In Praise of the Bell

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Is there a more wonderful sound made from metal than that of a brass bicycle bell? I’ll admit that the triangle in orchestral arrangements sounds quite lovely. But the brass bell takes the cake. In many cities around the world, ringing bicycle bells in traffic define the acoustic environment. I sometimes find it difficult to ration my bell use. Bells ought to be used like horns – to let other cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers know of one’s presence. But I often bounce along, crying wolf with the little lever in a rhythm recognizable only to me. My 3 year-old daughter shows more restraint.

Most commuters use bells very well. Sometimes they say hello, often they ding to signal their presence. This makes sense because most commuters navigate traffic relatively deftly, and have their own survival and safety as paramount concerns. The bell is a wonderful way to help insure one’s well being and to participate in the sonic zeitgeist of the city.

More cyclists should use bells. For road riders or tri-athletes riding for “training,” the bell might consist of too many grams to tolerate. I don’t think carbon fiber would have a nice ring to it. More likely, however, is that the brass bell doesn’t fit the aesthetic of the space-age race machine. But I’m not sure if there’s a category of cyclists who could use a bell more than these riders. They are the ones doing the rapid riding, and there is nothing more polite than a nice, well-timed little ding to make another rider aware of one’s immanent pass. The bell is more delightful than “on your left,” and preferable the terse and rather unfriendly “left.” In the place of these words and phrases, one might substitute a “hello” or “nice bike,” or “what a day, huh?”

And certainly, without exception, increased bell use would help remedy the problem of no signal at all from passing cyclists. More often than not, on my rides up the coast when I am passed – often uncomfortably close – it occurs without warning. This is not only rude, but also dangerous. I usually remark, “on your right” to try to hammer the point home that I could have easily veered my bicycle into their hidden vector, causing great trouble for all involved.

When on road rides, I use my bell when passing other cyclists. Interestingly, the action usually garners a cross look from the aero bars of the other ride. In the East, a car horn functions as a tool. In the West, honking works as a last resort, taken by honkees (no pun, please) as an offense. Perhaps bells work the same way on road riding courses. I will, however, continue to use my bell. I hope more folks will do the same.

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6 comments

  1. Antoine

    I’m a little disappointed with the tone of my new bell from Velo-Orange, although it does look wonderful.

    Serves me right. I bought aluminium for the significant weight savings over brass ;^)

  2. Esteban

    No you didn’t! I had an alum bell on my old lugged Kogswell that I used because of aesthetics – matte silver parts throughout the bike. Didn’t sound quite as nice as the brass.

  3. Juan

    I am in full agreement about the bell. Yet…I still need one for my bike. My kids’ bikes have bells. Maybe I steal the pink one off my daughter’s bike?

  4. KK

    There’s nothing better than a bike bell. I’ve got it as my ringtone on my cell phone!
    I’ve never managed to make ‘on your left’ sound anything less than bossy. A little ‘ding ding’ or a happy ‘good morning’ when passing is so civilized – I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it. 🙂

  5. BicControl

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on bells. Great blog entry, here.

    I (this particular Bic Control writer) completely agree. Bicycle bells are awesome. I have one on both my main bikes–my fixie and my racked-out, pannier-carrying, geared bike.

    When I was in Beijing last summer, everyone used bells. The ring of a bell roughly translated to a friendly “Hello. I’m riding near you. Please be aware of this. Thanks.”

    When I returned to San Diego from that trip I used my bell much more frequently! My friends think it’s funny when I do so and they’ll often laugh. But I don’t mind. It’s interesting how a simple bell “ding” can make a human being smile.

    As I once wrote, “A car horn makes a person cringe; whereas my bicycle bell makes one smile.”

  6. geoff

    I too love the sound of bells, but I’ve noticed the pretty sounding brass bell I use is easily ignored.

    I’m thinking about the compressed air horn.
    Horns are pretty and brassy.

    off topic: does anyone know who makes or sells the brake cable hanger on the above bike?

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