By Neal Rogers

iPod, therefore iRide.

iPod, therefore iRide.

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Upon completing a damp, three-hour solo ride this past weekend, I returned to happily inform my housemate that I had discovered the best training tool ever invented.

No, it isn’t a German power meter, a palm-reading heart-rate monitor or any sort of output-measuring device. Rather, it is an energy-inducing device, one that, when used properly – and responsibly – can introduce a whole new element to long miles spent in the saddle.

And while I’m not usually one to cover bike tech, and it’s still only May, I hereby cast my vote for the VeloNews Technological Innovation of the Year: Apple’s iPod, the sleek, lightweight mp3 player that, along with Apple’s new digital Music Store, is on the verge of revolutionizing the music industry.

[Editor’s note: If you haven’t discovered the wonderful world of digitally compressed mp3 technology, stop here. Don’t bother with the rest of this piece. Simoni’s gonna win the Giro, Philly’s not for another week and Ullrich’s team is going to the Tour after all. Now get back on your bike. Attaboy.]

Still with me? That’s right, I’m condoning riding – on open roads – with headphones, a practice that may be illegal in some states (though not in Colorado, according to the Colorado State Patrol) and which certainly adds an additional element of risk to what is already an inherently dangerous activity. But before anyone gets all up in arms, let’s agree that safety is clearly a concern. Now read on.

Use of the iPod is no secret on the pro circuit. At its winter team camp in December, the Saturn men’s team looked almost like an Apple commercial, with Phil Zajicek camped near a roaring fire, loading up his PowerBook with digital photos and displaying his iPod, while Tim Johnson fiddled with his own digital music library. Take a look around the time-trial start ramp at any stage race, and as often as not you’ll see the small white device attached to earphones. It’s even rumored that a certain Canadian world champion considered bringing his iPod along on the pivotal mountain-climbing stage at an early-season international stage race earlier this year.

The weight disadvantage to racing with an iPod would be negligible. Because Apple has access to minuscule hard drives from Toshiba – drives that competitors haven’t been able to get – the iPod weighs a scant 6 ounces. Just the size of a deck of cards and offering a simple-to-use wired remote control device that clips onto a jersey, the iPod is the dream device for anyone who travels, or spends long hours in mental seclusion. Plug in the after-market FM transmitter and it will broadcast your music over any localized FM radio. It’s the perfect gift for the pro racer.

And while the idea of blazing along a closed-course time trial to your own personal soundtrack may sound ideal, not everyone thinks so. Johnson, who trains often with his original 5GB model iPod, says, “If you’re really going for it, I don’t think there’s a spot for [a music device]. You should already have the mental amplitude to drill it.”

Prime Alliance’s Jonas Carney – who has been training almost religiously with portable music all of his 14-year pro career – agrees with Johnson in theory. But not being a strong time trialist, Carney sometimes feels he has no choice. “Most often, I can just cruise the time trials,” Carney said, “but at some stage races I have to make the time cut, with guys like Chris Horner out there putting in unbelievable times. I’ve smuggled my Walkman into a few time trials here or there.”

Did he say smuggling? What about the legality of racing with a Walkman? “If you’re allowed to use an earpiece radio, I don’t see why you wouldn’t be allowed to wear a music headpiece,” Carney said. “If one of the contenders, like Danny Pate, showed up with headphones on, they might say something, but like I said, I’m usually just trying to make the time cut.”

For Carney, riding with music just works. “I would never wear it on a group ride, but most of the time I train, I train by myself, and it’s always with music,” he said. “For really difficult workouts, it’s harder to get motivated if I don’t have the music.”

Spinning to the beat

It all started this past winter for me, when I reluctantly agreed to attend a Spinning class at the local health club. To me, Spinning class was counter to everything that riding represents: indoors, with re-circulated air and electric lighting, a cycling workout for people who don’t ride. But hey, it was snowing out, so I gave it a shot.

During the class, something happened. Doors were opened, light bulbs went off. Free to concentrate solely on the spin, my subconscious tapped into the high-energy techno mix the instructor played, and I discovered how closely related beats-per-minute and revolutions-per-minute truly are. Cadence, rhythm … these things suddenly began to make sense.

I’d always viewed riding with earphones as too dangerous, but after a few months riding with the iPod, I see it as no further along the cycling-danger continuum than cycling unplugged. Showing up for a group ride wired with headphones is not only antisocial but just plain stupid, but for those who ride alone and aware – as in “every car on the road is a potential killer” aware – riding with music is no more dangerous than riding while carrying a conversation.

