A bicycle bell has a sort of Norman Rockwell vibe to it, echoes of a simpler time, when the ding-ding-ding of a paper carrier might have alerted folks that good news was coming, or at least an irascible youth standing in the pedals of a bike that likely weighed about as much as a Honda Fit. In recent times, the bell has migrated into more precious territory, the clear, high notes of hipsters piercing the air, letting you know you’re in the way.
It’s this more sinister side of the common bicycle bell I’d like to discuss today.
First, let’s consider what the bell is and how it attempts to do its job. The first bells were cast in East Asia around 2000 BCE, roughly 3850 years before bicycles started rolling around. Bell harmonics seem to have been perfected in the early part of the 20th century, with specific shapes known to produce accurate tones. In both Eastern and Western religions, bells have been striking tones of reverence, fear, and contemplativeness over a number of millennia. Quite how the modern bicycle bell fits into that paradigm is tough to see.
A cheerful ding does not strike fear in the hearts of innocent standers-by. It only brings surly hotel front desk attendants out of the office where they’ve been watching cat videos on the manager’s laptop.
As I understand it though, a bicycle bell is a communication tool meant to cut through ambient sounds, over some distance, to let others know a bicycle is approaching. Superficially, bells make a nice sound, whether the ratcheting ding of a cheap kids’ bell, likely in the shape of a frog or ladybug, or the resonant alto of a high-end brass model.
I like to imagine a person’s job it is to evaluate the tones of various bicycle bells to communicate different messages.
The question is: Is a bell a defensive tool or an offensive one? As cyclists we are usually on the defensive, so many minnows swimming with the sharks (i.e., cars), but a bell is a poor means of communication with a car, because a car is a box made of glass and metal. When I’m in my car, I am also probably listening to music at a volume that will remove the plaque from your teeth. Don’t ding at me when I’m in my car. I’m exorcising demons in there.
So a bell is not for talking to cars. A bell is for talking to other cyclists, pedestrians, and sometimes squirrels. Once we recognize that a bell is for talking to our non-automotive peers, we have also to recognize that a bell is really just a horn for a bike.
Fun Fact: Did you know the person on the other end of a ringing bell is called a “bell end?”
Once I was on a cinder path through a sprawling National Park, jogging slowly with a friend of mine. This particular path is busy, especially on weekends, and there was ample traffic of every sort in both directions, people running, people walking, and a few riding bikes. An older woman rode up behind us and began dinging furiously. We were not taking up the whole path, but as I said there was traffic in both directions. She was going to need to slow down and wait for an opening to get by us.
She did not slow down.
She rode up right behind us, continuing to ding, ding, ding, until I turned around and said, “YEAH. WE KNOW YOU’RE THERE!” At which point she looked away, swerved around us and rode away. I’m not at all sure what she thought should have happened, but I’m confident she didn’t think it was having some sweaty, tattooed dude yell at her.
I didn’t feel bad at all. My running partner was surprised at my reaction, but I think she assumed that because I’m a cyclist, I would have a lot more tolerance for other cyclists. Au contraire.
Another time, I was riding with a small group of friends, one of whom, I discovered was a bell guy. Similarly, we found ourselves using a short stretch of multi-use path to get from one part of our route to another. Each time we came upon pedestrians or another group of cyclists, this friend would begin dinging. Not one ding. Many dings. Aggro-dings. I exchanged quick looks with the other friends, silently asking, “Who is going to tell him to quit being a bell end?”
As we arrive here, at the end of our trenchant analysis of this crucial bit of cycling technology, you are probably wondering, as was I, what even is the point of a bike bell if it’s patently rude to ding it at people who either a) have a right to be where they are, b) have nowhere to go anyway, c) are probably wearing headphones (don’t get me started), and/or d) can just be spoken to, because we all need to learn to use our words?
The answer is: to scare squirrels out of the way in the best interests of your preservation and theirs. And put in that proper context the next question is, do I really need a squirrel bell? I’ll leave that up to you.
Thanks for reading this far. Seriously. It was a lot. I thought I’d lost you there in the middle, especially when your inbox dinged its charming “you’ve got mail” sound. But you made it. And so, what you read must have been at least mildly entertaining. If so, please do share that mild entertainment with a friend or loved one. The more the absolute merrier. And thanks.