Light & Motion Stella 120 Light
It's useless to debate whether or not it is safe enough to ride at night. Those who have strong ideas will keep them pretty much no matter what. Your friends who don't ride thought you were crazy already.
Our feeling is the more riding options we have, the better. If our only time to ride is at night, we want to do what we can to make sure we feel safe. If riding somewhere means we'll be either going or returning or both between dusk and dawn, we want to feel ready for the darkened portion of the trip.
Lights really have come a long way and this Light and Motion Stella 120 is a great way to see the change. While we've done our share of night mountain biking with some impressive lighting, that necessitated some heavy batteries. The technology here is eons ahead of the old days. The battery pack weighs in at 144g and is small enough to be securely Velcro-ed on top of a 90mm stem and easily under a 110. In both cases, the battery pack has a gription pad to help hold the pack in place. The headlamp weighs a mere 53g, which is barely heavier than a bike computer. The helmet mount is 22g.
The light itself is an impressive specimen. It's only 2.2cm in diameter, but with a LED bulb and a reflector, it throws a beam probably 200 feet (Light and Motion's estimation) on high power. If our calculations are right, riding at 20mph you're going 29.33 feet a second. With 200 feet of coverage, you can see about 6.81 seconds ahead. The "120" in the name refers to the number of lumens the light gives off at high power. A lumen is a unit of luminous flux, "a measure of the perceived power of light," writes Wikipedia.
According to Light and Motion, a one-watt incandescent bulb gives off 120 lumens. That doesn't read very impressive. We tried shooting some video on a totally dark bike path and on a bike path alongside a highway, places where we rode with the Stella 120 and felt quite safe doing so. But the resulting videos gave the impression that the light isn't powerful enough for night riding.
As we've written in the past, images can deceive. On busy and busy-ish streets, streetlights and the lights from car traffic, we almost didn't notice the light we were throwing. In fact, the only time we really noticed it on such streets was when street signs would light up from the light we were throwing. It seemed that the Stella 120 on high power would bounce light off of and light up street signs over 200 feet away. When riding on the dark path, we felt comfortable riding at a swift-ish commuting pace, probably around 20mph.
We also, at the suggestion of a friend, tried riding against traffic on a bike path next to a busy highway. Usually, we do this without any bike lighting, and the almost mile-long stretch is frightening as the car lights shooting in our face make it next to impossible to see the path in front of us. With the 120, we could find the path and the lane stripe on the path in front of us, though the path did seem faint at times. Not totally comfortable, but much better than the riding blind we've experienced on this sector in the past.
Light & Motion makes a big deal about their light pattern. It seems so simple: a bull's-eye of bright light in the middle with a fade from the middle to the round end of the lighted area. They describe the brighter middle as adding, "punch" for greater depth perception all around. We haven't ridden with enough lights to know how well it works compared to others, but their beam worked fine for us.
We tried the low power setting. It's easy to get there. Once you turn on the light by pressing the single button atop the lamp, it's just one more press of the button. At 40 lumens, the low will last much longer than the high power setting. 10 hours as opposed to 2.5. But we didn't feel we could see anything with it. It is definitely more of a be-seen thing, but if being seen were all we're trying to achieve, we'd rather use the flashing mode, also only one click of the button down from the low setting. We assume the flasher is more likely to catch the attention of a driver and the burn time for this mode is 100 hours. Turning off entails holding the button down for a second.
We can see starting on busier street in flashing mode and then moving to high power on less-trafficked roads. Save a little juice for the occasional detour, flat tire, or headwind.
One drag of the system is the long charge. The trickle charger works well and keeps everything cheap but the charger takes 10 hours to fully recharge. Luckily, there's no battery "memory" so not totally emptying or totally charging won't hurt the battery life. Light & Motion estimates that the battery can take 400-500 charge cycles. If you commute a half-hour in the dark every day at full power five days a week 50 weeks of the year every year, charging the battery before the start of each week, that would mean the battery should take you eight to ten years. If you ride in the dark two hours a day, five days a week, for fifty weeks a year, you'll charge it five times a week and probably need a new battery within two years -- or get a second one to alternate with.
One surprise we had when starting out were the minimal operating instructions. Light & Motion has a "quick start" guide printed on the packaging, and it refers you to the website for more information. No paper manuals or even fold-out guides. We thought this was an accident, an omission. Turns out we were wrong; as part of their environmental commitment, they keep the packaging to a minimum and expect you to go to the web.
There were a few setup things that we did need the web for. The rubber strap that holds the light to the bar should be able to grab any bar 25.4 to 31.8mm in diameter, and can probably do narrower and wider. We found the rubber was pretty sticky and the pad on the mount did a good job of holding without excessive pressure. The light pivots on its base allowing 15-degrees of adjustability. This is for those who use bars that sweep or for those who end up having to put the light on the edge of the center section where the diameter reduces. The helmet mount appears to be adjustable so you can run the strap lengthwise as well as widthwise, but it really only works widthwise. The light will tell you that it's running low on power. If you're running on high power, the light will step down to low power at about 15 minutes to go. And then right before it totally kicks, it will go to flashing mode.
While we like keeping the light on our bars, there is a good argument to be made for mounting it on your helmet. With it on your helmet, the light will always be where you're looking, which is an advantage on turns and twisty roads as well as giving you the chance to get somebody's attention without steering towards them. The higher position might also be easier for drivers to notice as it will be well above the plane that most car lights are on. 219g might seem like a lot to put on your helmet -- it's about 60% of the weight of most high-performance road helmets -- but we found it doesn't feel heavy up there.
The Stella 120 seems to sit in a nice sweet spot. The light is powerful, the battery light, and the price seems good. A little extra light for faster riding, going downhill, or greater confidence might be nice, but the next step up has a meaty jump in price. We'd have to really be riding pretty regularly with it to make the jump feel worthwhile.
When we were playing with the 120, we rode to a ride before dawn. Most of the ride was pretty easy, but the final mile or so was in a park. We could pick up reflective piping of other cyclists way down the road. When we got to registration, someone scoffed, "could you get anything brighter?" Yes, we could, but the impression is one we share. This Stella is another world compared to what we're used to.