Helmet facts

There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned, head-first collision with the pavement in excess of 37 mph to make you think about your helmet. Mine was a Specialized Fancyass Racer, a couple of years old, doing replacement duty for a newer Giro Superfancyass Racer that I retired when I backflipped my bike doing a wheelie and cracked my skull and helmet.

The moment when your head hits the pavement that hard, shit gets real, or, as they say, “Nothing ever happens until it happens to you.” The blow was so solid, so strong, so sure, so confident, so unforgiving, that in the microsecond before I went into shock I recall thinking, “Wonder if I’m a quad now?”

When you hit the deck your body goes into self-test mode. Start with the extremities. Toes and fingers work? Check. Then you move the head a little. Neck work? Check. Then a few seconds as you wait for the pain waves to wash over, then subside, and in between sets you check other body parts.

“Arms? Fine. Left leg? Check. Right leg? Oh, fuck. That hurts.” Then having identified the first most acute pain, you zero in for further diagnosis. A little or a lot of movement tells you that it’s broken or it’s not, and all the while your friends are staring at you anxiously telling you “Don’t move,” and “The ambulance is coming,” and of course, “Your bike’s fine, dude.”

It’s not until you find out the condition of the bike that you can relax and submit yourself to fate. Of course.

It was luck and it was physics

I’ve often thought that bike helmets were made to protect you in low speed crashes rather than high speed ones. Apparently, it’s just the opposite. Helmets are designed to withstand straight-on, high impact blows that are powerful enough to break apart the styrofoam and absorb the energy, deflecting it from your skull and brain. Lower speed, twisting hits may not be helped by helmets at all, as the force isn’t enough to cause the styrene to absorb the blow, which is instead transmitted directly to the skull and brain.

Bad shit happens after that, and to really understand the science you need to know about rotational acceleration and stuff. But if you don’t really want to understand it just imagine a block of tofu that gets shaken until cracks develop. Oh … the tofu is your brain, and the cracks are your new friend, Mr. Concussion.

If you really want to know more about your brain and its interaction with massive impact, read this excellent article here.

My own helmet was crushed. The exterior still hung together on my head, but the styrofoam was crisscrossed with cracks. Who would have thought that the best way to use a helmet was by smacking your head at huge speed directly on the tarmac? Since the blow, although direct, was slightly off to the left side of my crown, and since I hit at a slight angle, the force went from my head to my shoulders and finally the right side of my body, terminating in my right hip, upon which I came to rest.

I still can’t believe I’m alive, or not in the ICU, or not dealing with (even more) brain damage. But as that clever little FB posty thingy says, “Everything happens for a reason, and the reason is usually physics.” I hit hard enough to break the polystyrene. I hit it straight on as I rolled into a tuck. My shoulder and side absorbed the blow rather than my thin and fragile neck. Despite putting on a great show for my pals, I eventually got back on the bike and rode off to the coffee shop. The day ended with some careful medical treatment by Dr. IPA.

The great anti-helmet revolutionary

I started riding with a hardshell helmet in 2005. Before that I rode with my hair. For a season or two, in 84 and 85, I rode with a hairnet. Then, when the USCF required hardshell helmets for 1986, I rebelled. I wrote several letters to the USCF, which have hopefully been destroyed, in which I argued like a crazy person against hardshell helmets. I can’t remember what silly things I said, but I do remember using the example of not having to use a helmet on a motorcycle. Compellingly stupid stuff …

On my own I refused to wear a helmet, and laughed at all the chicken-littles who were so diffident towards their own cycling skills that they couldn’t stay out of trouble and instead had to depend on a silly helmet. In 2005, when I began riding in West Houston, my appearance on the rides in wool clothes, a steel bike, and no helmet engendered so much anger and hostility that I finally caved in. The helmet became a habit, and with a few notable exceptions (forgetting to put it on one morning before the Donut Ride), I don’t ride without it.

Thanks to yesterday’s massive blow to the head, my tofu may have actually solidified. There’s no universe I can imagine in which I’m on a bike and not wearing headgear. But in the back of my mind, I know it wasn’t all just about physics. It was also about dumb, uncaring, random luck.

44 thoughts on “Helmet facts”

  1. Glad you’re okay dude. The next wave of helmets underway are going to do a much better job with all forms of head hits. That rotational acceleration is the killer. Cyclists should not wind up like NFL players, ya know?

  2. I remember the great helmet debates of the early 80s within my racing group of friends. I purchased a Bell Pro out of curiosity since I understood the science behind head injuries and sometimes I would wear it and other times I wouldn’t, especially if I had a long day of climbing ahead of me. One day I did wear that helmet for a ride up the coast and as things would have it, I was hit and hit hard. A motorcycle rider decided since he couldn’t pass a car on the left, he was going to pass on the right. On the shoulder. Where I was riding. He hit me at over 55 mph. That ugly black mass of Bell plastic on my head saved my life. I’ve never ridden since without the latest plastic wonder perched on my head.

