You can learn a lot from random noises you hear out on the bike trail. Most of these noises can’t be heard if you’ve got ear buds in blasting the Red Hot Chili Peppers (or, if you’re like a guy I used to bike with, Sheryl Crow). I’ve found that when I truly tune in to what is happening around me on the trail–not just with my eyes, but with my ears, too–I bike more effectively and also more responsibly.

Here are five ways auditory cues can help you on the bike trail:

1. Listening lets you know when the silent speeder (or unaware downhiller) is behind you. 

Why is it that some people just refuse to say, “Hi! Can I pass?” This seems especially true on the Prime Cut trail out at 18 Road.  During busy seasons it’s inevitable that I’ll hear a cough or a shifting of gears right behind me, and realize someone is there who would like to pass. On other trails, like Kokpelli’s Wrangler, I’ve come through a particularly fast section only to suddenly hear someone jump and land way too close to my rear tire for comfort.  In both situations, listening and being attuned to what is going on around me allows me to pull over and let the silent speeder or unaware downhiller pass by. Then I can go on my merry way at my own pace.

2. Listening lets you know when someone is riding up hill and you probably should yield.

I know, as of late, this whole “yielding to the uphill rider” thing has gotten murky, but in any case if I’m riding with a group and someone ahead of me yells, “rider up!” I like to be able to hear it so that I can stop and give that rider some room. If I’ve got earbuds in  then I won’t hear my friend and I’ll end up looking like a jerk when everyone else has stopped for the climber except me.

Hearing a rider ahead drop his seat post or shout out instructions could be helpful for someone unfamiliar with Mack Ridge's first drop.

Hearing a rider ahead drop his seat post or shout out instructions could be helpful for someone unfamiliar with Mack Ridge’s first drop.

3. Listening tells you when a steep climb or technical descent is coming.

There have been plenty of times on new trails when listening to the riders in front of me has let me know to shift gears for a climb or drop my seat post for a descent.  For climbing there are tell-tale cues like grunts, cussing, and gear shifts that I hear.  When I do, I know it’s time to adjust my fork, shift, and get ready to climb. For downhills, sometimes the distinctive shink of a seat post dropping is clue enough that there’s some downhill action headed my way! Other clues that a fun section is approaching include “Woo hoo!”s and a sudden rattling of a bike moving very quickly over rocks.  Knowing this lets me also prepare for the downhill ahead by shifting into my middle chain ring and dropping my seat post.

4. Listening can tell you if something is wrong with your bike.

Sure, certain bike issues, like ghost shifting, are obvious even without listen, but other problems are often heard before they’re noticed in other ways.  For example, while biking one day on Mary’s Loop I kept hearing this weird little ping ping coming from the front of my bike.  We stopped at an overlook and the BF hopped on and immediately realized my brakes were a bit loose. I’m glad I was listening closely and we were able to solve that problem before I rode anything technical.

If you're making really good time on a short loop like Rustler's, knowing the sweet spot for this ledge is great. Hearing someone shout out "there's a ramp rock in the middle!" might be all the boost you need to ride it and keep on going.

If you’re making really good time on a short loop like Rustler’s, knowing the sweet spot for this ledge is great. Hearing someone shout out “there’s a ramp rock in the middle!” might be all the boost you need to ride it and keep on going.

5. Listening can tell you if someone’s in trouble.

If you’re in the lead on a trail, listening closely may the only way you’ll know if your riding buddy crashes behind you. Hearing that “OOF” or the sound of a bike hitting the ground, or even just something that sounds odd will make you stop and turn around. If you’re not paying attention or if you’re listening to music your buddy (or girlfriend/boyfriend) could be lying there in pain for a bit before you realize it.

In the end I think that being attuned to the world around you is always a good idea–whether you’re on your bike or not.  Still, listening to the sounds of shifting gears, groaning climbers, and passing bikers while you’re riding can provide you with valuable information, and might even make you a better biker.

# Comments

  • mongwolf

    Not to mention all the sounds of nature to enjoy — the screech of an eagle or hawk, the charm of a bubbling brook, the rush of wind through the pines or the rumble of distant (or not so distant) thunder. Many a day in Mongolia my ears first alerted me to something unexpected and beautiful in Mongolia.

  • ziraga

    I gave the the good old headphones a try once. I couldn’t hear my tires losing grip…I can still taste the dirt.

  • Kurt Kurtz

    I ride with and without my earphones in and on. Depends on how I feel, when I use them it is at a level that still allows me to hear my tires in the dirt and conversations while riding. Some days all I want is the hear my breathing, my tires and other natural sounds, other days Bach Cello Suite No1 in G is just the ticket.

  • williedillon

    I couldn’t imagine riding with headphones on. I need to be able to hear when I’m doing something like biking. Wearing headphones while is almost as bad as the fools who play music through their speakers while biking, but in a different way.

    • mjc

      please explain. why is it bad to listen at low volumes. when i don’t wear them on cross country or d.h. all i hear is the wind. no birds, no tires, no chain, …. just wind noise. whatever happened to each their own. feel like i live in china

  • shueftle

    I used to have a rule: no mp3 player while mt-biking. But sometimes I can’t resist my near-addiction to audiobooks. And yes, I can navigate technical riding & follow the book. But NEVER with both earbuds, only one ear so I can track other aural queues as well: the mountain lion preparing to pounce, birdsong, idiot downhillers, etc. Long ago I had both earbuds in on a lone hike and it was my other senses that felt a black bear 200 ft ahead. As our dear departed Mr. Spock would say: “Fascinating”

  • watusi512

    What happened to listening to nature? 🙂 No, I’ve done it too, but now have a mp3 player w/external speaker…

  • Fast n Slow

    Playing music out in nature is sacrilegious to me. I’m there to enjoy being out there. I listen to music and other stuff all the time , don’t need it when communing with nature.
    We’ve all been out camping and enjoying our selves, then someone in the next spot brings out the boom box and cranks it up, like everyone within 5 miles wants to hear it.
    From a safety point of view, imparing your hearing while partaking in a moving activity is down right dangerous to you and those around you.

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