Opening Photo: Sven Martin
It was a hard pill to swallow, but there it was: The music playing in my head sucked more than the fuzzy EDM noise wheezing out of the tinny speaker wedged in the backpack of the guy who just passed me near the top of the climb up Woodcutter’s.
I thought I was cooking along pretty well. My pulse thudded in my ears and set a good beat for my breathing, and for the first time in a long spring my legs felt like something slightly more animated than two dead stumps of wood. So it was a little humbling to get spun up on, passed, then dropped by a dreadlocked white guy on a fatbike. Riding flat pedals, wearing cargo shorts. It can sting, having any budding sense of, ‘Hey, maybe I’m getting some snap back in these legs’ snuffed out before it has a chance to feed the ego. One of those continual reminders—it may be a long way to the bottom of the fitness hole, but it’s even farther in the other direction to the top. Wherever that is.
So there was that. But it’s not as if the guy snuck up on me. I heard him coming. Had been hearing him somewhere behind me for about half the climb, the “fzzzzt fzzzzt fzz fzzzzt” of his music ever so slowly increasing in volume as he and his companions caught up to me. It takes me about 15 minutes to climb that trail, and at first the sound wasn’t much more obtrusive than a scraping brake rotor. Everyone loves the sound of a scraping brake rotor, though, so it’s not like you’d want to claim it’s an affront to the senses, right? Right. Exactly my thoughts as I stood on the pedals. Just keep breathing in counter-time to the ol’ heartbeat and “fzzzzt fzzzzt fzz fzzzzt …”
I don’t really listen to music when I ride. Or, at least I try not to. It’s fine if other people do that. I get it. Hell, the playlists some of my friends have put together for their big solo expeditions and endurance races are straight up transcendent. But for whatever reason, I prefer the unfiltered, often uneventful soundscape of the ride itself. Or, at least I try to. Things are getting louder in the woods lately. Robust portable speakers, sturdy and small enough to fit in a mesh backpack pocket, with enough juice to last a few hours, that can pull a Wi-Fi signal and play straight off your phone, that’s a pretty rad invention! Right? Right, right up until it isn’t.
There’s something analogous to the whole polarizing effect of mountain biking here. One speaker out on your favorite slice of singletrack, where you unexpectedly roll up on someone playing music in the great outdoors, that’s a positive and easy-to-love kind of scene. But extrapolate that into 50 outdoor speakers in the same piece of the great outdoors, and instead of tethering them to fixed points, set them in motion like little rolling jukeboxes that you are totally powerless to program, and that scene gets a lot less easy to love. One bike on a trail, no big deal. Fifty, and someone’s getting grumpy somewhere.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I am just envious of people who are extroverted enough, unself-conscious enough, to let their music fly free in the world. I turn down my car stereo when I roll up to stoplights, don’t answer my phone in restaurants and even though it would take some serious wattage to get loud enough for my neighbors to hear, I don’t even crank things loud at home. Maybe I’m an overly self-conscious, out-of-touch, fun-hating, noise-averse, post-mid-life Lorax wannabe. Maybe I fail to appreciate the nuances in the music of Skrillex. The irony is not lost on me, however, that there are silent EDM parties, where attendees wear headphones with the music piped through them. And there I was, under a canopy of trees, getting dropped by a dude on a fatbike blasting dance music.
Thing is, even though I don’t actively pipe music into my head, there’s always something playing. Like, right then, my involuntary mental jukebox was stuck on “Milk, Milk, Lemonade” by Amy Schumer. Don’t judge. It’s not as if I can choose the music that comes into my head any more than I can choose what some stranger is playing on his rolling ghetto blaster as he rips my legs off. That’s just how it goes. Climb starts, song from out of nowhere climbs into my head and repeats itself in segments until the climbing is done. “Milk milk, lemonade. Milk milk, lemonade. Milk milk, lemonade, round the corner fudge is made …” It’s actually a pretty decent tune for riding tempo. “You say you don’t like asses ’cause I fart and break your glasses …”
It’s a crude and funny and wonderful song, but it gets old pretty quick. Like, immediately. I tried dislodging it from my head by singing “Wichita Lineman” for a while, but no luck. It was stuck and stuck good. The climb seemed endless and Method Man was growling “this is where her poop comes out” over and over. That’ll kill a personal KOM attempt stone-dead right there. And then, just like that, delivered by the least likely of messengers: salvation. Amy, Amber Rose and Method Man left in search of other auditory victims, shaken out by the fuzz and thump of the speaker in the backpack of the dreadlocked guy on the fatbike.
They rolled past me like I was standing still, and a few minutes later I was left with blissful silence. By the time I reached the intersection at the top of the climb they’d already rolled on and there was nobody in sight. A light fog had yet to burn off, and as I turned right and dumped through the gears into the descent, my inner jukebox selected the last thing it had heard and sent me down the hill. “Fzzzzt fzzzzt fzz fzzzzt …”