Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Monkey Light M204

The folks at Monkey Light sent me their M204 Bike Wheel Light to review. The M204 is a compact little unit consisting of a circuit board that contains the LEDs, a couple of switches and the electronics, a connecting cable, and a battery pack that holds 3 AA cells. The circuit board is completely coated in clear, flexy silicone and the battery pack and cable look nice and waterproof.

I put it to the test by submerging the whole thing in water. Yep, seems nice and waterproof.

The Monkey Light M204 comes with a bunch of nylon zipties and nice clear installation instructions. It also comes with a couple of metal security zipties if you are worried about someone stealing the light off your wheel.

You can use either alkaline or rechargeable AA cells in the Monkey Light. Depending on which brightess/color of lights you select, a set of alkaline cells can run the Monkey Light M204 for up to 60 hours.

Installing the light is a simple process taking less than five minutes. I installed the light on my pal Hugie's old Schwinn. Note: the reflecting looking thing at the top of the picture below is Hughie's front light, it's not part of the Monkey Light.

The Monkey Light itself is ziptied to the spokes.

The battery pack is ziptied to the hub, 180 degrees opposite the light to keep the weight somewhat in balance. Hughie and I didn't notice any real adverse effects of the weight but the Monkey Light people don't recommend going over 40 mph with the Monkey Light. I don't think Hughie's Schwinn has ever been anywhere close to 40 mph, so we figure he'll be OK.

You can toggle the light through 40 different color/brightness/flash combinations. All the modes are quite eye-catching.

When the wheel is in motion, you get to see the full effect.

When commuting at night, I get to see various lights and reflectors on bikes. Things that move with the wheels, things like the Monkey Light M204 or Salzmann Spoke Reflectors really stand out. They add a lot of visibility for not a lot of money.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Day with the Faraday Porteur

Faraday Bicycles is a fairly new company who make an electric assist bicycle called the Faraday Porteur. While Faraday doesn't have a network of dealers, they do have a few demo bikes available at a few bike shops around the country. My friends at G and O Family Cyclery are one of the shops lucky enough to have a Porteur and I got to spend a cool November day in Seattle riding the bike around the city. In this post I'll do my best to sum up the experience of riding the bike.

The porteur rack is quite handsome. It's rated for 10 kilograms and unlike a front basket that turns with the handlebars and fork, the rack is attached to the frame of the bike. The rack is an optional accessory for the bike and is fairly easy to take on and off. On the demo bike, the Faraday's headlight is mounted on the stem and thus its beam could be blocked by a big load on the rack, but if you intend on keeping the rack on the bike permanently, the wiring for the light can be rerouted to allow mounting the headlight under the rack.

This is the control for the e-assist. The little e-ink bar graph read 3/4 full when I picked the bike up. The guys at G and O also loaned me one of the surprisingly compact chargers for the bike (it comes with two). I stuffed the charger into my backpack. Davey at G and O commented that he's surprised that the Faraday folks don't equip the bike with a fancy frame case for the charger.

I was curious how much the bike weighed and the guys at G and O don't have a scale ("We should get a scale" was the comment, followed by "Kathleen at FreeRange has one.") so I strapped my pack to the porteur rack and headed off to the Fremont neighborhood to see Kathleen. It's mostly a downhill run from Greenwood to Fremont, so I really didn't engage the e-assist except for a couple of quick starts from stop lights and little climbs to make sure everything was working.

Kathleen is a very savvy bike person and even she didn't notice right away that the Faraday is electric. That's the most striking thing about it, it looks, rides and feels like a non-assisted bike. The bike is heavier than a non-electric bike, of course a motor and batteries don't come for free, but the balance of the bike is quite wonderful. The rear of the bike houses a Shimano Alfine 8 speed hub, the batteries are concealed inside the bike frame and the electric motor is inside the front hub. In my job as a bike mechanic I've often had to wrestle unwieldy e-bikes into a repair stand and in general it's like trying to hoist a metal pig. Not so with the Faraday, this is a bike I could carry up a set of stairs or easily hoist onto a bike rack.

The Faraday does weigh more than the 30 pounds Kathleen's scale is rated for so the scale's dial wrapped around and settled on 17 pounds. 30+17=47 pounds which seemed heavier than my heft guess and I think the wrapped scale over reported the bike's weight. Faraday's specs list the bike at 39 pounds and I could believe that the rack adds another 5 pounds so that would make the combo more like 44 pounds. Whatever the case, the bike doesn't feel like a heavy bike and more importantly, it rides like a normal bike.

Kathleen had to test the bike out. The grin is an automatic side effect of engaging the e-assist.

