Buzzing along with the sun on your back and the wind in your hair, favourite tunes blasting out of the headphones? Sounds great doesn’t it? I’m usually a pretty moderate guy, but to be honest I think you’re absolutely nuts if you do this. Here’s why:
Cycling is basically a pretty safe thing to do, but in 2010 2,704 cyclists were killed or seriously injured on British Roads, so it’s not completely safe by a long shot. A huge proportion of these serious accidents occur when cyclists hit or are hit by larger vehicles.
I try very hard not to ride into cars when I’m on my bike, and I suspect you do the same. I’m constantly watching the behaviour of everyone else on the road, looking for cars that might pull out or turn across me (got eye contact yet?), pedestrians that might step out without looking properly, and infinite other varietions of hazard. But at least half of what’s going on at any point in time is totally outside my field of vision, and for that reason I also listen like my life depends on it to what’s going on behind me.
It’s amazing how much you can pick up from the noise of an approaching vehicle – is it accelerating to try and beat you through the next narrow gap, or slowing to allow you to pass through first? Not sure? Well at least you heard it was there so you knew to check! Thinking of swerving round that puddle? Without headphones you already know 9 times out of 10 whether something is coming – obviously you still look to check before moving out, but at least you didn’t wobble in front of the 95 bus because you tried to look over your shoulder when it was almost on top of you. That’s if you were gong to look at all, when you were pre-occupied humming along to Emma Bunton. Squealing brakes heading your way? I’d rather know about it 2 seconds in advance than not at all – you can get a long way out of the way in 2 seconds!
When I ride I want to be as aware as possible about what the well-intentioned but tired / distracted / emotional / rushing / inept (take your pick) people driving the horrendously dangerous vehicles around me are doing. I feel totally vulnerable if I can’t hear what’s happening. I will argue all day that the benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks, but no-one’s going to start arguing that cycling around the inner ring road blindfold is a good idea. Cutting off your hearing is almost as bad.
There are other reasons to be listening to what’s going on, but they’re not quite so important – I appreciate that not everyone likes listening to the sounds of the city or coutryside they’re riding through (why not?!), or cares as much as me about knowing that their bike is running beautifully because of the lovely slick quiet hum it’s making as you skim along. But do give a bit of thought to the safety thing – we love repairing bikes, but we have no interest in hearing about any more broken riders.
PS. I went through a phase of being thoroughly obsessed with cars and driving between the ages of 18 and about 29, and earnt the Institute of Advanced Motorist’s Advanced Driver’s Certificate (Incredibly worthwhile and cheap – see here). The IAM disapprove of the use of even hands-free mobile phones due to the fact that when you are driving you should damn well be concentrating on driving, not on talking. The same goes for listening to the radio (though they were resigned to the fact that very few people were prepared to forego it completely). That’s not so you can hear what’s coming – it’s just so that you can focus properly on driving well. The same absolutely applies to riding. Immerse yourself in riding well. Apply all your concentration to it. Anticipate and mitigate every hazard, and perform every turn and maneuver with slick competence. It is hugely absorbing and rewarding, and more therapeutic after a long day at work than anything else I know. Brilliant.