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.
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.
When painted matte finishes first appeared on bikes in the mid-1990s, I found the look novel. Then I tired of it, the way we all tired of florescent colors. The lack of a clearcoat over the decals made bikes look rather third-rate, cheap.
I have a different opinion of matte finishes in carbon fiber. When I see a matte finish on a carbon fiber bike, I see a frame that the manufacturer has optimized for weight and performance. At some point, someone will probably produce something of questionable quality that will make a lie of my assumption, but currently, the frames I see in matte finishes tend to be plenty stiff while weighing less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds).
Paint, as it turns out can mean the difference between breaking the 1kg barrier and not. Even on small frames paint weighs at least 2 ounces (56 grams), often more. Think about it: Paint can add 3 oz. to a 56cm frame with no increase in stiffness whatsoever.
So I’ve been disappointed that it has been hard to find matte-finishes on bars, stems, seatposts and bottle cages. Matte finishes could reduce the weight of these components, sure, but more importantly, they would look more harmonious with the frame. And while it would seem to make sense to want matte finishes on the carbon fiber components of Campy groups and aftermarket cranks, I’ll give those a pass given the beating they can take.
But my prayers have been answered on one front for the first time. Blackburn offers a carbon fiber water bottle cage, the Camber CF, in either glossy or matte finish. I tried the matte finish, which matches my frame and found the advertised weight of 32g to be accurate; if the glossy finish weighs more, I can’t say. The topmost layer of carbon is a 3k weave, which is still the most popular top (cosmetic) layer of carbon for road frames, further helping to match the appearance of many bikes.
Last year I tried a set of handmade carbon fiber cages that weighed 14g apiece. The bottom tab broke on one, bottles bounced out and they scratched up the bottles, making them look like they’d rolled around on the road.
I’ve been using the Camber CFs for more than six months and they haven’t broken, hold bottles securely, and leave the appearance of said bottles unscathed. I’ll admit, a water bottle cage isn’t really worth writing home about, but it should never, ever detract from the look of a bike. Ideally, it should complement the look of a bike, underscoring what a cool ride you have.
The Camber CF retails for $39.99. Learn more at http://www.blackburndesign.com/.