There’s a nearby bike shop called “Safety Cycle.” The name is weird unless you know the history of the shop and the history of the bicycle. The shop opened in Hollywood in the 1940’s, and its name referenced what we all recognize as the modern bicycle, a pedal-powered machine with two equally sized wheels.
The safety bicycle replaced the penny farthing, high-wheeler, or “ordinary” bicycle of the late 1800’s because it was safer. You still fell off your bike, but you didn’t fall from as high up, which meant that head injuries were fewer and less severe.
Since 1893, the last year that the deadly high-wheelers were last mass produced, safety in cycling has made marginal progress at best. Yes, we have helmets, lights, better brakes, better tires, and reflective material, but the culture in road cycling is still one that rejects safety, even holds it in contempt.
Spare me your tales of speed
I dislike talking about motor sports. The occasional moto rider or car enthusiast will pop up in the peloton, and before long it’s one endless bore-a-thon about the dangers, thrills, complexity, and awesomeness of high speeds while strapped to the back of an internal combustion rocket.
I get that motor sports are faster than bikes. I get that it take a lot more balls to go 130 on two wheels than it does to go 30. And I get that you are a general badass in that awesome sport. Now, please shut the fuck up and show me that you can make it to the top of a tiny hill without getting hopelessly dropped, because, you know, we’re on bicycles now. They’re not as awesome as things that say “Ducati,” I know, but if motor sports are so friggin’ cool, why are you out here? Getting dropped? Before we’ve even accelerated?
This is all shorthand for confessing my impatience with moto heads, until something happened the other day when I was pedaling, very slowly, with a moto head who was telling me for the fifteenth time about his 150 mph crash at the Fontana track in which he only broke two fingers.
“You sure got lucky,” I said, also for the fifteenth time, trying out of politeness not to tell him that if he ever said the word “moto” again I would sprint away, never to return.
“Nah,” he said. “Luck didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Now he had my attention. “What did? I suppose you’re the second coming of Evel Knievel and Bob Hannah?”
Sometimes it pays to listen
Moto Dude laughed. “Hell, no. I’m just your ordinary moto dude. You know what saved me? It’s the safety culture in motor sports. I look at cycling and am blown away by you guys. It’s deadlier going 30 on a bike than it is going 60 on a moto. And it’s because the cycling culture is so macho. It’s stupid.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Look at your clothing. What would it take to put a Kevlar pad in the hip of every pair of shorts, or a tailbone protector, or Kevlar-padded elbows and wrists? In moto, the rule is that what you’re wearing when you walk out the door is what you’re going to be wearing when you crash. You think that Lycra is gonna protect your hip from shattering?”
He had a point. After my big crash a month or so ago, I had gone online and ordered a full set of MTB protective gear, including elbow and wrist pads, and a crash belt that had hip and tailbone pads. The problem was that the gear was too heavy and bulky for road riding. Also, because the hip and tailbone pads weren’t sewn into my bibs, they didn’t stay in place and rubbed the hell out of my legs. They were also hot. Worst of all, they made my butt look big.
MTB and death
MTB riders have always been light years ahead of roadies. Take, for example, their long tradition of getting stoned after races. They also have a healthy regard for safety, with full facemask helmets and protective gear, especially for downhill, that is so good that some moto riders use the pads because they are lighter and work better than motorcycle gear. MTB riders didn’t grow up thinking that a head-on-stone or hip-on-tree trunk collision earned you any style or macho points, so they’ve always been receptive to doing things better. Who wants to finish a fun day on the trails breathing through a tube on life support?
What’s our excuse? Road racers fought hardshell helmets hammer and tong just so they could look cool. I was at the vanguard of the stupid train in 1986 when hardshells were mandated by the USCF, and got suspended for 30 days due to my nasty letters complaining about my “right” to bash my brains in while bike racing.
Still, going back to Moto Guy’s point, what is our excuse? I’d buy shorts with a Kevlar hip pad, and I’d buy sleeves/arm warmers that had elbow and wrist protection, not to mention socks that had a narrow insert around the ankle. As more and more crazies in cars get physical with us for riding our bikes (check out the nutjob comments on my blog post from a couple of days ago, when a guy proudly insinuates that he’ll hit anyone who’s riding “illegally”), it seems like there’s even more of a need and a market for road gear that emphasizes protection more than stylish British gentlemen’s “fashion.”
Moto Dude’s right
As he lectured me on what a bunch of macho dumbasses we are, Moto Dude also confessed that motor sports used to be similarly stupid. “Not to mention hockey,” I added.
“Yeah. But you know what happened? There used to be a mentality of ‘If you crash and get killed, it’s because you suck.'”
I thought about my epic FB war with a goofball from Schenectady whose thesis had been that very thing: You crash on a bike because you’re not very good at riding it.
“Then,” continued Moto Dude “the sport lost a couple of its very best racers, guys at the top of their game. Kind of hard to argue that the reigning world champions don’t know how to ride, right? So people started looking at the equipment. Same thing for F1 and Nascar. And they found out that there were places where, with a few modifications, you could go from racing in a death trap to racing in a car that could crash and burn at 150 and you’d walk away. They figured out for moto that lightweight protective gear saved lives and prevented horrific injuries.”
We pedaled along together for a while, neither one of us saying anything.
Then I remembered the other reason I disliked arguing with moto heads. It’s because they’re pretty much always right.