Robot’s Useless Reviews – Bells

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.

So cute, so menacing

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.

Join the conversation
  1. schlem says

    The linear algebra of bells, pedestrians, and cycling speed guarantee that if your bell is heard, it won’t be until you overtaking the walker. A seasoned pedestrian will easily slide to the right (or left, if you’re reading this in colour), but the majority are startled into random motion that risks collision. Far better, given room, to pick a line and swoop past. They still startle, but their curses sting less as they recede in your also-useless rear-view mirror.

  2. dberkstresser says

    I haven’t had to bunny hop a single dog since I put a bell on every bike. It only needs a single “ding” and dogs can hear it a mile away. It’s also much more civilized than shouting “ON YOUR LEFT” which of course makes pedestrians move to the left. My stress levels were reduced so nicely that I put a bell on every bike in the rack where I work, and nobody has taken a swing at me yet!

  3. Hautacam says

    I cannot possibly improve upon the two prior comments. Well done! I occasionally bell but more often bide my time for an amply safe passing opportunity, or flick my shifters to make a quiet clicking sound to make two- or three-abreast pedestrians gently aware of my presence as i idle behind them awaiting said passing opportunity. I’m not racing and it’s not a racecourse. Slowing down briefly is no big deal.

  4. TominAlbany says

    I whistle from a ways back. Folks usually turn around to look to see who’s whistling a tune. Sometimes I hum…

  5. Emlyn Lewis says

    @Schlem – I’m inclined to agree with you. I swoop past with as much space as possible. Your comments on random motion are spot on.

    @Dberkstresser – My main takeaway from your comment is that, holy cripes, you can bunny hop a dog. Nice. I also now view my dog as a sort of overgrown squirrel.

    @Hautacam – Yes. I slow down. I don’t even feel annoyed by having to slow down anymore. This may be maturity, or just fatigue.

    @Tom – Whistling seems nice. I wish I were more tuneful.

  6. dr sweets says

    I began putting bells on my mountain bikes half a dozen years ago after visit to Richmond, Virginia. This was were I really took to mountain biking in the early 90’s whilst enrolled at VCU. I was back to hang with some friends and planned a ride around the downtown fantastic JRPS trails. It was on these trails that I cut my teeth so many years before and the trails have grown in length and popularity. They are all multi-use and going out on a Sunday morning as we planned we were sure to encounter throngs of walkers/hikers/joggers/dogs etc. I ride a big travel bike with loud hubs so often trail users hear me coming, but not always. I’ve never been a fan of saying, “On your left” and generally would instead slow down, offer a “hi/howdy/hello” and then move on. My one pal, a local there had a simple bell and would ring it once or twice and add the polite aforementioned greeting as needed. This worked very well and other trail users not only moved out of the way, but often smiled at dulcet bell tones coming from the bar of burly cyclist. I was sold and have used them ever since. They work as mentioned and also are handy to use upon encountering the many critters (deer by the ton, squirrels, rabbits, turkeys, raccoons and once in awhile stray coyotes or a fox) that I constantly come across down in Georgia. Oh and yes, I bought the fancy (over-priced?…naaaa.) Spur Cycle bells too simply because I loved their resonance, volume and tone. Ride (ring) on.

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