It’s true – bells really do make me happy. This is especially so when I see one mounted to a bicycle.
Bells are pretty casual cycling accessories, quite unlike the usual lineup of computers and clipless pedals and pointy helmets that seem to top the shopping lists of riders in my area. When I get an email announcing a sale, or a paper catalog in the mail, I rarely – if ever – notice bells highlighted (or even listed.) Bells are invisible. Bells slide under the radar most of the time.
You’ll seldom see a bell mounted on the bike of a “serious” cyclist. Anything that can be purchased at Wal-Mart or Target couldn’t possibly be a serious consideration for a serious cyclist, right? And after all, bells are for kids.
Here in the Midwest riders take riding very seriously, and bells, quite frankly, just are not very serious. Ting-a-ling! Seriously? Could you take that sound serious? The majority of “serious” riders around here tend to be seriously decked out in all manner of stretchy, carcass-entombing, color-blind fabrics and funky helmets. They ride serious road bikes made from carbon fiber and are constantly in search of ways to shave off – I’m serious here – one more gram of weight. They don’t see any serious value in something as “amateurish” as a bell.
Which is patently absurd, of course. Nearly 100% of these very riders are, in fact, precisely that: Serious amateurs. Weekend warriors.
And I have no desire to knock them for that. More power to ‘em, in fact – whatever rings your bell: If the idea of living vicariously through some Walter Mitty fantasy is what gets you onto a bike, it’s okay by me.
But seriously, bells are worth a little more consideration. Allow me to elaborate.
First off, I’m not trying to corner the market on bell shares. I don’t have bells on all of my bikes – but I do have them on the bicycles I am most likely to be riding when I encounter walkers. Why is that? Because bells are a very civilized way of saying, “Pardon me? But may I pass by, please? Thank you very much!” Bells beat the crap out of startling walkers by yelling out the ubiquitous “ON YOUR LEFT!”
Some bells are cheesy. Some are cheap. And some are fun. Bells can be both classy and classic at the same time. They have a long history on bicycles. In communities where cyclists and pedestrians tend to interact, bells are used with frequency. And in Europe, of course, bells take on a life of their own, with myriad tones, trills, and sounds. Some are brash, others harsh, and some simply tinkle. City bikes as well as bikes purpose-built for cyclo-touring often sport bells – and talk about serious: Anyone who commutes on a bicycle takes their route to work very seriously. So it’s a bit puzzling to me the attitude that many Midwesterners seem to have about “serious” riding. Seriously, I don’t think that the addition of a small brass bell is going to in some way emasculate a rider.
Bells are just cool, and come in many classy designs as well as some pretty ingenious modern configurations as well. Personally, I favor the classic designs myself. I’ve seen numerous vintage bells with elaborate engravings; a preliminary ping often resounds with a soft, sonorous and pleasing tone. I have a vintage Raleigh bell that has been mounted on various bikes over the years. It will soon be attached to my 1971 Raleigh International.
This morning I took off with no set destination in mind. Reaching the historic town square in Liberty, Missouri, I pointed my wheels north and pedaled over twenty miles of rolling hills to Watkins Mill State Park. Watkins Mill is a favorite destination of mine – the journey is quiet with almost no traffic. The park is quiet as well, with swimming and picnicking in the summer, and numerous well preserved nineteenth century buildings. The park is centered around a small, attractive lake, which is itself circumscribed by a four-mile paved pathway for walkers and cyclists. The path is a pleasant, though short, journey, relatively flat and meandering through thick woods, crossing numerous small wooden bridges, and bordered by thickets, Mulberry trees and blackberry brambles. Off the trail, there are several roads, some of which are gravel and offer a different sort of challenge to a cyclist, climbing as they do up and away from the lake and to hilltop meadows. In a word, it is idyllic.
The path is popular both with walkers and those with bikes. Trucks and cars will often pull up, laden with kids bikes and entire families will traipse around the lake en masse. It’s not uncommon to come up behind a group of walkers straddling the entire path, and narrow as it tends to be, the bottleneck can prove challenging for a faster moving cyclist to negotiate around these groups. Some riders don’t slow at all, presuming that by calling out a few feet before their imminent collision they will have done their due diligence. They often just barely squeeze by as alarmed walkers scurry out of the way.
Some of the “serious” riders show up to ride this short trail, costumed in skin tight superhero threads. This is curious, because the path is anything but serious. Yet they will barrel along, taking little notice of the slower moving patrons of the pathway. There is a sense of privilege to their actions that is tolerated. But just.
But I have a bell on my bike. This morning I slowed as I encountered a group of three women walking the path. From a good distance away I rang my bell. Ting-a-ling! All three looked up, opened up to let me pass, and smiled as I did so. One woman said, “That is such a good idea!”
And truly, it is.