Fake Metal vs. Honest Plastic

Few taillights available today complement the aesthetics of a classic randonneur bike, where you want to see finely detailed components, typically in metal. Most modern lights are chunky black plastic, but one succeeds in being more understated: Busch & Müller’s Seculite Plus (above). So Compass Bicycles decided to sell that light.

The Seculite Plus is made from plastic. It is available in three finishes: The basic version is black plastic (above left). The “matte silver” finish retains the pebbly surface of the basic black version, but it appears to be coated with aluminum. The “polished silver” version is somewhat shinier (above right).

When ordering a light, it is easy to assume that the “polished silver” version would be a good fit for a classic bike. After all, racks usually are chrome-plated, and aluminum fenders are polished. However, I find the “polished silver” version the least appealing of them all. I don’t like it when manufacturers try to make plastic look like metal, and it is not always a success.

If I were to choose one of these lights, I would pick the basic black version. It’s honest about what it is: a plastic light. The “matte silver” color looks acceptable, too, and would be my second choice. In any case, we’ve stopped selling the “polished silver” version.

We would welcome a new product, if someone would make it: a nice, well-made generator-powered taillight.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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50 Responses to Fake Metal vs. Honest Plastic

  1. cbratina says:

    I have an intense dislike for flashing white tail lights when drafting one, they hurt my eyes and cause me to look aside. I find flashing red much better.

    • In the U.S., taillights have to be red by law, so flashing white taillights are illegal. It’s also not a good idea, because the goal of a taillight is to be identifiable as traffic going the same way as other traffic approaching from behind. Standards exist to make the task of identification easier. Hence, headlights are white, taillights are red, and (usually and preferably) indicators are amber.

      Following a rider with a flashing light is indeed tedious. Many of us prefer solid lights for a variety of reasons: They allow approaching traffic to judge the distance and speed of your bike better, they are easier on the eyes, and they cannot be as easily overlooked. The latter is especially a problem with lights that have a significant “Off” portion in their flashing cycle. A quick glance often doesn’t see them, because they are “off”.

      • Dan Michael says:

        While a flashing taillight is undesirable in a relatively dark environment, it is a necessity when riding among heavy urban traffic to be visible among (and distinguished from) motor vehicle lights.

      • Flashing lights are illegal in Germany and other European countries, so it hardly can be called a necessity. However, there are pros and cons to steady and flashing taillights…

      • Greg says:

        In my opinion (and there are studies that support this) flashing rear lights (on a bike) are dangerous, and can actually cause cars to move closer to them, not give a wider berth. I don’t use them for that reason.

      • I think it depends on the location. In an urban environment, flashing taillights can be more visible among all the light pollution. Target fixation is mostly a problem when there aren’t other light sources around and the driver is tired or otherwise impaired.

  2. Andy says:

    I haven’t seen any modern fender lights that I like the look of yet. Some classic ones look gorgeous and I’ve seen people fit new dynamo systems within the housing, and made it look great. I think this version is a rather ugly shape that doesn’t match with the design of a bicycle though. Since my steel bike has a rear rack designed to mount and protect a tail light, I opted for the Busch & Müller Toplight since it looks like it belongs on the rack, rather than an egg shaped light that doesn’t fit aesthetically. But then again, I’m not the one looking at my own tail light usually.

    • For retrofitting a classic taillight with modern LEDs, we offer a simple insert that gives you a reliable LED and a standlight. More info is here.

      • somervillebikes says:

        Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the standlight functionality of this “bulb” replacement. Sure it’s convenient and bright enough when powered, but the tiny standlight capacity just isn’t up to the task and begins to dim soon after interruption of power. I have better success retrofitting old taillight housings with full-powered standlight LEDs, like the Seculite Plus or the Spanninga Pixeo.

      • Hmm, that doesn’t match my experience. What front light and generator did you use? How long did you run the light to charge it before you stopped? I used mine both with an old E6 and a Edelux, SON20 generator. The standlight stays on for more than a minute, plenty of time for stop signs or red lights around here.

