The chain needs waxing again.
I can tell because it’s louder now, the mechanical buzz of links on cassette and chainring teeth more insistent than it was a couple of weeks ago. I duck my head, facing the drivetrain, and the metallic whirr increases in volume. On the various bike paths I use to get through Boulder to the hills west of town, it echoes off the concrete retaining walls and underpasses, an insistent audible nudge that it’s time for some bike maintenance this weekend.
I smile slightly at the sound. At the crisp snap of dry, fallen leaves under my tires. At the muffled, staticky crackle of wind against my own breath, the rising note of the car approaching from behind, the snatches of conversation from people on the sidewalk as I pass. They’re all just the ordinary sounds of a ride, but I smile because I can hear any of it.
For why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world
But had not force to shape it as he would
I went deaf like Mike describes going bankrupt in “The Sun Also Rises”: gradually and then suddenly. I have a family history of hearing loss. Despite that and some environmental risks like marching band and maybe standing a bit too close to the speaker stack at a P-Funk or Primus concert, I had normal hearing through my 20s and thought – hoped – that I’d never have to face hearing loss, let alone deafness. But not long after we married, my wife remarked that I was missing pieces of conversation.
Hearing aids followed, as well as more unwelcome news. I had inherited two kinds of hearing loss: the sensorineural deterioration inside the cochlea that is common to aging or can be caused by trauma like noise exposure or some medications, and a rarer form called otosclerosis, where the bones of the middle ear grow abnormally and lose their ability to conduct sound to the cochlea. Both are progressive, but hearing aids are an effective treatment for many.
Otosclerosis, thankfully, can also be addressed via a surgery called a stapedotomy, where the stapes – at the size of a grain of rice, the smallest bone in the human body – is replaced with a prosthetic, restoring sound conduction, at least for a time. As my otosclerosis progressed, the hearing aids got more powerful, and the likelihood of surgery increased. But, I reasoned, I could still hear well enough without it. Then the pandemic hit.
Masks present two problems for those of us with hearing loss. First, they reduce the volume of a speaker’s voice. It’s only by a few decibels, but when you remember that the decibel scale is logarithmic, where a sound wave at 60 dB is 10 times more powerful than at 50 dB, even a few points matter. The bigger issue for me was masks completely stripped away my central compensation mechanism: speech-reading. Reduced to the audio signal only, it became inescapably clear that my hearing loss was so profound that even powerful hearing aids didn’t compensate anymore. Surgery in a pandemic wasn’t on my bucket list, but suddenly I had no other choice.
Stapedotomy is a quick and relatively common outpatient surgery. It’s generally successful, restoring at least some hearing in about 90 percent of patients. Another eight or so percent see no change. Fewer than two percent get worse. I found out what category I was in when, about two weeks after surgery, I awoke at 4 AM to the worst bout of tinnitus I’d ever had: a piercing ring that seemed to reverberate inside my skull. To that point, my recovery was routine, and I was starting to hear sounds, unaided, that I hadn’t in years. Suddenly, all that went away. A revision surgery pinpointed the problem – a rare kind of reaction that caused tissue to grow around the prosthetic stapes – but didn’t solve it. Within weeks, I was fully deaf in my right ear, and the left wasn’t exactly aces anymore either.
Single-sided deafness is a tricky thing for a cyclist. I could still hear cars approaching, but not from as far out; my warning horizon was much shorter. And with just one, half-functioning ear, I lost much of the ability to triangulate the location of a sound. Which is another way of saying even when I could hear cars, I didn’t have aural awareness of where they were, exactly.
Over the years, I’ve gradually shifted my riding to avoid traffic as much as possible, but I went even deeper, seeking out quieter, lower-stress ways across town to the deep canyons of solitude in the hills to the west.
Solitude. Much of my riding has long been solo for both pragmatic reasons and because, honestly, I like riding alone as much as I do with others. But the ability to effectively filter background noise also suffers with single-sided deafness. Even with a friend positioned close on my left side, the white-noise interference of wind, or tires on gravel – anything, really – was enough to overwhelm my ability to understand the conversation. I started begging off rides with friends or any social situation where background noise could be a problem.
On mountain bike rides, if someone was in front of me, projecting sound forward as they spoke, they might as well have been whispering. At a happy hour thrown by a PR agency at a local brewpub, I struggled to make out conversation with someone standing right next to me. I excused myself with a fake prior commitment and left after 20 minutes, exhausted. For people with severe hearing loss, listening is not automatic or passive; it is hard, multi-sensory work, an all-encompassing cognitive load. Solo rides, as ever, were an escape, a solace of simple pedal strokes.
