Since it wouldn’t be one of my posts without the requisite science lesson, let’s begin with a definition of “retroreflective,” shall we?
When light hits a surface, it can do one of a few things. Matte surfaces scatter light in all directions. Mirrored surfaces bounce light rays off of them at a the same angle from how they entered, but in the opposite direction (why you can make eye contact in a mirror with someone who’s standing across the room). Retroreflective surfaces reflect light basically back to its source with a minimum of scattering. This occurs because there are many tiny glass beads (microspheres) or prisms in the material that bounce the light back towards its source. Materials used in pavement stripes, street signs, bicycle reflectors (those things you took off your bike and wisely replaced with blinky lights) and reflective fabrics have small retroreflective elements on the surface.
Traditionally Hi-Vis clothing has looked ridiculous. I propose that we don’t have to look like clowns to stay safe. So, to establish a baseline of the available reflective gear, I went looking for the goofiest reflective clothing I could find. I think it was pretty easy to see that Hi Vis Supply had some really ridiculous stuff, mostly meant for construction workers and the like. I was, however, surprised to discover that they actually have a women’s section (awesomely titled “Compliance with Curves”). I don’t think this softshell jacket is too bad looking, and for $49.50, not a bad deal either. It’s not actually so different from this one by Gore Bike Wear (for 4 times the price). However, I think we can do better.
We-flashy is a line of hi-vis clothing, primarily t-shirts and sweatshirts, that uses retroreflective material in large scale graphic patterns such as polka dots and houndstooth. The company was started by 2 graduates of the NYU ITP program, which gives them some cred, at least to me.
Beta Brand makes Bike to Work Pants that feature retroreflective material inside the cuffs and a pullout flap from the rear pocket, as well as other bike-specific feature (a reinforced crotch, stretch fabric, zippered rear pocket, and raised back cut). They DO come in women’s sizes (in red, gray, and black), though the website seems to be out of many sizes at the time of this writing. Levi’s Commuter Jeans are also awesome for many reasons (read a review!), though their reflectivity is limited to a binding on the inside of the cuff, visible from the side.
If you’d like to jazz up your current wardrobe, for a fraction of the cost you can find tons of reflective stickers, decals, and iron-on reflective tape online. Funreflector.com has tons of styles, including flowers, skulls in cogs and stars, in a variety of colors, all made from 3M Scotchlite reflective.
To accessorize your bod, Vespertine – Haute Reflécture makes a stylish line of hi-vis accessories including belts (shown, $36), scarves, vests, and jackets.
Shoes too! Cole Haan now has a line of Oxfords in retroreflective metallic coated leather (currently on sale for $169.95). I mean, I like your reflective ankle bands, but these are a big improvement.
A retroreflective bag is a convenient way to add some brightness to an otherwise dark outfit for nighttime riding. Timbuk2 bags offer an ultra-reflective vinyl fabric option, used in emergency traffic and construction zone material and approved by the US Highway association, and available in white and lemon-lime. They also offer a black fabric with reflective bits throughout. Their Eula messenger bag (starts at $49) is small, yet big enough to fit a U-lock and a couple of tools, as well as your basic wallet/keys/phone/chapstick/etc. I had one made completely out of the white reflective material (costs extra), and it is extremely visible at night. My only issue with it so far is that the material is a little bit slippery, so it tends to move around on my back, but I think i’ll get used to that.
Chrome bags also offer a “Night Series” which has reflective strips on it.
Now that you’ve covered your body with retroreflective stuff, make your bike shine too! At the Heritage Bicycles opening party last year, I met 2 guys from CycleLogical, and they told me about their spoke reflectors. These “Reflective Chopspokes” ($10) slide over your spokes and create a glowing circle as your wheels spin.
And I found these Lightweights at REI ($15). These are retroreflective adhesive stickers that you wrap around your spokes (according to the Amazon.com comments, it’s important to read the directions, and application may be harder than it seems). At about 2 grams per wheel, they’re way lighter than those clunky plastic reflectors that came with your bike.
If you really want to go all the way, there are retroreflective paints available, and look at what this guy from BikeSafeBoston did to his bike!
Remember that all the visibility in the world isn’t going to protect you from someone who is drunk/sleeping/a terrible person/driving with their eyes closed. So use caution riding at night and choose your streets wisely.