Rubber Side Down | Lighting The Trail

Stress can be a hard thing to manage. Everyone needs an outlet…something to help them relax and forget about their troubles. Mountain biking is my outlet.

I still enjoy road biking, however there is something to be said about a nice piece of singletrack, a good climb, a great view—maaaaaaaybe a cold one at the top. It is important to make time for these moments because it’s these very moments where we are able to really get the most out of life.


Our nine-to-five schedules can really put a damper on this, especially as the days get shorter. Squeezing in a post-work ride before it’s pitch-dark can be difficult. Fret not though, I have good news; I’ve discovered a little thing called night riding. With the help of a quality light, you too can create your own sunlight and keep your day going well after the sun has packed it in.

Battery technology has progressed significantly in the past few years. LED’s have made similar advancements. Combining these two results in a small form factor light that’s not only bright enough to blind you, it’s got enough stamina for some solid ride time.

We’ve all thought about throwing our basic commuter light on the bar and hitting the trails—and a lot of us have even tried it—but it’s just not the same. The beam pattern and brightness are not going to be up to par with the demands of a fast-paced descent. Don’t get me wrong, riding with commuter lights is doable but you will sacrifice speed and safety. If you want to do some serious night riding, and do it safely, I recommend investing in a performance light.


First things first: lighting basics. A light’s brightness is measured in lumens. A lumen is a unit of total light output emitted by a source and is a function of the light intensity projected on the inside of a sphere. Without getting too technical, simply think of it as a standard unit that can be compared across all lighting sources.

While lumen ratings (more is better) are important, they aren’t everything. Beam patterns, the way the light’s lens casts and distributes the light emitted by LEDs, are going to significantly affect your perceived brightness of different lights. As a rule of thumb though, lights with higher lumen ratings and wider beam patterns are going to light up the trail and surrounding area more.

Lights are getting cheaper and brighter all the time. Commuter lights range in power—starting from around 40 lumens.  The high-end lights geared for racing tend to output around 2000 lumens. Requirements for night riding will vary, but I recommend purchasing more lumens than you think you need. It’s easier to have them and not need them, then to need them and not have them.

As far as actually using a light on the trail, helmet mounting is a must for your first light. Bar mounted lights work fine for road biking, however when winding down a single track your handlebars will not necessarily be pointed where you most need light. Sharp turns and high speeds require a little prior planning. When descending, I’m always looking three to five seconds down the trail, but this can be quite impossible if you have a bar mounted light in the middle of a turn and all of those lumens are being cast off-trail. Helmet mounts allow the light to shine wherever you are looking.


You will definitely want to weigh the options—quite literally. Depending on the design of the light mount and light itself, you could find yourself with quite the cumbersome object affixed to your noggin. The Light and Motion Stella 500 is great for this type of mounting due to the separate battery pack. The light attaches to the front of the helmet with a cord routed to the battery pack that can be strategically located on the back of the helmet, in your pack or in a jersey pocket. For some, this 500-lumen light might not be enough. Fortunately Light and Motion offers 1500-lumen and 2000-lumen varieties with similar mounting options.

If the external battery feature isn’t as important as price, Lezyne’s Power Drive 900XL a near impossible light to beat in terms of price per lumen. These durable lights are CNC’d from a solid aluminum block, so if you plan to spend a lot of time upside-down or off-trail—this might be a good light for you.

If you start taking this whole night riding thing seriously, adding a second light somewhere down the road will definitely be of interest to you. It is always a good idea to have a backup light in case your primary breaks, and depending on the lumen rating and beam pattern of your current light, it can be nice to have a second light mounted on your handlebar. This light can be directed to cast light on the situation in front of your tire, giving you an even bigger picture of what’s going on in front of you. For this, I might suggest picking up Lezyne’s Micro Drive 400XL, an extra 400 lumens for a meager $50. If your loyalties lie with the folks at Light & Motion, the entire line of Urban lights offer incredible builds, beam patterns, and price points. The best part of these additional handlebar lights is that when not on the trail, they can be repurposed as a commuter light. I find myself commuting more and more with these higher power lights after noticing that cars pay much more attention to me.

Rubber Side Down is a weekly column dedicated to the fledgling cyclist in all of us. Art’s Cyclery Web Content Editor, Brett Murphy is not a professional cyclist, and doesn’t try to masquerade as one either, but he does love to ride bikes. Whether you are clipping in for the first time or counting down the days until your first race, read on, learn from his mistakes, and keep the rubber side down.