Local Current Blog

Is it possible to bike safely to music?

Clad in traditional Briton outfits local musicians play the bagpipes to support the riders in the second leg of the Tour de France cycling classic rode between Perros-Guirec and Vitre, France, 1995. (Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

As the weather starts to feel a bit more like spring around the Twin Cities, many formerly snowed-in cyclists are dusting off their rides and re-experiencing the outdoors on two wheels. Nothing beats the sensation of listening to your favorite tunes while riding for exercise or leisure, and studies show listening to music can even increase endurance levels during a workout. One study even found that soundtracking a bike ride can help cyclists create a “sensory strategy” for calmly navigating difficult terrain.

While the practice of wearing headphones or earbuds during a ride is not technically illegal in Minnesota, it is strongly discouraged by the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota for impeding a cyclist’s ability to be fully aware of their senses and ride safely. Foregoing headphones, many cyclists strap on a Bluetooth speaker and blast music from their person, though high noise levels, especially in congested areas, can disrupt and distract others. With these things in mind, gadgets designed specifically for safer riding are available from a variety of sources.

One earbud in, one out

Leaving one ear exposed on the side of oncoming traffic can help cyclists stay tuned in to their surroundings. For the full auditory experience in just one ear, single buds that mix both audio channels are available from Far End Gear and JLab.

Wearable Bluetooth

A manufacturer in China has developed a multipurpose helmet that places Bluetooth speakers just above the wearer’s ears — loud enough to hear, quiet enough to avoid distracting others and let in traffic sounds. The helmet also includes blinking red lights for nighttime visibility, and a crash detection feature that texts friends the wearer’s current location.

Additionally, JBL Soundgear has developed a slightly different way to wear speakers close to one’s ears without eliminating ambient noise. Their U-shaped speaker system fits snugly on the back of the neck and shoulders so riders can project music without disturbing others.

Remain aware of ambient noise

Some ear buds are specially designed to let in outside noise along with tunes. These from Plantronics have an open ear tip, which make it possible for ambient noise to mingle with songs played at a reasonable volume, and experts suggest keeping headphone levels at 60% of the maximum volume no matter what.

Bone conduction

Our eardrums aren’t the only parts of the body capable of perceiving sound. According to designer Gemma Roper, sound waves can travel to the inner ear through vibrational patterns on the top of the bones near the ear, bypassing the eardrum. Roper’s Safe+Sound headphones do just that by hooking onto the wearer’s helmet straps and resting on their cheekbones to transmit sound, leaving the eardrums free to perceive outside noise.

Many other headphone models utilize bone conduction — from those that wrap around the user’s head, to helmets with built-in transmitters. Even Beethoven himself used a version of bone conduction to compose while unable to hear otherwise by biting a metal rod attached to his piano.

The most important things to do while riding, even without a fancy gadget, are to keep music to a minimal volume and remain continuously aware of your surroundings. Keep speakers close to your head as to not disturb others, and queue up songs before leaving, so you never have to adjust mid-ride.

If anything, you can always be like this Bike Forums contributor and go old-school.

Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.