      • somervillebikes says:

        I bench tested it in a controlled comparison with a Spanninga Pixeo and a B&M Seculite using two dynamos: Shimano DH-3N80, and an old Soubitez bottle generator. The matrixed comparison was performed with the hubs at about 15mph for 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes and 4 minutes. [I'm a scientist by career so it's natural for me to think of controlled experiments]. I didn’t measure brightness quantitatively, only by eye, I pretty much knew all three were bright enough when powered (although the Pixeo and Seculite both were slightly brighter than the bulb). But I was concerned mostly about standlight duration. In all cases, the Pixeo and Seculite performed roughly equally, which made sense since they utilize the same large capacitors (1Farad). The “bulb” simply isn’t large enough to hold a capacitor large enough to match the storage charge of the Seculite or Pixeo. After 30 seconds, the standlight lasted a few seconds. After 4 minutes, the standlight maintained the light at full brightness for about 30 seconds, then gradually dimmed over about 3 minutes, by which time it was dead. After 4 minutes of power, the Pixeo and Seculite maintained full brightness for well over 3 minutes. The results were nearly identical whichever dynamo I used. A Schmidt Edelux was used as the headlight in all cases, and was always on during testing.

        The reason for the comparison was because I wanted the best possible taillight to retrofit into a vintage French taillight (in this case a Luminox but also a Soubitez). I ended up going with the Pixeo, mainly because its circuit board is packaged more compactly than the Seculite’s, and can fit nicely into the smallest French taillight housings without major surgery! For example:

        Soubitez G3N fender taillight retrofitted with a Spanninga Pixeo LED with standlight

        I do think the “bulb” is a neat turn-key solution to add standlight functionality to old city bikes with vintage lighting systems, and I’ve bought a few of your bulbs for just this purpose. But for a state of the art bike with state of the art lighting, it’s not the best solution.

      • You are right that the bulb holds a less powerful capacitor due to space constraints, so its standlight duration will be shorter. However, I think that 30 seconds of full brightness and several minutes of gradually dimming is completely acceptable.

        I have timed red lights around here, and only the most complex ones (with separate turn arrows in all directions) stay red for 60 seconds. A standlight needs to stay illuminated only until the cyclist is riding again. Thus, a longer standlight duration beyond the longest stop of the cyclist does not improve safety.

        If you spend as much time stopped as you ride – say, in a European city with multiple lights at every intersection – then you need one of the modern lights with more powerful capacitors, since you never fully charge the bulb insert. But in North America, most cyclists tend to ride for several minutes between stops.

  3. ablejack says:

    I think that cbratina may have supposed the taillights mentioned showed white light because they both have clear lenses. What is not evident is that they employ red LED bulbs. Jan addressed the flashing issue rather well and I agree with him about that. My guess is that Jan only indirectly alluded to the color issue to be polite. I just want it to be clear; These are red taillights.
    I understand the foible with the finish as well. There is something perhaps dishonest about chromed plastic. I’ve thought about this before. But I don’t mind it so much as long as it is made clear that the housing is plastic when the light is being sold.

    • We would not sell anything but red, steady taillights. In any case, all the lights we sell meet the German standards, which require steady white front and red rear lights.

    • Greg says:

      In addition to plating chrome onto plastic, it is also possible to chrome-plate aluminum, fwiw. Several years ago, automakers began chrome-plating the aluminum wheels on their high-end models, and charging a huge premium for that as an ‘option.’ Personally, I find those wheels to be ghastly, and that fad has faded quite a bit since then, thankfully….

  4. james says:

    I’ve never seen a photo of the matte silver taillight. Please provide one.

  5. Kirt says:

    Tony Pereira makes an aluminum, fender-mount light. Wired for use with a dyno-hub. $125 last I checked.

  6. jonathan says:

    I’ve used a B&M Seculite for a couple years now with excellent results. Mounts well even to plastic SKS LongBoard fenders.

