Revisiting Fred-dom: Cycling Mirrors

Fred and mirror
Just add white knee socks!

Back in the day no racer or wannabe racer would be caught in public sporting a cycling mirror. That shame was relegated to touring cyclists and nerdy safety geeks, i.e. “freds”. No pro racers ever used a mirror, instead preferring to quickly glance back if necessary. Of course no one seemed to care or notice that pro racers almost always raced on closed roads and thus had no need to spot a semi hurtling towards them from the rear. However there has always been a silent group of cyclists who, fred-dom be damned, tried a mirror and “never looked back.” My descent into fred-dom may have begun with wearing a Bell Biker helmet in 1975 (who among you even remember when bike helmets didn’t exist?) but was confirmed when I started using my first mirror, a Third Eye attached to that very helmet! Fashion? Who cares! For the first time I could glance backwards to see traffic without having to crane my neck all the time. My anxiety about being unexpectedly rear-ended was allayed. I was sold! Fortunately nowadays our sport is so large that what was once a fashion faux pas is, well, passé. I see lots of recreational cyclists roaming the Bay Area (and the world!) with cycling mirrors. Apparently I am not alone in being drawn to the fred side. And with good reason: as in a car, a well-made rear view facilitates being able to see behind quickly and assess the traffic situation (or just check out the hunk who’s sucking your wheel). If you’re thinking of bucking the PRO mentality or if you’re just pragmatic but have never considered the utility of a mirror, let me enlighten you on mirror basics.

Not all cycling mirrors are the same. Not by a long shot. Not only are there different types of mirrors but some seem to have been designed by someone who’s never ridden a bicycle. When you think ‘bicycle mirror’, you’re probably imagining a heavy, metal contraption that your dad once bolted to the handlebars of your Schwinn Stingray (if you’re as old as I am) or if you’re younger, maybe your bmx rig. You can still get that kind of mirror, but you also have a plethora of lighter and more elegant (if such a word can be used to describe a cycling mirror) choices. The most common kind attaches either to your helmet or to glasses, but you can also get mirrors that attach to the end of your handlebars. Bar end mirrors supposedly eliminate the disadvantage that helmet and eyeglass mirrors have, which is that they are easy to knock accidentally and either dislodge, break, or throw out of alignment; A bar end mirror is supposed to solve that problem by being placing away from your face, where you’re most likely to brush it with a hand. However you’ll see in the comments below that they have their own set of problems. My own experience is entirely with eyeglass and helmet mirrors and my comments will be restricted to this type. I’ve also drawn upon Bing Wu, Nancy Levin, and David Gaus to comment on their experience with their cycling mirrors. Other general complaints about helmet and eyeglass mirrors are that they tend to be too flexible and bounce, that they are small, and that they constantly need to be adjusted; actually the latter problem also afflicts bar mounted mirrors.

If you’re already using a mirror, you’ve probably figured out what works for you and are sticking with it. If you’ve joined the Children of PRO cult, you’ve already stopped reading this blog post. If you’ve made it this far, you’re on the cusp and are at least open to the idea of going fred. First of all, a mirror is not going to solve all your cycling woes. It’s not going to cure cancer or stop climate change. It might make it easier for you to look to the rear—that’s all. For about $20 you can give it a try—that’s not a lot of dough to invest on an experiment. Some people just don’t like mirrors for whatever reason. More power to them. But I can tell you why I use a mirror. For years I just turned around and looked. Maybe it was because I heard something, I was changing lane position to avoid an obstacle or another cyclist, or I was just anxious. A mirror can make that quick glance a tad easier. That was the key: it was quick even if not always thorough. If thorough were important and I had enough time, then I’d turn around and look. Over time I have come to use the mirror very frequently because it’s so easy to check the rear; it’s now second nature to me. Even if I have to move evasively to avoid glass or road debris, I have learned how to do a really quick glance backwards before veering. A mirror also allows me to check on anybody who’s in my draft: I can see if they’re losing contact, how close they’re on my wheel, and how hard they’re working. If someone is losing contact in the back, a mirror allows you to check quickly and then slow down. Conversely if you’re trying to lose someone, a mirror allows you to assess the situation and respond accordingly, i.e. stomp harder! So a rear view mirror isn’t just for safety—you can used it to check your overall traffic situation and that includes your fellow riders’ position and status. And it certainly allows you to check well before you hear the rumble of a car engine.