    1. It took courage to wear those things in the early 80’s. They were badges of Fred-dom, even as they saved lives. Cyclists are a weird bunch. And then when you realize that the pros weren’t required to wear them until 2003 … incredible.

  3. your timing is as always, impeccable. Just last sunday a teamate hit a rock while going in excess of 40 mph. he is now in the ICU with tubes coming out of his head. He has already had 2 surgeries and the doctors have yet to give a prognosis on what his recovery will look like. His name is mike wolfner and has been known to stomp on a few dicks. last year was his 1st year racing as a cat 5 and next season would have been his 1st as a cat 2. I know that none of you know him or will know him but as members of the greater cycling community please keep him in your thoughts as things like this can happen to any one of us at any time. Sorry to bum everyone out. Thanks for what you do wankmeister.

    1. Not bumming anyone out. Thanks for letting us know. Hope your friend heals up quickly. Wow.

  4. Uh yeah, what what that Helmet conversation we had a couple months ago? Maybe try out that newfangled one you mentioned. All kidding aside, I’m glad you are okay and off to ride again. Alas, tomorrow may be a bit tender.

  5. Peter Schindler

    1. Two,types of riders, those that have crashed and those that are going to crash.
    2. What you are wearing when you leave the house is what you will be wearing when you crash. Helmet.

    1. #2 Well said. there’s that One Time @ Ontario ’12 where another riders malfunctioning cleat caused a 30mi hr powerslide down the back straight….. all I was thinking was …Not the New Helmet…Not the New Helmet…. so the smooooth pavment decided to remove my jersey instead along w/ 4-5 layers of epidermis instead..

  6. Glad that you’re OK Seth, it does put things into perspective. My piddley little front wheel sand washout this weekend seems rather trivial compared to the high speed NPR carnage, but bouncing 190 lbs off your hip never feels good.

    Without crash replacement, how often do you replace your helmet?

    1. Every single year. The polystyrene becomes compacted by constant sweat and doesn’t work at maximum efficiency. Annual replacement, and I check the MFR date of the new helmet.

      Interesting data posted by my friend Angel — it’s not velocity, it’s distance. A 2-foot fall can cause major traumatic brain injury.

  7. I was wearing helmets in the late 70’s when it wasn’t at all cool. But it saved my head several times most notably when I was hit by a car in japan.
    Bell V1 Pro!

    1. I went there this morning just to check out my aching hip. “Bruised, and quit being such wuss,” they said. So I went for a ride.

  8. re: read this excellent article here.

    Hitting my head directly against brick walls hurts, but it’s the rotational acceleration that scares the s__t out of me.

    If you read only one part of that article, do a word search for “rotational acceleration” and read those parts. Then think of your brain as a layer cake…

  9. Interesting study: http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1182.html

    The Australian NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) discussed the possibility that football helmets might increase rotational injuries: “The use of helmets increases the size and mass of the head. This may result in an increase in brain injury by a number of mechanisms. Blows that would have been glancing become more solid and thus transmit increased rotational force to the brain. These forces result in shearing stresses on neurones which may result in concussion and other forms of brain injury.” (NHMRC, 1994)

    Anecdotal evidence lends some support to this hypothesis: For example, public health physician, Dr Ashley Bloomfield wrote (Bloomfield, 2000): “The earliest murmurings that I heard against helmets …[were from] … a neurosurgeon whom I worked for in 1994. He claimed that cycle helmets were turning what would have been focal head injuries, perhaps with an associated skull fracture, into much more debilitating global head injuries. We had a couple of examples on the ward at the time”.
    re: MIPS technology: Shame on the helmet industry for taking an LCD/bottom line approach over better protective technology. Unfortunately MIPS technology is still in a limited number of helmet models/mfg’s: http://mipshelmet.com/find-a-helmet

    I’d gladly pay $50 more for better protection. Your head/brain is the most difficult(if at all) to repair once injured. Besides, drooling all over your breakfast toast is a horrible way to start your day.

  10. A few years back, the father of a friend took a spill while riding his hybrid in the Anaheim Hills. No helmet but he only bumped his head on the pavement. He went to sleep that night and never woke up. The tough 70 year old ex-marine said helmets were for wimps. I guess he lost that argument.
    Helmet or no helmet, if you bang your head in a crash, get throughly checked out. You may not get a second chance.

    1. Absolutely Rob. Words to literally live by.

      Also: If you crash(ed), ask your family to keep an eye out for subtle changes in your behavior. They are often clues to deeper trauma that may have been missed in the early diagnosis’, ie: anti-social behavior, uncharacteristic irritability, lack of motivation, withdrawn, repeating things, etc.
      Some brain traumas don’t show up on scans but will be evident in behavioral changes. Long periods of quality rest and low-stress are often the only way to recover, which may mean several months off the bike, but more than worth the time for the quality of life you may recoup.