    I also use a “blinky” red light in concert with the steady state red tail light, but turn it off when riding with a group at night. I wish others could do the same as the bright flashing patterns from many of the battery powered lights can become annoying at best and disorienting at worse.

    I see the light maker Krog is coming out with a new USB powered battery tail light that has a “peloton” setting where 2 smaller LEDs run constantly without any flashing at all. Good idea.

  7. Bubba says:

    Lighting and visibility is an interesting topic. In San Francisco Randonneurs, we have one or two very passionate champions for visibility that has started to really permeate the group. The very basic visibility kit I run earns snickers from wannabe racer types that I encounter. It’s definitely not classic. Very large reflective anklebands, multiple taillights, especially one on the helmet. Hi-vis vests day and night. Run the dyno headlight all day on the roads where it is appropriate. Everybody runs solid red in the back. Some of us have 3 or more taillights, though.

    While I truly admire the craftsmanship of a tiny dyno taillight on the seat-tube, I wonder if that is horribly out of date from a safety perspective. We are all adults of course, and must each take personal responsibility for how visible we want to be. But in the Randonneuring community, the multiple deaths every single year remind me that when in doubt, more visible is more better. I think Jan’s favorite safety technique is to ride the roads less-traveled (off the beaten path, dare I say). What other visibility gear do you typically run on brevets?

    • I don’t think that more lights necessarily are safer. As Greg pointed out, flashing and multiple lights can cause “target fixation.” This appears to be the reason so many drivers hit police cars that parked on the shoulder of a road with their lights flashing. In simulators, this has been demonstrated to be especially a problem with impaired drivers, whether intoxicated or fatigued.

      From this, I conclude that the ideal light is bright enough to be seen, but not so bright that is causes target fixation.

      Especially when riding on dark country roads, a single taillright, combined with one or two reflective ankle bands, is incredibly visible. I once supported a 600 km brevet and drove the course after the riders had started. I was amazed how visible even just a single taillight was.

      In our culture, we often tend to equate “more” with “better,” but this is one more example where we may have to re-examine this.

    • Regarding mounting lights on helmets, it is surprising how hard they are to see, because they move. During the same brevet I mentioned above, I manned a secret control. I had two riders almost sneak up on me. Their headlights were mounted on their helmets, and since they were moving, I did not see them until they were very close. Steady lights mounted on the bike are easy to see even during a quick scan of the road ahead.

    • the multiple deaths every single year remind me that when in doubt, more visible is better.

      It would be nice if RUSA did collect data on accidents, so we could find out how to be safe. I am not aware of any indication that the riders who got killed (most by impaired drivers) were not visible, or might have fared better if they had been more visible. The last cases involved riders who rode on the shoulder. When you consider target fixation, then they might have been better off being invisible, as the impaired drivers probably would have stayed on the road and missed them.

      These are difficult questions, and in the absence of hard data, we are reduced to guesswork.

      • Andy says:

        Other sporting groups do accident reporting, and although it can be sad to read about in their publications, hearing the explanation of what happened can be very helpful. I generally agree that one “bright enough” light in each direction is sufficient, and have been avoiding the urge to add more lights. The only time I do is when riding in heavy rain or fog – I will add a blinking light because it easily grabs attention. A solid light in very low visibility can make drivers assume that they should follow it. I’ve also heard that cyclists should not mount two lights horizontally, since it may give the appearance of a car that is far away.

  8. Heather says:

    Blinking lights: For some reason we and bike light manufacturers have gotten the idea that crazy distracting light patterns is the way to go to BE SEEN with rear lights. I have read about them being distracting, especially to impaired drivers. But I am often riding in heavy rain in the dark, or fog, and a flashing light seems appropriate in those times. Living in a rural west coast area where people drink and drive with shameful regularity, I don’t want to encourage them either. In general, a steady bright rear light is enough to see and know a bicycle is ahead. A flashing light could be a jogger, or a dog. I believe most cyclists are lit up enough and it is up to drivers to be aware and pay attention the road as the law requires.
    Cheap but widely used battery lights do not stay charged for long in steady mode, if the model has one. My husband insists on the blinky rear light and it drives me crazy. I have noticed there are brighter and brighter tail lights available which is a better idea. I do not know if I will use a dynamo rear light on my dynamo bike build as the options are plasticy and plasticy. I might as well use a battery or rechargeable plastic light. If I do find something classic I would upgrade it to LED.

