Product Reviews: An International Cowbell Shootout
Here’s an article from way back in Issue 3 of our print magazine. It’s been a while since we delved into the world of cowbells, but it’s high time that this popular article resurfaces. As you cobble together the various accoutrements to make this the best cyclocross season ever, don’t forget to add a healthy dose of quality cowbell! You can still buy Issue 3 from our print archives in its entirety, or why don’t you just go ahead and subscribe already?
by Hector Finely
The real effort for true cyclocross enthusiasts occurs as a spectator, burning more calories and getting muddier as a course-running, racer heckling, grill-mastering, cowbell-ringing super fan.
If you’re serious about being an A-class fan, or at least hoping to not look like a Fred, you need to be equipped for success. And no, your quiver of 15-pound bikes, Dugast-equipped carbon back-up wheels, begging-to-be-worn-without-a-helmet Rapha knickers, and $20-an-ounce-imported embrocation won’t help you here. If you really wanna look like a pro, you gotta have a cowbell.
But don’t go thinking any cowbell will cut it. Just like with bikes, a cowbell needs to fit the rider; offer the perfect balance between rigidity and vibration absorption; and be reliable, durable, and made from the best materials. Finding the perfect cowbell is a difficult task, but thankfully, yours truly is here to help. For this issue of Cyclocross Magazine, I scoured the planet to find the world’s best bells for our Buyer’s Guide and put them through rigorous testing so you can make informed choices when spending your hard-earned money on spectating gear.
In this exclusive, comprehensive test, I assembled three testers of diverse experience:
1) Tim: A racer and spectator with 20 years of experience in both disciplines, in the U.S. and in Europe;
2) Karen: An avid-racer but spectator newbie; and
3) Brian: A hard-core superfan who does not race ‘cross.
All three tested the bells in real-world, epic bell-ringing conditions, on a 20-meter run-up in muddy and freezing rain conditions. And since cowbell ringing is intended to benefit the on-course racers as well as the spectators, we measured the effect of each bell on run-up times and gauged the perceived motivation of our Elite A-racer, John.
Maxxis Orange Emergency Bell:
This small, orange bell is the mini-pump of cowbells—it is there in an emergency, but you really don’t want to use it. Sold for $1 by Maxxis at last year’s National Championships in Kansas City, it’s light, bright, but has an unimpressive, tinny sound.
Tester impressions: Karen liked the color, light weight, and price, saying, “It’s an attractive and affordable way to try out spectating.” Tim thought “the sound was lacking” and felt the low quality steel didn’t have “the sweet feel of the Columbus or Reynolds steel” he’s accustomed to. Hard-core fan Brian thought the clapper was unreliable, since the paper-clip shaped wire got stuck at the most inopportune times. He prefers a carbon fiber handle to minimize the chance of frostbite in frigid conditions and to take the edge off but realizes this is an entry-level bell, making such upgrades inaccessible in this price range. All testers said Maxxis should be commended for providing such affordable emergency support for the forgetful or ill-equipped fan.
Racer impact: It took a whopping 123 rings of this bell to get John completely up the run-up. At the top, he recalled that while the sound was decent for the small, light bells, it was startling when all three bell’s clappers locked up as he ran by. John revealed, “Racing on a course lined with pantomimes is pretty depressing.” Run-up time: 37 seconds.
Sizes: 3” high
Color: Maxxis Orange
Price: $1.00 at KC Nats
More info: maxxis.com
1” Mini Keychain Bell:
Ever find yourself on a solo training session or on a remote part of the race course and craving just a little cowbell to get you home? If so, this may be the perfect bell for you. Easily mounted on your saddle rails, jersey zipper, or front cable hanger, this bell can provide you with the edge to push just a bit harder than your rivals in training or on race day. We’re not all fortunate to race in Portland or Gloucester where fans line most of the course. Sometimes you need just a little more cowbell.
Tester impressions: Testers loved the 1” bell’s portability and near weightlessness. Tim and Karen thought the bell was unique in that it allowed some token, no-handed cheering when eating, drinking, or running the pits for other riders. Brian appreciated the reliable clapper, but said the bell should only supplement cheering with a “real bell.” All agreed the Cyclocross Magazine branded version was a must-have – a constant reminder of the joys of cyclocross and a small way to support and represent their favorite magazine.
Racer impact: John loved riding and racing with this bell attached to his jersey zipper, saying, “This bell is great—even though I felt a bit like someone’s pet cat, it made every training session feel more like a race, and I didn’t feel like a loser when nobody was cheering for me at the races. It’s my secret weapon!” Wild birds and mice also liked the bell as it gave them enough warning to avoid John’s tire treads. Run-up time: 35 seconds.
More info: cowbell.com.
Cyclocross Magazine has its own version in red or orange. Want one?
Beefy Bessie Bell
If you seek lateral and torsional rigidity along with optimal efficiency and long-term durability, you should look no further than the Beefy Bessie Bell. An impressive 7” tall, with a super-stiff hydroformed, triple butted, CAD and FEA-designed and engineered oversized handle, this bell will leverage any childhood church hand bell skills, making you a force to be reckoned with outside the course tape while bringing back pure, angelic like memories of your youth.
Tester impressions: Brian rated this bell top in sound and stiffness, and said the bell’s rigid handle provided “a stiff platform to launch all-out bell ringing efforts.” Karen thought the bell’s heft was not very welcoming to the newbie bell ringer and worried that without a strap, in critical moments under pressure, she might accidentally catapult the bell onto the race course, possibly hurting a racer. Tim liked the bell’s quality construction and beautiful finish, but thought the bell’s heft might take its toll on his aged body after a full day of racing and spectating. “Old guys like me need something a bit more forgiving,” he said.
