Safety cycles

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.

59 thoughts on “Safety cycles”

  1. Not to deviate from the safety aspect of your blog, but have you ridden with “moto heads” Ben and Eric Bostrom? Both badasses who can climb on a bicycle.

    1. No, but there’s a long list of those dudes, not to mention guys like Victor Sheldon, recruited from the moto-watersport world.

      Chris Jones, Aaron Wimberley, Greg Lonergan, Josh Alverson, etc. … guys who are fearless on a motor are usually not too fearful on a bike, right?

    2. Motocross racer Mike Alessi is one of the best. Road cycling is his way of keeping his cardio top notch.

  2. Kierin riders in Japan wear protective gear so it’s not unprecedented. Plus, it would be more gear to buy…who wouldn’t like that? Really interesting post, again.

    1. My only attempt showed that the current stuff worn by MTB riders is too bulky. There would need to be some engineering and design involved, but it would certainly be worth a premium. Pay another $100 to keep your hip in one piece? Worth every nickel.

      The road rash prevention alone would be so worthwhile, and as Moto Dude pointed out, having Kevlar pads would allow you to slide rather than be ground to a pulp across the rough surface of the tarmac.

      1. Seth, I think you’re comparing apple to oranges here. MTB riders don’t wear extra protective gear. They appear the same as road riders. It’s the downhills riders and BMX riders who wear extra protective gear. They are very, very short events where the extra weight and perspiration inducement of protective gear for safety purposes is wise. However, in long MTB events and road riding the extra gear would probably put riders at risk of heat stroke due to the extra weight and non ventilating properties of the gear. As far as riding motorcycles with the gear, keep in mind that they are ventilated by the sheer speed that they maintain. Now to take it to the ultimate conclusion, imagine baby seals equipped with armor and feeling fearless on the NPR? I’m sure the video is running through your lawyered mind. Just my opinion.

    2. Those Kierin racers look like a hybrid of the “Michelin Man” and “Power Rangers” … but truly makes more sense.

      In general, the added protective gear might be unbearably hot in warm weather road riding … but that’s what was said about helmets, too.

  3. Hahaha! Awesome write-up. I suppose if enough people talk aabout this overtime it would have the potential at changing the critrtium game, yet still today a far cry.

  4. Hahaha! Awesome write-up. I suppose if enough people talk about this overtime it would have the potential at changing the criterium game, yet still today a far cry.

  5. I’ve always felt safer on the “moto”…there’s nothing like heavy Kushitani cowhide, full Sidi boots and a full-faced helmet to keep all your bits protected in those INEVITABLE get offs. Not to mention…moto riding makes for fearless descending skills. I suppose if I wore the nearly 15 pound leathers while training…it would improve my climbing ;@)

  6. Arkansas Traveler

    Moto riders do tend to have a little more intimate relationship with and understanding of physics than most. I was thinking about trying some of those open-weave kevlar gloves they make for oyster shuckers.

    1. I use full-finger gloves all the time now. Giro makes two really good ones. They saved my hands when I had my big crash, which led to me to wonder, why so much protection for my palms and nothing for my hips. Then, I realized what a man does with his palms. Case closed.

  7. Yea we really are a bunch of dumb fucks. I still get jeers and sneers for wearing my mushroom helmet thats been proven safer in a crash. I can only imagine the taunts if it had actual facial protection(whicb I would wear). Kevlar lined shorts and jerseys in impact areas are a no brainer. Maybe an actual pad and hard slider could be fashionably incorporated into a kit. So lets get it done. What am I gonna ride today, the tcr or the duc?…Im stupid so its probably gonna be the tcr. wanna race up VDM?

      1. Let’s see, which is safer? A smooth helmet that slides or one with wings, vents, ailerons, hooks, tails, and doodads that twist the helmet off your head the millisecond between the time the helmet hits the asphalt and the time your (now bare) head goes “crunch”?

