It wasn't long ago that headphones were bulky, awkward accessories that resembled the headgear in A Clockwork Orange. Now, of course, you have many options, most of which are unobtrusive. In fact, it's not uncommon to see someone (usually male) engaging socially with his companions at Illegal Pete's while wearing a single earbud. (We aren't Miss Manners, and it's not the aim of this blog to address whether such things are appropriate, but if you wear one earbud while we are out for cocktails, we will sing Livin' La Vida Loca or Toto's Africa into your bud-less ear until you remove that earbud.)
What this means is that it's easier than ever to listen to music while riding a bike. It's also easier than ever to apply for health insurance or make espresso while riding a bike, but it doesn't mean that you should. Listening to music while you ride is great, but is it a good idea?
It's probably obvious why listening to music while you ride is enjoyable. If you're trying to make good time or work off the eggnog weight you put on over the winter, some fast music makes this happen almost automatically. If you're riding Green Mountain or Table Mesa in the summer at sunset, music can capture everything a snapshot would omit. One of my favorite things to do on a road bike is put on tracks 1, 3, and 4 of Dark Side of the Moon while descending Lookout Mountain; it's as close as the waking mind comes to dreaming.
Some rudimentary internet research verifies that cycling in headphones is legal in Colorado. However, headphones probably make it difficult to hear either the cyclist that is trying to pass on your left or the car that's too near your rear wheel. As you know, cyclists are already vulnerable, and impairing one of your senses may not benefit your safety.
The other side of that argument is that you're better off not hearing much of what's hollered at you as you're riding--insults, catcalls, invitations to ride on the sidewalk, etc. Being able to hear the car that's about to run over you won't prevent its running over you. Given the choice, would you rather listen to a driveshaft passing overhead or "take me down...to funky town!" while a driveshaft passes overhead? When a car pulls up next to you at a stoplight and the window comes down and someone says something you can't hear over your Les Miserables soundtrack, it may be best to sing back at them, "And I'm Javier. Do not forget my name! Do not forget me, 24601!" They will probably be so confounded that they leave you alone and continue on their way.
There can be no right answer to this. Maybe wearing headphones will lead to your death. Maybe your headphones will save your life: pulling over to restart a song could result in your not being in the middle of the next intersection when a motorist runs a red. Who knows. We have no real data. Listening to music while riding is one part awesome and one part scary to think about. Just don't turn it up so loud that stop paying attention to what you're doing and don't become so overcome by Fantine's death that you can't see through your tears.
One consequence of portable music that makes me a tiny bit sad, though, is when I'm out riding Centennial Cone on a sunny morning and feeling that the world is pretty great until someone overtakes me and doesn't respond to my greeting because they are wearing headphones. This kind of interaction reminds me of the indifferent city life I've gone to the woods to escape. The other rider, though, probably has a telephone job and has come to the woods so she can have some peace and some My Bloody Valentine and doesn't have to field my robotic greetings or idiotic pontifications about tire pressure.
I guess I've talked myself into the position that you should balance doing what makes you happy with not letting it get you killed. Well, there are less acceptable philosophies out there.
Anyway, if you want to argue the point further, you'll have to speak up so I can hear you over the single earbud I'm wearing.
What We're Listening to While We Ride
During a gray, dusk commute after a difficult day:
On a Kubrickian road climb:
On a sunny, seventy-degree January day in 1972:
While getting loose in the snowy switchbacks at Apex:
During sad time: