A Minimalist Lighting System

Planet Bike Blaze 2W
Planet Bike Blaze 2W

A common question is, “What is a simple, minimalist lighting set-up for commuting and utility riding that provides enough light to both see and be seen by, yet doesn’t cost an arm and a leg?”

In the past, the answer was not so clear cut because lights that were powerful enough to see and be seen by were neither simple nor inexpensive. Now, with the advent of highly efficient LED light emitters (aka “bulbs”), sufficiently powerful lights have become both simple and relatively inexpensive. Unless someone is participating in 24-hour mountain bike races or on-road ultra-endurance events, both of which require ultra-high-powered lighting and extremely long run times, a perfectly functional lighting system can be had for under $100.

There are a number of alternatives on the market, but my favorite minimalist system consists of a Planet Bike Blaze 2W headlight and a Planet Bike Superflash tail light.

The Blaze 2W Headlight

The Blaze 2W is a two-watt headlight powered by 2/AA batteries*. It has high and low beams plus a blinding “Superflash” strobe. Run times are excellent at 5 hours on high, 12 hours on low, and 18 hours on strobe. It has a tight, but surprisingly bright, round beam (I prefer a slightly wider beam, but that would also diminish the intensity of the beam, so it’s a fair trade-off). The casing is made of plastic with an alloy heat-sink and a rubber seal where it comes apart for changing batteries. It comes supplied with an adjustable, quick-release handlebar mount. The Blaze is a great little headlight that gets the job done with minimal fuss.

The Superflash Tail Light

The Superflash tail light is available in three models: the 1-watt Turbo, the 1/2-watt Stealth, and the 1/2-watt original. They’re all sufficiently bright and eye-catching. The Superflash strobe pattern is so bright and distinctive that it’s recognizable from a quarter of a mile away. And recognize it I do; it has become so ubiquitous among battery-powered tail lights that I see one nearly every day throughout the winter commuting season. The Superflash is popular for good reason: it’s tiny, incredibly bright, lightweight, reasonably priced, with great run times and that distinctive, eye-catching strobe pattern.

Planet Bike Superflash Stealth
Planet Bike Superflash Stealth

The Superflash comes supplied with a seat-post style clamp and a built-in clip. A bracket for mounting down low on a rear rack is also available (sold separately). Though it’s not necessary, we sometimes run two on our commuters; one on the seatpost and one on the rear rack. As you can imagine, motorists give us a wide berth.

The Blaze 2W / Superflash combo is a great value in a minimalist lighting set-up for commuting and utility riding. The Blaze provides enough light to both see and be seen by, and the Superflash is the class-leading tail light. Sure, it’s possible to spend more and put together a high-powered battery or dynamo system, but if you’re looking for a simple and effective lighting system that’s easy to install and easy on your pocketbook, it’s hard to beat these little LEDs from Planet Bike.

Planet Bike

Disclosure: Planet Bike is a sponsor of this website. They’re also one of the most active supporters of bicycle advocacy groups in the industry. Read more about their programs here.

*Note: I highly recommend the use of rechargeable batteries. You can read my article on rechargeables here.

Supernova E3 / Shimano Alfine Dynamo Lighting System

Supernova/Alfine
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Background
No year-round commuter bike is complete without lights, and no commuter bike is more of a car replacement than one outfitted with an always-available, dynamo-powered lighting system. In the past, we’ve owned bikes with dynamo systems, but in recent years we’ve relied mostly on battery-powered LED (light-emitting diode) lights and rechargeable batteries. This is mostly due to the fact that we have so many bikes coming and going that it makes sense to use removable lights, but it’s also because we’ve been waiting for dynamo-powered LED lights to mature. With our new commuter build project this year, the time was right to invest in a new dynamo system.

System Components
Dynamo lighting systems include a headlight, a tail light, a generator, and the wiring to tie it all together.

