Monday, February 29, 2016

Let there be light - B&M Ixon IQ Premium review

Something tells me that winter is not coming back this season. This something is a swarm of seasonal cyclists, who normally show up back on the Minuteman Bikeway in early April. This year's abnormally warm temperatures made them pour out onto the bike path realizing - "Hey, it's warm enough to ride a bike again!".

Let's admit it - bicycling is seasonal for majority of the population. Most people don't ride their bikes in winter, or when it's dark. But those who do, may find the next few paragraphs useful.

About a year ago, I wrote about the new problem I encountered while riding my bike on Minuteman Bikeway, in later fall and winter season. The Bikeway is not illuminated and runs through a forested area, which means that it's really dark in places. If you find yourself there late evening in December, you will want to have a decent headlight on your bicycle. Otherwise, I can't picture how you would navigate in pitch black, provided you're not a bat.

Fortunately, many bicyclists I encounter on the road over there use decent lights. Unfortunately, most of those are either too bright, aimed too high or simply said - illuminating everything around, including tree tops. This means - you get blinded every time you pass such cyclists.

For the last several years I have been using a small Planet Bike Blaze 2-Watt headlight. It's small, simple, runs on 2 AA batteries (a feature I like a lot) and is powerful just enough to brighten up the path at night - as long as you're not racing. However, it does have some shortcomings. The beam is quite narrow, the reflector is lacking and too much light gets focused (or actually, not focused at all) not on the path in front of bicycle but everything above it.
Planet Bike Blaze 2-Watt light mounted on my Schwinn's handlebars (Yes, it's mounted upside-down as this was the only way it could be done).

Also, like most headlights, Blaze comes with a standard handlebar mount, which presents a major problem in my situation. Not only the swept-back handlebars on my Schwinn have nearly no space for the light to be mounted on (due to the bar's curved shape) but I also use a front-mounted basket now, which completely blocks any bar-mounted lights.

For these reasons, last November I started looking for another solution. I knew that I wanted to get one that would check the following marks on my list:
  • Should be ideally fork-crown mounted and stay away from the handlebars
  • Should be more powerful than my current light
  • Should have a wider beam pattern
  • Should have a well-designed reflector with horizontal cut-off to limit blinding of other cyclists
  • Should be powered with AA batteries (Because I have a stash of the always-excellent, rechargeable Sanyo Eneloops at home)
There are hundreds of bike headlights with more light power, many with wider beam patterns, some that are powered by AA batteries and not dedicated packs and only a few that come with dedicated fork crown mounts. But if you add to this list a reflector with a horizontal cut-off, you won't have many options to choose from. Most manufacturers (and notably American ones) design their headlights mainly for the maximum power output. That's why you can easily find 1000-lumen death rays that illuminate path in front of your bike up to the next village, both sides of the road and the starry sky above. This may be useful if you are riding to work through a remote countryside of Oklahoma or deep forests of Oregon. But in urban Boston, it makes little sense.

Because of my requirements, I quickly realized that I will have the best chance of success buying a German-made light. That's because of Stra├čenverkehrszulassungsordnung or simply said: StVZO (Let's hope this one won't break your tongue). StVZO is the German road traffic permit regulation that established guidelines what a legal bicycle headlight (and many other things as well) should be like. This is why German-made headlights are designed to be bright-enough to see and be seen while not blinding other road users. Those 1000+ lumen Death Star rays you can buy in USA are therefore illegal in German urban traffic.

To get to the point (finally), I bought a Busch & Muller Ixon IQ Premium headlight to replace my old Blaze and in general, I'm very happy with it.
 
Ixon IQ comes in two versions. The Premium  offers double the light output (80lux vs. 40lux) for double the price ($110 vs. $55). But it also provides a much wider beam pattern that I was looking for. You can learn more about the differences between both lights from this video:
The best news (at least for me) is that the Premium ticks all the boxes on my list, provided you purchase the additional fork crown mount ($12), which I did. Interestingly, I found out that my old Blaze 2-Watt light fits in this mount as well, which makes it a perfect backup light should my Ixon run our of power.

Ixon IQ Premium is a fairly compact and lightweight headlamp outputting 80lux of light for 5hrs or 15lux for 20hrs (per manufacturer's website). I'm not going to describe in great detail how the beam pattern and light output compare to other lights on market because this would not only require making lots of measurements  on a special test rig, but also owning a bunch of different headlights that I don't have. Instead, I'm going to share some of my observations from the first 3 months of use.