Racer impact: John said, “This bell really was loud, and that really helped me power through this run-up. That stiff handle really helps the fans get the volume up.” But it wasn’t just the sound that helped him. He explains, “I think I also ran faster because I was really scared by the flying bells coming at me from Tim and Karen’s frequent, but supposedly accidental, throws while ringing.” Run-up time: 31 seconds.
Material: Air-hardened steel
Sizes: 7” tall, 3-1/2” wide
Color: Silver/Black Speckle
More info: cowbell.com/promobells
As with a custom bike, when you want the best equipment, sizing options, color choices, and the pedigree of the name of the bell you are buying are all important. Moen has been producing bells since 1922, so you know they must be doing something right. The company attributes nearly 100 gold medals won during the last four winter Olympics to the amazing sound of inspiration derived from its bells. How can you argue with that palmares?
Cut from iron sheets and coated with recycled brass from spent Norwegian army ammunition cartridges, these bells’ previous lives help them pack a powerful punch while helping ‘cross fans save our planet from a little waste. With seven sizes for all body and hand types, countless strap options, and etching upgrades—including commemorative Salt Lake and Torino Olympic limited editions—Moen is the custom build option for the super fan. We’ve heard they have a 29-page questionnaire and detailed measuring process to make sure their product fulfills all your spectating dreams. But custom isn’t cheap or fast. Wait times can be over three years, and one bell can set you back as much as $160. We heard Mr. Moen even has his own DVD.
Tester impressions: All three testers loved the customization options of this line of bells, the quality construction, and shiny finish, and felt the bells’ European heritage added to their appeal. Karen liked the long ribbon’s versatility, making it easy to wrap around her wrist or wear around her neck, and thought the international “friendship ribbon” option “helped build bridges between rival ‘cross countries.” Tim thought the available stars and stripes design was cool, commenting, “The American colors help me show the Belgians at the World Cup that we gringos have just as much spirit.” Brian thought the woven ribbon was a smart design, providing good bare-handed control in cold weather and just the right amount of vertical compliance to take the edge off of difficult bell-ringing conditions.
Racer impact: John rated these bells as the best overall, explaining: “Running through a sea of these bells is awesome. The flashy brass combined with the multi-colored ribbons makes the crowd seem bigger than it is. Also, since cyclocross isn’t an Olympic sport, hearing these bells is probably as close to the Olympics as I’ll get.” Run-up time: 33 seconds.
Weight: 177g (Small)
Material: Iron with Brass Coating
Sizes: 6 Sizes from XS-XXL (Small tested)
Color: Brass, with ribbon options
Price: $15.90-$48.00 ($19.90 for Small)
More info: cowbell.com
Japanese Dorei from Miyajima
Ceramic bearings have been growing in popularity as ‘cross racers seek every possible edge, but your quest to upgrade everything to ceramic shouldn’t be limited to bearings; ceramic bells have their own benefits as well.
Think your Norwegian bell has got some history? Dorei, a type of Japanese ceramic bells, have been around since the Jomon period which dates as far back as 15,000 BC. They traditionally have been used as a talisman against evil and were believed to be used for magic rituals. What better application of their magic than helping your favorite cx racer go faster and push the evil ones further back? This one features stunning artwork depicting the famous Torii (Shinto Temple) of Itsukushima, on the island of Miyajima off of Hiroshima.
Tester impressions: Our testers had mixed opinions of this bell. All loved the unique design and material choices. The natural hemp fiber handle combined with the earthenware bell body creates an eco-friendly bell that demands attention and tells everyone you’re not just any fan.
However, Tim, who has large hands, found the handle too small for more than a finger, while Karen, after the hemp ribbon accidentally caught fire on the grill, found the smoke made her feel “quite funny and really hungry.” Before it burned, she also found the handle to be “too abrasive for everyday use.” Brian said the bell would be “a perfect addition to his quiver of bells, but might be too fragile and nice for everyday use.”
Racer impact: When the ringers switched to the Dorei, while running by, John had to do a double take to see where the sound was coming from. He recalled, “I knew instantly that the sound wasn’t coming from just any normal metal bell, but I couldn’t believe such small bells could produce such a loud, crisp, sound!” What was less clear was whether the magic had any effect, and unfortunately we had no evil competitors to test out the talisman qualities. Perhaps slowed down by his double take, John’s run-up time was mediocre. Run-up time: 34 seconds.
Material: Ceramic with high modulus, multi-ply hemp fiber handle
Color: White, with custom paint options
More info: tourist traps in Japan or on eBay
3.5” Logo Bell
This is the most common bell found in the US cyclocross scene. Its first major US debut was the Saturn SuperCup, and since then, its loud, sharp sound has become synonymous with American cyclocross. Hundreds of these bells carried Marc Gullickson and Alison Dunlap to their National Championship in San Francisco’s Presidio Park.
Tester impressions: The testers’ consensus was that this was the “perfect everyday bell.” All testers liked the reasonably light weight, affordable price, and comfortable strap with good vibration absorption. Brian loved the plain, painted finish, allowing endless customization options.
Karen thought the bell was perfect for newbies, making it “it’s hard to go wrong with this bell, and it makes it easy to blend in with the crowd despite being new to true spectating…kinda like showing up for a race on a Redline.” Tim said this bell brought back fond memories of the SuperCup, which he says, “always makes me smile.”
Racer impact: John described this bell as the “comfort food” for ‘cross racers. After a brief stint in Europe, he said, coming home and hearing the familiar sound of this American bell was “the sweetest thing ever.” Perhaps fans traveling to Europe to support the American racers should bring along this bell to give the American racers a little taste of home. Run-up time: 32 seconds.
Price: Free at select events, $4.75 retail
More info: cowbell.com
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