Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ring My Bell.

Until I became the owner of a Pashley Princess Sovereign, I'd never really thought about bicycle bells within any context other than practicality. A bell is just a bell, right? It warns people that you are behind them and that's that - or so I thought. Riding the Pashley showed me that your bell can actually have a significant influence on your ride quality and impact your mood.

As cyclists we all try (at least I'm pretending that is the case) to be courteous users of any shared paths we have the privilege of using. I know I'm not alone in feeling some minor dread when I see a pair of headphones in the ears of the person I am about to pass because it invariably means they will not hear my bell regardless of tone or volume. In those cases I always try to pass them a bit slowly and VERY predictably, hoping that their peripheral vision will sense movement in time for me not to startle them. For all other shared path traffic the bell is your first impression, a polite cough clearing the way for your dick-move: Overtaking.

You know how it goes: You wait until you're in hearing range, you ring your little bell, the person hears and then reacts. You pass, you thank them, they might have a facial expression about it, you might have a facial expression about their facial expression. Either way, the sound of your bell can soothe their inconvenience or enhance their annoyance and I did not realise just how much until I owned what is gloriously described as a 'Ding-Dong' bell.

Interpret this how you will but 'traditional' women's bikes are generally more likely to come with a bell included. Road bikes of course come with nothing (a massive oversight considering their potential speed) because the weight of a bell might add milliseconds to a Roadie's Strava. We all no doubt recall the bicycle bell of childhood, your basic 'Ring Ring' sound with mysterious rotating bits internally providing noise and eventually rusting to impotence. Since then bells have levelled up and you may purchase anything from the cheap Ring-Ring kind to crazy-pricey but elegant Japanese copper bells that sound like they should signal the end of an intensely expensive meditation retreat. Rather than the Ring-Ring variety, included bells on modern entry level bicycles now pretty much all look like the bell that came with my Schwinn Jenny:

It's a thumb strike style, no internal moving parts to get jammed like the bell on my childhood bicycle. You thumb down, the plastic bit strikes the metal and you get a trifling 'Ting Ting' of perfunctory politeness, like so:

Thus I never thought about the effect my bell was having on the mood of the people I was passing. Some smiled, some remained neutral but they didn't end up in my spokes so I was happy. Then I experienced the Pashley Ding-Dong bell:

The first time I took it out for a ride on a busy Perth shared path, I noticed two things. 1. It was a lot louder and clearer as an indicator of my presence so I could signal earlier and, 2. I received a marked increase in pleasantries from the strangers I was overtaking.

Astonishingly, a few people even THANKED ME as I passed. And I only had one tit out! It made my passage through the city so pleasant that I felt suffused with community spirit even after my journey ended. This happened over and over every time I was on the Pashley. Most uncharacteristically, I started to feel like a ray of sunshine every time I rang the bell. It was like having a magic wand to make everybody more amenable.

After the success of the ding-dong Pashley and after moving to Tasmania I was excited to find a similar bell in unique Latrobe situated gift shop, Reliquaire. Imagine if the cleanest, most organised hoarders in the world owned a delightful gift shop and let you go on treasure hunts through it - That is Reliquaire and all visitors to Tasmania should check it out. (You're welcome, Tasmanian Tourism.) Thinking it would be an excellent upgrade for the Jenny, I ponied up just under $30 for the splendid bell and looked forward to gracing my fellow humans with some ding-dong magic. (Not to be confused with 'Dong Magic', which I think is what Harry Potter was about?)

The German 'Liix' Ding-Dong.
Electra also make giant ding-dong bells.

And for the most part it worked just the same. People would hear the pleasant ring and I would be greeted with surprise and sometimes a smile or even a 'thank you'. But for some people, the bicycle bell is a declaration of war. I don't think of the bell as being primarily a car-horn substitute - after all, you don't honk your horn when overtaking. But halfway through writing this post I was forced for the first time to use my bell as an immediate warning to a stranger who consequently viewed it as an offensive act of aggression. It was a man I had noticed standing still just next to the start of a shared path, staring intently at his phone. Suddenly, without looking up he stepped out 90 degrees to the flow of people and bicycles, timed perfectly to collide with my moving front wheel. I was startled and had a split second to react - reflexively, I almost braked but stopped myself as it would have created a different collision involving me and a car. Meanwhile, my thumb made it to the bell trigger even as my mouth opened to exclaim an, "Oh!" of warning/surprise. I hated to shock him but I hated even more to risk breaking his toes. His peripheral vision was alerted when we were about 2 inches apart and he looked up just as my lovely new bell was ding-donging (I could not un-press it at that point), stopping just in time to avoid my bike and for my bike to avoid larger prey. But from his point of view his awareness happening a microsecond before the bell meant I should not have used it and he shouted, "You don't have to ring your bell AT me!"

Actually, Dude. This one time? I think I do.


  1. I ride the same shared path to work most days, would only be about half a kilometre of path, but is is very busy as it runs along some ovals and most mornings people are walking their dogs.
    I have a bell that you pull the lever back releasing on to the bell, and depending on the circumstance the pull back may be larger so the headphone guy can hear.
    As I ride the path regularly most of the other users are use to the sound of my bell, and move as I slow to pass them, and there is always a courteous good morning as I pass.
    I try to let people know of my approach all the time in some way, I have found the bell to be the best.

    1. I've been searching for a road bike suitable bell for a while (One that will fit around the thick bars of a modern road bike), despite the fact it makes bike shop people make a face when I ask. I think they're essential!