Sure, there are some common-sense issues that must be addressed. Portable music is good for solo rides, on familiar roads that offer long, open flats or sustained climbs. It is not for group rides, town rides, mountain-bike rides or any other instance where a high level of awareness is required. Volume should always be kept at a reasonable level, so that a car horn can be heard from a distance. Other than checking over your left shoulder a few extra times a minute, the basic tenets of road riding remain the same: Stick to the right side of the road, hold your line, and have at it.

And man, descending smooth roads to the right music is a surreal experience – just once, try listening to Jane’s Addiction’s “Mountain Song” while hammering in the big ring. But climbing is where the beat really carries you to new levels. Let’s face it, when trying to maintain a cadence over a long pitch, most of us would be better served by listening to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” rather than our own labored breathing.

To offset the music, some riders use only their right earpiece, leaving the left side free to hear passing traffic. But, as Johnson puts it, it’s debatable what role, if any, music plays in cycling safety. “Some of the worst cases of cyclist abuse happen when people are just cruising down an empty road and get clipped by a car,” Johnson said. “Whether or not you can hear the V8 rumbling down on you at 100 feet or 20 feet, I’m not sure if it really makes a difference. It may be a little dangerous, but I’ll tell you what, when I’m training in Colorado in the middle of winter, out in the flats, I would beg someone to drive my iPod out to me.”

“I suppose the music could add some danger,” Carney added. “I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone to take on an unnecessary risk, but I can say that for me, it’s worth the risk. When training is your job – to basically to torture yourself on a regular basis – the music just helps.

“I change the music to what I’m riding on. A lot of time I listen to heavy music, like System of a Down, Fu Manchu or old Corrosion of Conformity. But if I’m going on a longer ride I listen to more mellow stuff, like old Clash and David Bowie.”

Sure, given the choice, most of us would prefer a race-pace ride with our buddies. But given that schedules don’t always mix, the iPod is a good backup friend. And what really makes Apple’s music software so handy is the ability to create different play lists, to match certain climbs or stretches of road. Knowing the music, knowing the roads – it’s the ultimate interval-training device.

In my case, I’ve been riding a certain climb here in Boulder, a ride that takes just over an hour and a half, round-trip. The first 15 minutes are a warm-up to a steep pitch, followed by sustained climbing, another steep section 55 minutes into the ride, 20 minutes of fast, hairpin descending, and 10 minutes back on the flats.

Here’s a sample play list for that ride:

Song/Artist/Album/Time
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, AC/DC, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, 4:10
Learning How To Smile, Everclear, Songs From An American Movie Vol. 1, 3:50
Given To Fly, Pearl Jam, Yield, 4:01
Under Pressure, Queen, Hot Space, 4:00
So Fast, So Numb, R.E.M., New Adventures In Hi-Fi, 4:12
Head On, Jesus and Mary Chain, Automatic, 4:09
Sex and Violence, The Exploited, SLC Punk Soundtrack, 5:05
Clocks, Coldplay, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, 5:07
Relax, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Welcome to the Pleasuredome, 3:52
The Seed (2.0), The Roots, Phrenology, 4:27
Man and wife, the former (financial planning), Desaparecidos, Read Music/Speak Spanish, 3:16
In The End, Linkin Park, Hybrid Theory, 3:36
Bad Town, Operation Ivy, Operation Ivy, 2:35
Ready Steady Go, Paul Oakenfold, Bunkka, 4:13
Mountain Song, Jane’s Addiction, Nothing’s Shocking, 4:03
Drain You, Nirvana, Nevermind, 3:43
One More Time, Daft Punk, Discovery, 3:55
Mayonnaise, Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream, 5:49
Friends and Family, Trik Turner, Trik Turner, 4:29
Just Like Heaven, The Cure, Galore, 3:31
Add It Up, Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes, 4:43
The Unforgiven, Metallica, Metallica, 6:27

Total: 22 songs, 1:33:13 total time

Sure, my “discovery” of riding with music is nothing new to the cycling community. Like Carney, many pros have been setting tempo to the beat on training rides for years, using portable radios, cassette, CD or mp3 players. The iPod is not so much ground-breaking as it is revolutionary; a new means to a well-known end. Carney uses a CD player, one he insists “never skips.”

Starting at $300 for the 10GB model, the iPod may not be for everybody. As for me, my riding lately has been stronger than ever, and the iPod is a big part of the reason why. Carrying my entire music collection in my jersey has brought an added dimension of power and stamina to my riding. For all the pack tactics involved with road racing, and all the scientific training tools on the market, I’m still one who believes in riding on instinct, and my iPod has proven a valuable tool in tapping into that most core of all resources: the heart.

Rock on.