Cheap DIY Winter Cycling Upgrade

Riding in the cold always has its way of highlighting the weak links in your equipment: foggy glasses, too many layers, too few layers, frozen derailleurs, and the latest one: a bike light that only lasts 1/2hr on low.

In December, we had a day that was -30C with a wind chill of -42 or so (that’s -22F/-44F for the ‘mericans). Naturally, I went out for a ride! I was out for an hour and learned two things:

  1. There is such a thing as too many layers for -30C.
  2. My Light and Motion Urban 500 bike light does not handle -30C.
Light and Motion Urban 500

Light and Motion Urban 500. I’m sure it’s a great light in summer, I wouldn’t know, I mainly use it in winter.

As for the layers, I was wearing long johns, sweats, and wind pants (yes, the thin ones) for bottoms, and two wicking layers, a fleece and windbreaker (yup, thin again) for the top. When I got home I was so hot I couldn’t believe it! The fleece was completely soaked through, I could have wrung it out. (I believe this to be due to condensation of cold air hitting warm body, rather than sweat, but I didn’t taste it to find out)

As for the light, understandably, rechargeable Li-ion batteries can’t be expected any longevity in very cold weather. However, the box claims 6hrs on low (3 med, 1.5 hi) and one should be able to expect some half-decent riding time, even in cold weather. At 30 minutes in (on low), the LED indicator suddenly dropped from GREEN (first quarter) to flashing red (last 25%) and the light went into forced flash mode to conserve power. OK, so I cut my ride short and turned around. It was night time and I wanted to see to get home. 2 minutes later, it went black. I rode the rest of the way home in the dark, which is OK since there are streetlights most of the time. (Except for the forest trail I rode, and all the burnt-out streetlights). But the moon was bright, so that was OK.

Since I ride in winter, the days are shorter, they start later and the night starts earlier. When I was commuting I left in the dark and returned in the dark. That’s why I got a light. I was having some problems last year with the light lasting only about 45-50 mins when my commute is about 45 mins in the winter. This year I’m not commuting but only riding for fun, so it’s not a big deal.

I’ve recently adopted a philosophy of reducing my spending on shiny new things, opting to make old things work for me by either modifying them or making do with what I have. After all I am an engineer and creative. I should be able to reuse or upgrade the things I own to make them work better for me. First off, I thought of getting one of those recharger packs that you can carry with you and charge USB devices. I checked if my light turns on while charging, but it doesn’t. Instead of buying a different light that might last longer (and is probably not as bright), I figured there must be a way to insulate this thing so that the battery stays warm. Then I came up with the idea: some pipe insulation from the hardware store should work, if I can find a big enough diameter.

Insulating the Bike Light

This isn't a pool noodle! It's 3/4" pipe insulation.

This isn’t a pool noodle! It’s 3/4″ pipe insulation.

So I rode down to the hardware store and spent $2 on a 6ft piece of 3/4″ pipe insulation (ID is about 1″, which is perfect for my light). I brought the thing back with it sticking out of my backpack. I must have looked pretty funny, but I bet most people were watching the road, trying not to slide into one another.

The idea is pretty simple. Cut the insulation to length, make some holes for the side lights and/or the power button and line up the seam at the bottom for mounting to the bike. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory so I’ll follow the build with just photos:

My bike light has side lights, bottom mount, and bottom USB plug in, so I wanted to avoid insulation in these areas.

My bike light has side lights, bottom mount, and bottom USB plug in, so I wanted to avoid insulation in these areas.

Cut insulation to length.

Cut insulation to length.

Test fit with holes cut to make sure light shows up.

Test fit with holes cut to make sure light shows up.

Complete, after taping with black electrical tape. The insulation didn't quite wrap far enough to stick to itself at the seam.

Complete, after taping with black electrical tape. The insulation didn’t quite wrap far enough to stick to itself at the seam.

Completed insulation. The power button is on top, so I thinned out the insulation so I could still press the button.

Completed insulation. The power button is on top, so I thinned out the insulation so I could still press the button.

UPDATE

I went on a -30C ride last week and the light lasted the whole hour on low, with the LED indicator showing green at the end of my ride (>75% charge). I have to say, the insulation is working well. However, my big mistake was leaving my goggles off while unlocking my bike and installing the light, because my glasses became too cold. When I put the goggles on and started riding, I had almost instant fogging that only got worse as I rode. I ended the ride without glasses, without seeing anything and missing my own street by two blocks! But the light worked.

I have been on some rides in the -20 range and I have to say, I’m pretty impressed. I was out for over 1.5 hours and had the light on the whole time (I tried flash mode, low, and high). The LED indicator was still green when I got home. I rode again for 45minutes without charging and the indicator went down to orange (50%). So I think I’ll be able to ride longer with the insulated light. Wish me luck!

Rear Light

2017: I have a flashing LED tail light called “turbo something-or-other” (sorry, can’t see it from the couch). This light is nice and bright at night and uses 2 AA batteries, which is fairly convenient. The problem is with the cold, the batteries do not last. When I finish my ride, the light is still blinking, but slower, however it won’t shut off until it warms up inside. The switch does not work when the battery is low and the light goes into forced blink-mode (this has been fixed with an updated light). I recently decided to insulate my rear light to see if it would last longer.

Using the same principle as above for the front light, I spent 10 minutes and wrapped pipe insulation around the rear light, cutting out a hole for the main LED.

Insulated front and rear bike light

Insulated front and rear bike light

The holes for light work!

The holes for light work!

On the bike and lit up

On the bike and lit up

Well I achieved less-than-expected results from the rear light. I went for a 30 minute ride in -20C and came back with a blinking light still, but it seemed dimmer and slower than when I set out. However, it did shut off, indicating that the batteries were kept a little warmer than usual. I think with the front light, it generates enough heat to keep itself warm, while the flashing LEDs of the rear light do not.

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About Kurt (Lightning) Bredeson

I am a married man, a follower of Jesus, a Mechanical Engineer, and a lover of cars, cycling and music. Things haven't always been easy; things haven't always been hard. I'm just trying my best in this life to enjoy what's been given to me by God and make the most of it.
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6 Responses to Cheap DIY Winter Cycling Upgrade

  1. Minus 30! The coldest we get here in the UK is only about minus 5, I’m amazed that any of your gear works in such low temperatures. If I’m honest I’m a little jealous, I’m a fan of cycling in extreme conditions, I think it can be as much fun as any other type of bike challenge (like audax etc).

    I’ve just written a post on my own blog to try and encourage more cyclists to take to their bikes in the winter months http://lucky-x.com/winter-cycling-how-to-stay-safe-warm-and-badass/

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Andrew, I’ll check out your post. Funny thing is one person’s extreme conditions is another’s normal conditions. Goes for heat too! Yes, there are a few equipment changes I’ve had to make for colder weather, such as lighter grease in my bearings so that my wheels keep turning easy. Water is your worst enemy in the cold though: iced-up rear freehubs can be tough to deal with.

    • I was going to write an update. I just ride last night for an hour in -30 and the light performed wonderfully! The led indicated green still at the end of the ride. Today I’m riding back and forth to put the car in for service (ironic that the cars don’t work but the bike does). Had the light in flash mode and it’s still green. I think the fix worked!

  2. -yo' mama, says:

    how’d you get so smart?!!!

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