Listening to music that gets your heart pumping is one of the most inspiring things you can do before a significant competition or even a strenuous training ride. Or, to put it another way, how aggravating is it to hear some very grating melody just before you go on a journey that will take a long time? Then, just as you are about to be passed on your favourite singletrack, you notice that you are humming the theme song to some television programme (Blue’s Clues, if you’re a parent like me).

The advancement of technology in today’s world has made it remarkably simple and unexpectedly risk-free to listen to music either before or during a trip.

It’s Hammer Time: bikes, music, and the early days of portable music

When I was able to ride with a portable CD player, I recall how ecstatic I was. This was probably ten or fifteen years ago. My player was an early model of the Panasonic Shockwave and it included a 10-second skip protection that was unheard of at the time. However, to be quite honest, using the player was a tremendous pain in the rear. It was a little over a pound in weight, and the skip prevention was pretty much worthless if you attempted to listen to CDs while riding on anything other than perfectly flat pavement.

But I couldn’t help shoving that hideous player with the blue and orange buttons into my bag every time I went for a ride so that I could listen to my favourite music. (I’m sorry, but I can’t deny it. Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer has been one of my go-to songs when riding in the past. I do not take any pride in it (is that clear?).

In more recent years, I became familiar with the Sony NetMD player, which stored data on Mini-Discs about the size of floppy discs. The actual gadget was wonderful, and one of its selling points was that it could be stored in the pocket of a jersey. The audio quality was superb, and there was “almost” never a skip to be heard. It is possible to download music at a lower bit rate, which will allow you to fit around 320 minutes of music onto a single CD. The disadvantage of this gadget was that it was never intended to be used roughly, and after a few months of riding, during which time it got wet and chilly on sometimes, the Sony player froze up when downloading music and started acting “glitchy.”

Enter the flash-based Mp3 player

Thankfully, not long after I gave up on the NetMD player and started looking for alternatives, I came across Apple’s iPod Shuffle at the Best Buy near me.

Although I am aware that iPods have been on the market for quite some time, I have always thought the price of the regular iPod to be too expensive. And I wasn’t going to spend two or three hundred dollars on a music player that I might easily misplace or damage while I was on the journey, so I didn’t bother bringing one. But when the Shuffle was released at the beginning of the year before last, it allowed people to finally join the iPod revolution, and the device felt like it was made just for riding. The iPod Shuffle was well worth the risk, since it was priced at around $130 CAD for a 512 MB version and was surely compact enough to slip into a jersey pocket.

I got one just before the start of the previous season, and ever since then, I haven’t looked back. Because it is similar to a regular MP3 player and has memory similar to RAM, it does not skip, and the fact that it has a simple design with few controls makes it simple to operate while you are riding. In addition to this, the battery will never need to be replaced, and recharging it is as easy as inserting it into a USB port on your own computer.

512 megabytes or even the 1 gigabyte capacity of the Shuffle may be considered by some to be far too tiny; nevertheless, there is a growing list of choices available when it comes to bigger MP3 players. But speaking from my own experience, I think it’s best to keep things simple and not spend too much money.

Investing a few more dollars in the acquisition of a protective sleeve for it is something else that comes highly recommended by me. The alternatives that are available for these may vary from shop to store, but in general, a rubber or plastic sleeve will prevent perspiration from collecting on the iPod itself. In the event that you do drop the object, it will also provide you with some fundamental protection. In addition to that, I use aftermarket headphones that have a volume control integrated into the cable, as well as the neckstrap that came included with the Shuffle. Whenever I go on my bike, I just tuck the unit into the back of my jersey, and I have a single earpiece that goes into my right ear.

Safety concerns while riding with music

Some people are adamantly against riding with any kind of music in their ears because of the added danger – especially if you’re on the road. Whether I’m on the trails or the road, I try to minimize risk by wearing only a single earpiece and I try to keep the volume at a level that I can clearly hear, but that isn’t so loud I can’t hear a car coming.

If I’m doing any kind of group ride where I’m going to be chatting with friends, I leave the music at home. Cycling etiquette overrules the need for music.

If you’ve never tried riding with music, give it a try. During training rides I find the music helps melt away long hours in the saddle and during mountain bike races – especially 24 hour races, the music keeps me motivated. There’s nothing better to get your legs spinning fast than listening to Eminem tell you “Success is your only ******-******* option, failure’s not.”

I’ve never had a mountain bike race director tell me I can’t listen to music so until I do, I’ll keep wearing my trusty iPod. For road races, most organizers ban music players and because of the nature of road racing – where concentrating on the road and the people around you at all times is so important – I never race with the Shuffle on. However, I always make a point of listening to some song I enjoy JUST before I head to the start line.

Because, inevitably, that’s the song I’ll be humming the whole race.