Finally a mirror, no matter what type, brings its own set of minuses. Yes, it’s one more thing you can lose or break. Yes, they can go out of adjustment. They’re mostly smaller than you’d prefer and the mirror is probably of just adequate quality. I’ve found that these cheap plastic mirrors scratch if you clean them with paper towels. So just don’t. Another minor annoyance I’ve experienced is that although they’re all light, it’s still enough mass to cause my helmet to rotate slightly forward unless I have my chin strap very tight, which I don’t like. It’s no big deal but it’s annoying if you’re wearing tall sunglasses that then start to hit the helmet brim. Whatever. You decide what is or is not a deal breaker for you. Nobody’s invented the perfect cycling mirror yet.

3rd Eye Foam

Third Eye. Third Eye makes four kinds of helmet and eyeglass mirrors and I’ve used them all. I’ve had the most experience with their mirrors. They cost between $10 and $17. The Hardshell Helmet mirror is now a misnomer. It was intended for helmets such as the original Bell Biker or MSR helmets that had a distinct and separate outer hardshell to which it could clamp. I’m not aware that any such helmets are made these days. Nonetheless it worked very well as it attached quite firmly and didn’t move at all. Unlike the other Third Eye models it had limited adjustment—if you needed to see at a different angle that you couldn’t attain by pivoting the mirror on its tiny ball joint, you simply moved the whole thing around the perimeter of your helmet and reattached it—but that was its strength because it had a short plastic arm that reduced bobbing. Third Eye makes a Pro mirror that is ugly as sin: it has a hideous foot that you stick directly to the side of your helmet. The arm is long and was prone to oscillating when riding over rough road. And, you can’t detach the mirror, so traveling or packing the helmet was a pain. I never cared for this model. Strangely, the model that I like the best and have used for years is the “Foam Helmet” mirror. This model was supposed to stick directly to the EPS and was developed back in the day when the best helmets were just EPS forms covered with lycra such as the first Giro helmet. Those helmets are long gone but I’ve found that this model works very well with modern helmets. It has a Velcro-like pad (they call it Dual-Lock) that adheres to any helmet surface; you then attach the mirror to it. You can easily remove it if you’re traveling or just want to ride without it. The arm is relatively short (but not as short as the Hard Shell) and thus bounces less. The mirror is on the small side but it’s big enough because it’s held closer to your face than other helmet mirrors. If I need to see more, I just sweep my head  ever so slightly to take in a larger angle of view. One minor problem is that the Dual-Lock system, although more reliable than the Velcro that they used before, requires a firm push to remount the mirror or else you might lose that mirror at an inopportune time. (Side story: I lost one going around a GG Bridge tower when a huge gust blew it right off and into the Pacific!) Finally, Third Eye also makes a model for eyeglasses. There are better eyeglasses mirrors than these. Because they’re made of plastic—like all the Third Eyes—I’ve found the mounting tines break easily in attaching and detaching them from different glasses. They’re just not sturdy or durable enough unless you intend to put them on one pair of glasses and leave them there. All the Third Eyes are made of a black plastic that seems to become more brittle as it ages—they all end up breaking eventually. The ball joints tend to be too tight initially and thus finicky to make fine adjustments but then loosen annoyingly as they age and need more readjustment as time goes on. But it doesn’t matter because they end up breaking anyway. The one positive is that they’re cheap and easy to find in just about any bike shop, so replacing them is no big deal. I find I get a few years of heavy use out of one until either the ball joints go south or the plastic breaks. Did I mention they’re cheap and easy to find?

