It would be wonderful if all drivers were hyper-vigilant and all infrastructure was tuned for cyclists. But in the absence of this utopian bike dream, making it easier for other road users to see you isn’t a terrible idea. We’re already advocates of day- and night-time running lights, but what about adding lights to your body? Low-power, high-output LEDs are making it possible to do just that. Caley Fretz takes a look at two light-up jacket options.
Two LED cycling jackets, head to head
The original intention of this pair of reviews was to pick the best of two jackets with built-in LED lights. Both have the same stated purpose: to increase visibility from dusk until dawn. But the two jackets in question ended up being so different that a true comparison, and picking a winner, wasn’t really possible.
Both jackets are covered in reflective panels and have machine-washable LED lights built into their fabrics. Both put white lights on the front and red lights on the back. Both are water-resistant and warm. But the similarities end there.
At one end of the spectrum is Métier’s Beacon jacket. It’s a slick, tailored piece that’s as much a long-sleeve jersey as it is a jacket. Its fabric is a stylish black and is covered in reflective material. If you want to look good and be seen, and don’t need to layer much, the Beacon may be for you.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Proviz Nightrider. It’s an eye-burning fluorescent yellow, fits like a more traditional jacket, and can probably be seen from space through a thick fog. If you want to be able to layer underneath your jacket, and also want to be spotted by both drivers and moon people, this one’s for you.
The feature that makes both these jackets interesting — built-in LED lights — adds significant cost. Castelli’s Perfetto long sleeve is a rough proxy for the Métier, for example, and sells for US$200; the Métier costs an additional US$130. Meanwhile, there are lots of waterproof, traditionally-built jackets that, at around US$100-$125, are 40% cheaper than the Proviz.
This raises an obvious question: Why not just put lights on your bike? A good front and rear blinkie set can be found for under US$50 and is arguably more versatile.
There is research suggesting that lighting your body can be effective in getting drivers to notice you, as it highlights more human movements that our eyes are good at picking up. Métier’s Paul Molyneux says his company has focused on biomotion, or the particular ability of humans to pick up on other human movements. After riding in both jackets for a few months, I can say that drivers did seem to spot me more easily. But that’s purely anecdotal.
The solution, for me, anyway, is to use both: light-up jacket, and lights on my bike. When it comes to being seen, I say the more lights, the merrier.
Métier Beacon jacket (US$330/AU$430/£250)
“You look pro,” actual pro Taylor Phinney said to me at a coffee shop early one morning as I strode in wearing the Beacon. This seems a like a pretty good endorsement of the jacket’s style. Métier’s first collection is focused on foul weather but eschews hi-vis colors in favor of a sleek, black, race-fit look. It’s a stylish piece of kit, beautifully made and tailored for athletic builds. It’s not gaudy, as so many hi-visibility pieces are. Instead, the Beacon relies on a hefty dose of reflective material and three sets of bright, built-in LEDs for visibility.
On the front, three bright, white LED lights drop down from your collarbone on both sides. On the back, five red LEDs run horizontally along the bottom of the jacket’s hem, below the three nicely-sized and wonderfully stretchy pockets. The lights are controlled with a small box that sits inside a tiny pocket sewn into the bottom right of the jacket. One whole side of the box is a button, so it’s really just a matter of grabbing and squeezing the area to turn the lights on and off, or switch between flash modes.
The lights have three settings: constant, slow flash, and fast flash. The constant setting gives you about 12 hours of ride time and the two flash settings last for up to 72 hours. I left the jacket running on slow flash in a chilly outdoor shed at about 45°F (7°C) and the lights ran for about 70 hours.
The front lights are rated at 160 lumens but the rears are more modest at 22 lumens; however, Métier says they’re configured for “high brightness.” The front lights, in particular, are visible from a long way off, so much so that I felt completely comfortable ending rides as the sun was going down with no additional front light. The rear lights aren’t as bright as some of our favorite dedicated daytime taillights, like Bontrager’s Flare R, but cut through low-light hours well.
Even on their constant setting, the Beacon’s lights are “be seen” not “see” lights. They’re bright but not focused at anything in particular. So if you plan on riding in the dark, you’ll still need a real front light.
Beacon is black, which is an odd choice for a jacket designed for low light. Black doesn’t exactly grab drivers’ attention in the dark. The swath of reflective strips light up when hit by headlights and the LEDs light up on their own, but there’s no question that a bright, hi-vis color would provide additional visibility. There’s a small amount of visibility sacrificed for style.
Fit and finish
The Beacon straddles the line between jersey and jacket. It fits like a long sleeve jersey, tight and tailored, but the material is thicker, bordering on softshell. That tight fit is made possible by a four-way stretch fabric that is brushed on the inside and hydrophobic on the outside (via a DWR coating), so water rolls right off. It’s also wind-resistant, which is a nice touch.
Métier describes the fabric as “fully breathable.” I’d go with “kind of breathable.” The reality is that any fabric as thick as this is not going to expel heat and moisture as fast as you can create it. But everything is relative. The Beacon is far better than average and does avoid the clamminess that is common with similar wind- and water- resistant fabrics.
My jacket breathability test is simple. I ride up one of Boulder’s 30-minute climbs, Sunshine Canyon, in a temperature down near freezing. If I can keep the zipper most of the way up and still expel enough sweat off my back to avoid freezing to death on the way down, the jacket is a winner. Previously, the only water-resistant jacket to pass this test was the famous Castelli Gabba. I’m told by our tech editor James Huang, though I have no personal experience, that the jackets made of Gore’s thin, waterproof ShakeDry material can pass as well. I’m quite pleased to say that the Beacon can be added to that short list.
