by James “Cranky” Ramsay

Illustration: Russ Tudor

This past winter, I made my annual commitment to get back to my former glory as local masters pack fodder. My readers will know that when I say “annual commitment,” I’m not kidding – it happens (or, truth be told, fails to happen) every year.

The pattern is by now quite predictable: I start out inspired, and quickly lose about 5 kg. There’s a spring in my step. I’m well on the way to reclaiming my rightful place in the middle of the middle-age peloton. But then I falter. By the height of summer, I’m fully reclined under a willow tree, snoozing off the effects of a rack of ribs and a few bottles of local brew.

But what is this? In late spring and the opposite is true. I’m in killer shape. Children (even tall ones) look up to me. Every cyclist I know wants to be me. And it’s all thanks to a simple, $300 investment I made a few months ago.

I know what you’re asking. What magical piece of cycling gear is this, that for a scant $300 could simultaneously transform a Cranky into half the man he used to be, and twice the cyclist? Where can I buy one? And does it come in tartan?

Here’s the thing: it’s not technically a piece of cycling gear, although it is without doubt the best $300 I’ve ever spent on my fitness (unless you count my lifetime membership in the West Toronto chapter of the Jack Palance Memorial One-Armed Push-Up Club). And you don’t even have to go to a bike shop to pick one up. You can buy one at any big-box electronics store – and I urge you to do so, immediately.

What is it? It’s a Bluetooth speaker. But not just any Bluetooth speaker. It’s a splashproof, stealthy looking, remarkably loud, bass-pumping, boom-box of a speaker. It’s helped me rid myself of my dad bod while reminding me of just how powerful music can be as a motivating force.

I used to ride indoors in the winter in silence (or I should say, without music), with only my own thoughts to keep me company. And this worked well, or so I believed. Time on the bike has always been good thinking time. I’ve used it wisely to solve problems, puzzle through complex challenges in my work, and mentally catalogue all my pirate shirts, in order from most to least frilly.

But when I fired up this speaker for the first time last winter, an amazing thing happened: as the dulcet tones of Norwegian doom metal filled the laundry room, I found myself matching my riding cadence with beats per minute. Soon, like a master DJ, I was able to build playlists that gradually built to a race-pace workout, and then tapered off to allow me to cool down. The net effect was two-fold. First, my average speed for 90 minutes on the rollers went up by 5 km/h. Second, the laundry started to pile up because Mrs. Cranky was scared to come downstairs.

Desperate for some clean clothes, I tried switching to Kanye West. That was better in that the socks got washed, but now my kids wouldn’t come down to the basement because of the music. “This album has too many bad words,” one of them said one day. She’s wrong, of course. As any discerning music fan knows, Kanye West’s music has exactly the right number of bad words.

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Now I’m not going to claim that music will always make you go faster on your bike. Sometimes it gives you the illusion that it’s working, only to let you down when it counts the most. I once warmed up for a crit while listening to the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire . Yes, I know it’s not a cycling film, but nonetheless, I was certain I would win. I got dropped on the second lap and was pulled off the course by the commissaire as I wept into my cotton singlet.

And I hope it goes without saying that I never (and nor should you ever) ride on the road while listening to music. This is extremely dangerous if you’re using earbuds or headphones, and extremely obnoxious if you’re using a speaker attached to your bike. Rare as it is, I’ve witnessed the latter on a charity ride a few years ago. There was something about hearing “Eye of the Tiger” blaring from the back of a bicycle that inspired me to ride as hard as possible to escape the sound.

And finally, no rumination on the power (positive or negative) of music would be complete without a tale about singing on the bike. Please don’t do it. I’ve experienced it first-hand on a cycling trip through Belgium. One of my fellow riders started to sing Steppenwolf tunes while descending the wooded hills of the Ardennes. It turns out this is even more annoying than having someone yell “woo-hoo!” while going into a tuck down a hill. To add to the offence, he was woefully out of tune. Again, inspired to get away from the racket, I blew past him and was pleased to discover that the Doppler effect actually corrected his off-key warblings. I believe I’m onto something there, and I’ll be speaking to my patent lawyer shortly to see if I can monetize the idea.

So there you have it: if you’re wondering how to break out of a rut, how to reinvigorate your riding, or simply how to drive away other cyclists, it’s all in the music.


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