Even bike maintenance became a challenge. When you tune a bicycle, think about how much of your work unconsciously relies on sound: the way a chain rattles when the rear derailleur is slightly out of adjustment; the distinct creak of a press-fit bottom bracket with grit between the cups and frame; the telltale ting-ting-ting of a misaligned brake caliper dragging on a disc rotor. Or simply the increased volume of a too-dry chain. All of that began to fall away from me.
To go deaf is to experience a thousand minor crises of communication that collectively immolate self-confidence: to be unable to hear the pharmacist’s questions when picking up a medication; to hesitate in an interview to follow up on a question with a source because I wasn’t confident I’d fully understood the original answer; to be a cyclist with three decades’ experience and a former shop mechanic who couldn’t be sure of even whether his drivetrain needed to be waxed again.
Till the High God behold it from beyond
And enter it, and make it beautiful
It was several weeks after the revision surgery – and 10 weeks since I’d last ridden a bike – that the surgeon gave me the all-clear to resume physical activity and broached the subject of cochlear implants. By that point, we knew my hearing wasn’t coming back. An implant would be, he said, a last chance to hear again in my right ear. Angry, destabilized, and in a kind of mourning, I wasn’t ready for that message.
Fun fact about middle-ear surgeries: you can’t exercise for weeks afterward. A rise in blood pressure risks damaging the eardrum or the fragile tissue patch around the surgery area. I was off the bike, brooding. I wanted to know more about my condition, whether it was fixable and, most of all, to try to learn what had caused it. Another way of asking: why me?
So I dove into the sparse scientific literature on (deep breath) “stapes surgery-induced granulation tissue,” a complication my surgeon of three decades’ experience had seen twice in his career and which typically damages both bone and air conduction hearing. The short answer? No one can definitively say what caused it. Perhaps, as the sun rose that morning of the surgery, some little corner of darkness did not flee the light, but instead folded itself inside my ear and lay secreted away to work its awful harm. It’s as good an answer as any else I’ve found.
Slowly at first, I began to research implants as well, essentially assigning myself a reporting project. There is no exact replacement for natural human hearing. Even hearing aids, which in their modern digital versions feature sophisticated software that modulates sound to fill in the deficits of each person’s unique pattern of loss, don’t fully replicate the richness and sensitivity of normal biological hearing. An implant is something further still.
It is, first of all, an implant, not something you put on and off like a hearing aid. And the surgery is, well, pretty metal. To implant a CI, they drill a hole through your skull behind your ear to access the cochlea – a delicate, bony inner-ear structure a little smaller than a chickpea that is perilously close to several key facial nerves and the fragile semicircular canals that control balance – and then thread a tiny electrode into its spiral-shaped interior. The electrode is attached to a transmitter that sits on the skull surface, but completely under the skin. In total, the titanium, platinum, and silicone implant weighs 11 grams, for you weight weenies out there.
An ear-worn processor and battery, much like a hearing aid, captures sound, but instead of amplifying, converts it to an electrical signal, which travels through the headpiece – secured to the implant via magnet – and then down the electrode where it stimulates the auditory nerve. That’s where it gets weird.
The human cochlea is home to thousands of tiny hair-like cells, called stereocilia, whose job it is to translate pressure changes in the fluid around them into an electrical signal to the auditory nerve. Different sounds create different pressure waves that stimulate the cilia at various points along the length of the cochlea (high sounds near the entrance, while low sounds are “heard” deeper in the spiral base). Those cells do not regenerate; when they are damaged or die, that causes sensorineural hearing loss. A cochlear implant replaces those cells with the electrode’s dozen or so “channels” (depending on the brand of implant), which have far less resolution, especially for music. That’s one major difference to human hearing.
Another, which I’ve never quite worked out for myself: how did scientists know what kind of electrical signal to send so that the brain would interpret it not just as sound, but intelligible sound? I’m reminded of the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Whatever the case, the end result is the hearing experience with a CI is completely different because the signal is different. As the saying goes, you hear with your brain, not your ears, and so the brain has to re-learn what things sound like with a CI. Voices are often tinny and high-pitched at first. Everyone, I was told, would sound like they were sucking helium until my brain adapted to the change and normalized it.
“I think you’d benefit from a cochlear implant; I think you should have a cochlear implant,” was the succinct recommendation from the new surgeon I talked with at a different hospital. I was still wary; surgeons like to do surgery and it all sounded a bit like the old realtor joke, “it’s always a great time to buy a home.” But it really did seem like the best, or rather only, option if I wanted to hear again.
