By Ed Pavelka
Downrated from 4.5 after six hours of rigorous night riding in two brevets. New findings are bulleted in italics.
A good headlight is a bike commuter’s best friend. And a randonneur’s best friend. And an all-weather trainer’s best friend.
But a good headlight is hard to find — unless you fork out hundreds of bucks for one of the high-tech rechargeable systems. Low-cost headlights that run on regular replaceable batteries have never cut it for serious night riding.
The Cateye HL-EL300 is just $35 at full retail (we’ve seen it as low as $27), and it’s good enough for long rides through inky nights.
- That’s true in good-to-optimum conditions. Initial testing was on quiet country roads and performance was fine. In real-world brevet conditions, however, the HL-EL300 was overmatched by vehicle headlights, fast descents, and the need to clearly distinguish the right edge of unpainted roads. For less-demanding rides on urban or suburban streets, it should be more than adequate.
I bought one with randonneuring in mind. This type of cycling puts a rider on the road at all hours in brevets, the qualifying events for Paris-Brest-Paris and its North American cousin, Boston-Montreal-Boston. These randonnees span 750 miles and must be completed in 90 hours. This means lots of dark miles on 2 or 3 consecutive nights.
So, lighting is key. I’ve tried premium dual-beam systems with rechargeable batteries (great illumination but only 4 hours per charge). I’ve tried a hub-driven generator ($350 and extra rolling resistance to boot). I’ve tried cheap halogen-bulb lights that eat AA batteries like popcorn and produce only marginal light.
With brevets and PBP directly ahead, I was attracted by the HL-EL300’s use of 5 light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in place of bulbs, and its promise of strong, 400-candlepower illumination for 30 hours. (It’ll continue burning for 70-80 hours more, but not brightly enough to see the road well.)
Thirty hours can get a rider through all the darkness of PBP. Imagine that on 4 AA batteries! A similar small light with a halogen bulb would need at least 24 batteries to run that long.
Bright White Light
The HL-EL300 puts out a stark white light. The beam is free of lens lines or other distracting dark areas. The quick-release mount is secure. It puts the unit forward of the handlebar, out of your way. The mount lets it swivel several degrees for a precise aim. There’s no rattling, and it doesn’t jiggle any more than the bike itself.
- The beam is fine as described, but it too quickly fades in the distance to allow descending at typical speeds unless you’re braver than I am. The ideal light will put the brightest part of its beam at the top of its spot on the road, thus allowing a faster safe speed. The HL-EL300’s beam is brightest at the bottom so has less range.
The on/off button is recessed in the center of the light’s back endso you know where it is, but it can be tough to feel and use when wearing full-finger gloves. On the plus side, you’re not likely to accidentally switch on the beam during the day without realizing it.
Thanks to so little concern about burning up batteries, I’ve been using the HL-EL300 on bad-weather rides for extra safety. It hasn’t been fazed by downpours, snow showers or sub-freezing temperatures. On one ride, it was glazed by ice but still shining brightly.
- During one brevet, however, I got nailed by a drenching thunderstorm. Afterwards, I found water in the lens, which may have diminished the beam’s brightness that evening.
With many hours of night riding coming up, I bought a second HL-EL300 to create a dual-beam system. One is aimed along the right edge of the road to reveal what my wheels are going to encounter in the next several seconds. The other is aimed higher and more in the center of the lane for a longer-range perspective. At slow speeds, such as when climbing, I click off the ???high beam,??? then ignite it again on descents..
- A dual-light setup definitely helps, but on brevets I noticed that I was still not illuminating the road as well as, say, bikes equipped with a Schmidt front-hub generator light. Those beams were significantly stronger and longer. When vehicle headlights approached from the front or rear, they washed out the HL-EL300’s beam. Other beams were powerful enough to penetrate. Of course, the Schmidt system, including wheel, costs 5 times more than dual Cateyes.
Note to PBP riders: As of March, LED headlights had not been approved for anything other than “auxiliary lighting” by the French. They may not be legal for PBP. Stay tuned to Randonneurs USA for developments.
As this is written on April 30, 2003, the French resistance to LED lights is still in place. For this reason, and because of the limitations italicized above, I’ve decided to switch back to a system similar to the one I used for brevets and PBP in ’99. This is the Schmidt generator hub with a Schmidt E6 3-volt headlight that mounts at the fork crown. Supplied by www.peterwhitecycles.com, it’s a hefty investment, but with nearly 50 hours of night riding still ahead this season, my safety and confidence are worth it.
I’ve had a Cateye HL-EL300 for about eight months. While I have used it as a stand-alone headlight, it really is not adequate for that purpose. It does make a good standby for your main light, though. The main reason it stays on the bike is that it is a really great flashlight. My morning commute is in the dark and just this morning I had to make some minor repairs along side of the road. You can hold it in your mouth and use both hands to fix flats, etc. Overall, it’s a good value for the price and I would recommend it to any commuter or tourer. — Bob R.