Should you cycle with earphones in?

Listening to music while riding is controversial but the evidence regarding safety cuts both ways and a favourite tune can boost performance

Wearing earphones and listening to music while riding is one of those topics that divides the cycling community.

For some, the thought of restricting one of the key senses we employ to alert us of hazards is a complete no-no.

Others simply enjoy the escapism and motivation that listening to music can bring to a solo ride or training session.

Rider safety seems to be the main reason behind any talk of banning or restricting the use of headphones.

A BBC poll conducted in 2014 resulted in almost 90 per cent questioned being in favour of a blanket ban, many citing a perception of cyclists being unaware and unresponsive to dangers, therefore more likely to be involved in incidents.

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Studies conducted by Brunel University also implied that users were up to 10 per cent less responsive to potential risks.

So it’s hardly unexpected for headphones users to come under fire. But despite this increased pressure to limit headphone use, most research has actually found that, contrary to popular opinion, listening to music while cycling might not be as detrimental to your health and safety as some groups would have us believe.

A study by Dr Katrina Jungnickel and Dr Rachel Aldred found the use of music and headphones actually helped create a ‘sensory strategy’ that enabled the cyclist to cope with riding in a dangerous environment by effectively calming the overload of sensory data.

Speed of sound

The research was conducted on urban cyclists and showed that they were just as aware of their surroundings, if not more so, than other transport users and engage in sensory strategies that manage their exposure to risk.

Just as drivers use the radio to create a safe, social and comfortable space on the road, it is possible to interpret cyclists’ sensory strategies as ways of negotiating and taming challenging environments.

Outside of the chaotic urban environment, music may also play a major part in increasing your fitness when incorporated into training. It can boost your ability to ride harder, faster and with more enjoyment.

According to Dr Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University, one of the world’s foremost experts in sport psychology, music is effectively a legal performance-enhancing drug.

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Listening to your favourite artists can increase your endurance by up to 15 per cent while lowering your perception of effort.

It can trick your mind into feeling less tired during a workout, and also help to encourage positive thoughts.

While listening to music will no doubt mask some outside noises, an Australian study found that a cyclist wearing ear-bud style headphones and playing music at a reasonable volume hears much more outside noise than a car driver — even when that driver has no music playing.

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So evidence suggests it is possible to cycle safely with headphones, once the cyclist is sure they are still aware of their surroundings.

This is a sentiment shared by British Cycling: “It’s best to use all your senses while riding a bike but your hearing is far less important than your sight,” said a spokesperson for the organisation.

“People who are deaf can ride perfectly safely while on the road. In the end we should all be looking out for each other.”

Stay safe at night

Expert views

Sam Williams, former pro rider

“I am a huge lover of listening to music while riding. For me, earphones are just as important as a pump and spare inner tube when I’m out on a ride.

"I listen to music even when I’m just out for an easy spin. It’s great for either chilling you out or getting you pumped up for when you have a harder training session.”

Edmund King AA president

“It helps if road users have their wits and senses about them whether as a driver, pedestrian, cyclist or motorcyclist.

"We wouldn’t advocate that drivers turn up their music so loud so as to drown out any outside noise and equally if those on two wheels choose to wear headphones or earphones the volume should not drown out external noise.”

This article was originally published in November 2016