Did I? First I had to decide whether I was comfortable simply being deaf. Deafness has changed the past few decades, both in public awareness and the tools available to help me communicate. But even with those tools, even embracing Deaf culture, and even after learning American Sign Language (which I haven’t yet and still need to), it would be hard. My work would change; in the United States, for instance, people with disabilities are employed at just one-third the rate of those without. Most of all, I feared for the relationships that would almost inevitably come under strain, some perhaps strengthening as others shattered altogether. Which would be saved, and which lost? It was impossible to know, and maybe I just wasn’t strong enough to face that.
Pro tip: for any critical surgery, get the absolute best people you can. My guy – the department chair at a major US research hospital – walked into the operating room with eyes bright and eager over his surgical mask, fairly vibrating with confidence and energy; I half-expected him to do a Lebron James-style chalk toss. The surgery went well, he told me in post-op. No complications, nice tight wrap to the auditory nerve. But activation day is the test.
That’s when they turn you on. Every recipient, every implant is different; there’s no predicting what someone will hear when activated. Some people, especially those long deaf, perceive only unintelligible beeps and squawks to start and must do months of arduous rehab to make sense of sound; others, so-called “rock star activations,” can understand speech immediately. The day after surgery, still sore and wearing a massive bandage that covered much of my head, I stood in the hospital’s audiology lobby awaiting my appointment. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, a massive American flag slowly flapped atop a pole in the flat light of an early Midwest winter. I remember thinking that, whatever else, in a few minutes my life was about to go one of two wildly different directions: either I would hear … something again that I could build on, or for all my deliberate decision process about being part of the hearing world or not, I would need to come to terms with rapidly approaching total deafness.
“OK, I’m going to mute your hearing aid side, and you won’t be able to hear anything, and then I’ll turn on your CI side only,” said the audiologist. “When I do, just tell me what you hear.” She typed on a computer keyboard and the room went still. On my right side, just behind my ear where the headpiece sat, my skin seemed to vibrate as the processor’s startup chime reverberated through my skull. It sounded chilly, robotic, a bit fuzzy. A soft whoosh followed; after a few moments I realized it was the air vent above us. “Joe, just tell me if you can hear the sound of my voice,” the audiologist said, speaking in the hushed tones you’d use when trying not to startle a wild animal. “I can hear you,” I replied. “And I can mostly understand you.”
Or else as if the world were wholly fair,
But that these eyes of men are dense and dim,
And have not power to see it as it is
The car was behind me, accelerating at normal speed. I could tell because of the Doppler effect – the ascending pitch of the tires on tarmac – and that the sound was smooth and even, without the urgent, angry buzz of an impatient or aggressive driver. Still, the overtake took me a bit by surprise. It was my first ride since surgery, and aside from getting the legs moving again in those familiar circles after a few weeks off, I was climbing an hors categorie learning curve of adjustment to my regained sense of hearing in my right ear.
One thing I noticed right away: I still hadn’t regained the same audible range to detect a car approaching as I once did; the sounds of tires and engines blended with or were muffled by the crackle of the wind.
Right, wind. I think cyclists are more intimately familiar with wind than perhaps any group of people except sailors and perhaps pilots. Rain, heat, even snow all seem to lack the capricious malice of leg-sapping, paceline-snapping, handlebar-snagging wind, and so it is wind to which we are most attuned. And just like those rides where it seems like a cross-head no matter which direction you go, I grew to understand that wind would be one of my most-stubborn foes for hearing on the bike too. Any sound engineer can tell you that microphones and wind do not get along, and while the directional units on my ear-worn processor are among the most sophisticated miniature mikes available today, a stiff breeze – in the form of the constant headwind of forward motion – gives them fits.
After a year of experimenting with a variety of headwear, baffles and windscreens for lavalier-style microphones, and program settings, I think I’m starting to get it solved. Some of the challenge on solo rides comes from the processor itself: the software that works to filter background noise gets confused when the white noise of wind or cars is all there is. I’ll be riding along when, without warning, a blast of static hits me as the system has somehow decided that the wind is the signal it wants to pay attention to.
The irony is that this is most controlled when I’m riding with another person; the normal flow of conversation gives the algorithm something on which to focus, tamping down the wind. And so the very rides with friends that were among the first things I lost as my hearing failed are now the rides where the implant acts up the least. Still, it’s taken time to trust my regained hearing; confidence eroded over years is not quickly rebuilt.
I started with mountain bike rides with my closest friends, with the rhythm of ride, stop and talk, ride again a way to ease back into the social aspects of the sport from which I had been cut off. A little over a month ago, I went on a drop-bar ride with a close friend and instead of the crackle of gravel drowning out conversation, I heard almost every word. I realized then: some of the change is just me. For months now, my brain has been steadily rewiring itself to the new sound, adapting and improving every waking moment.
