Can you hear that? Nothing. Not a sound. Not a dripping tap, a singing bird, or a snoring dog in her bed under my desk. I really don’t do silence very well at all. Fortunately, or perhaps consequentially, I am very fond of music. So whenever I am not engaged in a particular task that commands silence, my life is accompanied by music… not loud (well, not all the time), but there’s music. I’ve just pressed play on Apple Music, Downtempo radio. An interesting choice I know, but it’s perfect for a Saturday morning, as I love the mellow atmosphere it brings… particularly while absorbing the views of the Matterhorn.
Clearly I can’t be there in person at the moment, but their webcams are fantastic… here’s a link to my favourite to sit, admire and reflect from the comfort of my desk. (https://zbag.roundshot.com/rothorn/). However, just to give you a flavour, here’s a photo from my last trip.
This was taken from what is my favourite drinking spot anywhere in the world, on the slopes in Zermatt, at Blauherd, from a bar called ‘Blue Ocean’. Here, I have spent some fabulous times, sitting in the sun, listening to this Downtempo genre of music, drinking the sweetest beer, while absorbing just how far I am away from the rest of the world. It’s a wonderful place to just ‘exist’ for a few hours, and appreciate my own irrelevance and mortality in the context of the wider world, and that the pressure we (I) feel within normal life is also, in the broader context actually pretty irrelevant, or at least certainly self-perpetuating. We all need a bloody good holiday right now, I am sure, so let’s not reflect too long! But, my key point is the central role that the atmospheric music played there took in forming my view of this particular place, and how I still feel about it today. My ‘click my fingers’, ‘go to spot’ anywhere on this planet!
My earliest musical memories are perhaps of being 4 or 5 years old, travelling in my fathers dark blue Saab 900, with a John Denver cassette providing a backing track to a rather enthusiastic family rendition of ‘Grandma’s Feather Bed’ (which was 9ft high and 6ft wide, and soft as a downy chick… apparently!). The mere thought of this brings a smile even today, and it was an early education of the joy music can bring to multiple people, in the same space – even if the lyrics were beyond bonkers and the journey less than interesting. A less fond musical memory is of Morrissey’s vocals being accompanied by my mothers enthusiastic, though absent of any attempt at ‘harmony’, requests for my sister to ‘turn that rubbish down!’. This was another important lesson, as I learned how music could also breed hugely negative reactions… and that turning it up even louder in contempt rarely achieved a better end result. But in my early teens I finally got my first ‘hi-fi’ which was a fully integrated Amstrad with a mechanically extendable / retractable turntable (I wore the mechanism out by repeatedly operating it for no reason other than it was fascinating to watch). It was a hand me down from my eldest Sister, through which I discovered the diversity of music, and radio. Until then, ‘radio’ was confined to BBC Radio Lincolnshire (or ‘Radio Dead’ as I recall affectionately referring to it) and now, no longer constrained by the tastes of others, I got to shape my own musical journey.
I won’t say that it was an easy or straightforward journey, including a brief period of being in a school band called ‘The Pants’ (which on reflection was surprisingly good!), my musical interests have largely been 5-10 years behind the fashion of the time. When New Kids on the Block were ‘cool’ (really?), I was listening to Dire Straits. I was obsessed with INXS when everyone else was arguing between Blur and Oasis. Though being behind the times isn’t only relative to music, I am similar when it comes to most things. Boot cut jeans (flares, let’s be honest) only went out of fashion in my wardrobe during the first Covid Lockdown in 2020 when a boredom induced style review finally put pay to my staple choice of trouser leg. Only ‘Kool & The Gang’ would have recognised my threads as ever being in any sort of fashion.
However, my ‘new’ hi-fi did open my ears to one fashion that I did follow, and I duly fell in love with an Irish long wave radio station called Atlantic 252. I shared many of my formative moments with Atlantic 252, as I went through Secondary School and University. The millennials and later will probably never understand the complexities of the 1990’s media and in particular living with long wave broadcast music, and in particular how it brought an intrinsic link between your music and the weather. Because I lived on the east coast of Lincolnshire and listened to an Irish broadcast, when it was foggy in the North Sea, Atlantic 252 would frustratingly blend in with a dutch broadcast using the same frequency. Equally when such weather was in the midlands, the Atlantic 252 signal was stronger and the sound better. Whenever there was a thunderstorm anywhere within 400 miles, you would hear every lightning bolt as a loud crack over what was already abysmal quality sound, not only by todays ‘digital’ standards, but also compared to FM at the time.
