The season of the dynamo

I mentioned earlier this year that I have dynamo lighting on all the bikes in my fleet. The ability to generate power for lights by moving is amazing. What’s more amazing is never having to worry about whether you remembered to bring your lights and are they charged. (Not to mention “Did I forget my lights at home, or did I leave them mounted on the bike while I went into this store, and now are they stolen?”*) This is really important during the season of dark, where even if you were fully intending on being home by dark, there’s a chance that you might not be. Having a dependable, reliable source of light is great.

Three of my bikes had generator hubs on the front wheel for the power, while two did it “old school” via a bottle generator running against tire. A bottle dynamo is what you might have had on your old AMF Nimble three speed from the early eighties, the kit purchased from Kmart for like $15. While you still can buy that same exact janky bottle dynamo setup online, the bottle dynamos I’ve used are way more modern and way more better: the AXA HR. I’ve been using this German designed dynamo on several different bikes for the last decade: it’s inexpensive and doesn’t cause a lot of drag. But they aren’t built to last that long. I had one that lasted for a couple years before weather and usage burned out the internal wiring.

Now the AXA HR that was recently on my Crested Butte was giving me grief. It wasn’t burning out, at least not the wiring: The spring that keeps the bottle in the “off” position, away from the tire, had weakened. Hit a good enough bump, or heck, a light bump, and the bottle engages against the tire. I guess it wasn’t the worst problem to have, but it was still annoying.

A big issue with bottle dynamos, at least decent ones, is where to find them. Besides the $15 Kmart kit or some random over-engineered and expensive ones, they are hard to get in the US these days. There isn’t a market for them here as there is in Northern Europe, and those folks here who want decent dynamo lighting now will invest in the hub systems.** While the AXA HR doesn’t sell for much (usually $20-30), I’ve had to source the last couple from Europe. With shipping times being stretched so much, it could mean a month or two before I would get a replacement. As for fixing the one I have, I asked someone in the UK who deals with them and he told me he hasn’t heard of anyone repairing a unit, so refurbishment was a no-go.

So I mulled over my options. I’ve had the Raleigh Crested Butte for eight years. The first year I used battery lights, then mostly the bottle dynamo. But there was a hot moment where I did have a generator hub front wheel on it. It worked great, but I took it off and sold that wheel when I thought I was going to sell the bike. Then I decided to keep the Crested Butte, and after another short bit of battery, it was back to the AXA HR. I had occasionally thought about getting another dynamo wheel, but the front wheel (original) was still good so I hesitated. Maybe now was the time?

I wasn’t as excited about building a new wheel around a decent dynamo unit like the Shutter Precision. Yes, they are great, and I have one on my Bantam. But this would set me back a couple hundred bucks. What I wanted to get was a pre-built wheel around a lesser but still decent dynamo hub by Sanyo or Shimano. I found an eBay seller that had one in the 26 inch size I needed, and I got it for less than $100, shipping included. Yay! Yeah, it has a “Electra Townie” label on the rim, but whatever.***

Spending money via eBay is easy. Now came the mounting part. I don’t really like working on my bike, as it often makes me feel incompetent. But how hard can this be? And I’ve had dynamo lighting on bikes for ten years, so I have some familiarity. Not only that, since I tend to save useful bike bits, I had extra dynamo wiring that I could use. And the setup didn’t go bad at all. I managed to wire it up properly and quickly. The biggest thing I had to deal with was adjusting brakes, since the rim width on the new wheel is narrower than the old. (Then again, everything would be narrower than those 1.75″ wide Araya rims!) A visit to the local bike shop sorted that out.

Oh yeah, what kept it even simpler than usual is that I didn’t have to wire a rear light. The Great Crash of 2019 shredded the wire that went to my rear Spanninga Pixeo light. Rather than try to rewire, I replaced the dynamo Pixeo with its battery (2xAAA) version. Both lights put out the same exact amount of light at 0.5 watts, so there’s no difference in functionality. And the light can run for a half-year or so without battery replacement. It’s not perfect, and a dynamo rear light would mean not having to worry about batteries at all. I’ll probably get around to rewiring the rear at some point, but I’m in no hurry. Besides, no light in the rear means the front light is even stronger!

Even though one bike loses a bottle dynamo, I still have one on the Heavy Duti. And I doubt that I’ll ever get a dynamo hub wheel for that bike. And a bottle dynamo is more practical on Heavy Duti, since I intend to use that bike in the ice/snow (if it happens.) I have a spare wheel with a studded tire mounted, so I can swap wheels easily. If I had a dynamo hub setup, I’d either have to swap tires (PITA since mounting/unmounting thick studded tires is tough) or I’d have a spare dynamo hub wheel for the studded tire (added costs.)

I know it’s dorky, but I get a sense of joy of having dynamo lighting on the bikes. It’s just plain cool to generate power for your lights by the simple act of riding. And not having to worry about batteries (mostly) is icing on the cake.

*Since dynamo lighting is bolted to the bike, thievery is less common.

**I’ll also point out that Peter White in New Hampshire has a B+M bottle dynamo listed on his site. While it’s a good dynamo, it sells for $60, double for what I could get the AXA. At that price I’d be motivated to get a generator hub.

***Which means this was an aftermarket wheel originally sold by Electra.

5 thoughts on “The season of the dynamo

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  1. It has always boiled down to how much night riding I do. I don’t ride to and from work anymore at night so night riding is a choice for me. This led me to battery lights. I equip all my bikes with two battery flashlights from China with an appropriate pinch handlebar holder. If one light goes dead I have another ready to go. Rear lights are all battery. This has worked very well for many years. Mine have all been ebay/amazon type purchases. Some lights both front and rear are rechargeable and some are AA or AAA cells. Since they came out with the Lithium AA cells I find that I don’t have to change batteries very often. The more recent flashlight type of bicycle lights are very bright and some have focusable beams which I find useful. These cheap Asian made flashlights have proven to be very reliable long term items with almost no problems. I always read the reviews and the lights have pretty much worked out as the reviews have stated. At night I always ride as if the drivers can’t see me even with my lights on. This keeps me cautious and very conservative in my riding style. I always defer to the cars even during the day. They have more tin around them.

  2. I had a bottle-generator dynamo light for my Nimble back in the day! I used to ride it to my first job at a movie theater and I needed the light to see on my way home well after dark.

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