25 years of bike lighting improvement, but why doesn’t Tesco allow kids to change their batteries now?

Sometimes it’s the little things that alert us to the slow decline of the West towards a world of Idiocracy. DW needed some bike lights, and I’d bought some from Tesco a while ago so we got another set. Innovation is a marvellous thing in the world of bike lights.

Nightriders from the 1980s. The good thing about them was the plastic brackets didn’t snap off like the cheap one do now. The bad thing was the contacts and switch were flakey and had a shocking power drain.

25 years ago I used to have a set of Ever Ready Nightriders, great big things that took D cells. The route back from BBC Television Centre to my crummy shared house in Alperton was 5 miles, taking in the A40 westway and Hanger lane gyratory system. At least the 12r day 3/4 day week BBC AP shift pattern meant it wasn’t in the rush hour, though often returning in the night.

Bike journey from BBC TV centre to Alperton. Not sure I’d go up the Westway nowadays, the traffic was manageable in the 1980s. Google maps offer a different bike route but I didn’t know about that.

Everything was wrong about bike lights for this journey. The A40 westway is a major arterial road, and I used rechargeable D cells, which then as now were a little AA cell with a great big wrapper to make them D sized, so their capacity was low, just about enough for the 5 mile journey. Thatcher’s recession meant the roads were potholed so the lights took a lot of vibration.

Something people underestimate these days is just how damned expensive batteries used to be. The capacity of rechargeable batteries was lower than use once types, but it would have been a serious cost. Rechargeables and chargers were also flakey in the 1980s as well as being dear – the chargers tened to knacker the batteries as there was no attempt to monitor state of charge. So not only have bike lights improved dramatically nowadays, but the batteries are more reliable and have more capacity – an AA battery was about 500mAh then, whereas now Maplin will sell you one of five times that capacity.

Cateye’s revolutionary 1990s HL-500 light. Why did it take such a long time for humanity to realise that mounting the batteries vertically on a bike light was such a stupendously bad idea, given that’s where all the rattle and shake happens?

The fantastic insight from the Cateye HL 500 was still over ten years in the future. Like all great innovations, it was both obvious in hindsight and deceptively simple. Basically never, ever, mount the batteries vertically in a bike light. All the road vibration is in this plane, and a bike is unsprung, so it shakes the bejesus out of any spring contacts, which get weak and ratty for the 0.5A that a incandescent bike light runs at. So you end up with an unreliable product. I was always thumping the crap out of Nightriders to get them to come back on again.

Unlike those lights, needing charging at each end, the Tesco lights would have lasted me a week, all on 6 AAA cells rather than four Ds.

Tesco’s Chinese manufacturer also achieved an insight that the designers of the expensive Bspoke light I had got earlier failed dismally on.

Bspoke bike light – FAIL on excessive directionality

That was so directional you couldn’t see it was on as a cyclist unless you waved your hand in front of it, and sideways visibility was dire too. So enter Tesco’s bike light set, along with minimalist instructions. Nothing wrong with the lights at all – the front light can be seen from above (by the cyclist) and the side (by the cars about to drive into your path) as well as the front. Great functional design, though typically ropey Chinese aesthetics, for an ancient culture with a long artistic history China doesn’t seem to export any of that heritage in its industrial design. The Bspoke was far better aesthetically, even if they didn’t screw it to a bike and try it at night where the design flaw would have been immediately apparent 😉

Tesco bike light set and manual

So why the portent of the decline of the West? Well, take a look at the few words on the instructions.

Batteries should be replaced by an adult? WTF?

What has happened to British children in the last 30 years? If you’re old enough to ride a bike on the public highway and so need lights, you’re old enough to change your own batteries. It isn’t as if this is a 45 volt valve B+ battery from yesteryear, we are talking AAA 1.5 volt cells. Fair enough to warn against leaving batteries in the way of babies and toddlers who are going to put them in their mouths, but you really should have progressed from the thumb-sucking stage by the time you take your bike on the road, or even (tsk tsk) on the pavement (sidewalk to any American readers wondering what exactly is wrong with riding a bike on the pavement 😉 ).

There’s no earthly reason for the CYA statement prohibiting non-adult cyclists from changing their batteries and Tesco need a slap roung the chops with a wet fish to get them to wise up and stop infantilising our children by suggesting that swapping batteries is some risky exercise requiring a hazmat team or at least Mum or Dad.

The evidence of the dead hand of Tesco Group Legal Services is also evident on the other side. Who the hell is going to call up the local council and say “I have some BIKE LIGHTS I need to dispose of in a SAFE way”. It ain’t gonna happen. Yes, if you still have some NiCad batteries you should really go out of your way to take them to a recycling facility because Cadmium is nasty shit that pollutes water as it leaches out of the landfill sites. But bike lights? Heck, my council tells us to put used paint tins in the household waste in the bin ratherthan taking it to the city dump. The dump used to have a special facility to take old paint tins, but now they outsourced it to Viridor actually dealing with the sort of household rubbish households generate would cost more so they don’t take some categories. Electrical waste probably falls into the ‘too hard category as well’.


10 thoughts on “25 years of bike lighting improvement, but why doesn’t Tesco allow kids to change their batteries now?”