  9. cory says:

    The initial argument of chromed plastic vs natural plastic seems interesting. As a cyclist among many who deceivingly cover his or her non French road/touring with French accessories and parts, I don’t see the harm in beautifying some plastic to go along for the end aesthetic. In the end we are just trying to cover up what is original and make it something a little more inspiring and desirable.

    • I am not opposed to chrome-plated plastic, but it has to be done well. Sadly, the Busch & Müller chrome-plated plastic doesn’t pull it off.

      • somervillebikes says:

        I actually like the look of silver (not chromed) plastic intermingled with aluminum components and fenders, and have taken to spraying some of my black plastic lights (B&M Cyo and Spanningo Pixeo) silver. To each their own… And isn’t that what options are all about? (I also happen to like the Pixeo better than the Seculite– just as bright, same robust standlight, but lighter overall, but again… to each their own).

      • The reason for this post is simple: When we find that something we sell isn’t as great as we’d like, we have two choices: Stop selling it, as we did with the original Grand Bois rims. Or if we feel the product still has merit, we can write about it, so our customers know what they are getting. The relevant blog posts can be accessed from the product pages on the Compass web site, so they provide useful information to our customers.

        I find it very annoying when companies are uncritical of the things they sell, just because it’s convenient to do so.

  10. Mike J. says:

    If we’re making suggestions for improvement… It would be really nice to have some reference to install the light in the correct position to make sure the beam is pointing in the right direction.

    I really like the E3 tail light for its small size, but you have to make your own stand light circuit if you want to use the E3 with anything other than the E3 headlight.

  11. Benjamin Van Orsdol says:

    Although I’ve never seen it live “in the steel,” the taillight that Hahn Rossman, Alex Wetmore, and Mark Vande Kamp built for Mark’s 6 Hands bike looks nearly perfect to my eyes. It is powered by the generator hub, and the wires are internally routed. It is protected as it sits under the non-drive chainstay. Under power, it puts out a ton of lush red light, and because it is mounted so low, the light splash on the ground is big and creates an even larger visibility patch for others on the road. Alex wrote that it is lacking in the stand light function, and for a custom light it could be more elegant – but these can be improved upon. I thought the beautiful seat tube mounted custom taillight (used by JPW, Herse, and Alex Singer to name a few) was perfect until I saw this. A seat tube light doesn’t allow a saddle bag, but hey… Life is full of compromises!

    • The only concern with a chainstay-mounted light and wide tires is that from some angles, the light is blocked by the tire. When rounding a blind curve, this can make the light invisible to traffic approaching from behind. I noticed that when climbing a winding road behind Mark in the dark. I don’t know whether it’s a real problem, since I was riding at a constant distance, rather than approaching from behind.

      You are right, with light mounted behind the seat tube, you cannot use a large saddlebag. However, a handlebar bag is a better place to carry a load anyhow, since a saddlebag negatively affects the handling when riding out of the saddle.

  12. Bendo says:

    Thanks for this post and the many informative replies. I have the Seculite Plus on my 650b Routens and I chose the silver finish one because I have no other black componentry on the bike. Nevertheless I think it is an ugly and poorly-designed object. I am waiting for it to be knocked off accidentally one day because it sticks out so far from the mudguard surface. I will definitely be checking out some of the suggestions on how to retrofit the electrics into an old Soubitez or Cibie tailight body.