Implantation has changed my riding in other ways, both subtle and significant. I had to Dremel out a pocket in my helmet for the headpiece, for instance; it’s still not totally right. And, as already the World’s Worst Dirt Jumper, I’ve been slow and cautious going back to the bike park; my implant can reportedly take a direct hit of just 2.5 Newton meters of force, or roughly half that needed to tighten a handlebar bolt. And for all my caution, I am acutely aware that my hearing relies on the flawless function of a delicate stack of cybernetic technologies that could cease working any moment, regardless of what I do.
Three surgeries in 15 months also altered my relationship with riding. Prior to that, the longest I’d ever been off the bike and physically inactive was at the Tour de France: strings of 14-hour days watching other people ride bikes while I was stuck in a car seat or press room. I’d get antsy or irritable when I didn’t ride for more than a few days at a stretch. But between the two surgeries for the failed stapedotomy, I was off the bike for almost three months, almost petrified of physical activity that might risk further complications.
I still didn’t love the layoffs. My legs began to ache from disuse after about three weeks. Regaining fitness was a long, slow climb (literally). But I didn’t go mad. My weight didn’t fluctuate much. And I answered a question that has lurked in the back of my head for years and maybe does in yours too: if I ever left the bike for a long time, would it feel the same when I came back?
It does, and in many ways, my relationship with riding is closer and more intimate now and – stay with me here – even enriched in lasting ways I never would have experienced without going deaf.
Last year, Bicycling magazine published a short video about a blind bike mechanic in Iran. In it, Reza Alizadeh explains how he uses touch to replace his sight when working on a bike. “The majority of the work for a blind person relies heavily on a sense of touching,” he says at one point. Like Alizadeh for his sight, I used touch to replace sound. And even after regaining my hearing, those techniques stayed with me.
When I tune a drivetrain, in addition to using my sight, I now place a finger on the back of the rear derailleur; I can turn a limit screw or the barrel adjuster (or press Di2 buttons in the micro-adjust setting) and as I hand-turn the cranks I can sense the change in the chain’s vibrations as the pulley cage moves. When truing a wheel, the whispered scrape of rim on caliper is, for me, felt in the stand as much as heard. A creak in the bottom bracket? A subtle vibration through the crankarm and pedal, to the strain gauge that is the nerves in my foot, exquisitely more sensitive than the most-accurate power meter on the market.
I know: that sounds ridiculous, like something I invented in my head as a rational coping mechanism for my disability. But from a physics perspective, sound is just a pressure wave. My hearing loss is severe enough that, without my devices, you could run a lawnmower behind me and I wouldn’t hear it. But I’d know it’s there. I could feel the wheels rattling over the ground through my feet, or the airborne thump of the motor in my chest. Sensory substitution is well-established in scientific literature. One startup, Neosensory, even has a wrist-worn device called Clarify that replaces sound with haptic vibrations on the skin to treat hearing loss. That’s the plasticity of the human brain, the same marvelous, exquisitely sensitive nervous system that allowed me, in mere moments at activation, to decode an entirely new electrical signal sent to my auditory nerve and begin to make sense of it.
One of my pre-deafness riding adaptations, to reduce my exposure to cars, is to seek out rides where I climb on dirt and descend on pavement. Dirt roads have less traffic, and on pavement I can descend fast enough that cars cannot overtake me. One favorite loop of mine climbs a fire-access road that is closed to cars. It rises through the groves of pine and aspen, the narrow gravel track switchbacking through microclimates that alternate between dark, mossy forest that evokes the Pacific Northwest and dry, almost chaparral flora. There are deer and wild turkey, sometimes fox and bobcats, and views of the often-snow capped Indian Peaks to the west. It tops out for a twisty, 1,000 vertical-foot drop on well-maintained tarmac, with just enough tight corners to keep you honest.
Sometimes, when on this ride, I’ll open the battery door on my left hearing aid and shift my CI headpiece off its magnetic lock to the implant. I’m aware of everything that I would otherwise hear: my sharp exhalations as I climb, the crunch of gravel under my tires, the snick of the chain working through the cassette, even the breeze when a gust rises through the trees. At the top, the zipper on my wind jacket makes a familiar ripping sensation in my hand. As I gain speed on the descent, on my shoulders and back there’s the whip and whap of its fabric in the wind. Faster, faster; flying, almost falling now down the switchbacks, arcing between the fog line and yellow, the rising whine of hot brakes and that sizzling hiss tires make when pushed to their limit in a corner just before they break away. All of it is right there, at my fingertips, just as it always was without me knowing. Just as it always will be, whether I can hear tomorrow or not.
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