Dynamo lighting is reliable, durable, environmentally friendly, more difficult to steal, and extremely convenient. Having lights permanently mounted on and powered by your bicycle means you’ll always be well lit.
What is a dynamo?
A dynamo is an energy-generating hub built into the front wheel of a bicycle that typically powers lights. Dynamos can also power USB ports and all manner of fun things, if you’re interested.
Early dynamos were tire-driven, resembling small bottles mounted to a bicycle’s fork and turned by the tire or rim as it moved past. Between World War I and II, English bicycle component manufacturer Sturmey Archer first popularized the Dynohub, moving the generator inside the hub of the front wheel. This alleviated inefficiencies of the tire-driven bottle dynamo, like premature tire wear, drag, and erratic engagement in wet conditions. Tire-driven bottle dynamos are still manufactured today, though most modern models are hub-based.
Photo by David Niddrie
What makes a good dynamo light?
A good light is bright enough to be visible, illuminates the road without blinding others, and stays bright while you’re stopped at a traffic light.
Most dynamo lighting equipment is designed to comply with German road-use regulations (StVZO/TA). These stringent and specific regulations are in place to ensure that cyclists are well lit from all directions and that the lights don’t interfere with other traffic.
A headlight should have a horizon, meaning that the light’s beam is limited by a hood at the top and aimed so that the center of the beam hits the ground 33 feet (10 meters) from the front of the bicycle. A concentrated beam illuminates hazards on darkened streets without blinding oncoming motorists and cyclists.
Lights are also required to have a standlight feature, a built-in capacitor that continues to power the lights for four minutes once you stop moving. This feature ensures that you remain visible while stopped at intersections.
In most countries, cyclists are required to have a white light up front and a red light in rear. A single dynamo can power both front and rear lights. Similarly bright battery-powered lights have run-times of only 1-3 hours before they require recharging.
Is dynamo lighting bright enough?
Dynamo systems offer plenty of light and can be tailored to suit different riding styles. When choosing a dynamo lighting system, you’ll need to consider both brightness and beam pattern.
Brightness is commonly described in two different units of measure: lumens and lux. While battery-powered lights are commonly rated in lumens, dynamo lights are more often rated in lux. Whereas lumens are a measure of the total amount of visible light emitted from a source, lux is a measure of the intensity of light in the usable portion of its beam pattern. This means that two lights with identical lumen ratings can have very different lux measurements, depending on how the light is focused.
The rider-friendly features of upright bicycles encourage a different style of riding than the recreation-oriented N.A. norm.
Beam pattern selection will depend on how you ride. A fast rider covering a lot of ground will benefit from a bright light that projects further in front of the bike, giving ample time to react to hazards in the roadway. A rider travelling at a more leisurely pace will see the benefit of a light with nearfield reflectors, which better illuminate the area immediately in front of the bike. The night ride enthusiast will thrill at the brilliance of an unfocussed beam, evenly illuminating everything in front of the rider.
So why is dynamo lighting so rare in North America?
In many European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, most bicycles designed for everyday use come equipped with dynamo lights. Bicycles have tabs for attaching tire-driven dynamos or come with hub dynamos right from the factory.
In North America, where recreation drives the majority of bicycle manufacturing and sales, lights are considered more of an accessory than a requirement. Your average bicycle shop will offer plenty of choices for battery-operated lights, often small and detachable, while dynamo systems may need to be special ordered. They can also be costly and require complex installation.
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Dynamo lighting is gaining in popularity in North America as more people are using bicycles for transportation. Manufacturers are starting to offer standard models equipped with on-board lights. For those looking to add them to their existing bike, dynamo hub and headlight combinations can start around $120 USD before installation. However, dynamo hubs require the assembly of a full wheel (spokes and rim) and will add labor and product costs. You can expect a typical dynamo build, including hub, lights, rim, and spokes, to cost from $220 for a basic set-up to $800 or more for high-end systems.
On-board lighting also adds some weight to the bike, typically 1.5-2 pounds (680-907 grams). While you wouldn’t want one on a race bike, you may want it on your winter trainer and you should certainly consider it for a daily commuter.
Why we love dynamo lighting.
The biggest advantage, from my wife’s perspective as she now refuses to ride a bike at night without dynamo lighting, is that one will feel safe. It’s bright, it’s always there, and it requires not much thought at all. No forgetting lights because you didn’t intend to be out after dark, no replacing or recharging batteries, plus an automatic on-switch.
Sealed from the elements, dynamos produce consistent and reliable lighting in all weather. A dynamo hub’s typical service life is similar to that of other bicycle hubs, meaning it will last you for many years. They are recyclable as scrap metal and do not contain hazardous chemicals.
Bolted to your frame, and useless without the generator, dynamo lights are far less desirable to thieves. After your initial costs you may even save money by no longer having to purchase new lights, batteries, or pay fines for forgetting your bicycle lights.
Traditional lights are a clip-on accessory for your bike. Dynamo systems make lighting an integral part of your bicycle. Can you imagine driving a car with strapped-on or half-charged lights?
Dynamo Lights are:
Safe. Dynamo lights are powerful and highly visible.
Convenient. Always with you. Always on.
Durable. Long-lasting LEDs.
Consistent. No half-charged or lost lights.
Sustainable. Reduce your environmental impact by freeing yourself from batteries.
Secure. Much more difficult for someone to steal.
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Momentum Mag would like to thank the generous support of Kissing Crows Cyclery for donating hours of their time building wheels and testing the product.