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.

Work from Home Deals

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.

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