Power sources used in dynamo lighting systems include hub generators and sidewall generators. Hub generators are built into the front hub and use the rotation of the hub to generate electricity. Sidewall generators mount on the frame and use a roller that presses against the tire to generate electricity. Hub dynamos are much more popular than sidewall dynamos, at least here in the U.S.

Supernova/Alfine
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The quality of dynamo-powered headlights and tail lights has improved dramatically over the past few years, mostly due to the advent of high-efficiency LED light emitters. In the past, low-output halogen lights were the norm, but the greater efficiency of LEDs has taken dynamo systems from “barely good enough” to “far more than sufficient”.

While dynamo lighting systems offer a number of advantages, they’re not without their drawbacks:

Pros
Always available, instant-on lighting
Run on human-powered green energy
Permanently attached to bike (difficult to steal)

Cons
Limited to use on one bike
Relatively expensive
Wiring and set-up can be tricky

Supernova Lights
The Supernova E3 Pro is a latest-generation LED headlight driven by a CREE XPG R5 LED. The emitter is housed in a rugged casing machined from 6061 aluminum alloy. Total output is 370 lumens, with a 5 minute standlight built in.

Supernova/Alfine
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The E3 Pro is available with one of three mounting systems: the “Lefty” mount for disc brakes; the “Multimount” for V-brakes (or calipers with the addition of the optional adapter); or a handlebar mount. By removing the mounting arm from the Multimount model, the light body can also be mounted on a standard 6mm rando-type mount as shown in the accompanying photos.

The E3 Pro is available with either a Euro-style, asymmetrical “Terraflux” lens, or a more conventional, symmetrical “Iris” lens. The Terraflux model produces 305 lumens in a controlled beam that directs most of the light toward the road surface. The Iris model produces 370 lumens in a round beam that disperses the light more evenly above and below the light source. We opted for the Iris model.

Supernova Beam
Iris Beam
Supernova Beam
Terraflux Beam

The E3 Tail Light has a trio of 5mm LEDs set in a housing that, like the headlight, is machined from 6061 alloy. The housing is designed to fit 50mm Euro-style tail light rack mounts such as those supplied on Tubus racks. The LEDs are powered by a wire connected to the headlight, which also provides current for the 10 minute stand light.

Supernova/Alfine
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The E3 headlight and tail light are supplied with long wires with bare ends that have to be cut to length and fitted with the included connectors. Supernova also sells optional quick release connectors to facilitate easy removal of the lights (see photo below).

Supernova/Alfine
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Wiring a tail light can be a tricky. Some custom builders and at least one mainstream manufacturer route tail light wires through the frame. When a dynamo tail light is added aftermarket, the wire should be carefully routed along cable paths and attached to the frame at strategic locations with small zip ties. In the case of our project bike, the wire was routed along the rear shift cable, then up along the main vertical strut on the rear rack.

Supernova/Alfine
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The E3 Pro headlight is noticeably brighter than the battery lights we’ve been using the past couple of years, including the Planet Bike Blaze 2W, Fenix LD20, and Princeton Tec EOS. It fully lights up even the darkest roads and I feel it’s as bright as any headlight needs to be for commuting. The round Iris beam is not as focused as the Terraflux beam, which may be a disadvantage in the city where there’s lots of ambient light, but it more effectively illuminates shoulders and around curves on dark roads in rural areas.

The E3 tail light is not as bright as the Planet Bike Superflash tail light we’ve been using the past few years. The question is whether it’s bright enough to be safe. The answer is somewhat subjective, but I’ve ridden behind the little E3 and it certainly seems bright enough to me. Be aware that it’s not recommended to mix Supernova headlights and tail lights with other brands of dynamo-powered lights, so if you prefer a more eye-catching rear light, I’d opt for a battery-powered flasher such as those from Planet Bike or Portland Design Works.

Shimano Alfine Dynamo Hub
Most modern dynamo hubs work pretty well. Like other hubs, high end dynamo hubs will tend to last longer, roll smoother, and weigh less than their less expensive counterparts. The Alfine is a high-performance dynamo hub from Shimano built with Ultegra-level parts. It runs with relatively low drag (I can’t feel it at all), and it will power any 6-volt headlight and tail light without issue.