Here's a good shot of the bike. My pack is strapped to the front rack. The leather pouch is a very fancy holder store the rack bungie cords when they're not in use. The fenders are bamboo and look pretty although I'd prefer something longer, with more curvature around the tire for better water deflection. This is a medium size frame and 5'6" me was perfectly comfortable on the bike. The double leg kickstand is standard equipment.

Here's the bike looking pretty at the Seattle ship canal.

The bars are very comfortable.

Of course a bike this fancy comes with a Brooks saddle. The rear panel on the frame has the power switch (top), LED lights which serve as both tail lights and charging indicators (middle) and the plug for the charger (bottom).

If you were riding behind this bike in the rain, you'd wish this fender was a bit longer.

I really got to like the porteur rack. The load up front didn't seem to alter the handling of the bike.

The bike gets lots of attention. Strangers would stop and comment on the bike, noting how pretty it is or asking about the front rack. Nobody noticed that it is electric.

By the way, you can click on any of the pictures in this post to embiggen them.

Another shot of that very comfy Brooks saddle.

Let's talk a bit about the electronics. The Faraday Porteur comes with a 250W motor built into the front hub and a custom 240Wh battery pack concealed inside the frame.  I'd wondered about the replace-ability and durability of the batteries but the folks at Faraday assure me that the high quality lithium batteries should last through several years of charging cycles and when they ultimately do need replacing, it's an easy job for a local shop. They estimate current battery replacement cost at $400, but battery tech is getting better year by year and the prices are dropping. The batteries power both the bike's lights and it's motor. When the bike is switched on, the lights are on. The integrated lights are nice, bright LEDs.

The e-assist is what really makes the Faraday special. A left hand control contains the e-ink display showing how much power is left in the batter pack and a little thumb switch controlling how much of an assist the motor will add to your pedalling. The switches three positions are OFF (no assist), ON (normal assist) and BOOST (which is additively fun).

Here's the number one thing I noticed about the Faraday Porteur. It rode so well as a bike that on flat sections or going downhill, I'd wouldn't turn on the e-assist. Unlike many other e-bikes I've ridden, the Porteur didn't feel burdened by the weight of its motor and batteries. It felt like a bike so having a dead battery wouldn't be a disaster, you'd just pedal home. This makes it pretty much impossible to answer the "what's the range" question on this bike. It would be odd to ride it with the e-assist on all the time.

But I was intent on testing the bike, so I consciously looked for steep hills (plentiful in Seattle) and engaged the e-assist to give a turbo boost as I pulled out from stoplights. The boost only assists your pedalling, this is not a bike where you coast and let the motor pull you along.

So in my quest for hills I picked nasty ones. It's hard to convey grade in a photograph, but this wall along the sidewalk of 23rd Avenue climbing up from Montlake gives you a bit of idea of the grade. I spent the day in counterpoint to my usual, pick the gentle slopes strategy and instead played around on various nasty hills.

My missions for the day included visiting various bookstores and having lunch and a bike ride with my friend Mark Canizaro.

After going up and over various climbs on Seattle's Capitol Hill. I pulled up to Mark's place. Literally on the last 1/2 block of the climb to Mark's, I depleted the last of the battery.

While Mark and I had a bit of lunch and chatted about various things involving bikes, books, philosophy and darn near everything else, we charged up the bike.

We let the bike charge for 45 minutes and then headed out. The battery meter was reading 50%

Of course we did more climbing.

This picture basically shows off two pieces of art. One of them is also extremely fun to ride.

Mark managed to get a few shots of me on the bike.

It was a lovely day for riding. On one steep climb a passerby commented "You don't even look like you're working!" He wasn't wrong.

Here's an example of the Faraday Porteur in front of a house that is undoubtedly owned by someone (not me!) that could easily afford a Faraday Porteur. In case you're wondering and haven't already surfed over to the Faraday page, this is not a cheap bike. The retail price is $3500, which is pretty much out of this bike mechanic's price range. But the more I rode the bike, the more I sensed that this bike is worth its price tag. Good engineering doesn't come cheap.

By the way, when you live in that fancy Seattle house, this is the view out your front door. It's normally not blocked by some dorky looking guy on a really nice bike.

Mark and I traded off with the Porteur as we made our way over to Bike Works in Columbia City. Mark's comment as he crested the wickedly steep 37th Street, "It's like having a ski lift attached the bike."

At Bike Works a couple of the mechanics took the bike for a spin, both returning with huge grins. Both Mark and I have 50+ year old ears and would swear that the Porteur's motor is silent but Homer's comment corrected our impression when he said, "Man, you can barely hear the motor!" So I guess the motor does make a tiny bit of noise.

