lights are best for biking on cloudy days or other daylight conditions when you can see the road, but you want to make yourself more visible to drivers.

Blinkers, flashers and the like typically start under twenty dollars, but their improvement in a rider’s visibility is massive. Even the most basic sets will force drivers, other cyclists and pedestrians to take notice you. They’re also made for longer-lasting use and relatively inexpensive, so you can put them on your bike and forget they’re there until needed.


These types of light usually run on triple-a or watch batteries, which, while cheaper, won’t be bright. Higher-end lights will run off of more powerful, USB-rechargeable batteries. They usually have multiple flash settings that vary the battery life. Steady modes, flash modes, varying levels of brightness all add up to one light letting you be as visible as you want to be, regardless of condition. Take a look at the Specialized Stix head and tail lights for prime examples of lights that will keep you visible.

To See:

If when answering the age-old question of whether you want to see or be seen, you found yourself saying “Well, both of course,” then rest assured: if your light is bright enough for you to see, you will be seen easily.

Any cyclist planning to ride at dusk, dawn or anytime in between needs something stronger than a flash notification light.  The light should be bright enough to illuminate the road ahead of you and allow you to see objects and obstacles in enough time to avoid them.

To gauge how bright a light is, a good metric is lumens. Lumens are a measurement of actual light output and have become the standard for comparing light performance across the industry.

How many lumens do you need? If you only have one light source on a dark night, we recommend a minimum of 500 lumens to see what is in front of you on the road.  For a source of comparison, low beams on a car will be about 700 lumens.


Cyclists want to stand out in traffic, and they want to see things clearly regardless of conditions. You’ll find lights in the 700-900 lumen range to be fairly common for commuters. Paired with a bright tail light and you will ensure your place on the road. One of the most popular lights out there, the NiteRider Lumina 750, even comes in a combo pack that includes their Sabre tail light, measured at a solid 50 lumens.


These light come with multiple brightness settings and flash modes. You can adjust the level of light to fit the riding conditions.  Also, the lower brightness settings on a high-lumen light help the battery last significantly longer. Consider that an 800-lumen headlight typically gets 1.5 hours on 800 lumens, but at its lowest steady setting it’s putting out 500 lumens for a good five hours.

These lights will often come with helmet-mounting options.  Like a headlamp, the light follows where you look.  For anyone doing a lot of riding at night, we recommend mounting lights on both the handlebars and helmet.  This set-up keeps the road lit and allows you to see your surroundings.

Off-Road Lights:

Brave souls addicted to dirt take their mountain bikes off road for some night adventures. Whether it’s for an endurance mountain bike race, or for pure pleasure, the split-second decisions along the razor’s edge of technical night time trail riding require more light.


For that, you should look for something along the lines of 1000-2000 lumens. These lights often come with multiple LEDs to get a broader beam with fewer “hotspots” of light, which results in better depth perception and more intuitive riding. To match the huge power requirements of these lights, it’s not uncommon to find external battery packs, connected with cables to the lamp itself. Like the commuter headlights above, it’s not uncommon to find optional mounts to put these spotlights on your helmet.

The NiteRider Pro 1800 Race is one such light, versatile enough to handle any trail, and strong enough to last the night. For riders pushing their limits, it’s the difference-maker.



If you don’t ride at night and just want to make sure that you are seen on the road, a pair of notification flashers will work. If you ride in low light conditions, a 700 lumens USB-rechargeable light is a good start. For trail riding through the night, you’ll want the pinnacle of brightness that comes with 1000+ lumens and multiple LED bulbs.

Regardless of where you’re riding, there’s a light to match your needs.  Click here to shop cycling lights.  Now get out and ride!

A special thanks to Andrew Stimpson, our Madison West Assistant Store Manager, for writing this article.  

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