Conclusion
As you can see in the photos and discern by reading the specs, the E3 lights are beautifully constructed. The machined housings and other fittings are quite robust. The CREE LED emitters provide more than enough light for commuting and should outlast almost any bicycle. I’ve yet to test the system in the rain, but so far it’s been flawless (I’ll follow-up this winter with a wet weather report). I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to have instant-on, always available lighting without the need for batteries; the only problem now is that I have to start saving pennies to set-up our other bikes with similar systems!

Supernova/Alfine
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E3 Pro Headlight

  • Maximum Brightness: 370 Lumens
  • Stand Light: 5 Minutes
  • Lens Type: Iris (symmetrical)
  • Emitter: CREE XPG R5 LED
  • Dimensions: 65mm x 45mm
  • Material: 6061 Aluminum
  • Weight: 130 grams
  • Price: $205

E3 Tail Light

  • Stand Light: 10 Minutes
  • Emitters: 3 x 5mm Red LEDs
  • Dimensions: 60mm x 11mm x 15mm
  • Material: 6061 Aluminum
  • Weight: 20 grams
  • Price: $60

Shimano Alfine Dynamo Hub

  • Width: 100mm OL
  • Spokes: 32
  • Brake Mount: CenterLock
  • Price: $120 (plus the cost of a wheel build)

Supernova

Two Porteur Racks, One User’s Experiences

Rack
Pass & Stow (L), Nitto (R)

[The following guest post was written and photographed by our friend, Mel Hughes. —ed.]

By Mel Hughes

Nitto Mark’s Rack + Nitto PlatRack

My new Rivendell A. Homer Hilsen has given me too many opportunities to experiment and try to decide what types of racks and bags would best suit my needs. In particular, the front Porteur type racks were very attractive to me. My first addition was a Nitto Mark’s Rack. I found the design attractive but a bit small for the kind of things I wanted to carry back and forth to work, so I added a Nitto PlatRack extension to the Mark’s Rack to increase its carrying capacity. Both are constructed and finished in the high standard we all expect of Nitto. They are like chromo jewelry.

Rack
Nitto Mark’s Rack + Nitto PlatRack

The Mark’s/PlatRack combo gives the owner a lot of flexibility. The extra-wide platform (16″ x 9″) is great for baskets, bags, and especially for Rivendell’s Sackville SlickerSack (though it makes maneuvering the bike in tight quarters a little cumbersome). The PlatRack can be removed quickly, leaving the Mark’s Rack in place for smaller, lighter loads or small bags like the Rivendell Sackville Trunksacks or Nigel Smythe Li’l Loafers. The Mark’s Rack can even be installed in the rear, if needed. The SlickerSack and PlatRack were designed for each other, but I would have to secure yet another bag on top to carry my laptop and office stuff. And I am still undecided about the odd shape of the PlatRack; I suspect that owning a SlickerSack would certainly improve my impressions.

Racks
Nitto Detail

Pass & Stow

I had admired the Pass & Stow rack that Alan has used on several different bikes. It was a more classical shape built on a bit heavier frame than the Nittos. I also found that there were at least two bag makers who had designed and produced bags specifically to fit the Pass & Stow (Freight Baggage and Swift). After consulting with Matt Feeney, who is Pass & Stow, I ordered one of the new three-piece racks in silver.

Racks
Pass & Stow

When I received the Pass & Stow, my first impression was of the industrial strength quality of the components. The platform of the Pass & Stow is 11″ wide x 12″ long, a more traditional rectangular shape with a raised rear package rail that extends the full width of the rack. This shape and dimension makes it easy to secure all manner of things on the rack. The right front support tube of the Pass & Stow is pre-drilled for dynamo wiring and the light mount has its own support tube designed to accept an M6 fastener. Both drop-outs have an extra set of mounting holes for fender mounting, if needed.