At the bakery Mark and I sipped our drinks while I fielded more "nice bike" comments. I took a few more detail shots of the bike. Those are Shimano cable activated disk brakes and they work very well. The belt drive and Alfine hub make for a smooth, clean, quiet drivetrain.

The front motor is rather compact and attracts little attention.

Here's a shot of the e-assist controller. The e-ink gauge shows the battery at something under 50%.

The Shimano Alfine 8-speed shifter. Nice shifting and I found the gear range to be quite nice.

Mark and I rode up Lake Washington Boulevard, parting ways as he headed for home on Capitol Hill. I continued North to the University and then rode the Burke Gilman Trail over to Fremont and then up to G and O. At the end of the day I'd ridden 36 miles. I used up pretty much the last of my battery charge on the climb from Fremont to Phinney Ridge, so I feel I timed things just right.

The Faraday Porteur is an amazing bicycle. It's the only e-bike I've ridden that basically feels like a normal bike. It's a bike where the weight of the electronics are so well integrated into the bike, you can easily forget they are there. But when you engage the power assist, the bike becomes more than a bike. When you ride the bike without the e-assist, it feels like a very, very nice bike. When you engage the e-assist, it feels like flying.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Salzmann Spoke Reflectors

Sometimes a picture really is worth at least a thousand words. I'm going to tell you why I think Salzmann Spoke Reflectors are one of the best safety accessories you can buy for your bike, but the above photo quickly makes the point.

Salzmann Spoke Reflectors are 36 little plastic tubes covered in 3M Scotchlite material. The tubes are 70 mm long, slit along the side and shaped so they easily snap securely onto a standard bicycle spoke. It took me all of two minutes to install Salzmann Spoke Reflectors on my Allant. My Allant has 36 spoke wheels so I placed a reflector on every other spoke. The Salzmann folks sent me two sets of the reflectors for this review but these little reflectors don't need to be on every spoke.

Compared to the CSPC wheel reflectors your bike may have come with, Salzmann Spoke Reflectors are basically better in every way. They're very light and what little weight they have is evenly distributed around the wheel. They don't look dorky, in daylight you barely notice that they're there.

But at night, they shine. Really shine. They're reflectors, so they provide no light of their own, of course, but they are highly reflective and glow like bright moonlight reflecting car headlights, streetlights, lights from store windows or other bike lights. They reflect light back from every angle and the spinning movement of your bike wheels really makes the reflected light visible in the darkness in a shape that clearly says "bicycle."

Salzmann Spoke Reflectors are not a replacement for good front and rear lights, but they are an inexpensive and effective way to greatly increase your visibility. At less than $20, they're a bargain.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

3 LED Bike Headlights Compared

Bike headlight technology is a bit like computer technology, each year newer, more powerful products are available at a lower price than what was last year's latest and greatest. Advances in LED manufacturing and battery design have resulted in some bright, compact lights. While I don't have the time or funds to obtain and exhaustively test every light on the market, I did get my hands on three LED lights, all of which charge via USB. In this article, I'll summarize the features of these lights and give my impressions. The numbers listed for brightness and battery life are those provided by the manufacturers. The lights compared in this article were either given to me by a representative of the manufacturer or purchased by me at dealer cost.

 The three lights I examined are the Cygolite Dash 320, the Portland Design Works (PDW) Lars Rover 450, and the Bontrager Ion 700. Here are the three lights with their high beams on laying on my kitchen table:

Cygolite Dash 320 (top), Bontrager Ion 700 (middle), PDW Lars Rover 450 (bottom)

The Cygolite Dash 320

The PDW Lars Rover 450

The Bontrager Ion 700

 It's hard to do an "apples to apples" comparison as the lights have different powers, designs, prices and features, but the table below is a compact summation of the various lights specifications.

Cygolite Dash 320 PDW Lars Rover 450 Bontrager Ion 700
Weight 74 grams 122 grams 141 grams
Charge Time 4 hours 5.5 hours 5 hours
Charge Connector USB Micro B USB Mini B USB Micro B
Side Visible? Yes No Yes
Attachment Stretchy Band Stretchy Band,
Adjustable Screw Clamp,
Helmet Mount all included.
Stretchy Band.
Bontrager Blendr and
Screw Clamps available.
High Beam 320 Lumens
1.25 hours
450 Lumens
2 hours
700 Lumens
1.75 hours
Medium Beam ? Lumens
2.5 hours
250 Lumens
3.75 hours
450 Lumens
3 hours
Low Beam ? Lumens
9 hours
125 Lumens
7.5 hours
250 Lumens
5.75 hours
Pulse Beam 2.75 hours 10 hours 22 hours
Flashing 10 hours (primary)
55 hours (secondary)
10 hours 45 hours
Price $54.95 $85.00 $99.99

People have differing degrees of night vision and senses of how much light is enough. While a lumen rating can be a guide, beam patterns vary. I found 250 lumens and a broad beam pattern OK for night riding in the city at non-breakneck speeds, but for racing down a dark mountain trail requires a more lumens packed into a beam with a tighter focus.

