The Sound of Speed

To celebrate our latest collaboration with Bang and Olufsen, we explore cycling’s soundtrack, from turn-of-the-century velodromes to turbo training sessions.

06 November 2020

Cycling has always had its own sound. It’s a sport of constant movement, an audio-visual circus; the noise of the crowds, the whirring of wheels, the crackle of the team car radio, the sounds of the helicopter overhead and the whoosh of the bunch as it flies past.

The race moves across the landscape, up, over, down and up again, seemingly forever, like an infinite sound wave. And though it often looks and sounds chaotic, racing has a rhythm too – the regular rate of a rider’s breathing and the clicking of the chain as it shifts across the sprockets.

In the age of radio-controlled riders and power meters, cycling has a metronomic quality. Every beat of the heart is registered, every turn of the cranks counted, and the bunch’s speed monitored minutely by satellites. In amongst all the background noise, each rider composes their own beat. Metered out in bpm, rpm and kph, this rhythm resides in all of us as we ride, and has not gone unnoticed by composers of actual music.

You only have to listen to the first few bars of Kraftwerk’s Tour de France to hear the harsh rasp of heavy breathing and a cyclical beat that takes you on a journey around the stage towns and famous climbs of le Grand Boucle. All together now: ‘Galibier et Tourmalet, Tour de France, Tour de France’.

For many, Kraftwerk’s machine-music is an instant aural reminder of summers spent watching racing on television, but it’s not just theme music that the sport’s natural sound has inspired.

The relationship between sound and cycling works both ways. At the turn of the twentieth century, track cycling meets ranked among the biggest shows in sport. Unlike road races, fans could be crammed around a velodrome and charged a spectator’s fee.

From Ghent’s iconic Kuipke velodrome to Madison Square Gardens in New York, the atmosphere at Six Day races was raucous. And to whip fans into a frenzy, organisers would hire brass bands to play as the cyclists circled faster and faster on the banking above them.

Wind instruments have long since been replaced with modern sound systems and a more contemporary soundtrack but the atmospheric influence of music remains a powerful and potentially performance-enhancing one.

Whilst watching a Six Day race in New York in 1910, the researcher Leonard P. Ayres observed that competitors rode faster while music was playing, and slower when riding in relative silence. In the century since, other studies have corroborated Ayres’ findings, noting that music seems to lower an athlete’s perceived exertion.

Though riders all wear earpieces today, listening to music is forbidden in races. Out of competition however, it is used widely as a motivational tool on gruelling training rides. Here, a three-minute track becomes a three-minute interval, and the beat of the music can be used to carefully control a rider’s cadence.

Immediately before and after races too, music can be a great motivator, or a balm for frayed nerves. Draped over the handlebars, riders can plug in and zone out. Tapping out a tempo on the turbo, a rider enters their own world, transported from a stressful setting to a serene one.

Whether it be outside a Tour de France team bus or training at home, riding on the rollers is where music makes most sense. On the turbo your consciousness is small. And the harder you work, the smaller it gets.

With the past and future forgotten, the present moment is all that matters: the feeling of your hands gripping the bars and your sight obscured by sweat. Whether it be the drones of Kraftwerk’s electric tones or the tempo of a Mozart overture, music can transform your training session into something more, helping you make the most of every minute spent in the saddle.

Rapha Bang & Olufsen Earphones

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With Pete Kennaugh

As an ex-pro with an Olympic gold medal and two national road race titles to his name, Pete Kennaugh knows a thing or two about focused training. Join him on Monday, 16th November for a social workout to celebrate the launch of the Rapha + Bang & Olufsen collaboration.

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