There must have been something in the water back in 1989. Along with the launch of our sister magazine Dirt Rag, brands like NiteRider, Camelback and Paul Components got their start.
But NiteRider didn’t start with bike lights. Tom Carroll was looking for a way to surf his favorite breaks at night, when the swell was up and long after the crowds had gone home. He built a few prototype helmets with waterproof halogen lights attached to a battery pack worn in a fanny pack around his waist. When a few bike riding friends tried it, they knew the waterproof, durable lights would be perfect for mountain biking. Fast forward a few years of assembling lights at the kitchen table and Tom was able to devote himself entirely to making the best mountain bike lights on the market.
The brand rose to prominence in the early 1990s when it was the first to promote and support the rise of 24-hour racing. The NiteRider van started showing up to races with complimentary tech support and charging services for its customers at races across the country. The race support continues today with a state-of-the-art van that can charge more than 200 batteries at once, including any NiteRider product ever made.
Today NiteRider employees up to 45 people during the busy season, a dozen of which have been with the company more than a decade. It’s a close-knit and casual workplace, tucked into an industrial park in San Diego. Tom would never be far from the surf, after all. While not every single component of a NiteRider light is made in-house (the LEDs are high-end CREE units, for example) nearly all of the assembly takes place just a few steps away from the front door.
NiteRider invited us down to visit for a factory tour and round table discussion about the industry, ranging from a light’s color temperature to tactile button feedback. A group of journalists and athletes met with NiteRider engineers and management to spitball ideas and gather feedback. We were constantly amused when we would come up with a pie-in-the-sky idea and someone would say “Hold on a sec…”, leave the room, only to return a minute later with exactly that product in hand.
For example, we were dreaming of a larger version of the popular Lumina series with dual lamps and an integrated battery, as customers now prefer the integrated one-piece unit. Sure enough, a few minutes later a 3D-printed prototype was being passed around the table. “But what if it had replaceable batteries, so we could carry spares?” someone asked. Sure enough, they thought of that too.
It was fun to daydream about products and technologies that could be coming down the line in a few years, or as far as we know are being tested in a back room somewhere—ambient light sensors, solar charging, accelerometers—ideas were burning bright.
We did get to see some other sneak peeks at products coming soon, such as a remote control for the high-end mountain bike lights and a battery pack with a USB port to charge your smartphone, GPS unit, or whatever other gadgets you might be brining along for the ride.
One big takeaway from the experience for me was the promotion of daytime running lights for city riding. Nearly everyone agreed that a blinking light during the day is effective at increasing visibility to drivers, while we nearly universally agreed a steady light is preferable at night to reduce distractions.
Another topic was why do high-quality headlights continue to improve and innovate, while taillights are largely seen as a disposable commodity? My take is that the task required of a headlight—seeing where you are going—is easily achieved with a single purchase, while the task of being visible to others is more complicated than simply purchasing a brighter light. It is a group of behaviors that will make you safer, including wearing reflective clothing, riding a certain way, drivers not being distracted, etc.
Back on the singletrack, however, we were free to revel in magic hour of dusk settling over the hills as we sped along the dusty trails. As the darkness grew, I was reminded how much I loved the focus and isolation of night riding—with no distractions, a tunnel of light and a trail leading the way.
Guess I better go charge my lights.