      1. Me, before the crash: “anti-social behavior, uncharacteristic irritability, lack of motivation, withdrawn, repeating things”

        Me, after the crash: “anti-social behavior, uncharacteristic irritability, lack of motivation, withdrawn, repeating things”

    2. Wear The Lid. Or, get an awesome life insurance policy and name your spouse/kids/me as the beneficiary.

  11. I have cracked two helmets. The first on Sept. 22, 2009 (it was the first day of fall). I fractured my left wrist. The second was on May 15, 2010. I fractured my left wrist and broke my arm. Both accidents were low speed crashes but I doubt I would be able to write this if I were not wearing a helmet.

    1. I had never trashed a helmet in more than 30 years of not wearing one.

      Then, 6 weeks ago, I wasted one in a wheelie-gone-awry.

      And on Tuesday, I wasted on in a Fredtacular crash.

      I won’t ride without a helmet, and am considering wearing one during sex as well.

  12. In the moto world we say dress for the crash, not for the ride. So for a street ride this generally means boots, armored underwear, kevlar lined and knee padded jeans, a full thorax back protector under a armored leather jacket, gauntlet armored gloves and a full face helmet. Thinking about the track or the canyons?… substitute the jeans and jacket for some leathers.
    In the cycling world we dress all cute in lycra shirt and sborts, some fingerless gloves and a crappy open face styrofoam hat as we prepare to duke it out in a crit, RR, or the local training beatdown.
    Why there isnt more protective options in cycling is beyond me…at least kevlar lined clothing. maybe a little something for the face…I dunno, but I think I understand why the Mrs worries about me more on the bicycle.

    1. Yep. Thinking the same thing while looking at my “armored” full-finger gloves that don’t even reach to my wrist. Because, no one ever breaks a wrist in a bike crash.

  13. In regard to Dan’s comment: I’m currently recovering from a broken hip (femur neck crack that’s been pinned),3 broken ribs with a 30% pneumothorax (collapsed lung) all on the left side, sustained on the bell lap in a crit in Northern Cali by high siding over a downed rider in front of me. And it got me to thinking about the culture in road bike racing that eschews protective gear other than helmets. I’ve been in races where other riders are wearing knee and elbow pads; people tend to get freaked out because they seem to think these guys are somehow a greater danger.

    Downhill mountain bike racing has a number of items that could possibly be adapted over to road bike racing. Here’s a link to some of the stuff I found: http://www.allsportprotection.com/Mountain_Bike_Padded_Shorts_s/37.htm

    I’m looking at the Demon hip pads. They are adjustable and on a belt . I’m thinking the bib spandex will hold them in place while still allowing the chamois to do what it should.

    If any of you are inclined to scoff about the concept of protective gear, consider this: My wreck was at 25 to 27 mph (much less than Seth’s) with fairly severe consequences. The bills for the medical care are mostly in now -the total is over $100,000. The rehab is 6 weeks on crutches non-weight bearing, followed by another 4 with gradually more weight bearing until hopefully I’ll be off the damn crutches and walking normally. And there’s still a long term prognosis of a potential hip replacement should the blood supply to the femur head be compromised in some way.

    I’ve been racing for about 10 years now (started late at 48) and it’s been a blast! Great people, great fun! I’d hate to have to quit. I’ve been involved in and seen a number of wrecks, as one might expect (see Rule #3). I’m well aware that if you want to play, sometimes you have to pay. Perhaps I’ve been denial, but until this happened to me, I did not believe damage of this type could happen short of running off course and getting dead stopped against a hard surface; a wall, a car, whatever. Now I know it can happen even on course and I’m thinking, what if I had been wearing rib and hip pads? $30 to 50 bucks spent on personal protection that may have prevented all this bullshit with my hip against $100K to fix it? I think the economics pencil out.

    I bring this up to hopefully start some kind of dialogue about safety gear for cyclists, at least in crits. There really isn’t anything out there specifically for road racing, but if there’s demand for it, it will be developed and will only get better (lighter, better ventilation). This is the only sport I know that racers move as fast as we do and have only spandex for protection in the event things go sideways…

    P.S. Best wishes with your hip, Seth. Brace the doctors if it continues to hurt – you may have a hairline fracture that they didn’t catch on the initial screen of the xray. But my hope is that it is only a bruise.

    1. Hi, Phil — this comment got caught in the spam filter. It is obviously too intelligent for the normal comments I get here, not to mention the content of the blog. This is a super topic. I had a conversation about protective gear with Dan Martin, another moto dude who can’t understand why cyclists don’t wear protective gear.

  14. I suppose those that don’t wear helmets may no have any brains to protect.
    It’s a no-brainer!

  15. Pingback: Bike hate and road rage rear their ugly heads in San Diego County, leaving one rider seriously injured | BikingInLA

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