Racks
Pass & Stow Front View

In use, I found the Pass & Stow to be a real work horse. Strapping a Wald basket on it, using a cargo net to hold my helicopter helmet bag, or packing a Freight Baggage or Swift bag with clothes and “stuff”, it carried my things effortlessly. The lack of adjustable rods makes it an extremely rigid rack with few critical parts to fail or be lost. I am really taken with the overall utility and strength of this rack.

Racks
Pass & Stow Detail

If you decide to buy a rack like this, be prepared to wait a bit as you are dealing with a custom steelworker. Having said that, one of the great benefits of choosing a piece of equipment like the Pass & Stow is the pleasure of dealing directly with a craftsman like Matt Feeney. He was extremely helpful and patient with my questions and additions.

Nitto Mark’s Rack
Nitto PlatRack
Pass & Stow

A Follow-up: Michelin City

Michelin City

I wrote a brief report on the Michelin City commuting tire back in June. In that post, I described how I was pleasantly surprised by the ride quality of this relatively inexpensive tire, and that the true test would come during our flat season, which typically runs from mid-July through mid-September, when goathead thorns litter our trails and bike lanes.

For those who are unfamiliar, goatheads are thumbtack-like thorns that are notorious for causing punctures in bicycle tires. They are sharp and strong and they’ve been known to defeat just about every flat avoidance measure known to man. Standard road racing tires are a joke when goatheads are around; I’ve seen as many as 5 simultaneous punctures in one tire due to goat heads. The only tire I’ve personally ridden that withstands their attacks to some degree is the Schwalbe Marathon Supreme.

Goathead

When your tire picks up a goat head, it sounds as if you have a small rock caught in your tread — they’re that strong. This morning on my way in, I picked up what sounded like two small rocks, with a clear, “click-click, click-click” coming from the rear tire. I stopped to remove the rocks, and much to my chagrin, there were two large goatheads stuck in the tire. I pulled them out and proceeded on my way, assuming the tire would be flat in minutes.

Much to my surprise, the tube held — neither of the thorns made it through the City’s protective barrier. They were both deeply embedded and extremely sharp. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical about the flat resistance of this tire, and I’m more than a little surprised that the tire withstood a pair of large goatheads. It’s still too early in the season to come to any conclusions, but if this first experience is any indicator, the City may turn out to be a great commuting tire.

Michelin City

Versa VRS Levers

Versa Lever

A majority of modern internal gear hubs (IGHs) are supplied from the factory with either twist, thumb, or trigger shifters designed for flat bars (an exception being Sturmey Archer who offers bar-end and downtube shifters for their 3-speed and 5-speed hubs). Because IGHs are mostly spec’d on city and commuter bikes, the flat bar shifter design makes sense in most cases. But, with the increasing popularity of internal gear hubs, as well as the wider variety of bikes being classified as “commuters”, there appears to be a small, but growing demand for drop-bar-compatible IGH shifters such as the Versa from Sussex Enterprises.

The Versa is an “STI” style, integrated brake/shift lever (aka “brifter”) designed for use with Shimano Nexus and Alfine internal gear hubs. Sussex offers two models; the VRS-8 designed for use with 8-speed Nexus and Alfine hubs, and the VRS-11designed for use with the new Alfine 11 hub. Other than the fact that they’re designed to work with different hubs, the two models are nearly identical.

The Versa is a true road lever that pulls the appropriate amount of cable for road brakes such as dual-pivot calipers and cantilevers. It will also work with Avid mechanical disc brakes specifically designed for use with road levers. It will not work with linear pull or off-road mechanical disc brakes.*

Versa Lever

The designers of the Versa opted for a dedicated brake lever and two smaller levers for up- and down-shifting (see photo at top). Personally, I prefer this three-lever design over the more common two-lever design that uses the brake lever for shifting. Though I’ve certainly tried, I’ve never really adapted to the feel of a brake lever that moves in two planes.

