Throughout the winter, you’ll need a decent set of lights to join the club rides. It’s not safe on the roads without lights so others can see you – but you may find that the bike lights you’d be happy to use on the road are just not up to scratch as a soon as you hit the trails. As soon as you get off the road, the only source of light you can rely on are those you carry – and once you get into a wood, even moonlight is completely obscured; it can be pitch black. You need to be able to see the trail to ride safely and comfortably. It can be an unnerving experience to ride with bad lights as potholes and roots appear under you from nowhere and trees loom out of the darkness unexpectedly! On the other hand, it’s fantastic fun to ride at night with lights that are powerful enough – the countryside takes on another character and those trails you think you were getting bored of due to over familiarity just got interesting again.
Unfortunately, a good lighting set up can set you back a lot of money unless you know where to look. Chain Reaction and Wiggle stock a wide range of lights – but beware the cheaper ones; you really need to be packing something that can throw out at the very least a hundred lumens. Your local bike shop (such as Beeline in Oxford, for example) may be able to help you out – but make sure you tell the staff what you plan to be doing with your shiny new light so they can help you pick something suitable. If you take a look through those links, you’d think that you’re going to be looking at about £100 for a reasonable lighting set-up. You can put together something for less, though, if you don’t mind strapping hand-held flashlights to your helmet and/or handlebars. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, by the way, the downsides are just that you generally will have less ergonomic looking lights on your bike, which really isn’t important, and that you’re likely to have less run-time since you’ll not be running with the large battery packs that high powered bicycle specific lights use. Good things have been written about Fenix flashlights such as the LD20. These are lightweight and run off a pair of AA batteries. They throw about 180 lumens in “turbo” mode, and from experience seem to last a little under two hours on rechargeables before you need to swap batteries. Even brighter (and cheaper) are the Deal Extreme lights. They claim to throw 900 lumens, but realistically it’s closer to 400. Which is still VERY bright. They last a little less time, perhaps an hour to an hour and a quarter on full beam before you need to swap the batteries. These run off Lithium Ion cells which you need a charger – but even when you add the price of all these together, you can have two lights, one for your helmet and one for your handlebars, and spare cells for an on-trail switch for less than the price of a “proper” bike light, so if money is tight then it might be worth going down this route. The same website, by the way, also stocks a bike-specific front light which looks like fantastic value for money, though no one in the club currently has one (as far as I know) so it’s hard to say how reliable it is.
In the end, it comes down to how much money you have to spend on a light, and what compromises you’re willing to make – size, weight, power, run-time, build quality, brand name and so on all have an impact. But lights good enough to ride at night with don’t have to cost a fortune, and if you want to ride off-road in the dark at all then a set of bright lights is a very worthwhile investment.