  1. Hi ermine

    I thought that after a few weeks of retirement your rants might have calmed down a little. 🙂 Great to see they haven’t.

    I’m not sure exactly what was written on the other side of the page that you refer to in your last paragraph but I’d guess it’s not required by Tesco Group Legal Services. More likely our EU friends in the form of the requirements dictated by the RoHS, WEEE or Battery Directives.



  2. the battery warning (I have seen it on a lot of kit in the last 10 years, perhaps its been around longer) is most likely because both alkalines and secondary cells of today have low internal resistance and high short circuit current, much modern kit has the cell holders arranged in such a way it is possible if you cannot work out which is positive and negative to short circuit one or more cells, (or the lamp may even have a QC fault) resulting in unpleaantness including mildly burnt fingers.

    This happened to a relative of mine and the lamp was a Cateye, a higher price Japanese one, I had one of the exact same type but that worked fine. My relative had not incorrectly installed the batteries – it was a faulty batch of lmaps.

    Perhaps its OK for adults to get their fingers burned by poor quality kit but not kiddies…

    Seriously though there is a mantra for kids that 230V mains is dangerous (yes, it is), but batteries are “safe” which is the real problem, at the same time they are warned about mains they should also be warned about high short circuit currents from modern primary and secondary cells..


  3. @RIT I am getting more mellow 😉 This started off as a curmudgeounly kids of today can’t chage their bike light batteries but I figured i had to tip my hat to the way the technoogy has improved so stupendously between the start and finish of my working life 😉

    @Alex I’m tempted to put the curmudgeonliness back. Kids of today, pah. By the time i took the equivalent of the 11+ I had taken a couple of mains shocks fiddling with valve radios, a number of DC HT shocks, burned out a seleneium rectifier and exploded a niCad cell (in those days the damn things didn’t have a vent, and I was too dumb to realise the increasingly distended casing was telling me something). All these I chalked up to the process of getting to know the limits of the world around me.

    The trouble is that kids have to learn somehow, and tbh looking at many adults handling tools I’m not sure the prohibition should stop at kids. Everything will end up like an Apple Ipod – when the battery dies you throw it out.

    Haven’t yet worked out how you actually short cells by fitting them wrongly (assuming the kit has reverse polarity protection) – you normally simply oppose the other cells’ voltage. I haven’t come across many battery stacks in parallel, thogh that would scare me with NiCds!


  4. by the same time I had similarly been caught by the HT on the magic eye valve on a tape recorder, and had a close escape with a soldering iron (British made and which apparently won a Design Centre award!) where in spite of being earthed the metal frame went live and sparked with a spectacular bang (at least the plug top fuses did its job.

    kids and youths are quite capable of safely dealing with both battery and mains kit, those who are into electronic dance music do it all the time.

    there is a north london blog which links to a US one showing how to replace the IPOD battery – and a lot of my younger friends are asking about things like soldering irons and where components come from and what all the small components CPC sell are for.

    the real issue here are the weasel words being used as CYA for equipment being faulty at source. the relative of mine who burned his fingers was a grown adult, he had fitted the cells correctly – the lamp itself had the metal connector springs mounted in the wrong place causing the short.


  5. While we’re on the subject of bikes, does anyone know why bells were seemingly outlawed?

    When walking along the towpath around here you’re only alerted to an ‘excuse me’ at the last minute, if you’re lucky, or perhaps the cyclist doing that back peddling thing, which seems to be the equivalent of a subtle cough. Or more often they hurtle past, reasoning what cannot kill you can’t hurt you either.

    Bring back the bell! I’m sure they could do some street klaxon thing for lads who don’t want to be ringing in too girly a fashion!


  6. Hehe, now you’ve started it 🙂 I’d also like to know why lights seem to have been outlawed, just as they’ve almost been perfected. Must’ve happened around the same time as the bell thing – I nearly mowed down a teenager who was busy looking at his phone while he crossed a dark road without looking to see if there were any cars coming 🙂

    Modern bike bells are crap – the most common make a single ting, like the one I have. I think human hearing needs a little time and a non-single tone to range and locate a sound, and the single ting, while polite, only alerts people to that something is there. The old style bell which gave a burst of sound is far easier to locate.

    And while we’re on the subject fo bike issues, I don’t ever see a reason for a cyclist to be on the footpath unless there’s a blue sign indicating to both pedestrians and cyclists that’s okay. And that includes kids of all ages IMO 😉


  7. Well, to be fair this is on the towpath that runs along the canal by my house, so it’s not too unacceptable.

    Lights, yes, but at least that only afflicts them on the whole! 😉

    I’d take a single ring over a whoosh that sounds like the onrushing grim reaper…


  8. About the same time most of the comments here were published (2012 or maybe 2011) I fitted a Reflectalite led bulb to my 1991 Cateye HL-500 and instantly it became a real bike headlamp, providing me with the chance to ride over unlit roads and which had proved impossible with the halogen original bulb. Battery life was hugely spanned also.


    1. Me to – those are fantastic. My HL-500 is still in service but so much brighter.

      Their red LED mod was also pretty awesome for my old tail lamp, though you need a flashing one on there too because people now expect flashing=pushbike


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