Principles of Urban Riding, Part 4: Silent Riding

When I'm trying to ride as quickly as possible, I have a theory. Any and all energy that is expended by either myself or the bicycle should be useful in the forward moving effort. Any wasted energy, such as a rubbing brake pad, a spoke magnet hitting something once per revolution, correcting for an out of true wheel, or a noisy chain, is simply throwing away precious energy. If bicycling generates heat or noise, something is very wrong.

I take a broad interpretation of this principle when riding in urban conditions. I try to ride as silently as possible. Sure, this means that my bicycle is in top condition, with drivetrain clean and lubed, and brake pads (if any) clean and clear of the rim. It also means that I try to be as quiet as possible: I try not to say anything while I'm on the bicycle.

As I ride through Manhattan, I see that messengers, racers, and all sorts of cyclists just waste energy yelling and screaming at people, and it never does any good. My rule is this: audible communication on the road, with very few exceptions, is an exercise in futility, for several reasons. First, yelling and screaming wastes energy and deprives what should be an already depleted cardiovascular system. Secondly, if you are in a position where you need to use audible communication to give someone a message, particularly a warning message, it indicates a failure on the part of either the cyclist, or the recipient of the message. It's the cyclist's responsibility to avoid instances of this nature.

In practice, what this means is that I don't yell or scream at people. If a pedestrian is crossing, or a motorist is doing something strange, I can detect this far enough ahead of time with good scanning technique, and simply re-route to maintain speed. If not, I'll slow down. When people get angry at me for being on a bicycle, almost always without real reason, my silence and calmness throws them off. (What, me, calm and quiet? Yes, it does happen, sometimes.)

The biggest counter-argument to my technique is, accelerating back to speed takes more energy than slowing. This is true. However, things that make you slow down are part of the environment when riding somewhere like Manhattan. If you don't like it, find another route. I spend a substantial amount of my rides doing route analysis.

There are two major exceptions to my silence principle:
  • Communicating dangers to other cyclists. I usually ride alone, or with other people who are comfortable fending for themselves, but I'll take the extra effort to help a novice through town. I also let cyclists who are riding against traffic without lighting know that I'm displeased, as this is a real danger.
  • Communicating with people who almost door me. I think anyone who opens a car door into traffic without looking should have that door ripped off by a passing truck, just to let them know how it feels. Dooring is a very serious issue around here that has taken too many lives. I do everything I can to reinforce that carelessly throwing your door open is a bad idea.
So, keep your head down, keep your mouth shut, and ride hard.