The jacket’s fit helps its cause here. The fabric’s proximity to your skin helps to move sweat out quickly. At the bottom of the descent, following my breathability test, there was a thin crust of ice on the outside of the jacket across my lower back. It was sweat that had been evacuated to the outer shell of the jacket and then frozen. Impressive.
However, that tight fit is a double-edged sword. The usable temperature range for a jacket with a tight fit is relatively narrow because it severely limits layering options. I’m not a particularly big guy and there is no way I could get more than a merino base layer and short sleeve jersey underneath the small-sized jacket Métier sent over. The size feels right — the arms and tail are the right lengths — but golly, is it tight. You can’t put anything on top of it, either. Well, you can, but then you cover up the lights so what’s the point in spending US$400 on it in the first place? If you’re going to cover the lights, just get a Gabba.
Some of this layering frustration is a result of my location. We do a lot of climbing and long descents (10-20 minutes) here, and that means layers are key. Since the Beacon isn’t particularly packable, you’re stuck wearing it all day. I often strip down to a jersey and arm warmers on the way up, even mid-winter, only to pack on clothes like a downhill skier on the way down. The Beacon, thanks to its choice of fabric and fit, is better suited to locations that force less frequent and less dramatic wardrobe changes.
Proviz Nightrider LED (US$185/AU$210/£125)
There is very little that looks pro about a high-visibility jacket, but being pro clearly isn’t the point here. The point is being seen. If that’s your priority, look no further.
The outer shell is the sort of fluorescent yellow that hurts your eyes to look at in sunlight and lights up like the sun when hit with headlights. In addition to the color, Proviz sticks strips of reflective material all the way around the jacket for 360-degree visibility. And that’s before we even get to the lights.
Proviz places five red LEDs vertically on the dropped tail of the Nightrider and three white LEDs down the outside of each forearm. The lights are as bright as the Métier, and run times are similar. Left in the same cold outdoor space, the Proviz lasted more than 65 hours on flash mode.
The battery is removable and charges with a standard mini USB cable. Once the battery pack is removed, the jacket can be machine washed.
The lights can be set to flash, fast flash, and constant, and the button that turns the lights on and cycles through the modes is on the outside of the jacket for easy access, even with thick gloves.
Fit and finish
This is where the Proviz diverges rapidly from the sleek look of the Métier. The Nightrider is a more traditional jacket, with a waterproof polyester shell and a soft, mesh inner liner. It has taped seams for further waterproofing and adjustable cuffs to close out drafts. The big front zipper is waterproof as well. It has big vents on the back and under the armpits.
It needs those vents. The breathability of the material is rated to 10,000gm/24hr, which isn’t bad in theory. But in practice, the Nightrider was quite steamy when I opened the throttle a bit. The armpit vents in particular help move some of that hot air out, but the jacket still failed my climbing breathability test. I had to open the thing up all the way.
That said, the Nightrider was far warmer while descending. It’s more windproof than the Métier and holds heat better.
The fit is decidedly more casual. You can put all the layers you want underneath with room to spare. My only real issue with the fit is that the shoulders don’t articulate forward all that well. If you ride in an aggressive position, you’ll get a tight stretch of fabric across your back and the sleeves may ride up a bit. In a less stretched out position, the cut is fine.
The sides are tailored a bit, which keeps flapping to a minimum but doesn’t eliminate it entirely. The arms are particularly flappy, and quite loud at descending speeds. Maybe I just need to get to the gym more, though.
It didn’t take long to figure out where the Nightrider belongs. I threw it on for a few mellow commutes and errand runs, each about 20 minutes in cold weather across town. And, voilà, it suddenly worked as advertised.
In commute mode, I could stick an arm out and feel confident that the car behind me saw it, thanks to those forearm LEDs. The back and armpit vents, which were woefully inadequate on the Sunshine climb, performed flawlessly as I cooled off from the short climb up to the University of Colorado’s campus.
It wasn’t exactly a revelation, but a good reminder to match any equipment or clothing with its intended purpose. The Nightrider is a fantastic jacket for a commute or a mellow group ride. It’s no good for hammering.
Which LED cycling jacket would I buy?
The original concept behind this comparison fell apart as soon as I got both garments in. One is a high-performance, race-cut and speed-inspired jacket that thinks it’s a jersey. The other is a bulky, warm, waterproof jacket that’s far more comfortable on a morning commute than a fast group ride. The only thing tying them together is their LED lights.
Which would I buy? I’d buy the Métier. It functions so well as a high-performance cycling garment that the lights are just a bonus. There are similar jackets without LED lights that cost about the same (Rapha’s ProTeam Longsleeve Shadow, for example, is US$350), so why not add a bit of peace-of-mind to your low-light rides?
The Proviz is more visible, and I love the arm-mounted lights for their help with gesturing and side visibility. But it’s too bulky for me. I can’t stuff it in a pocket which means I have to wear it all day. Wearing it while climbing is impossible because it just doesn’t breath well enough. It’s an excellent piece, but for a different type of riding.
For a daily, year-round commute, I’d take the Proviz. But I mostly work out of my house. So for me, it’s the Métier.