Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Night Riding Thetford Forest

Britain is a pretty dark place over winter. For five months of the year its dark just after you leave work which, if you love off road cycling, is really quite a drag. There you have your £1000+ MTB sitting idle except for the odd weekend day for what amounts to about one third of the year.

Well fret no more ! The last decade has seen a revolution in lighting with brighter than ever lights and longer run times thanks to LED technology. More on the technology I am using later.

My current two light setup pumps out enough light to ride offroad at night. I have tried this out on local byways and bridleways and have had a blast. But, it wasn't until last weekend, I got round to went to Thetford Forest to try some technical riding with a friend.

Here is the video of that ride. The light captured is a small fraction of what you can really see but at least gives a sense of what it is like. The opening scene is at dusk with no lights.

The footage was captured on a camera called an MD80. This is a £10 camera you can get from Ebay and it a copy of the Veho Muvi. You have to add an SD card to that price. I have tried videoing with my stills camera and it is unable to capture anything at all. The MD80, although very blurry at least capture something and in daylight does a pretty reasonable job for £10.

Riding at night is a absolute hoot. It is really quite different to riding in the day. The lighting of obstacles is strange and at times misleading so you make more mistakes but this adds to the challenge and fun.

The lighting of the landscape makes everything look really different too. Thetford looks really pretty by night. Something that did surprise me was the lack of wildlife. On bridleways you see loads, but at Thetford, there was only three packs of deer in two hours. Very easy to spot with a head torch as you see the backs of two eyes shining back at you and they stop blinded. That works on dogs too.

There is something really satisfying about riding at night. I recommend it.

I will say that my cheap setup is good enough on the flat, but doesn't throw enough light forward to downhill at speed.

About the Lights

My first LED light was (still is) the CatEye HL-EL135. This is a light that great in town to be seen with, but between villages, it is almost useless, illuminating a tiny dimly lit spot in front of you.

For commuting and off-roading I decided it was time to upgrade.

Investigations showed that you could spend: £50-150 to get a reasonable front light for on road riding, or £300+ plus for real and capable MTB offroading lights. I wasn't ready to spend £300 and forum reviews of the cheaper lights were telling me that they were not good enough for off-roading.

There was another option. Some riders had discovered that torch technology was advancing too, and that they were much cheaper than bike specific lights. To make even further savings it was possible to import from China to cut out the middle man. This is what I did.

What lights are available from China is a moving target. For the latest advice, checkout the BikeRadar forum's MTB - What Lights thread.

This is the setup I was using in the video:

The What Lights thread was suggesting that you needed a wide angle bar mounted light, plus a more focussed spot light on your helmet to see further. I agree that this setup works well for technical trails. For standard bridleways with few sharp turns you can happily use a bar light alone.

What I can say is that the wide angle beams are not suitable on road and are blindingly bright to look at no matter where you angle them. I managed to get a car to turn off its high beams half a kilometre away with mine. When commuting I use my spot light torch mounted on the handlebar and angle it well down. That way I do not get flashed, but can see far enough ahead.

These are the torches I have bought:

These were bought from a site called Deal Extreme
The larger is known as a P7, is wide angle and cost £25. The smaller, C1-R2 cost £15. One year later when technology improved I was able to upgrade the LED module to a Cree XPG R5 for £9.

The batteries inside are not generally available on retail shelves. They are a standard known as 18650, are lithium rechargables and push out 3 to 4.2 Volts. These are not the sort of batteries you can buy in the local shop as they are pretty serious - if you mistreat them they can explode. They are inside Dell laptop battery packs - typically about 6. You can buy protected and unprotected cells with safety circuitry to prevent overcharging by poor chargers. That added safety cost a few more pence.

Two of these batteries cost £10 and one lasts about two hours in my P7, and in my more modern XPG module, at least 10 hours on max.

Below, one of the torches is disassembled. They are very simple. A body to hold a single battery; a tail cap with on/off/mode switch; plastic lens. The final part is the drop in module. It is an LED with circuitry on the end which controls the mode (low/medium/high/strobe/sos) activated by a half press on the tail cap.

A word of caution. Initially, I bought a fairly cheap charger from Deal Extreme which claimed to cope with 240 volts but went bang when I plugged it in. Then I discovered on a forum that my torch was a copy and not a manufacturer original. Then I read on the DealExtreme forums that people were having trouble with a branded charger. A copy ? I don't know. I decided to take no chances a order a new charger from the UK for £17. Also, anything ordered from DE seems to take a couple of months to arrive. Also, one torch would also change mode randomly with bumps. I traced this to a rattling battery and wrapped in paper to take up excess space. Build quality is questionable with these fake/cheap products.

My total investment has been about £100 and allows me to go offroading. I am pleased with the final setup despite the initial teething problems.

My friend has an Exposure MaXx-D on his bar, which is far brighter and an excellent light - it is about £300. In the video he was running at 50% power. This unit contains 4x Cree XPG modules (note: the same module as my head torch except I have one). It would be interesting to know what batteries are being used. His unit comes with a charger.

If you don't want the hassle and worry of a cheap Chinese import, then the Exposure light is well worth the money. If you are an electronics dabbler and a fixer, then checkout the What Lights thread. Last time I looked, the Magic Shine unit was being recommended.


Futher testing is showing that each of my lights run for about 2 hours on maximum setting on one battery.  They pump out enough light to have a good time in a flat but twisty forest.  More lighting would be better but for the price I am very happy with the setup.  I am confident enough in their ability, so I have entered the 2011 Thetford Dusk 'till Dawn 12 hour endurance relay race.

Update: Winter 2011

Every year new LED technology comes out and this year is no different.  This year I bought a torch with an XM-L T6 module inside for US$31 (£19).  My DealExtreme delivery took 4 weeks this time.

Being torch based, I am not buying the charger and batteries with the light which is why it is so cheap. Two batteries are US$8 and last two hours each on max.

I have to say that this light is insanely bright in the middle, if it was any brighter, the ground would be too bright to look at. It over powers the helmet light I have been using so I may relegate that to commuting only now as it has a nice tight spot which lights in front of you but it not too anti social.  I will try putting my P7 on my head for off roading.

One advantage I have found with my torch setup, is that the torches can be dipped by physically pointing the light down.  I have the simple mount tightened enough that it wont move on its own. This is not possible with the bigger bar mounted lights, although as technology moves on, lights are becoming smaller and lighter.

Another update:  Feb 2012

I found a fab site with comparison shots of the light output.  Torchy the Battery Boy Click on the Bike Light Database section.

Also worth noting is my first failure.  On my first light, now three seasons old, a P7 based light with two modes, the lower setting has failed.  It is unregulated so I suspect there is a simple resistor that has failed.  Unusually, this torch is glued together so I have not bothered to break into it.  I only use it for off-road cycling so the high mode is fine anyway.  If I ride with the XML-T6 torch on my helmet, I don't need another light, although the P7 does have a very nice wide flood for peripheral vision.

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