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All Frothed Up: Can I get a light?

Published January 9, 2012

I want you to picture this. It will take a quarter minute, maybe less

Winter. Nighttime on a gravel ranch road in Colorado. A crystalline, star-specked sky. Ranch house lights on the horizon. A solo bike commuter, with panniers and fenders. Silence, except for the rider's breathe and the soft crackle of tires on gravel.

Ahead, four bright lights approach. A paceline of riders on road bikes appears. The solo commuter, surprised to see other riders out in the cold night, calls out a greeting. The paceline continues without response. The sound of eight tires on gravel recedes as the commuter soldiers on.

Last week I had a couple of really enjoyable rides home in the dark from my new Boulder office to my house in Longmont. It was well below freezing, but there was a beautiful starry sky, holiday lights on the ranch houses I passed and a wonderful silence. One night I crossed paths with a paceline. It was dark, almost 8 pm, but they had powerful headlights. They didn't acknowledge my greeting. It's Boulder; you learn to expect that.

So but anyway, my NiteRider MiNewt 600 headlight is perfect for these rides. More than adequately bright, compact, reasonably priced, it has the heft of a quality product. Its USB-cord charger fits with my Internet Professional lifestyle.

Safety experts tell me such collisions are rare, but the fear may have a Freudian explanation I would rather not contemplate.

But here's the nerdy thing I spent a fair part of my silent ride mulling, when I was wasn't admiring the stars or seething over the paceliners' social slight: why are all bike taillights cheap pieces of crap?

As you know, cyclists have a deep-seated fear of being run over from the rear, day or night. Safety experts tell me such collisions are rare, but the fear may have a Freudian explanation I would rather not contemplate.

There's a plethora of high quality headlights on the market, some of them costing more than a month's psychotherapy. But taillights, even those offered by some of the same companies that make the pricy headlights, are all cheesy. Some are undeniably cute, shaped like alien heads or space ships, but you don't want cute when fending off an approaching F150. You want a spear, or at least a shield.

Admittedly, the flashing LED tail light, invented by Mr. Robert Volagi himself, Robert Choi, is an impressive thing: very bright with ridiculously long battery life, near infinite bulb life and low manufacturing costs. But these LEDs are typically packaged with a case, clip and switch of roughly the same quality as toys in the checkout aisle at WalMart.

So you put one —  or more — of these things on your body or bike with a belt clip that reminds you of the GI Joe walkie-talkies you got in your Christmas stocking in 1978. And then you spend half a ride looking over your shoulder, wondering if the light has fallen off, or slipped so its flashing is aimed at the ground or the stars. You wonder if the switch turned off or the battery died. And the fact that the taillight cost 15 percent as much as your headlight is little comfort when you hear a truck approaching like a lonely, tattooed meth dealer doing 8 to 10 at the ADMAX.

Again, it may be an irrational fear, but soothing irrational fears is what this country's great consumer economy is built on. I mean, watch Mad Men. What do you think paid for Don Draper's Westchester colonial and Brooks Brothers suits? His expertise at selling products to soothe the nation's irrational fears of social isolation and alpha-male rivalry, that's what. As for the fear of being run over from behind? Have you SEEN the tailfins on Draper's 1962 Coupe de Ville?

So, make me a decent tail light; I'll pay for it. It needs a secure mount (that's also easily removed), a confidence-inspiring switch that can be operated with thick gloves, and a battery life indicator. When I turn it on, I need to be wow'd by the light, the way I am every time I turn on my headlight. If it could wrap me in a womb-like embrace and give me something to suck on, that would help, too.

Don Draper would know how to sell it in well under 30 seconds.

Fade in. Winter. A quiet dirt road at night. A starry sky, house lights on the horizon. A solo commuting bicyclist passes a paceline of lycra-clad racers headed the opposite direction. A member of the paceline looks over his shoulder. Cut to bright, pulsing tail light on the commuter's bike. Cut back to the racer, who gives a square-jawed nod of appreciation.

Cut to a house party at night. Music and happy chatter. The commuter, adorkable in Sidis, plaid shirt and three-day growth, smiles cooly, tips back a beer with the Swedish Bikini Team. Members of the paceline mingle confidently nearby. A warm, pulsing red glow spreads over the nightscene and reflects off the windows as a taillight blinks from a bartop. Fade out.


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