The VistaLite 530 series

Suited for magicians, brain surgeons, pianists, sign-language interpreters, and pretty much no one else

$225 at Mountain Equipment Co-op
+1 604 876-6221 voice, +1 604 876-6590 fax
800 663-2667 voice, 800 722-1960 fax

Review by Joe Clark

Cycling-products juggernaut Bell Sports swallowed VistaLite two years ago and the results were superficially promising. The VistaLite 530-series cycling headlamp bests its 400-series predecessor in surface appeal. It's noticeably smaller and sexier, for example, with a cutaway plastic bezel, a silvery body, and just the right array of protruding buttons and power coils for that Borg-implant look. But I would have been happy to put up with the bulky, pug-ugly, almost Soviet-looking 400-series case if only the 530 were easier to use under real-world conditions of ice, snow, cold, and impatience.

Despite the fact that Vista's inventors, the Choi-Hancocks, hail from Pennsylvania, which has a real winter, the 530 exceeds even the 400 series' inconvenience and inept design for winter use. Just so the kids down at VistaLite in California will understand what most of North America and Europe faces for nearly half the year, in the winter we cyclists are forced to wear extremely bulky gloves (e.g., the Pearl Izumi Aqua-Not, my current fave) just to keep frostbite at bay. We absolutely cannot afford to remove those gloves in the outdoors even for a few seconds; in the extremities, heat, once lost, is difficult to recover. As an example, before I go riding in the winter I relocate my keys so that I can pry them out of my pocket without removing my gloves.

So how, exactly, are we supposed to manipulate the 400 or 500 series' mounting hardware wearing these gloves? The 530 attaches to a handlebar (or bar-end, or whatever) by a wraparound collar with a long hinged bolt at the end. You wrap the collar around the bar (swinging the bolt along with you), then slip the bolt over a loop on the lamp, tighten the bolt with the thumbscrew, plug in the battery (itself Velcro-wrapped around your down tube or similar strut), and away you go.

Well, not quite. It's extremely difficult to wind the little thumbscrews on the 530 headlamps while wearing gloves. It's also time-consuming: Bell needs to change the gear ratio on the screw to require fewer twists. This may require a custom-machined screw. (Removing and replacing the 400 series, with a nylon-webbing collar and a rather complex plastic fold-over buckle, is even trickier. Most of the time I just leave the 400 headlamp attached to the handlebars. I wouldn't do so, risking theft or vandalism from ne'er-do-wells, if attachment and detachment weren't so difficult.)

Bell engineers somehow assume that everyone has acres of room on their handlebars. My mountain bike's handlebars are 57 cm wide. On the left half, the bar end accounts for 3 cm, the grip 10.5 cm, and the brake 2.5 cm, followed by an unusable gap of 3.8 cm (the shifter hangs underneath) and a bell that's 1.8 cm on the bar but 6.5 cm wide in the space it occupies in front of the handlebar. That leaves a 3.2 cm gap, which might be sufficient if brake and gear cables weren't so tightly entwined below and in front of the handlebars. The left side is thus completely off-limits to lamp mounting. On the right side, the only available space is a 5.5 cm gap, also compromised by cables. I can thread the thumbscrew bolt through this gap, but it's difficult and requires two hands; in the winter in the dark, this task necessitates moving my eyes right down to the bar to figure out where to insert things because the sense of touch is limited using gloves and everything down there is black in colour.

Accordingly, I was never able to install the 530 in anything resembling a fine-tuned way, which meant the headlamp aim was never optimal. So I can't pass judgement on the effectiveness of the 530's beam pattern, though I can certainly attest that the 15-watt bulb is so startlingly brighter than the 10W that the latter is a highly undesirable choice if you're forced to install just one headlight. (The 15W/10W combo-- running both lights together-- was impractical for reasons I'll get to momentarily.) With my very busy handlebars, the following are impossible:

The battery pack is quite large, but at least the colours are nice. Bell Sports needs to give highly detailed information on battery replacement-- not only Bell's own replacement SKU but other batteries that can work, too. For example, my 400 set's battery died and I was able to replace it with a cellphone battery from Radio Shack-- information that came from another 400 owner online. Bell needs to accept that Velcro just is not sufficient to keep the battery pack attached to a top tube-- even in calm urban riding where the worst bumps I encounter are intersecting streetcar tracks. Also, I am simply astounded that Bell expects us to carefully thread a strip of nylon webbing through a wee little buckle as a backup attachment. Ever heard of snap buckles? Who has the time to thread little nylon straps? At night? In the cold and/or the rain or snow?

Moreover, the 500 series assumes we will always be using both lamps. If we use only one lamp, we're stuck with a loose coiled cable dangling into our spokes. Obviously at least one of the cables should be removable, but the link on that removable cable should be easily locked so it doesn't pull out by accident.

(I didn't even bother with the helmet mount because it seemed like yet another hopelessly impractical Bell Sports whimsy: "We California engineers can spend all the time in the world threading various cables and straps around our helmets and waists just to go riding! And everyone else can too!" Well, news flash: Just unlocking my bike, getting all appropriate clothing on, and attaching the diabolically complicated 400 or 500 headlamp takes several minutes. Cycle commuting, including taking care of multiple errands, is the purpose to which most mountain bikes are put these days. Detaching and reattaching headlights is more of a hassle than it needs to be in 1996.)

The headlamp kits are overpriced. The instructions are poorly written, badly designed (Bell Sports did actually hire a designer, didn't they? No, I didn't think so), and poorly printed. Also, while the on/off switch on each lamp is easier to activate than the 400's (which can force you to stand, as passersby watch your light flicker on and off, and press with all your might against an upside-down button whose detent doesn't click into place until the fourth or fifth try), it is not always apparent that the bulb is actually on; we need a clearer pilot light. Leaving the bulb on when stationary for a few minutes allows dangerous heat to build up.

Here's hoping that series 600 is better suited to the real world. I would be happy to beta-test prototypes. While I'm sure blood is pouring from Vista's ears after my blistering evaluation here, at least I'm honest. In my opinion Vista needs more testers who are honest and ride in the real world-- including the northern climes. As it stands, the 530 series strikes me as optimized for ideal bicycles ridden in laboratory conditions.

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