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See and Be Seen: Safety Tips for Cycling at Night

If you’re serious about cycling, sometimes it’s hard to avoid riding at night. Inevitably, that winter afternoon ride or that day-long double century will take you into the twilight hours. When that happens, it’s important to be prepared.

Thanks to technological advancements over the past few decades, it’s easier than ever for cyclists to cycle safely at night. Lights are smaller, lighter and more powerful than they’ve ever been — not to mention more affordable. Any cyclist can ensure a safe ride at night without too much trouble.

When it comes to cycling safely in the dark, the old adage for Hollywood stars applies: You need to see and be seen. Many cyclists focus on the latter but not the former. Longtime cycling Coach Darryl MacKenzie has some tips to make sure you do both.

How To Stay Visible on the Bike at Night

We’ll start with what many cyclists are familiar with: being seen. To effectively be seen on the bike, you need three lights:

  • The rear light: The rear red light goes on your seat post, just below the saddlebag. These lights are bright enough to make you visible for up to a mile on a clear night. That’s incredibly bright, so that placement helps to shield them from the eyes of other cyclists when they’re close behind you.
  • The front light: The front white light goes on the bottom of your handlebar, which keeps it out of the way of your hands while improving your visibility to any oncoming traffic that might try to turn into your path. This is also essential for preventing drivers from opening their car door in your path.
  • The helmet light: This third light may be less familiar to many cyclists, but Darryl actually considers it more important than the handlebar light for riding after dark. Having a light on your helmet allows you to point it in different directions, alerting any sidelong traffic to your presence. He recommends simply buying two front lights and getting a helmet mount for the second one.

Beyond the lights, though, there’s another key way to make sure you’re visible when cycling at night: what you wear. Studies have shown that the bright, greenish-yellow color clothing that crossing guards wear is the easiest color to see, so make sure you have a jacket that color for your night rides. Coach Darryl also recommends ankle straps (that same bright yellow-green) that you can quickly pop on each leg when it gets dark.

Light Settings That Grab Attention

Coach’s reasoning for the ankle straps and the helmet light involves the same logic he has for his recommended light settings. A moving light is better at grabbing attention than a stationary one. The more your light moves around, whether it’s the reflectors on your ankles and pedals or the side-to-side sway of your helmet, the easier it is for a driver to see you.

But what about those lights that are stuck in one place on your bike frame? That’s where you can again make the most of modern technology. You don’t just have to turn the light on: turn it to flashing mode. Even better, turn on the irregular blinks (e.g., two short flashes, one long). 

Turning all your lights to this setting — including the one on your helmet — gives you maximum visibility to anyone nearby.

Seeing Is as Important as Being Seen

Again, though, Darryl’s last tip for cycling at night emphasizes that cyclists should not neglect to make sure they can see their surroundings. Without the proper lighting, one of his friends hit a bump in the road at night and ended up in the hospital for days.

Consider just how quickly something can sneak up on you. For every 1 mile per hour that you increase your speed on the bike, you’re traveling an additional 1.5 feet per second. That means if you’re going 20 mph, you’ll travel 30 feet in one second. If you need just four seconds to stop — and you may need more — you’d need to see 120 feet in front of you. 

See why good front lighting is essential?

It’s also important to know what you’re dealing with. To make his sight a little sharper still, Darryl will do an evening trial run in advance for any new rides that he knows will take him into the dark. If it’s a group of riders, they’ll all meet to do this “dress rehearsal” together.

“It is so enlightening,” he says. “There are so many people who have never ridden at night before and have no idea what to be thinking about and talking about.”

Be Prepared for Cycling at Night

Cycling safely in the dark isn’t complicated, but it is something you need to be prepared for. Make sure you have the right equipment and clothing ready to go for every ride — you never know when you might be out longer than expected.

But don’t let all the preparation go to naught! Keep your light charging station right where you park your bike and get those lights charging right when you get home so they’ll be ready for the next ride.


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Photo by Flo Maderebner from Pexels