The Seattle PI profiles acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton and his work on urban soundmarks. Gordon learned his craft while working as a messenger

Hempton lived here from 1978 to 1994, working for years as a downtown bike messenger. While dodging cars and buses he developed his “seuketat” - Eskimo for “ears of an animal.”

I know the sounds of the city cited in the article and the sounds of bikes in a peloton, group ride, and bike stand. I also listen intently when I’m delivering cargo.

There’s a bottom bracket creak, a loose seat, and dry chain. That distinctive whap-crunch-smack sound of a crash. I can also detect Hed or Zipp wheels and the breathing of someone working hard on a climb.

Air, Metal, Rubber

The peloton makes curious metallic, whooshing sounds. It’s air being pushed by wheels. Chains against cogs. Rubber on the road and legs turning pedals.


Photo: Kevin Tumara

You get close to it once, hear it, and you’ll never forget it. I focused on Time Trials once many seasons ago. Went to Nationals and would count the helicopter-like whoops from my Tri-Spokes to gauge how fast I was going (it’s an old mental trick to not look at your speedo, especially in a headwind).

Monkey Music

The current most identifiable soundmark for me is the one Bettie makes at full Cargo speed. I recorded it for an NPR project and you can hear it in this video. There’s a harmony to it, a working, churning hum. Todd swears my Stokemonkey is the only one that does that. Well good and cool if so.

Ride Ears

What do you hear when you ride?

Gordon’s got a book out on One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World.


I hear that guy with the loose allen wrenches in his swaying seat bag that go ‘clink, clink, clink’ as he rides until I want to strangle him. Wait, that was the sound of me sticking my pump into his spokes.

I can’t ride with anything creaking on my road bikes—Bettie makes so much noise, it’s all part of the cacophony of cargo. Also, can’t stand it when I ride with someone that’s creaking or ticking and some cyclists can do that. We had a guy used to ride with us and everything creaked on his bike.

My front hub has a bad bearing that makes a faint whistling sound. It just started a few rides ago, but I have yet to fix it. Since I know what it is, it doesn’t bother me too much, but I was embarrassed yesterday riding with someone else. I guess I had better fix it tonight.

My chronic noise issue is that I’m too lazy to lube my jockey/tension pulleys so after a wet ride they squeak like I’ve got a hamster on an exercise wheel. One of my teammates told me to make sure “feed the chipmunk” when I get home.

One of my long-distance riding partners has a bike that creaks, clicks, groans and squeaks.  It drives me batty!

My Xtra makes a lot of noise, though, but it’s different—not the sound of disrepair, but of shifting cargo, creaking straps and assorted clangs.  Strangely enough, I don’t mind these sounds at all.

Advertise here

About this Entry

Dropbar Obsession; Pt1 was the previous entry in this blog.

LOOK Cycles Ultra Winter Collection is the next one.

Find more recent content on our home page and archives.

About Bike Hugger