Nevertheless, Atlantic 252 played fantastic music, 24/7. So I had it on in my bedroom, 24/7… literally, all day and all night. Having music on all night long might not sound like a great idea. However, I am a heavy sleeper, underlined beautifully by ‘the great storm’ of 1987 (Michael Fish’s finest moment!), when I slept through the back window of our house being blown in, smashed to smithereens, by the wind, and a builder coming round to board the window up in the middle of the night! So when I finally went to sleep as a kid I could sleep through anything, but I did take great comfort in falling asleep and waking up to music. One interesting consequence of this listening pattern was that radio stations tended to play new (perhaps ‘controversial’) releases late at night, which did bring some random musical finds. Some would slip into the past never to be heard again – while others will never be forgotten. I remember the first time I heard ‘Hanky Panky’ by Madonna, and similarly Mousse-T’s ‘Horny’… as a teenage boy trying to figure out what ‘life’ was all about, both resulted in hysterical, uncontrollable laughter. I’m not sure if that was the response that Madge or the Mousse would have been hoping for… but they still bring a smile today.
All of that said, despite my love of music, and that it accompanies me almost everywhere… one place it is not, is on my bike.
During the early days of my Wiggins-inspired return to cycling in 2012, I would take to the road on my Halfords Carrera Virtuoso, riding all the way to the A1 and back… a 6 mile round trip. In order to limit the boredom that I was worried I would face during these long rides, I would head off down the road with my headphones on, listening to some random mixes of inspirational, high tempo tunes that such extreme efforts might need. Clearly many things have changed since then, not least my enjoyment and physical capacity to ride, but also my awareness and appreciation of risk when riding. Perhaps as I’ve ridden more frequently for longer, and experienced many more ‘events’ while being on the road, I’ve become a lot more aware of not only my own mortality / fragility, but also that; to a not insignificant extent, I am largely responsible for my own destiny.
I would wage that, with few exceptions, everyone who rides on the road has had a ‘nearly’, and some (more than we’d like!) who ride on the road have had a collision resulting in injury (or worse), and coming home to our loved ones so we can ride another day, has to be the best end result of any ride. Those ‘nearly’s’ have become more and more focusing as I’ve got older, as I am not going to bounce as well as I used to and my responsibilities and therefore consequences of a collision, have got bigger. This has made me appreciate more and more that effective deployment of my senses is critical in delivering me, and my bike, back to my garage in one piece after every ride. Unless you’re doing something very unusual, that I’m not familiar with, taste and smell are not particularly useful when riding. Touch and sight are clearly very important when riding… your contact with the bike and your vision to manage where you put the bike don’t really need debating unless you have an unusual relationship with gravity and don’t mind crashing.
However, sound and fundamentally my ears have become a really significant tool for me. I’ve previously whinged about noisy bikes, and sound is a very good indicator of bike condition. But moreover, sound has a huge advantage in being able to understand what is going on around you, and that you cannot necessarily or routinely see… and I am thinking primarily behind you! I am now reasonably good – electric cars and windy days aside – at knowing what’s going on behind me just from listening. I’ll still make a shoulder check every now and again just to see what’s around, but in general I know when a car is close, or when passes are coming. Ok, close passes are still met with a verbal and visual retort (I won’t provide any colour here, but leave this to your imagination) but they are rarely a total surprise. Only a few weeks ago, knowing (hearing) that a pass was coming, at the same time that I saw a car pulling out of a junction on the opposite side of the road allowed me to head into a side road to escape. It doesn’t matter how long I am out on the road for, I would simply not wear headphones when cycling any more, and encourage you, your kids, your friends, and their kids not to as well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not even 10% of cyclists doing it… but I see some on every ride… and for their sake, not mine, I would ask them not to.
While I may only have stopped using headphones when riding predominantly because of starting to ride with friends (resulting in plenty of chat, so no time for music), the idea of listening to music while riding doesn’t just concern me from a risk perspective, I also think it would also ruin a significant portion of the experience. Whether it’s the early morning bird song as you creep out onto the road on those beautiful fresh spring mornings, the sound of a running river that you’re crossing, or your mates panting like a train, while thrashing the chain across the cassette while downshifting as you slip past them on your favourite climb – sound is a significant part of the cycling experience.
And don’t forget, with about 40% of your effort being expended to move the air out of way that’s in front of you, the sound of the wind in your ears is actually an brilliant audible demonstration of the effort that you’re putting in to push you and your bike toward your destination.
You never know, you might hear something interesting, nay life saving, on the way.