A good tail light helps a bike rider get noticed on the road at night. The front light, however, has a more difficult challenge -- it has to make you a beacon to drivers and make the darkened world visible to you.
We tested out four of the top front-wheel spotlights sold for under $120. Three were bright, but one was brilliant. You should be able to ask for any of these by brand at bike retailers or online.
We took all four lights to Burning Man, where navigation at night is tricky. You have to be able to see to avoid running over various objects lying on the ground. And you have to be seen so that you don't get run over by a giant mutant vehicle. Each light got two full days and nights on the handlebars, and they were pummelled by whiteout dust storms, 37C temperatures, freezing nights and even a little rain. They were also timed as they ran down from a full battery.
4th: Cateye Econom
The Econom has a very versatile mounting system that adapts even to very thin handlebars. It has three lighting modes: low, high and flashing. The button is all the way at the back, making it fairly easy to find. The best part of the light is the two notches toward the front of it on the sides. This allows light to escape from both sides, making you more visible from more angles. Seven hours of battery life on high, which leads the pack, and 20 on low.
Unfortunately, that's where the good stuff ends. The beam the Econom projects is extremely narrow and blocky. Not only does it give you a limited field of view, but it's hard to discern what you're looking at within the spotlight. It's also dimmer than the others, and it has big patches of yellow in it. It isn't rechargeable (it uses AAs), and it has a bigger, bulkier body. Cycling though modes is tricky, slow, and not particularly intuitive, and the quick-release was very sticky.
To be fair, this light costs half of what some of the others do, but you get far less than half the performance.
Cateye Econom Bulb type: LED Max lumens: Undisclosed Weight: 121 grams Side visible: Yes Battery type: 2x AA Price: Retails for $65-$100 in Australia.
3rd: Planet Bike Blaze 2-Watt
The Planet Bike Blaze 2W has a nice, solid feel to it. Its 2W LED bulb is well-focused, with a bright centre point and a dimmer circle around it. There are three modes: low, high and a very fast strobe. It too has cutouts around the side give you great perpendicular visibility. The battery lasts for an excellent five hours on high, and Planet Bike claims it gets 12 on low.
While the beam is focused very nicely, it's still not a whole lot brighter than the (too dim) Cateye. The mounting system was a bit more difficult to use than the others, and it came loose once while going over a bumpy patch. Again, not rechargeable. The power/mode button is black, and it's located way up on the front, making it tough to find in the dark. It's a good light for city riding, and it's totally decent for the price, but if you're riding on unlit roads, you're going to want something brighter.
Planet Bike Blaze 2 Bulb type: 2W LED Max lumens: Undisclosed Weight: 122 grams Side visible: Yes Battery Type: 2x AA Price: Retails for around $100 in Australia.
2nd: CygoLite ExpiliOn 410
This thing is officially super bright. 410 lumens, to be precise. It has seven modes between the various brightness levels and flashing patterns. It's made of a weatherproof aluminium alloy, and it feels very strong for its weight. The lithium-ion battery is USB rechargeable, with a low-battery indicator, and it's also swappable for very long trips with no charging available.
The beam, while super bright, is not focused as well as it could be. There is a blinding hotspot in the middle, surrounded by a pool of significantly less-bright light, and then a drop-off into darkness. This makes smaller objects harder to see. After two hours on high, the light got extremely dim to keep from dying all the way. On low, it's supposed to last 22 hours (we only tested on high).
There were some problems with the mounting bracket. The extension on the inside (which allows it to grip thinner handlebars) was not attached securely. The bracket loosened itself on a ride and the extension fell off, lost in the dirt forever, leaving the light useless until I wedged some paper towel scraps in there. This light gets hotter than any of the others (on high), to the point where you don't want to touch it. Also, there's no side cutouts, so this does no provide any visibility from the sides.
Despite a few flaws, it's overall a very solid light.
CygoLite ExpiliOn 410 Bulb type: Cree LED Max lumens: 410 Weight: 130 grams Side visible: No Battery type: Rechargeable, swappable li-ion Price: Retails for around $110 in Australia.
BESTMODO: NiteRider Lumina 500
This is what we were looking for: a super-bright, incredibly even pool of light. It's so perfectly focused that you can see even small objects when travelling at high speeds. It has five modes: low, medium, high, walk (very low), and a strobe that could light up a disco. On high, it pumps out a squint-inducing 500 lumens. It was the easiest to mount of all the lights, and it holds it position with a nice, tight grip. It's USB rechargeable, and it's built for rough treatment.
The biggest downside is battery life. On high, you're only going to get about one hour and 45 minutes. That said, on the dim setting (which is plenty bright) it'll last 20 hours. The texturing on the sides, while cool-looking, makes it harder to clean. You'll need to read the instructions in order to figure out how to switch between some modes, but once you have, it's easy enough.
As with the CygoLite, there are no side cutouts, meaning you'll be dark from the sides. But really, that pool of light in front of you is going to be hard to miss. Also, this thing gets hot on high! You won't notice it on your bike, but if you use it as a hand-held, you definitely will. It would be nice to have a swappable battery. But these gripes aside, the NiteRider Lumina 500 clearly wins the distinction of best bike light for under $120.
NiteRider Lumina 500 Bulb type: Cree LED Max lumens: 500 Weight: 172 grams Side visible: No Battery type: Rechargeable li-ion Price: Retails for around $110 in Australia.