The Best Urban Cycling Lights of 2017
*Images courtesy of Light & Motion
In our 2017 test, the best urban cycling lights were:
Sunlight, lowlight, dusk, dark or fog, bike lights are a critical safety feature for the cyclist. Many will argue that brightest is best. This is true for mountain biking on single track in the dark woods, where toting 1500 lumens of retina-detaching light to illuminate every rock or log on the trail is totally worth it. But is 1500 lumens really necessary for urban riding? Given that a car’s headlight is roughly 700 lumens you’ll win the brightness battle but at the cost of safety to the driver or oncoming cyclists being blinded by such an intense beam. For urban riding, something in the 600 to 1100 lumen range is more like it.
For this test five great contenders were selected from established lighting companies. Brightness ranged from 640 to 1100 lumens.
Ultimately, the Fenix BC21R 880 took Best in Class because it hit the sweet spot in terms of illumination and ease of use at a pretty nice price point.
Best in Class
Fenix BC21R 880
With its dual light direction, rapid flash mode, bright red sidelights, rapid eye-catching flash mode, and spare battery to extend the ride time, the Fenix BC21R 880 took Best in Class. It’s not the brightest light in the test but for the urban cyclist and bike commuter, it was the one with the best balance between ease of use, fantastic beam quality, features and versatility for riding in town. It wasn’t perfect. It doesn’t have a helmet mount and while it never came loose or broke, the ladder strap that connects the light to the handlebars did not inspire confidence for long-term reliability. The saving grace here is that the light has a quick-release tab, meaning the light itself was easy to remove without taking off the mount bracket.
Ease of removal is a key factor for daily bike commuters where the bike may be locked up for long periods of time. It’s easy for a thief to walk the bike racks and lift lights. So not having to remove the entire mount bracket is a bonus. Another winning feature is the Intelligent Output Downshift. When the battery level is lower than twenty percent, the light will “downshift” to a lower setting to extend ride time. The trick is for the rider to take the queue and recharge soon or replace with the spare battery.
Best for: The all-year, all-weather urban cyclist
Light & Motion Urban 700
Coming in second place was the Light & Motion Urban 700. To hold this light in your hand is to hold a well-constructed work of art. Its low profile and bombproof mounting strap holds the light like a vice. It delivers a beautifully focused narrow beam that is perfect for urban riding and is generally a delight to operate. Where some of the lights in this test require memorization to activate certain modes, the Light & Motion Urban 700 is intuitive and simple.
Best For: Keeping It Simple
Knog Blinder ARC 640
The Knog Blinder ARC 640, the contender from Australia, took third place. It’s definitely not the brightest bulb in the test but for the urban cyclist who rides exclusively in the city, it gets the job done. Of all the lights we tried, the Knog hit that sweet spot between ultra-simplicity and super-high quality. It comes with a helmet mount, rapid flash mode, and durable silicone handlebar mounts.
Best For: Versatility
Lezyne Macro Drive 1100XL
At 1100 lumens, the Lezyne Macro Drive 1100XL is the brightest light in the test. The beauty of this model is that it’s an outstanding value and light for the urban cyclist who also dabbles in single track. It has a durable mounting strap and has some great smart features like Flash and Pulse modes, as well as a mode-specific battery indicator. But operating the many light modes and understanding the various battery indicators, while riding, is complicated, requiring a steep learning curve.
Best For: The mountain biker who occasionally dabbles in urban cycling
NiteRider Lumina 950 Boost
Rounding out the test is the NiteRider Lumina 950 Boost. There is no disputing the quality build and impressive beam projection of this light for both urban and singletrack riding. It has a durable quick-release mounting strap that is a monumental improvement over its earlier models, allowing the cyclist to attach and detach quickly when locking up the bike without worrying about theft.
Ease of Use: The winner here was a tie between the Knog Blinder ARC 640 and the Light & Motion Urban 700. With four light modes each, all the cyclist needs to do is turn on and click through the four modes. The Knog starts with High and clicks down through less bright modes until Flash mode with one click per mode. The same is true with the Light and Motion except that it starts with Low and clicks brighter to Pulse. The most complicated of the lights was the NiteRider Lumina Boost 950. The light begins with a single click for Low, Medium, High and Walk. But if you need Boost mode for the full 950 lumens, you have to remember that Boost and Flash are accessed from High. Boost requires depressing the button for three seconds. Flash requires two rapid clicks. Testers found they had to do a lot of clicking to find High to then go into Boost or Flash. The Lezyne Macro 1100XL is only slightly easier to use. It, too, has six modes and one click per mode rotates through each option. It raised the question, does a cyclist really need that many modes? The Fenix BC21R was right in the middle. It has five modes that click intuitively from Low to Flash. Its memory feature allows you to access the mode you last used with the first click which testers really appreciated.
Beam Quality: The Fenix BC21R stood out in this category thanks to its Optimized Dual Distance Beam feature, which works to equalize the beam’s long distance projection while still illuminating down upon the closest surface. The NiteRider Lumina 950 Boost, Light and Motion Urban 700 and Knog Blinder ARC 640 also had very good beam projection that focused the light on the path ahead. The Lezyne Macro Drive 1100XL also did well in this category but its beam projection was wide with less intense light on what lay directly ahead. But cyclists who want one light for both singletrack and urban use will likely benefit the most from the Lezyne Macro Drive 1100XL.
Features: Scoring the highest overall in this category is the Fenix BC21R thanks to its Flash feature, which flashes between High and Low and two unique features that help maximize ride safety: The Intelligent Output Downshift and spare 18650 rechargeable Li-ion battery that fits in a seat pack or pannier. The Lezyne Macro Drive 1100XL just missed tying with the Fenix with its mode-specific battery-indicator flash which tells the cyclist when to “downshift” to conserve light. The Knog Blinder ARC 640, Light and Motion Urban 700 and the NiteRider Lumina 950 Boost tied for third with enough features to make a bike commute safe but missed out on some nice options.
Versatility: All of the lights in the test can be used as flashlights around the house or for camping and are relatively easy to transfer between bikes, though some—like the NiteRider Lumina 950 Boost and the Fenix BC21R—are easier than others,. These two contenders come with a very nice quick-release tab to detach and re-attach the light from the mount with a quick click. Helmet mounting is also pretty important, especially for mountain bikers who want light shining where they’re looking. The only lights in the test that came standard with helmet mounting kits, though, were the Knog Blinder ARC 640 and the Light & Motion Urban 700.
Ease of use, beam quality, features and versatility are all critical elements when cycling, whether in the city or gravel riding or mountain biking in the dark. But the focus on this test was strictly urban and for bike commuters riding up to five days per week.
City riding isn’t about the brightest bulb on the bike. It’s about being seen and being able to see. And doing it in the easiest, most intuitive way possible. The easiest option is to just hit one button when pulling out of the garage in the dark morning hours or after a long day at work.
Commuters, errand runners, pleasure riders, all cyclists should have at least one light mounted on their handlebars or helmet and in the “on” position no matter the lighting to maintain visibility. Cars have daytime running lights. So should bikes.
These lights were tested by a team of two testers who commute to work up to six miles each way on designated urban bike paths, bike lanes, and along the trails of a nature preserve. The test period ran from May to early August. One tester commutes to work when it’s always dark in the 4:00am timeframe. The lights were also used to add that extra eye-catching visibility in daylight, lowlight, fog and rain.