Ixon IQ is made entirely out of plastics but it actually feels pretty solid in hand. One of the first things you may notice is that looking at the reflector, you won't see any LED there. While most bicycle headlights place a powerful LED in the center, Ixon IQ uses a very different approach. The small LED is hidden in the upper side of the reflector and faced down. This means the Ixon IQ relies on the reflector to do the job and direct the beam onto road. This is why light from this lamp lands where is supposed to. You won't be illuminating tree tops anymore.
The Ixon IQ light features a swing-open compartment for 4 standard AA batteries. You can buy it in a more expensive version with NiMH rechargeable batteries and a dedicated charger. Should you go this way, there is a port at the underside of the lamp where you can plug in the charger directly. No need to remove the batteries from the lamp at all.
There is only 1 button on the top of the light. Holding it for a while turns the light on/off, while pressing it quickly switches between low and high beam modes. The diode next to the switch blinks either red/green in low mode or green only in high. You will also get a warning (blinking red) when batteries run low. You won't find any blinking light modes in Ixon IQ - these are illegal according to StVZO.

In terms of the light output, Ixon IQ Premium is simply fantastic. I can't picture needing more light in the city, however, for those in rural Oklahoma, 80 lux isn't going be enough. My first impression after turning the light on was very positive but it took me a while to get used to its beam. It's clearly different than most bike headlights. Unlike most lamps that feature a center-mounted LED and a torch-like beam pattern, Ixon IQ's beam is shaped by the reflector so it ends abruptly at a set distance in front of you. There is not much of a gradual fade out - something you would be familiar with while riding with traditional headlights. It's good and bad at the same time. Good, because you get a much more defined beam and you're not blinding others. Bad, because if you angle the light too low and ride too fast in pitch black conditions, you won't have any indication about unlit objects suddenly showing up in front of you, and you may (nearly) crash into them. Ask me how I know.

Regarding the run time on four AA batteries, I typically get around close to 6 hours of riding on higher beam output. This is well in spec with manufacturer-listed 5 hours and perfectly acceptable for urban riding. In fact, I usually recharge the batteries every weekend, after using the high beam for 1 hour on every workday.

To sum up, if you are looking for a decent headlight for urban riding with well-defined beam shape, that can be fork crown-mounted and will run on standard AA batteries - give Ixon IQ Premium a chance. Just keep in mind that for mountain biking in a deep, dark forest you will still need to pack your death ray.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"Autonomous cars don't have middle fingers"

 Looks like winter has finally arrived. Last Friday we got some snow, this week started with another snowfall and we are expecting some subzero temperatures soon, such as -6F (-21C) on this Saturday night.

On Monday I took my bike to work, as usual. The morning was chilly and quiet with no signs of snowfall that was about to arrive. By early afternoon it started snowing heavily so I left my work a bit earlier. I was expecting some difficulty getting back home but riding on the Minuteman Bikeway was surprisingly easy, despite a fresh coat of ~2" of snow. My bike was leaving a deep cut behind and I was moving slowly forward, at a steady pace. It was peaceful and quiet. Great time for bike riding.
Over 65% of my commute happens on the Minuteman Bikeway so I'm lucky that I don't have to deal with much car traffic on my way to work. Still, every month I'm in one of those unpleasant situations that I wish I could quickly forget about. Usually, it involves a very impatient, young Mr. Motorist who feels urge to express himself by honking, yelling and waving his middle finger in an act of disapproval.

I noticed that drivers can be extremely impatient. They have to race to the next lights, even though they are red. They get angry quickly when a slower bicyclist "blocks" "their" road and therefore, they feel it's necessary to express their emotions. Interestingly though, I have never seen anyone like that, waving the middle finger at a school bus driver, a slow truck or an excavator - all of which block the road way more than a single cyclist.

Anyway, on Monday as I was riding back home in the middle of the snow storm, Mr. Motorist who was passing me, decided to educate me by honking and presenting his finger. Such thing happened to me many times in the past, but this situation was a bit different. Mr Motorist was going in the opposite direction and I wasn't "blocking" "his" road in any way.

