Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Do you iPod when riding?

Ah, the ubiquitous iPod. It's become a staple of youthful society. And why not? A jukebox-full of favorite tunes-on-demand, in a device the size of a pack of gum. And headphones/earbuds that can block out all that annoying ambient sound.

But... to iPod, or not to iPod, while bicycling? That is the question.

I sure see a lot of cyclists wearing 'em these days. On dedicated bike paths, and in heavy traffic.

The most famous (running) race in these parts is the Robie Creek Half-Marathon. People come from far and wide to particpate; signup for the 2008 edition begins right away. The organizers have really stirred up the ant-pile, by declaring that portable music devices are banned for safety and insurance reasons. (News-web article here.) Evidently the governing body for long-distance races, USA Track & Field, has imposed the rule. (Although a quick web investigation offers evidence that the rule is frequently not enforced.)

Besides the safety factor, somebody who commented on the Robie Creek article said that some runners' times improve by a factor of 6-10%, when they are in an MP3-induced techno groove. (If true... that amazes me. Competitive advantage? Is it safe to assume that "Rhythm Method" would be a better listening option than "Celine Dion," if you're competing?) (I'd probably give Dick Dale, or the Reverend Horton Heat, or The Ramones, a spin, for the winning soundtrack.)

I have an "iPod-like device." Actually, I have a couple. One holds 256mb onboard, uses SD-Card expansion, and AAA batteries for juice. It's tiny. The other has a 40GB hard drive, of which I've filled up about 28GB. I've got 8418 tracks loaded onto it, from 592 different albums. Everything from classical to punk. It's slightly larger than a classic iPod, but I can swap batteries, and I could probably listen for two weeks, 24/7, without listening to the same thing twice.

I rarely listen to MP3 music when I'm bicycling, for several reasons.

1. SAFETY Arriving safely at my destination is my responsibility. Over years of riding, I've come to depend on all my senses - including hearing - to keep me aware of potential hazards. On a regular basis, I have to adjust my trajectory or speed to avoid somebody who's suddenly in the wrong place. I don't want to voluntarily surrender my sense of hearing... when I'm bicycling, I frequently hear things before I see 'em.

2. SOUND QUALITY Rolling down the road is hardly a substitute for the sensory pleasure of listening to some good music on a good sound system, in a quiet living room. (That's why it amazes me when I see these kids who have obviously sunk thousands into their car stereo systems. WHY?) Furthermore, the compression that's inherent in the MP3 (and similar) encoding, leads to an inferior product. (Actually, it sounds OK "rolling down the road," not so much in that quiet living room. But just the same, I find it fatiguing after hours and hours.)

3. SILENCE IS UNDERRATED (This point may be related to #2.) There's a time and a place for everything. I love music - as much as anybody I know. I'm passionate about music. (If I had to choose between blindness and deafness, it would be an agonizingly difficult choice, for that reason alone.) But I also enjoy "silence." Silence is impossible in traffic. But riding along a less-traveled road, or a bike path... just the wind whistling by and the quiet whirr of the chain. It gives the ol' head-wheels a unique opportunity to spin freely. I do some of my best thinking when I'm bicycling along on a quiet road or path, self-contained in my head. (Paying attention, of course, for warning signs.)

Now and then, I'll listen to music while riding. But only in low-traffic areas. (And also bear in mind, I always ride with a rearview mirror, and I pay particularly close attention to it, when music is impairing my hearing ability.)

(My 40GB player is particularly nice on my multi-day motorcycle rides. NEVER in town or in situations where I'm concentrating on navigating. But when I'm riding down a 50-mile stretch of 2-lane, it can be refreshing and enjoyable, and can enhance the experience.)

An alternative to earplugs? I found an interesting bicycling doohickey. It's a speaker/amp, and iPod-holder, all built into a water-bottle-shaped device that fits in your bottle cage. Click here for more info. I doubt I'll get one - it may slightly enhance safety over the earplug option, but I can't imagine the sound quality is particularly compelling.

(illustration found at


Anonymous said...

For me, it depends. When I'm on the Greenbelt (a dedicated non-motorized pathway), I usually do listen to music. When I'm in the city, I don't, for safety reasons.

I can absolutely believe the improved performance from listening to music while running (or cycling). When I get the right song in my ears, I can push much harder then other times, and I feel "energized."

I admit that even on the Greenbelt, I'm sacrificing some safety by listening to music. I do it because I utterly LOVE my music, and even the increased risk of injury or death is worth it.

Anonymous said...

I am not a music buff so no Ipod for me. Plus I like the scenery, noise and smells on my ride.

Marrock said...

I enjoy music but not when I'm riding, I'd rather use as many senses as possible to make sure I get home with all the parts I left with in the same configuration.

db said...

Another "no" here. I cannot ride or run with earbuds in my ears. I need my hearing to help my other senses while making decisions on the move.

I'm not levelling a criticism at anyone here, but I really wish people on the greenbelt wouldn't wear headphones or buds, because those are often the folks who cry out in surprise when I pass them or step right in front of me, despite my shouted "on your left". People who aren't listening to personal MP3 players have no problem hearing that.

And yeah, I love music too. Where I work, I probably average 4-5 hours per day with my headphones on, so maybe that's why it's not such a sacrifice to not use them during a ride.

Apertome said...

I take exception with your use of "iPod" as a verb. That just seems ... wrong ;)

Anyway, I don't own an iPod or other mp3 player. I don't listen to music while I ride. I've never tried it and although I am intrigued by the idea, so far safety has trumped it. I might be more inclined to listen while mountain biking, but since I don't have an iPod I have never tried it.

Like Clancy, I do enjoy the sounds during my rides. And I rely heavily on my hearing to know when cars are coming, especially since I don't have a mirror. If I decided to listen to music while riding, I"d definitely get a mirror, but I can't see that happening (I may get a mirror anyway, though ...)

Bikeboy said...

Yeah... I felt bad about using iPod as a verb. After all, do you "kleenex" your nose? (hahaha) I heartily recommend the mirror. Mine is a "Cycle Aware Reflex" - stuck on the left side of my helmet. It's made of a wire with a rubber outer coating - like "Gumby" - so it's more break-resistant than most. It's "essential gear" for road-riding, at least for me.

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11ParapraxisRex11 said...

I recently started riding with my MP3 player on when I am on the bike trail (where they are no cars) and sometimes on the road at a very low volume.

I haven't quite made the decision as to whether or not I am going to kill myself doing it. For me, riding with music has made riding so much more fun for me! IN my city, we're surrounded by roads so "silence" means listening to huge cars ride by spewing toxic waste into the air.

What's weird is that I actually feel more focused at times. It helps me tune out all of the noise I don't need to attend to and helps me to focus more on the road. But, obviously, I am not extremely confident, since I am looking it up online to hear others' comments on it.

Thanks for the blog.