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Safety Equipment

Review: Light & Motion Vis 360°

The past few weeks have been absolutely crazy for me. Lots of really early-morning commutes, some late days at the office.

Combined with the shorter days, I’ve had some of the best testing conditions imaginable for a helmet-mounted lighting system that was purpose-built for bike commuters!

Let’s take a look at the gear. The rear part houses the battery, two amber side-facing LEDs, three bright red rear LEDs with a combined output that matches some of the most popular rear blinkies on the market, and a generous-sized swath of engineering-grade prismatic reflective material, all inside a water-resistant case. A rubber flap covers the Micro-USB charging port.
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There’s also a small window on the under-side of the unit that displays a multi-color LED which functions as a battery gauge and charging indicator. I was able to fully charge the Vis 360º in about 5 hours, meaning that a full recharge at home or in the office is easily achievable.

The rear part of the Vis 360º snaps onto a plastic base that attaches to the helmet with velcro. I found that getting this part mounted securely was somewhat difficult on all of my helmets. This was the most frustrating part of getting the Vis 360º installed. I eventually found a position that worked well enough with a little bit of tinkering. The headlight snaps into a plastic base that attaches to the helmet with a notched rubber strap. This part was easy to mount on several different helmets. The ability to remove the lighting hardware from the helmet while leaving the mounting hardware attached is a nice touch.

The headlight itself features one bright white LED and two amber pieces to scatter light to the side with a rubber-covered power button on the top, all packed into a small, light and attractive metal shell. The light has three modes: Full power, half power and flashing. The front LED flashes quite rapidly. The rear LEDs always flash twice per second (250ms on, 250ms off) regardless which mode the front light is in. You must hold the power switch for two seconds to shut the unit off.
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The whole package looks a bit bulky on the helmet, but it’s surprisingly light at 130 grams. I notice the extra weight on my helmet, but it’s not unwieldy or uncomfortable.
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The proving grounds:
A very dark section of walking trail around the community pond where I live. All photos were taken using the exact same exposure settings on my digital camera.
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The competition:
Bell Orion. This 3 LED helmet-mounted lamp is powered by two CR2032 batteries. It’s on par with any cheap department store bicycle headlight I’ve ever seen. When blinking, it might draw some attention to you, but it won’t help you see much on a dark road even at a very low speed. What this light (seriously) lacks in output, it gains in run-time. It will go dozens of hours on a pair of CR2032 batteries. Good thing, too, because CR2032s aren’t rechargeable, and they’re not usually cost-effective to replace. MSRP: About $15
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Blackburn Flea. This rechargeable light is a decent headlight to use if you want to be seen on a budget. If you keep it slow, the high output setting (used in this photo) is bright enough to alert you to potholes or obvious road hazards in a pinch and run for about 3 hours. Really, though, they’re best suited for riders who ride near dusk or dawn, or spend time riding under streetlights. MSRP: About $25
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NiteRider Evolution Halogen (Upgraded to 15W). This was my first serious commuting light, and it features a bulky NiMH battery pack that can be strapped to the bike’s frame. The OEM bulb was 10 Watts, and when it burned out, my LBS only had the 5W and 15W bulbs in stock. With the 15W bulb shown here, this system runs for about an hour. As you can see, it provides a very high intensity spot without much side visibility. This model isn’t made anymore, but you can expect to pay between $100 and $200 for a quality halogen system.
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Vis 360º lights up the path more evenly and plenty bright. I have to admit, when I saw 115 lumens listed for the specification, I was concerned that this might not light the way far ahead enough for some of the faster sections of my commute. I usually average about 15 MPH, and never had any problems seeing the road surface far enough ahead for my own comfort. On the high setting, I was getting a little more than 2 hours of total use before the low battery indicator kicked in, but it was still on regulated battery power, with no obvious fade in brightness. Advertised run time on high is 2:30. MSRP: $169
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On normal mornings when I leave as the sun is peeking over the horizon, I used the Vis 360º in flashing mode. A whole week of commuting (about 6 hours on the road) without a recharge didn’t even put a dent in the battery with flashing mode. It still registered as “fully charged” this evening when I got home.

Is this unit worth the price? I’d say it is. The system is competently designed and can fulfill all the basic lighting needs of a bicycle commuter with the additional bonus that you don’t need to leave any hardware on your bike while it sits vulnerable and unattended throughout the work day. It has ample run-time for even the most die-hard long-distance commuters and shines far enough ahead that most average cyclists shouldn’t need to seek supplemental light.