I'd like to say a word about flashing vs. steady lights. In some locales flashing lights are illegal and some folks find them very distracting. Other people find the blinking is eye-catching and more clearly IDs the light source as a bike instead of a distant car and favor the blinking for those reasons. And blinking lights do extend the battery life.

I personally have been more in the steady light camp but all three of these lights have a great light mode that is sort of a middle way and it's become my favorite for city riding. Pulse mode is different than a simple On/Off flash. The beam is never off but instead it's punctuated with a cycling brighter pulse. This effectively extends both the battery life and the reach of the beam and seems to be less distracting while still drawing attention.

I mounted the three lights on my bike and went out in the alley behind my house on a dark, damp night to do a bit of beam comparisons of the three lights. It's hard to get good pictures at night, but these shots will give you a bit of an idea of the relative beams of the three lights.

Cygolite Dash 320 (high beam)

PDW Lars Rover (high beam)

Bontrager Ion 700 (high beam)

Note that the Bontrager Ion 700, the most powerful light of the three, suffers in the above picture by having it's light shining on the cables. In actual use I wouldn't have three lights on my bars and I'd place the Ion so its beam clears the cables.

The Cygolite Dash 320 has a unique design, featuring 4 small LEDs across the top and a high-power LED below. Riders interested in a "be seen" light for daylight use might find it's Daylighting mode handy. This mode combines lights the 4 top LEDs constantly while flashing the high-power at a claimed 500 lumens for a 10 hour runtime. This mode should not be used at night, it's too obnoxious and freaky. There is also a mode that just flashes the top LEDs which gives 55 hours of runtime.

The Cygolite Dash 320 mounts via an integral rubber band and only really works on a handlebar. It's a well designed unit, well-balanced and the stretchy strap mount works well. The main beam is nicely directed with side channels to allow a bit of side visibility. The USB Micro B charging port is located in the back of the light and covered with a rubber flap. So far I haven't had any problems with water leaking into the light, but the other two lights have their charging ports underneath the light which is probably a better location in terms of things staying dry.

I've found the Cygolite Dash 320 provides plenty of light for my city rides and its compact size makes it a perfect light for my kick scooter.

The PDW Lars Rover 450 has a very nice, well directed beam and comes with most mounting options of any of the three lights I tested. The light is a bit front heavy and I found it would be prone to rotate downward when used with the stretchy mounting strap, but the included screw clamp is rock solid and the light also comes with a helmet mount.

The PDW Lars Rover 450 charges via is USB Mini B port instead of what is now the more common USB Micro B. A charge cable is included with the light but users should be aware that the charge cable that works with their phone or tablet is probably has a different connector than the Rover does. The build quality of the Rover is excellent and the charge port on the bottom of the light should stay nice and dry under its rubber cover.

The PDW Lars Rover 450 doesn't have any side lighting, all the photons are blasted out the front. I've found it to be a nice light for night trail riding, casting all the light I need. But for folks who want even more power, PDW makes a more powerful version, the PDW Lars Rover 650.

The Bontrager Ion 700 is a very elegant light. It's got the sleek look and feel of an Apple product. I found myself never using the highest power settings on this light, instead using its power to get both perfectly adequate light and great runtime. But it's great having the 700 lumens in reserve in case the night turns dark and stormy.

While the Bontrager Ion 700 is the heaviest of the lights I tested, it's nicely balanced and I found the included stretchy clamp worked great on my handlebars. The Ion can also fit into any of the Bontrager Blendr stem mounts or various Bontrager helmet or clamp mounts.

The Bontrager Ion 700 has a good beam pattern with little amber side lights. The charging port on the bottom of the light uses the common USB Micro B connector and is nicely protected under a rubber cover.

My only real complaint with the Bontrager Ion 700 is aesthetic. I've never been fond of white bike accessories. While I'm sure the Ion looks great on the latest Trek Madone, I think something like the PDW Lars Rover 450 looks better on a mountain bike or my scruffy-looking Allant. But I've never been known for my fashion sense.

I know there are lots of other lights out there but these three lights are good examples of the current crop of USB rechargeable lights. For a hundred bucks or less you can get a good light to keep you rolling through the dark of night.