Light Emitting Diodes, or LEDs, have been around for years.We don’t need to worry too much about how they work except that in place of the old-fashioned white-hot bulb filament, there’s a gap where electrons, er, sort of vault across, giving off light in the process. No filament to burn out or vibrate to bits (life is effectively infinite in bicycle terms), greater efficiency, so batteries last longer and/or weigh less.
Initially, you could have any colour you liked as long as it was red and rather dim, but the power, efficiency and colour range has expanded enormously.Three or four years ago, the best red LEDs began to exceed the brightness of traditional rear lights and a few are now approved for use in Germany, although the situation here is a bit confused (so what’s new?).White LEDs, like black tulips, seemed an impossible dream, but they soon began to appear, although brightness and colour were not what they might have been.
In December 2002, we tested the best white LED lamps around – the Cateye EL200 and EL300 – and were quite impressed. One of the oddities of these lights is that they can scare off motorists or seek out a reflective sign at a kilometre, but fail to illuminate a large pothole right under your nose.The reason for this, so the boffins tell us, is tied up with wavelengths, photons and other mysterious things. Suffice to say, white LEDs are great in town, but less practical in open country where reflective signs and motorists are thin on the ground, and potholes more prevalent.
In the past, LEDs were small (typically consuming 200mW), so lights tended to be fitted with a handful of them, making reflectors complex and inefficient.The breakthrough has come with the advent of the powerful Luxeon 1,000mW white LED, combining the brightness of the best halogen bulbs, with the long-range penetrative power and lower battery consumption of a white LED.The first one watt LED torches surfaced about a year ago (several are now available, mainly on US websites), and they’ve just started to appear in bicycle lights.We were lucky enough to raid the first consignment of Cateye EL500s to arrive on these shores – they should soon be in the shops for about £45.
On paper, this is the answer to every bicyclist’s prayers.Where our EL200 used to fill with water at the first sign of rain, the EL500 is claimed to be waterproof to 30 metres or 100ft.Whether that’s true, we can’t say, but Alexander said it worked well in the bath and it scared the wits out of our goldfish at 300mm. Even if water does get past the neoprene sealing ring, the reflector/LED assembly is sealed, the electronics are encapsulated in silicon rubber and the on/off switch (clever this) is a sealed magnetic switch.We feel confident enough to say that this torch is waterproof for most cycling/outdoor activities, except perhaps, deep water scuba-unicycling.
Like other LED front lights, the EL500 is not legal on its own in the UK, but to be honest, approval here can be only a matter of time. The far wimpier EL300 has gained approval in Germany as the EL300G and UK lighting laws are so discredited as to be virtually worthless. We’d have no qualms about using this as a sole light source, and we’re sure the police would nod in approval. Thanks to some clever reflector technology, the EL500 casts an intense ‘slot’ of light to the sides for those awkward roundabout moments, and gives a nicely focussed beam, with just enough scatter to illuminate verges close by. It’s not as good as the best halogen dynamo lighting set, but brighter than almost everything else.
The mounting bracket is the standard Cateye H-32 – not the cleverest design, but quick-release and easy to adjust.The light only weighs 190g complete with batteries, just 40g more than the smaller EL200 and 105g less than the chunky EL300.
The bad news is high power consumption.The Luxeon is more efficient than a traditional bulb, but not by much, and battery life is nowhere near Cateye’s ‘up to 30 hours’ claim. Power consumption is 2.2 watts with conventional alkaline batteries, or 1.3 watts with rechargeables, at slightly reduced brightness. Depending on battery quality, run time will be 3 to 81/2 hours with rechargeables, or 51/2 – 71/2 hours with conventional batteries. In practice, the EL500 can run for another 50 hours, but at much reduced brightness, so you won’t be left groping in the dark when the battery fails, but you may end up changing batteries (4 x AA cells) more than you would like.
This would make an excellent caving light because of it’s compact size, water- resistance and extended ‘back-up’ run time. No doubt the run time and brightness will improve with more intuitive electronics, but in the meantime, delight your friends with the brightest, most penetrating light around.
Cateye EL500 . £44.99 . Weight c/w batteries 190g . Power consumption 1.3 – 2.2 watts Battery life full brightness 3 to 81/2 hours reduced brightness Up to 60 hours .Manufacturer Cateye web www.cateye.com . UK distributor Zyro PLC tel 01423 325325 mail firstname.lastname@example.org