I’m not anti-bell per se. My townie sports the outstanding Spurcycle. However, I think there’s a strong case to be made for verbal communication with other trail users — especially in an age when we’re increasingly isolated from genuine human interaction.
The case for conversation
I fully admit there are numerous instances where bells are useful. The “ding” of a bell can be heard far in advance of your approach.
Bells are not a sweeping solution to mitigate all conflicts
Bells that ring while you ride, such as the Timber, can alert wildlife to your presence and hopefully prevent an unwanted encounter around the next blind turn. This is particularly useful if you’re riding in the backcountry of the western United States or Canada and don’t want to become bear food or be trampled by an irate moose. (Is there any other kind?)
But bells are not a sweeping solution to mitigate all conflicts that can occur on singletrack and multi-use paths.
Bells can give other trail users a heads-up, but they don’t allow you to take control of the situation. If you’ve rung a bell to signal your approach only to watch people freeze in place — directly in your path — you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
Asking if you can pass isn’t just about being nice; it’s a polite form of mind control. A few choice words can allow you to move through pedestrians in a more efficient manner.
The other reason why I favor verbal communication over bells on multi-use paths is that it helps to regulate speed — if you don’t have time to say “Passing on your left,” the odds are very good that are you’re riding too fast. Paths filled with joggers, parents with strollers and dog-walkers are no place for Strava records.
On mountain bike trails, giving hikers a polite heads-up not only allows you to take control in terms of which side you wish to pass, but the conversation that follows can give you a chance to learn about upcoming obstacles such as downed trees, washed-out sections of trail or an angry rattlesnake. (Is there any other kind?)
Finally, in a time when trail access is often in jeopardy, taking the time to speak with other trail users is the easiest form of trail maintenance you’ll ever do.