Blackburn

Blackburn Helmet Mirror. Despite an inexpensive cost of $13, avoid this mirror. It’s similar in design to the Third Eye Pro mirror but with a more discreet mount. Unfortunately the arm is made of thin, long black plastic so the mirror bounces violently on rougher road and you can’t make out what’s behind you. It’s very light but that very lightness contributes to the problem. The mirror adjusts easily and seems to hold its adjustment better than the Third Eye models. The mirror is, like the Third Eye Foam Helmet model, on the small side. I’ve toyed with the idea of either putting down a thin layer of rubber putty on the arm or of gluing a thin rubber strip to it in order to damp the oscillations. Did I mention that it bounces a lot?

Reflex

Cycleaware Reflex Helmet Mirror. Now we’re moving up the price ladder to $20. This is the other mirror that I’ve had years of use. Obviously I liked this one otherwise I would have dumped it a long time ago. Unlike the Blackburn or the Third Eye mirrors, the Reflex has a thicker mirror arm, a plastic encased metal wire, that is not only very durable but also bendable, allowing you to get it exactly *just so*. The mirror and arm are easily detachable from a small plastic base, which you stick onto your helmet, so it’s good for traveling or packing. You can also rotate the entire arm and mirror upward and out of the way if you don’t want to use the mirror temporarily or need to wipe sweat from your face. After more than a decade (yes, ten years) I’m still using the same Reflex mirror! Over the years the ball joint at the base has loosened a bit so that the mirror can rotate downward slowly over bumpy roads. The stickum adhesive has also gone south but my home fix was simply to replace it with easy-to-get double-stick tape, and it’s still working fine. I bought a replacement about three years ago thinking that the original one was on its last legs, but it just keeps working! The Reflex vibrates slightly, just slightly more than the Third Eye. But it’s not enough to be bothersome. The shape of the mirror is vertically oblong; it would be better if it were oblong horizontally in order to increase the angle of view.

Hubbub

Hubbub Helmet Mirror. Costing $29 by mail order, the Hubbub uses a different construction and attachment method than the other mirrors. It’s constructed of thin but durable wire that you bend to clamp to the underside of your helmet by simple mechanical force. Although it’s easy to detach and change position, it’s decidedly low-tech and may result in compressing or slightly indenting the EPS on the inside of the helmet. It’s probably not compromising the safety of the helmet, but any time you dent EPS you should think twice as the integrity and safety of the helmet is due to its ability to compress upon impact. The mirror shape is large and octagonal and provides a nice angle of view without annoyingly obscuring your forward vision. This mirror is also easy to detach for traveling, packing, or just to take it off if you don’t want to use a mirror. It’s quite rigid and does not vibrate very much (all mirrors will vibrate some) probably partly due to the lack of any ball joints and no plastic. But the lack of easy adjustability is also a pain as for example when it’s cold and you ride with a cycling cap under your helmet. Now the mirror’s position is very likely to be incorrect and it’s not easy to change without bending the metal arm. And then you have to bend it back when you ride without a cap. By the way, the metal is springy so it’s not easy to bend. But as long as you don’t ride with a cap or balaclava under your helmet (or always ride with a cap), this mirror works fine.

Take A Look

Bike Peddler Take A Look Eyeglass Mirror. It took me years to get around again to using a cycling mirror that attaches to an eyeglass frame rather than a helmet after using the cheap Third Eye version. This type of mirror is probably the most popular type and I can see why: it’s simple, very adjustable, fits any eyeglass frame, and provides an excellent rear view. Keep in mind that eyeglass mirrors can be bumped just as easily as helmet mounted ones. The mirror is rectangular and longer in the horizontal direction—exactly what you want in a cycling mirror. Instead of ball joints the Take A Look uses friction-fit cylindrical metal joints, one for each spatial axis, so you set the mirror at exactly the correct angle. Unfortunately, for moving the mirror inward or outward you’ll need to bend the main arm. To move the mirror closer, you simply move the attachment further back on the eyeglass frame. It goes without saying that wearing a cycling cap under your helmet does not affect the placement of the mirror because it’s not attached to the helmet in the first place. Another advantage is that you need only one mirror if you have, as I do, several helmets. The cost is a reasonable $13 to $20. The main disadvantage? You need to wear eyeglasses. On the other hand since they fit glasses rather than a helmet, I’ve found them useful when I’m walking on trails or multi-use paths, as I’ve discovered that 95% of cyclists don’t give an audible warning when passing pedestrians. So, it allows me to be fredly even when I’m not riding my bike! As expected they do add a slight weight to your glasses, and if you’re picky about eyeglass weight, this may be a deal breaker.

