Cycling With Music

Is there anything more motivating before a big race or even a serious training ride than listening to some heart-pounding music? Or conversely, how frustrating is it to hear some horribly annoying tune just before you start a long ride. Then just as you’re about to be passed on your favourite singletrack you catch yourself singing the theme song to some TV show (Blue’s Clues if you’re a dad like me).

Technology in this day and age has made listening to music before or during a ride incredibly easy, and surprisingly safe.

It’s Hammer Time: bikes, music, and the early days of portable music

I remember 10 or 15 years ago how excited I was to be able to ride with a portable CD player. My player was one of those early Panasonic Shockwaves, which had an unheard of 10-second skip protection although, to be honest, the thing was a huge pain in the behind. It weighed about a pound and that skip protection was pretty much useless if you tried listening to CDs while riding anything other than silk-smooth pavement.

But I kept stuffing that ugly blue and orange player into a backpack just so I could be able to ride with my favorite music in my ear. (I have to admit it. In the past I have actually ridden to MC Hammer’s Can’t Touch This. I’m not proud of it okay?).

In more recent years, I came across the Sony NetMD player, which used Mini-Discs about the size of a floppy disc. The device itself was great because it was small enough to fit into a jersey pocket. Sound quality was excellent and it ‘almost’ never skipped. For capacity, you could download music at a lower bit rate and get around 320 minutes of music on one disc. The downfall of this device was that it was never meant to be beat on and after a few months of riding, including some wet and cold weather rides, the Sony player would freeze up while downloading music and seemed to get ‘glitchy’.

Enter the flash-based Mp3 player

Thankfully, not long after I gave up on the NetMD player, I saw Apple’s iPod Shuffle at my local Best Buy store.

I realize the iPods have been around for a while, but I always considered the cost of the standard iPod to be pretty prohibitive. And I wasn’t about to fork out two or three hundred dollars to get a music player that I might just lose or destroy while on a ride. But when the Shuffle came out early last year, it opened the door to finally join the iPod revolution and the gadget seemed perfect for cycling. At around $130 cad for a 512mb version, the Shuffle was worth the risk and was certainly small enough to fit into a jersey pocket.

I bought one before the start of last season and I haven’t looked back since. Because it’s like a standard MP3 player with RAM-style memory it never skips, and its basic design with few buttons makes it easy to use while you’re riding. Plus, the battery lasts forever and charging it is as simple as plugging it into the USB port on your computer.

Of course, some people might say 512mbs or even the 1gb Shuffle is far too small, so there is a growing list of options when it comes to larger MP3 players. Personally, however, I recommend staying small and not spending too much money.

The other thing I highly recommend is to spend a few extra dollars and buy a protective sleeve for it. Different stores offer different options for these, but basically a rubber or plastic sleeve keeps the iPod itself dry and sweat-free. It also offers some basic protectionif you happen to drop the thing. I also use aftermarket headphones that have an inline volume control, and the neckstrap that came with the Shuffle. When riding, I simply tuck the unit inside my jersey with a single earpiece going up to my right ear.

Safety concerns while riding with music

Some people are adamantly against riding with any kind of music in their ears because of the added danger – especially if you’re on the road. Whether I’m on the trails or the road, I try to minimize risk by wearing only a single earpiece and I try to keep the volume at a level that I can clearly hear, but that isn’t so loud I can’t hear a car coming.

If I’m doing any kind of group ride where I’m going to be chatting with friends, I leave the music at home. Cycling etiquette overrules the need for music.

If you’ve never tried riding with music, give it a try. During training rides I find the music helps melt away long hours in the saddle and during mountain bike races – especially 24 hour races, the music keeps me motivated. There’s nothing better to get your legs spinning fast than listening to Eminem tell you “Success is your only ******-******* option, failure’s not.”

I’ve never had a mountain bike race director tell me I can’t listen to music so until I do, I’ll keep wearing my trusty iPod. For road races, most organizers ban music players and because of the nature of road racing – where concentrating on the road and the people around you at all times is so important – I never race with the Shuffle on. However, I always make a point of listening to some song I enjoy JUST before I head to the start line.

Because, inevitably, that’s the song I’ll be humming the whole race.

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