Opinion: Put a Bell on It

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Mountain bike bells go a long way toward keeping the peace between trail users.

Last summer, I was steadily grinding up Pinecone above Park City on my way to Wasatch Crest. As I rounded a sharp corner, another rider came careening down the trail straight at me. He slammed on his brakes and promptly crashed into a shrub, barely missing me. He was so close I could feel the wind on my face.

Thankfully, everyone was OK, and he got away without too many scratches on his $8,000 bike. You could argue that the rider was going too fast, but if either (or both) of us had bike bells, the whole situation might have been avoided, with precious frame paint still intact.

Sounding a bell from a distance announces your presence without making it seem like you have more right to be on the trail than anyone else.

To mitigate accidents (and angst between user groups of multi-use trails), I’d argue we would do the entire outdoor community a huge service by setting aside the “too cool for school” mentality and slapping a bell on our bikes. This makes the trails safer and friendlier—not only for us bikers, but also for hikers, trail runners and equestrians.

Sure, shouting “On your left!” to pass someone can work, but it doesn’t always get the reaction you expect—a startled person is rarely a happy one—and often they hesitate like a squirrel in the road or even jump right in your path. By comparison, sounding a bell from a distance announces your presence without making it seem like you have more right to be on the trail than anyone else, which is how it can seem when you shout.

Bonus: If you live in bear country, this saves you from either having to sing during your entire ride or worse yet, surprising a bear and possibly getting attacked. What’s more, a bell’s ring carries farther than a voice. A ranger I interviewed says that people on the trails can hear bells from a few hundred yards. Horses and other animals can often hear them from over a quarter mile.

Mountain bike bells are not without their haters, however. This is clear.

Is there another rider around that curve? | Photo: Dan Engel

“I hate bells,” said one Pacific Northwest rider I interviewed who wished to remain anonymous. “They are super annoying. If I rang a bell going into every corner, I’d drive myself crazy. Why not just ride under control and speak nicely to people as you approach?”

That does sound like a great idea (and a common sentiment), but that isn’t what always happens out there so some concerned bikers are taking matters into their own hands.

Places like San Luis Obispo County along the Central Coast of California are fully on board with mountain bike bells, so much so that the local bike community placed cowbells at every trailhead for bikers to borrow on their rides. In the last six years, Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers (CCCMB) partnered with nearly a dozen local bike shops and other local business to supply about 2,000 bells per year at local trail systems such as Montaña de Oro State Park.

The bell stash at Montaña de Oro State Park | Photo: Amy Jurries

“The use of bells far surpassed our expectations,” said Bill Jenkins, CCCMB Sponsorship Chair. “The equestrians, hikers and bikers are very happy with the bells even though some of the bikers were reluctant to use them at first. Within a year of using the bells, negative encounters between the various groups decreased. It’s a great feeling when hikers thank us for using the bells whenever we meet them on the trails.”

Keep in mind, however, that simply sporting a bell does not grant you a special privilege to ride like you’re the only one out there—the International Mountain Bicycling Association’s rules of the trail (and good old common courtesy) still very much apply. Whether dinging or not, mountain bikers still yield to all other trail users.

I’m not waiting for an official bell installation at every trailhead—and you shouldn’t either.

The cowbell program worked so well that it led the State Park Supervisor to open up miles of singletrack in Montaña de Oro State Park for the first time to bikers—the result of which is the now über popular Oats Peak Trail. Imagine the results for riders (and new trails) if similar programs happen across the country.

But I’m not waiting for an official bell installation at every trailhead—and you shouldn’t either. On a recent trip back to Park City, I, along with numerous other riders in our group, sported every variety of mountain bike bells. Rounding a sharp corner on Mid Mountain, we approached a set of hikers, including children. They had heard our bells in the distance and already moved well off the trail to let us through. With a huge smile and “thanks for using bells!” they waved as we rode on down the trail.

My Top 3 Reasons to Use a Bell

  1. That little ding alerts other trails users well in advance of your approach.
  2. It’s less startling or confrontational than shouting at someone, especially if they are wearing headphones.
  3. It helps to ensure we all just get along. You don’t want to be that person that gets bikes banned from a trail system.

Sweet Dings

From left to right: Timber Mountain Bike Bell, Knog Oi

[Timber Mountain Bike Bell] This always-on bell creates a pleasant, cowbell-esque jingle with an easy access switch to silence the ringer for those times you don’t need it. Using two rubber O-rings, the bell secures to pretty much any size handlebar. I’ve found that hikers and even dogs are standing at the side of the trail in anticipation of my approach so there’s no need to shout apart from “Thanks and have a great day!” as I ride by. ($20)

[Knog OiIf you don’t want your bell to, uh, look like a bell, this dinger offers a sleek, inconspicuous alternative. The high-pitched ring cuts through even the loudest of headphone music but doesn’t carry as far as the others. The Oi comes in a variety of sizes depending on your handlebar circumference. Con: Like many traditional bike bells, it needs a thumb-flick to ding, which can be tricky if you’re bombing downhill. ($20)

[DIY] For a couple of bucks, you can copy the Montaña de Oro State Park bells with Velcro tape and a mini cowbell.

 

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