When you’re sharing the road with hundreds of other vehicles of all speeds and sizes, sounds are half the picture. Hearing, that is the perception of sound, provides me with the crucial information I need to navigate the streets of London and I rely on my ears as much as on my eyes. Temporary deafness following a severe earache once put my cycling exploits on hold: indeed, how could I make up for the missing information? I wouldn’t dream of wearing earphones while cycling, however appealing it sounds (the view from the bike like a uninterrupted tracking shot . . . add music and you’re Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider*). Even recent research showing that a cyclist with earphones ‘hears much more outside noise than a car driver, even when that driver has no music playing’ has not changed my mind. I use a bicycle to be in my environment so moving absent-mindedly through it en musique would defeat the purpose. Instead, I am all ears and I am all there.
On a bicycle I sit in close proximity to the outside world. I love that there is no separation. But every coin has two sides: my whole body is exposed to noise, as well as fumes and other harmful substances, and is at times submerged by it. It is as if I had vanished; even the sounds I emit disappear completely amidst the roar of exhaust pipes, the screeching of wheels, the beeping of horns and the rumble of engines. I can’t hear myself breathe, I can’t hear myself think, I do not exist any more. It is particularly striking when joining a main road from a residential street: one is met by an iron curtain of noise which obscures the vibrancy of our urban surroundings as drastically as air pollution. I lose myself – literally – in this ocean of noise, and I am lost: I listen but I am unable to hear. I use hearing to guide me and, just like a whiteout is as disorientating as pitch darkness, an over-abundance of noise stimuli is as unsettling as complete silence: they cancel themselves out. I lose my bearings and find myself adrift.
The big noise overwrites the smaller, important sounds. The click of the chain. The thud of the tyres on the tarmac. To perform my bike’s daily health check, I need only listen to it. An unusual noise, which starts without warning and, more tellingly, persists, is almost always a symptom. Its frequency, its pitch, its place of origin – which can be difficult to tell as sounds travel along the metal tubes: beware of replacing a costly bottom bracket when it was only a loose saddle – all help the diagnosis. In several instances I was led to think that a worrying rattle had finally stopped but alas, I was simply cycling on a busy road!
It seems that what I call noises are unwanted, machine-produced, aggressive sounds that block out the welcome human-centred sounds of a living street: people talking, doorbells ringing, laughs and shouts, keys jangling. Noise takes me back to the frustration of some 1960’s Godard films where dialogues are deliberately rendered incomprehensible by the surrounding cacophony. Sounds communicate instead, and being at eye-level with pedestrians and other cyclists allows for interactions. I remember three young men on hired bikes who playfully raced me one Saturday evening then introduced themselves and started a conversation at the traffic lights; or the ‘Nice bike!’ someone called before promptly cycling off. Cars, on the other hand, are soundproof.
The immediacy of external sounds (for better and for worse) stems from the unique – and amazing – superiority of bicycles over engine-powered vehicles: the fact that we are virtually silent. Like birds – which the Olympics opening ceremony with its winged cyclists may have alluded to – we move without sound; we glide fluidly and pounce silently onto our prey: the city! Cycling two abreast in the early hours, not a sound disturbs our quiet conversation and we partake in the silence, at one with the world and our selves. Unlike my disquieting walks home late at night, I find cycling alone in the darkness akin to meditating. The peaceful, soothing rhythm of the spinning pedals cradles my thoughts. Everyone should try it once in their life. Clear your head. Listen to the density of silence and the absence of noise. To what is left when there is nothing left.
* Dennis Hopper, 1969