Some person: “I can’t believe you ride your bike with headphones in. That’s just SOOO dangerous.”
Me: “Shut up. I know what I’m doing.”
I’ve had a number of keyboard warriors express horror any time I mention listening to music while riding my bike. My response to that is, “I can’t hear you, because this playlist is awesome.”
But the reality is that I can hear you, because I’m not an idiot. There are shades of grey in the headphones while cycling debate that mean you can enjoy some tunes while pedaling the pathways, despite what some overprotective computer commandos have to say.
Unless you’re training at extremely high effort, music boosts athletic performance, enjoyment and adherence. Taking away your tunes can have a negative impact on exercise for many people, and this includes for cycling. So why leave the iPod at home if it makes for a better experience, and a better workout?
The answer is: don’t leave it at home. Take those tunes along and let them motivate you. But do it the right way.
Choose the right equipment
When it comes to exercise, I prefer the iPod Shuffle for it’s diminutive size and the fact that its controls are so basic they can be operated by feel. There are times when I’m cycling that I need to stop the music and it’s a quick tap on my arm without my eyes ever leaving the path or road.
But it doesn’t end there. You know how people often complain about how much the headphones that come with an iPod suck? Well, that’s a good thing when it comes to cycling. You want the crappy factory provided headphones, because they don’t do shit for cancelling out external noise. In other words, they allow you to listen to music while also hearing what’s going on around you.
Cycling while wearing higher end noise cancelling headphones is a terrible idea. Don’t do that.
Don’t crank it too loud
That header explains it clearly enough. It’s a no-brainer.
Choose the right path
I am fortunate to live in a city that has hundreds of miles of bike paths so I don’t have to worry about cars, but just pedestrians and other cyclists. There are also highways I can ride on not far from my home that only get minimal road traffic, and because I’m wearing those crappy iPod headphones I can hear a car coming up from behind me from a long way off.
If you’re riding in an area where there is a lot of traffic, either pedestrian or vehicle, music is not a good idea. But if you have it mostly to yourself, or at least your fellow travelers are spaced far enough apart, it’s perfectly safe to get your musical groove on.
Choose the right time
There will be times that your chosen route is just too busy, and the distraction of headphones may not be advisable. Whenever possible, choose to ride during times when there isn’t a lot of other traffic around.
In addition to this, choose where and when not to listen to music during each ride. I went 60 miles on Saturday along the pathways, and was listening to music for about 55 of those miles. There were times that I needed to tap that iPod Shuffle to pause because I was going through a high traffic area. As soon as I was clear, the rock started rolling again.
Be hyper vigilant
This is the big one, and something that people should do whether they listen to music or not.
Guess how many times I’ve crashed my bike in the last ten years. I did some math, and figured I’d traveled close to 20,000 miles. Number of crashes? Zero. Well, unless you count a couple of times where I did what my friend calls a “Captain’s Crash.” That’s where you pull up to a stop and forget that your feet are locked into your pedals and you “Go down with the ship.” It hurts your pride more than anything else.
I have avoided many crashes that may have happened because other people are idiots. I like to ride fast and hard, but I always stick to my own lane, my eyes constantly scanning ahead, my hands gripping the bars tight with my fingers ready to slam on the brakes in a split second.
I see plenty of morons weaving along, on the wrong side of the path, looking anywhere except where they should be … They’re not listening to music but they’re still an accident waiting to happen. Cuz stoopid.
In my numerous encounters with such idiots the fact that my hearing was somewhat compromised by listening to music made zero difference in my ability to avoid a crash. Hearing is not a sense that you need to rely on to prevent you from going ass over teakettle in these circumstances. It’s eyesight; visual vigilance.
I’m not riding through the Vietnam jungle in the 60s and worried about a squad of VC laying in ambush, so I don’t have to listen for Charlie to step on a tree branch. When it comes to staying safe, hearing barely rates compared to having eyes that you actually use and being ready to act to avoid a collision.
The one drawback to listening to music is that you may not hear another cyclist coming up to pass you, but the solution to this is simple: stay in your own lane and they’ll go around. Either that, or do what I do: ride fast enough so that no one ever passes you.
Does listening to music increase your risk of a crash? Perhaps just a little, even if you follow these rules. But enough with the bubble wrap. Life is risk, and the minor increase in risk is acceptable, in my book. I’d rather see people complaining about the idiots who don’t pay attention to where they’re going, riding on the wrong side of the path or weaving all over it.
Oh, and consider the legality. I don’t even know what the laws are where I ride, but I’ve ridden past many cops and they don’t appear to care. If you get busted, don’t blame me. As long as the Five-Oh is fine with it, you can be in tune with your surroundings and your machine while also listening to tunes.
Note: I am aware of these newfangled bone conduction something something headphones that don’t plug your ears, and likely will be doing a review of them soon.
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James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.