    I don’t know who at Busch and Müller thought this tumour shape was a good design, but it is neither elegant nor practical. A right-angle triangle, with the base radiused to match the curve of the mudguard is a design concept that can’t be improved on for either simplicity and unobtrusiveness. I can’t imagine how so many people worry about having a perfect mudguard-line and then quite happily plonk this carbuncle on the back of it! b

  13. Fred Blasdel says:

    The Seculite is unfortunately still the best fender mounted taillight years later

    I think the best options on the market are the B&M Toplight Line Plus and Phillips LumiRing that have fresnel lenses, both with very broad beam patterns and very good reflectors. The newer Phillips is brighter and looks better when lit up, but the control logic of the B&M is perfect — it has a momentary button that turns it off instantly but preserves the standlight charge so it turns on at full brightness the second you start rolling again.

    They are intended to mount to a european rear rack at 50mm or 80mm spacing, but there are a number of ways to mount them directly to rear rack bosses, and Phillips sells a seatpost mount adapter.

  14. Ben Van Orsdol says:

    About the chainstay-mounted lights: Is all of the light emitted blocked, or just the “bulb” itself? Again, I haven’t been there or seen that, but I would think the light splashed on the ground couldn’t be missed. The splash is so big and bright.

    • Taillights aren’t so bright that you see the reflected light off the ground. So if you block the light itself, it becomes invisible. However, a car approaching will change its angle toward the bike, and thus may only get a short moment when the driver doesn’t see the light. I was riding at a constant distance behind, and around curves, Mark almost disappeared in front of me.

  15. Jon says:

    I’ve been using the Busch & Müller’s Seculite Plus on my rando/off-road bike for a couple years. I like that it’s compact; can easily be mounted near brake bosses or really anywhere that you can imagine. It’s tough and dependable, too.
    I have the Topline model on a couple of rack equipped bikes and find that to be even more impressive. It’s bigger, but makes a very large and visible light. This guy has a clever way of mounting it sans-rack: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ah_blake/7115210873/

  16. I’ve messed with a few lights over the years. I am currently in like with the Pixeo. It’s weight is so minimal that I have no concerns about mounting it to an SKS (or really, any) fender. It’s small but almost incredibly bright running from my Shimano hub, the capacitor seems to keep it alive forever (once charged, which does take a moment). It has a reflector. It’s cheap and makes no pretensions to be anything but cheap plastic, but it’s well-made cheap plastic.

    Although I do have a battery-powered blinker mounted on the back of my rack, I never use it. I suppose if I had a wiring failure, it might come in handy, but that’s it.

    From both functionality and bang-for-the-buck perspectives, the Pixeo is hard to beat.

    Admission: I don’t care for the bulbous look of the Seculite. I don’t even know why–just a matter of differing tastes.

  17. New Brevet guy says:

    I am currently using a new Cygolite rear tailight and it is quite bright in its on steady on position. It also has a 2w bulb. It is also mounted on the rear of my Tubus rack, getting it back and away from my saddle seems to help with its visibility.

  18. Ben Van Orsdol says:

    Taillight in use.

    Looks like its lighting up a big swath, but again, I’ve not seen it live and pictures can be deceiving.
    On a different note, I like having two taillights on my bike so I’m not left in the dark when the batteries run out.

    • I like having two taillights on my bike so I’m not left in the dark when the batteries run out.

      That is why I prefer generator-powered lights…

      • somervillebikes says:

        And if the generator, wire, or LED fails… ? Although not common, and although I’ve never experienced dynamo light failure, I do hear about it from time to time.

        I think it’s nice to have a generator light and a battery light. For city riding, I keep the fender-mounted dynamo light on all the time, and use a helmet taillight as a supplement (I always use it in steady mode). I do this because I’m also a driver, and from a driver’s perspective in an old city with poorly designed road infrastructure, I clearly see cyclists with helmet lights long before I see cyclists with frame-mounted lights. This is without question. I often see helmet taillights many car lengths in front of me because the path of the light is above car height so I am aware much sooner that I’m approaching a cyclist.

      • And if the generator, wire, or LED fails… ?

        I carry a helmet light on most overnight rides, which also has a red LED, and could double as a taillight in a pinch. Most of all, I run my lighting wires inside the frame tubes, so they are unlikely to fail. The LED lights so far have proven extremely reliable for us.

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