Ian O’Riordan: Silence of electric cars presents new danger to cyclists

Cycling engages sixth sense while riding but sound an issue due to new technology

Before the rain came down and silenced the lambs there were moments out on the road bicycle this week which tapped gently into a sixth sense of some sort, that slight otherwhere in between sight, sound and smell.

If you believe Werner Herzog then the only way to travel for real is on foot. Herzog was in conversation with the New Yorker in the recent issue, a mere 5,800 words or so, as they do, and somewhere down the line he starts talking about living outside of fashionable trends.

“I create my own world view out of the knowledge that I derive from the world itself,” he says. “When you travel on foot, for example – and I don’t mean backpacking or hiking, I mean, for example, travelling on foot from Munich to Paris - you are given a world view, an insight that is different or outside of the average knowledge.

“I have a dictum, ‘the world reveals itself to those who travel on foot’, I do not want to explain it any further.”


It isn't easy to explain, only understandable, even if not everyone can walk from Munich to Paris, or experience the sort of kinship Herzog we know shared with Bruce Chatwin. The travelling part on foot is consistent too with the close second of the road bicycle, or the motorcycle for that matter, an insight that is always different or outside of the average knowledge.

In the morning or evening when the wind is to your back it could be either, and Robert Pirsig was onto that early in the 424 pages of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, printed in 1974 after five years of rejection from 121 publishers (a record, apparently), cut down from about 800,000 words, before going on to sell more than five million copies, still one of the most-read philosophy books of our time.

Pirsig singles out the simple art of moving across the open ground at speed for making you more “aware of things and meditating on them”, and especially if unhurried. “In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realise that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame . . . On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”

Whether you see it as gorse or furze or whin or even broom the sweet scent of coconut milk from the yellow flower is always strongest at this time of year, a sense of presence that can be overwhelming, and we often swear we can still smell it in bed.

It's another of the marginal gains of the road bicycle experience as described by Ernest Hemingway, where "you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of the country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle."

Over the years I've both driven and cycled every mile of road across the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains to know that keeping a 1.5 metre distance between driver and rider is virtually and literally impossible. It takes a sort a sixth sense to know sometimes where exactly you are, as driver or rider, and there is an in between, as if a two-way street in the same direction.


An old friend from across the mountain called over during the week for a wedding band rehearsal and there was no notice at all even when he was at the gate. That’s because he drives the magnificently silent all-electric Volkswagen ID.4 and if you don’t see it coming you certainly don’t hear it.

This might be the new enemy of the road cyclist, that silence more pronounced when any all-electric vehicle approaches you from behind and begins the process of overtaking. In my recent experience the old Range Rover Sport was preferable because there was no uncertainty about what was coming, and the need and desire to keep well in, because that’s the duty of the rider.

When Ford launched its new all-electric Mustang Mach-E last year it described the great lengths to which they went to digitally produce the perfect engine noise, experimenting with recordings of electric guitars, Formula E race-car engine sounds and the hum of high-voltage power lines. The way it works is you press a button that engages unbridled mode, so next time you the hit the accelerator there’s the old the throaty and properly electric roar of a spaceship taking off.

This may not be mandatory mode but there is a value in that old engine noise that doesn’t demand a sixth sense of sorts to know it is coming, whether riding alone or in a group. There is some value too in those cryptic finger exercises the rider sometimes makes to the driver their rear, a sign at least that they know you are coming.

If you've ever followed a Grand Tour such as the Giro d'Italia which finished Stage One from Budapest on the climb into Visegrad on Friday evening then you know noise of the peloton is the first thing you hear, even before you see them coming. Mathieu van der Poel made some real noise too in beating Biniam Girmay on the line, the Eritrean rider who came close to becoming the first African rider to win a Grand Tour stage.

Only 22, Girmay is one of just three African riders, all from Eritrea, riding the Giro this year. Van der Poel is in pink for now, though it's a long way to Verona on May 29th, 3,410.3km to be exact.

For the lone road rider at this time of year tapping gently into a sixth sense of some sort is the only way of knowing the distance of the car behind you is now near, especially if it is all-electric and moved from the gate.