AngryAsian: Unplug when you clip in

By James Huang | Tuesday, April 23, 2013 2.34pm

I love music as much as anyone. But like anything, there's a time and a place for it, and singletrack isn't it.

Mountain biking is a veritable feast for the senses: the gorgeous natural scenery around you, the smell of the great outdoors, the feel of the earth beneath your tires, and the sounds those tires make as they hug the contours of the ground. It's not only a glorious chorus when taken in together but every one of those senses also contributes to your ability to navigate the terrain successfully.

Many riders choose to block out one of those crucial lines of information by wearing earphones on the trail. And to each their own. I'm not here to tell you how to enjoy your time in the woods. However, when your decisions impact the experience of those around you, it gets a little more contentious.

Here's the thing: it's totally fine if you cocoon yourself inside a little auditory bubble, but unless you just bought Lance Armstrong's ranch in Dripping Springs and its remarkable network of private trails, you're mostly likely not the only person on the trail. If you can't hear someone coming up behind you that's congenially trying to pass, it's at the very least an annoyance and maybe even a bit selfish. But if you can't hear someone approaching you head-on on a two-way trail, it can be a safety issue as well.

It's not just other cyclists you need to worry about, either. Many local mountain bike organizations already have enough to deal with in terms of trail conflict, usually from hikers and equestrians who get spooked when approached by someone on a bike. Blocking out your ability to hear others can sometimes add needless tension to those interactions. Don't even get me started on hikers who are blasting tunes into their ears and then freak out even when you're doing your best to be courteous.

Moreover, a keen sense of hearing can be awfully useful in terms of performance, like indicating how your tires are gripping the ground and how well your bike is working.

And before you chastise me for discriminating against the hearing-impaired, hold up a minute as I'm doing anything but. The difference is that riders who jam buds into their ears are actively making the choice to block out the world to some extent while those with compromised hearing don't have that luxury. If anything, many of those folks make more of an effort to be aware of what's going on around them, not less.

Still insist on listening to music on the trail? Please do the rest of us the courtesy of either lowering the volume so that you can still hear things around you or pick up any of the various earphones currently on the market that port music into your ears without blocking out ambient noise.

For example, Airbudz molds a number of channels into otherwise-conventional ear buds so as not to seal out the world. Alternatively, AfterShokz' unique headphones don't block your ears at all, instead placing the audio drivers against your cheekbones – and they actually work quite well. There's also a novel setup from O-Tus that uses tiny directional speakers mounted to the underside of your helmet so that you can hear your music (and what's going on around you) but others can't.

Regardless, don't bank on other people sharing your taste in music (or wanting to hear anything at all) by a more traditional open-air speaker system, either. That's totally fine if you're proud to be a Belieber, but sometimes it's best to keep those things to yourself.

James Huang has been writing about bicycle tech since 2005 but also has more than 14 years of experience as a shop mechanic. In that time he's seen plenty of fantastic gear and technology but also a lot of things that have just flat-out pisses him off. You can follow the 'Angry Asian' on Twitter at @angryasian.

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