Blackburn Flea Light Combo

FleaFront

When Jim Blackburn started his eponymous company in 1975, his mission was to create lighweight pannier racks welded from aluminum. They were, for their day, very hi-tech. By 1987, when I bought my set, they were still top-of-the-line and had squashed almost all their competitors, at least in the U.S.

Blackburn eventually sold the company to what is now Easton Bell Sports, and the Rhode Gear line of accessories was folded into Blackburn to simplify the number of brand names the owners had to promote. Today, racks are a tiny part of the product line.

Cynics could easily point to the brand as an example of corporate sell-out, a line that lost its roots. You can tell the cynics to file that under Polaroid. A much fairer comparison could be drawn with Canon or Nikon, companies that made the transition from film to digital media, broadened their product lines, and continue to be leaders in their industry.

It hasn’t always been easy for Blackburn. Their pumps have ranged from Corvette to Corvair. For many years their trainers were category leaders more for their ubiquity in bike shops than the outright supremacy of the product. But in the last three years, every product I thought was weak has been eliminated from its catalog. I haven’t tried every product they make, but every product I had tried and couldn’t recommend is gone.

But you have to replace 86’d products with new offerings to stay in business. I offer the Flea combo of lights as an example of what I’m talking about. Head and taillights need to be seen—that’s it. They should only be as large and heavy as necessary to ensure your visibility, right? At 20 grams for the front unit and 21g for the rear on my scale, they are shockingly, disappearingly light. Something this light shouldn’t be able to produce this much light (read it again), the way a bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly.

FleaRear

The Flea Front and Flea Rear both accomplish the impossible: they can nearly blind you with only four LED lights—white Nichia in the front and red in the rear. For those morning and afternoon rides this time of year (and in spring), these lights offer more than adequate visibility. If drivers can’t see you with these on their bike it’s because they were dead at the time.

In full darkness (that is, once any lingering twilight has last gleamed) the front Flea actually makes a passable headlight, so long as you don’t ride too quickly. It isn’t powerful enough, however, to provide significant lighting at dawn or dusk, but then it wasn’t made for that; Blackburn offers more serious lighting for those needs.

Each light has three modes. For the front there is a lower-power beam, a high beam (which is when the light makes a passable headlight—certainly better than anything available through most of the 1990s) and a blinking mode. The rear has two blinking modes and a steady-state beam.

Run times for the lights are very good. On the flashing setting they run 12 hours, while on steady they’ll run for 6 hours.

What helps make the light’s namesake-light is the fact that they use rechargeable batteries a fraction of the size of the typical 1.5V AA battery. The charger, pictured above, uses said AA battery to recharge the lights (one at a time) and I take an almost perverse delight in this innovation.

None of this would matter if the lights were difficult to mount on the bar or seatpost. To that end, the folks at Blackburn made things as simple as possible: Velcro. Whether your handlebar is round or wing-shaped the simple attachment should make mounting and point the light quick. Remove the Velcro strap from the rear light and a built-in clip will allow you to hook it to your jersey pocket.

My love for how lightweight and bright these lights are is matched by my affection for the simple mounting system. I can swap them from bike to bike in less than a minute without the use of a single tool. Thomas Edison would marvel at their elegance.

What would you pay for all this? Wait, don’t answer!

As it turns out, there are other versions of the light that comes with a charger that works off a USB cable or another that either charges via USB or a tiny solar panel. The standard combo with front and rear Fleas and the 1.5V charger goes for $54.99. Either the front or rear Flea can be purchased alone for $34.95The version that includes the USB charger goes for $5, while the combination of the solar charger with USB charger is $15.

Learn more here.

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10 comments

  1. polkadot

    I used a Flea in front last winter, it’s a great featherweight headlight if you just want drivers to be able to see you. Loved the velcro attachment, made it trivial to swap bikes or take the light off for an afternoon ride.