I’m giving this one two thumbs up.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

First Look: Light & Motion Vis 360º

At Interbike last month, Light & Motion introduced the Vis 180º and Vis 360º commuter lights. They were kind enough to send us a Vis 360 to review. I’ll save the all-lit-up photos and beam shots for the final review. The Vis 360 comes as a headlight and combination battery pack, reflector and tail light held together with a coiled wire. It’s designed to be helmet-mounted and comes with all the hardware you’d need to mount it to pretty much any helmet. The light is charged via USB, and it charges fully in about five hours.
L&M Vis 360

L&M Vis 360

The days are getting shorter, so I’ll be putting this light through its paces in the coming weeks. The headlight is rated at 115 Lumens, which is very bright for a “to be seen” light but probably not bright enough for high speed road riding after dark. We’ll be back in a few weeks with the final results.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

Rainy Day Biking reflective fender mudflaps

Last month, we got a pair of reflective mudflaps from Rainy Day Biking. They come in red or white.

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They’re not just reflective, though. They use engineering-grade prismatic reflective material. It’s the same stuff used on emergency vehicles and high-quality road signs!

A front mudflap keeps road grime away from your feet and downtube. The closer to the ground it reaches, the better it works. On the rear wheel, a mudflap dramatically decreases the “rooster tail” effect. This is mostly a courtesy to those who may happen to be riding behind you, but with these mudflaps, you’re also giving a highly visible clue to your place on the road. These mudflaps shine like daylight.

I mounted them to the Planet Bike Cascadia fenders on my daily commuter. Admittedly, these fenders already have integrated mudflaps, but I’ve had several other pairs of flapless fenders. I bolted the front mudflap to the outside of the stock one, because the stock one is so long it would almost completely obscure the reflective material. I found that mounting it this way allows the reflective mudflap to move around a bit. During my testing, I drilled a second hole and added another bolt to hold it sturdily into place.

I mounted the rear mudflap in the recommended way, inside the fender (and inside the rear mudflap, on my bike) which resulted in a much sturdier mounting due to the way the internal curvature of the fender grips the new mudflap.

To test, I even whipped out my cheap camera phone, which features a tiny, dim LED as a “flash”. This dim light was more than enough to completely wash out the photo. To the right, you can also see the reflective piping of my seat wedge.

I also leaned my bike up against a sign in my parking lot and hit it with my car’s low-beams from about 100 yards. They light up just as bright as my PlanetBike SuperFlash tail light, but cover much more area. Reflective material shouldn’t be used in place of proper lighting, but every bit helps. These, combined with my reflective vest, SuperFlash and FlashBak safety light makes for a bike that’s really difficult to ignore.

Review: Portland Design Works’ Spaceship/Radbot 500 Lights

A few weeks ago, the good folks from Portland Design Works (PDW) sent us a courtesy set of their Spaceship headlight and Radbot 500 rear blinkie for testing and to hang onto when we’re done putting them through their paces.

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Upon opening the box, there is a startling similarity between the Radbot blinkie and the perennial favorite — the Planet Bike “Superflash” — the LED lens looks identical to the main one on the Superflash. There are some similiarities in the attachment hardware, too, and I’ll get to that in a minute. The LED in the Radbot is rated at 1/2 watt, and it is as bright as anyone could ever need in a blinkie.

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As far as the light goes, the similarities end with that 1/2 watt LED and lens — in my opinion, the PDW Radbot is vastly superior to my old favorite in several ways. First, the case is held together with a screw…no more bouncing down the road only to hear batteries and case parts tinkling down behind me as the road bucks them off. An additional benefit is that the gasket seal between the two halves of the case is compressed better, giving it more resistance to water intrusion. I haven’t gotten to test this yet, but I’ve been dismayed at times by the ability of my old Superflash to let water past its gasket, and the PDW just seems more resistant to that. I hope I’m right!

Second, the body of the blinkie contains a largish DOT reflector rather than auxiliary LEDs. Having the reflector built in helps with legality issues — many municipalities require a rear-facing red reflector, and too many bikes don’t have ’em. Third, the light is actuated by a press on a real button, not a soft spot in the case. I like that…and that button has a built-in delay to prevent accidental turning on while the light is floating around in your pocket or backpack.

The Radbot 500 has three modes — an organic slow pulse (like a slow heartbeat), a slow pulse followed by three ultra-quick blasts, and steady-on. The pulsing with three blasts is my favorite mode…either flashing mode is different enough from other lights on the market that they should really stand out on dark streets. The light is powered by two AAA batteries.

The Spaceship front light has two modes — flashing and steady — and is powered by two AA batteries. As you can see from this photo, there is good side visibility and a neat feature…a lighted strip of blue along the top of the light’s body. What’s the purpose of this? Why, to look extra cool, that’s what!