Safezone

Safezone Mirror. This is a helmet mirror on steroids. The price is also on steroids (or maybe the manufacturer is on drugs): $40! It’s much larger than the other helmet mirrors and the mounting system is, uh, “industrial strength”: it’s OMG large. I guess the fashion philosophy of the Safezone is ‘say it loud, say it proud—I’m FRED!’ You attach the Safezone to your helmet using zip ties, so this one isn’t super-easy to remove. But it is easy to adjust: the arm is made of Locline, interlocking plastic bits (similar to the arms of a Joby Gorillapod, if you’re a camera person) so you can get the mirror into any position you want. I haven’t used one but Bing has. He opines: “I haven’t had anything besides the Safezone mirror. But I do like it, mainly because of its huge surface area which gives me a really clear view of everything behind me. I can see the road, the sky, the cars and other bikers. Downsides – because it’s so big, it can partially block the view of what’s in front of you. It’s a bit of an art to adjust it so that you optimize rear and front view. It attaches to your helmet via cable/zip ties, so it’s never seated all that snugly and can wiggle around. So you constantly have to fiddle with it. But it’s fairly flexible and will usually go the way you want it to. It’s just that the moment you take your helmet off and put it back on, it needs a bit of readjustment. It looks dorky and won’t win any fashion prizes. People say I look like Robobiker. You get used to it though. Bottom line, I have no desire to get any other mirror. This one does the trick quite nicely. My first, and hopefully last. At least until it breaks.”

Mirrycle mirror

Mirrycle Mirror. If helmet or eyeglass mirrors aren’t your thing, you might consider a bar-mounted system. Nancy uses a bar-mount mirror but instead of mounting to the brake lever of drop bars it attaches at the bar plug. Hers is made by Mirrycle but a quick search on Amazon.com shows that there are dozens of bar-end mirrors available. They run about $18. The Mirrycle has a short arm that moves the mirror outward, presumably so that your left arm won’t obscure your view. Nancy prefers a bar mounted mirror because she hasn’t had good luck with eyeglass and helmet mounted ones—they don’t fit well or they fall off too easily. She likes her mirror because it’s large and she can see a lot, but because it protrudes outward from her bars she says it’s sometimes in the way, say, when you want to lean it against a wall on the left side. She hasn’t had any problems with it. Keep in mind that if you’re concerned about weight, most bar mounted mirrors including the Mirrycle are going to weigh more because of the larger mounting system and mirror. But seriously, if you’re sporting a mirror, low weight is probably at the bottom of your check list, right?

Roadie

Cycleaware Roadie. This is another bar end mounted mirror but it’s decidedly more PRO (if any mirror can be PRO). The Roadie seems to be a copy of a Swiss-made mirror, the Sprintech Racing, but at a lower cost, $20 versus $28 for the Sprintech. The Roadie has a flat mirror whereas the Sprintech Racing has a convex mirror. Unlike the Mirrycle the Roadie (and the Sprintech) does not protrude outwards; in fact It’s sleek and aero but consequently also smaller. Because the mirror is further away and not upsized you may find that the view is somewhat restricted. (The Sprintech compensates for its diminutive size by using a convex mirror but that potentially introduces another problem: spatial distortion. You get a wide angle of view but it makes it harder to gauge how close a car or other rider is or how fast they’re approaching you.) The mount is a ball joint that allows you to pivot or rotate the mirror for a better angle. But David has found that the joint loosens in time and doesn’t stay put. David moved to a bar mounted mirror after he got new glasses which did not allow him to attach a mirror. After he used a mirror he got hooked just as I did, so he got the Roadie as a replacement.

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