    Run time is not so great though – I got about 6 hours good light per charge at the beginning, and about 4 hours by the end of winter. The light starts to blink slower as the battery fades, so you get some warning. If I remember right Blackburn recommended recharging for 24 hours, good to get in the habit of putting it on the charger right after you get off the bike.

  2. polkadot

    The downside of the Flea is the recharger is inefficient and could only run off a battery.

    If I recall right Blackburn said a AA would recharge the unit about a half-dozen times, and a D cell battery would recharge something like 30 times. Given the run times that’s a whole lot of batteries going into the landfill for a “rechargeable” unit.

  3. MattS

    I agree with polkadot on the point about the potential wastefulness of the basic Flea, which requires charging from a battery. If I’d purchased that, I’d only charge it from a rechargeable AA. Kinda lame, but better than wasting batteries. I’m waiting to get the USB version, which I can charge at night off hydro power. And BTW, batteries do not/should not go into the landfill. They are considered hazardous household waste in most jurisdictions, and need to be disposed of appropriately. They are toxic.

  4. Pingback: This Week in Commuting News | Commute by Bike

  5. roomservicetaco

    I really like the idea of the Flea for all the reasons Padraig mentions – small, extremely powerful, and mounts in a variety of places. The rear light has been terrific and the metal clip is strong enough to confidently hook the light to a jersey pocket and not worry about it falling off.

    I have had a lot of problems with the front light, though. When it works it’s great. But, it looses a charge very quickly. Seems like it’s not even related to the amount of use – after 2-3 weeks, the charge just goes without warning. I’ve woken up a few times for an early morning ride only to find the front Flea dead. Anyone else have similar problems? Any recommended resolution from Blackburn (if they are reading this)? Thanks.

  6. mike

    i just got the front and rear flea and charged the front for the first time. when i pulled it of the usb charger it would not stop blinking nomater how many times i push the button or however long i hold it down for. instructions didnt help either. what could be the problem?

  7. Jacob

    Similarly impressed by Blackburn’s products I picked up the Flea despite higher price. I have used the Flea for about 6 months. The battery is unreliable; it doesn’t charge intuitively, and leaves you in the dark. The part which makes it sneaky and irritating is also a bonus. The light will start at a high intensity but drops off within a few minutes when discharged which can happen after 12 hours of charging unpredictably, and yes I know how to verify its charging, there is a battery protection switch which turns the light off when voltage drops, but if you turn the light back on in a pinch there is 10 seconds or so of light to let people know you’re on the road. Most of my commute is through the countryside at night, so the stars usually suffice. My girlfriend also bought one of these at a different time, different store, and a combo pack, and she has had worse luck than I. On a good charge I would say that there is maybe 3 hours of light.

  8. David

    The answer to the “keeps blinking after charging” problem is answered by Blackburn, quote

    “we made an update to the logic for the FLEA light that is designed to keep the rechargeable Li-Ion battery healthy by not over charging it. When the light is left on the charger after the charge is done the LEDs will flash brightly to burn off excess power.

    Even after the light is removed from the charger there can be some level of overcharging as the battery chemistry settles. This causes the controller chip to flash the LEDs to take away this excess charge. The longer the light is left on the charger the longer the chip will need periodically flash the LEDs to keep the battery stable.

    This process ensures the best life span for the rechargeable battery because overcharging can significantly shorten the life of a rechargeable battery. The light will take care of this issue on its own by periodically flashing until the battery reaches the appropriate fully charge (but not overcharged) state. This process can be avoided by taking the light off the charger as soon as it starts bright flashing or running the light for a few minutes to bring the battery voltage down to a safe level.”

  9. redhed18

    I have several Flea units and the metal clip is too strong. It is impossible to clip it onto premium cycling such as a jersey pocket without the serious risk of damage to the fabric. My workaround has been to use tire levers or kitchen utensils to pry up the metal clip and then slide it into place on the clothing. Let me tell you how much of a pain in the neck it is juggling a Flea with the clip pried up by two tire levers onto a freaking pocket without having the whole shooting works fly across the room…

    Anything harder like denim, a belt or strap should be fine.

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