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The light itself is not strong enough for a “to see” light, but it serves admirably as a “to be seen” light. The light pattern is a very tight spotlight with a strong blue cast at the center of the beam, and it just doesn’t light up the road very well. But, in flashing mode, cars can’t ignore that flash…it’s bright enough to do the job of alerting motorists to your presence.

The light set comes with lots of hardware…a traditional seatpost mounting clamp, a nice adjustable handlebar clamp for the front light, a seatstay loop to hold the light bracket if your seatpost is too short or too obscured to mount the light there, a bracket for standard rear racks (thank you, PDW — not enough companies include these!!!) and the stainless mounting nuts and bolts for affixing the bracket to the rack. If you already own Planet Bike front and rear lights, you’re in luck; the clip interface is identical for both front and rear holders and you can just clip on your new PDW lights and get to ridin’ without any hassles.

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The handlebar clamp is an improvement on the similar Planet Bike model…adjustable to fit 22 mm bars all the way up to 31.8mm “oversize” bars. It’s less likely to slip than the PB mount, too…although I had to add a wrap of friction tape under mine as my handlebars are an odd in-between size. Once the clamp is tightened down using the thumbscrew, it’s pretty solid.

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Overall, I really like this light set — especially the Radbot blinkie. It’s my new favorite and I look forward to many miles with this light. The Spaceship makes a good “second light”, especially when coupled with something a bit more powerful for rider visibility. This set goes for about $45.00, so it’s a good deal too.

Check out PDW’s other smartly-designed and innovative parts — they’ve got a lot of good things going on — by visiting their website.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

Review: Velo Orange “Squeal Free” Brake Shoes and Pads

Brake pads. Those little devices are something we generally don’t think about until something goes wrong…squeaking and grinding against our rims or being unable to stop when needed. I faced both of these situations within my commuting fleet, and so it was with great interest that I agreed to test the “squeal-free” brake pads and V-brake shoes from Velo Orange.

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VO wasn’t terribly forthcoming with details about the pad compound…they had some research documents as they were developing these products but didn’t share them with us. So, I don’t know anything about the compound used and the hardness rating (durometer). I can say that the pads feel about as firm (using the trusty “fingernail test”, which really doesn’t tell me anything) as other major-brand pads in my parts bins.

The black brake compound has tiny flecks of a tan-colored material mixed in…I don’t know what that material might be or if it improves braking ability; it’s just something I noticed. The pads have the required shape to fit modern Shimano-style pad holders, including the little scalloped depression at one end for the holder’s setscrew.

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The V brake shoes have the same tan-flecked black material and come stock with orbital washers and spacers to simplify toe-in. These are the threaded-post models; straight-post models for traditional cantilever brakes are also available.

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In the spirit of VO, I installed the pads on a genuine French bike…my 1971 Astra citybike. This bike is equipped with the original Weinmann sidepulls, which aren’t particularly powerful even on a good day. Luckily, I had some spare Kool-Stop pad holders and bolted the combination right on. Here they are installed and ready to accept a wheel:

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I installed the V-brake shoes on the front end of the hardtail mountain bike I occasionally commute on — this bike was in DESPERATE need of new shoes as you can see here:

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The VO shoes have a bit more overall length than the stock pads being replaced. I thought I might have some fork leg clearance issues, but didn’t. That extra length had a positive effect on braking performance, too…everything felt more solid up front.

The conditions I ride in are fairly flat, and at this time of the year very dry. Most of my riding consists of stop-and-go city riding and a good bit of “urban assault” riding in the green spaces, parking garages and city structures when time allows. Come summertime, I expect to spend a lot of time slogging through torrential rainstorms.

Well, how do they work? I’ve ridden both bikes for a couple months with pads and shoes installed, and I can honestly say that I’ve noticed a pretty big improvement in braking performance. Both bikes stop more quickly; in the case of the mountain bike, I don’t get any of the banshee-like wail I was used to with the old shoes. On my Astra, the anemic Weinmann sidepulls now feel like they’ll actually stop me in a panic situation! In both cases, there were no squeaks or squeals from the very first ride…some other pad/shoe brands tend to squeal for the first couple rides until the pad is broken in. I haven’t had an opportunity to ride either bike in the rain yet, though, and this is often the best way to truly test a brake pad for performance. I’ll report back once I’ve had a chance to get wet with them.

Are they the best pads and shoes I’ve ever tried? Well, the jury’s still out on that…I do have a salmon-colored favorite that lives on many of my other bikes, but I would strongly consider these VO models as replacements when my other pads wear out. Besides, they’re a great deal whether you need the pad inserts or the pads/holders or the shoes — substantially less than a couple of the other big names.

The pads definitely work!

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You may notice that when visiting the Velo Orange product page, their pad compound is show as brick red rather than the black of our review pads. VO claims the compound is unchanged; the brick red is just a more appealing color to them.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.