I started thinking about it more. What is the motivation of Mr. Motorist to do such thing? Clearly, I wasn't slowing him down. I wasn't even close to him. I'm guessing that Mr. Motorist must have something fundamentally against any bicycles on "his" roads and just thinking about it makes him sweat at night and lose temper. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe by waving his finger he just wanted to advertise the size of his manhood. Either way, I'm not impressed.

Considering all this, I'm really excited for fully autonomous cars to arrive. The future looks bright. Autonomous vehicles don't have middle fingers. They don't get involved in sad cases of road rage. They don't speed and they don't even crash with each other. Driver's license may be the thing of the past soon and people will hopefully become human again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A random winter (?) mix

It's been so warm recently you would think it's spring. It's certainly been the warmest and mildest winter in Boston since... ever? Despite all this, we only needed a lousy 5 inches of snow just a week ago to see another episode of parking wars. Everyone knows that on-street parking in Boston is scarce, yet everyone tries to pack more and more cars there. This becomes a problem in winter when some of these spots get blocked by piles of snow plowed off the streets. What's Boston's solution? Remove all snow from city streets as soon as possible? Limit a number of parking permits available? No. Our solution is to temporarily legalize unloading random junk onto the parking spots to "save" them. This is usually done with cones, old chairs or other junk furniture. These space savers are our way to say "This is my spot. Don't you dare parking here". But, if it doesn't work, you can always shoot the intruder.

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It looks like I may have awarded my Village Idiot Awards two weeks ago a bit too early. As of the last week, we have another candidate to receive this Anti-Transportation Oscar: Mike Verchio from South Dakota. In the past, Mr Verchio has been apparently "consistently voting against measures to improve road safety, such as restriction on mobile device use while driving, and voting in favor measures to decrease safety, such as higher speed limits". This time, he proposed a new bill, requiring all cyclists "under certain conditions to stop and allow faster vehicles to pass", which essentially means that if you try to ride your bike on a road you have to share with cars, you're screwed. According to the proposed solution you would need to dismount and let all those vehicles pass first before you can continue riding. Not hard to imagine this could make bicycles in South Dakota unusable. All this, plus other attempts like 15ft tall flag poles required on bicycles or Australian mandatory helmet and ID laws seem simply like a blatant attempt to get rid of all cyclists from the roads.

Ah, the beautiful South Dakota. Now, get off my f****** road! (Source: The Cavender Diary)

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Let's go back to Boston now. The shocking yesterday's news was the horrific crash (notice how WBZ in the video called it a "horrific crash", not an accident) that happened in Boston's Chinatown. A Chinese-American female driver hit two pedestrians and dragged one of them under her vehicle for over 3 miles (traveling on highway) before realizing she was pulling a body through the city. Next, she simply got rid of the body and drove away. I don't know, maybe in China (I've never been there) they have different standards and such behavior is perfectly acceptable or maybe this woman found her driver's license in a box of Frosted Flakes. But how bad and negligent driver you have to be not to realize that you hit two (!) people and are dragging a person (!) for over 3 miles (!) only to dump the body (!) and drive away? What I do know is that she was released on a $5000 bail, which is simply laughable considering the situation. As someone pointed out on Twitter:

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In other Boston news, our bike sharing program - Hubway, is expanding, adding new stations all over the city, which is great. Apparently, not for everyone. Local business owners complain that since Hubway stations had been installed in front of their shops "it cut the business almost in half". And that's something hard to believe as one single station takes space of 1-2 parking spots. Does it mean that they only had two parking spots in front of their shops and now are unable to serve more than 1 customer at a time? Something tells me bicycle sharing has little to do with the lost business opportunity. But it's easier to blame those damn cyclists than try to find the real problem.

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Finally, the cycling racing world is buzzing now with the news that mechanical doping does exist, indeed. It's been discovered that one Belgian cheater, I mean... a cyclocross racer had been using a small electric motor and a battery kit hidden in the seat tube. To be honest, this doesn't surprise me at all. Whether it's blood doping or mechanical cheating, who cares? Pro cycling is such a dirty sport that it's been many, many years ago when I stopped believing anyone who is in the world's top 50 in their category is clean. In my opinion, all of them are cheaters. That's the prime reason why I completely lost interest in all competitive cycling. It just doesn't make sense to waste my time and watch a bunch of guys on drugs in Tour, Giro or Vuelta. Where's the future of this "sport"?