I like the ergonomics of the Versa. The hood design borrows heavily from Shimano, SRAM, and others. It has a smooth transition off of the bar that provides good support and comfort. The long-ish body is easy to grip and provides ample room for changing hand positions. Both the brake and shift levers angle slightly toward the outside away from the lever body, making them easy to reach.

The Versa’s shifting action when combined with an Alfine hub is crisp and clean. Each click of either lever shifts the hub a single gear up or down. The shift levers are easy to reach and provide plenty of leverage. There is one idiosyncrasy to be aware of with the larger lever used for upshifting. The lever has a longer throw than necessary, which may lead one to push the lever further than is required to make the shift, occasionally causing a mis-shift. The trick is to only push the lever until it clicks and no further. Once I figured this out it’s been fine.

Versa Lever

Versa levers are clearly a niche product, yet I’ve been surprised by how many questions I’ve received regarding their installation and performance. This, along with our poll showing drop bars as the top choice among our readers, leads me to believe there may be a growing interest in IGH-equipped drop bar bikes. Personally, I’ve been happy with the ergonomics and clean cockpit provided by the drop bars and Versa levers on my Civia Bryant.

Sussex Enterprises

* NOTE: If you’re converting a bike from flat bars to drop bars with Versa levers (and assuming your bike is currently outfitted with MTB levers and linear-pull brakes), you’ll need to either replace your existing brakes with short-pull road brakes, or install a pair of Problem Solvers “Travel Agents” to match these short-pull road levers to your long-pull brakes.

Portland Design Works Takeout Basket

PDW Take Out
The Takeout Basket is an attractive, handlebar mounted carrier from Portland Design Works.

PDW Take Out
The smart design includes a U-lock slot and a headlight mounting point.

PDW Take Out
It’s a nicely detailed piece that seems plenty stout.

PDW Take Out
The included waterproof roll top bag will hold a coat, lunch, or a six pack.

PDW Take Out
The bag includes a shoulder strap for shopping.

PDW Take Out
The Takeout can also be used without the bag as a mini-porteur.

This is a really nice basket/rack that was easy to install and appears to be plenty stout for carrying small loads on the handlebar. It’s a great alternative for those who want some carrying capacity up front but either don’t have the attachment points or simply don’t need the capacity of a full-blown porteur rack. Good stuff.

Specifications

  • Waterproof roll top bag included
  • Eyelet for attaching light mount
  • Integrated u-lock carrying slot
  • 10 mm alloy tubes
  • Rack weight w/o bag 500 grams
  • Fits 25.4-31.8mm handlebars
  • Inside dimensions of basket: 155mm x 255mm x 105mm
  • $120

Portland Design Works

Sneak Peek: Wald 33WR Woven Reed Basket

Wald Woven Reed Basket
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Wald Woven Reed Basket
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Wald Woven Reed Basket
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Wald Woven Reed Basket
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The new 33WR from Wald is an absolutely gorgeous, yet perfectly practical, woven reed bicycle basket carried on a quick-release handlebar mount. This attractive basket is a perfect accessory for a bike like the Betty Foy (shown above) or any practical bike used for running errands, commuting, etc. Details below:

  • Limited edition woven reed handmade bicycle basket (includes handlebar mounts and canvas liner as shown)
  • Designed by Wald and handmade by Jan Treesh, a Lexington, KY artisan
  • Each basket is individually numbered, dated, signed, and will come with a Certificate of Authenticity
  • Approximate size is 13″ X 10″ X 8 3/4″ deep (each individual basket is unique)
  • Handlebar mounts and basket support are made by Wald in Maysville, KY (mounts fit up to 1″ diameter handlebar)
  • Canvas liner is made by Inertia Designs
  • Approximate retail price will be $100.00 including shipping

Because each basket is individually handcrafted in Kentucky by basket weaving artisan Jan Treesh, the 33WR will only be available on a limited basis. Please check the Wald website this summer for availability.

Wald

Discolsure: Wald is a sponsor of this website and provided the basket for this pre-review.


 
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