    1. I’m all for better crash gear…hell…I’ve lost more weight than it’d weigh to add protective panels. I do worry about the heat dissipation of Kevlar lining (meaning, wouldn’t you over heat), but then I haven’t tried it…

  8. Vaseline will help you slide…too… But it also makes you feel invincible so maybe that’s not a good thing..

    USCF suspending you for voicing your opinion: Hmm.. very “Eastern European” circa 1940…

      1. Maybe you should have taken a tip from Paul Le Page and used vaseline… but that’s the litmus test right? See if they can separate the rhetoric from opinion.. but that class wasn’t taught in High School…

  9. Pearl Izumi use to sell (decades ago) lycra “criterium” shorts that had removable padded hip inserts.

  10. Well, you have skimmed over some motorsports *lack* of effort at making safer race cars. What changes things was the biggest viewer-drawing personalities dying, not another death. Watch the documentary Senna. Lots of discussion about the death culture and lack of action from FIA.

    The recent howls of protest about requiring lawyer tabs was another of the same kind of broken thinking in the sport. No one cares outside some wanna be racer types. Like helmets, the one formerly unfortunate person that doesn’t end up with months of face/jaw/teeth recovery matters. Like helmets, will it work *every* time? No.

    Keep up the great, sensible, work.

  11. Well, I’m as interested in douchbaggery as the next guy… which blog had the “(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”)” comment in it? I’ve looked back a week and can’t dig it up.

  12. Untill the “Pro Peleton” makes safety a priority it will never trickle down to the wankoton. Look at the MotoGp rider in his airbag leather suit. Now any schmuck can go out an buy one. In Supercross/Motocross nearly everyone wears a Leatt brace. I’ve seen little kids wearing them now. In auto racing the HANS device was around for years. Untill Earnhardt got killed only a few outside F1 would wear one. Now every pro racer and most amatuers and even track day dorks wear em. Unfortunatly for amatuer road cyclists there isnt the want or desire from the elite ranks to develop safer gear for us all to use. Untill then theres gonna be a lot more broken faces, bones and skin missing.

  13. At the risk of engendering a bit of ridicule, one safety device that I’ve found lifesaving is the installation of one of those small rear view mirrors on my glasses. While admittedly dorky, it has allowed me to avoid a number of near misses, including one dude I watched hang out the passenger window of a car in an attempt to bean me with some trash. I won’t ride without one now, even when I do open course road races. Moreover, in recent years they have come out with some very high quality metal and optical quality mirrors that provide a very clear view.

  14. A lot of F1 guys cycle (Rosberg, Button, Alonso, Webber….) and probably MotoGP guys too. I wonder if they’ve considered the safety gap between their day job and biking? Someone will connect the dots once they figure out a way to make money from it. Slim-fit padding on hips.elbows and shoulders would save a lot of skin that lycra is never going to help with at all.

    1. As Arik says, “I have to continually remind myself when descending that I’m riding in my underwear.”

  15. Or as Johnathon Vaughters said:

    “if you want to know whats it like to crash like a pro, sit in your car in your underwear at 60 kmh and then open the door and jump out” Or something like that.

    Seriously though, fitted road cycling jerseys and knicks which cover the elbows & knees with some lightweight armour built in (& shoulders) would surely be a natural extension for the MTB clothing companies? The only obstacles must be consumer demand…….which is blindly drawn by the seductive siren call of tradition.

    Or is it already out there?

  16. Avoiding dumb riders has been my attempt at increasing safety. Compared to decades ago, there are many more strong but dangerous riders out there than ever before. I blamed it on triathletes (who do not race in packs) or index shifting, (lowering the skill level to function). Now, I think it might also be not enough organized clubs and club rides.

    1. Unfortunately it’s a cultural, endemic, and national problem. This is from the East Coast:

      Blame it on the “Lance-bounce” and carbon bikes. Fix the “Head-space” and you’ll fix the problem. It’s not just cycling. It’s happening in a lot of industries as well: generational disconnect: skills & knowledge disconnect. They’ve proven you can train a chimp to ride a bike, but you can’t train him to make cogent decisions.

      1. Or rather, they’ve proven you can train a chimp to ride a bike and make cogent decisions, but the jury’s still out on humans.

  17. I’ve often brainstormed on Kevlar worked into kits, it’s such a stupid, simple idea that should be standard.

    1. Interesting idea but there are two major pitfalls: Kevlar is very expensive(nylon is 80% cheaper for comparative quality), it doesn’t have the same elastic quality; Nylon stretches 8 times farther than Kevlar before it breaks, and it’s difficult to work with(ie: re-tool your factory; cutting tools and sewing machines, etc., re-train your workforce or hire more experienced worker$, adding more time/Dollars/Yuan to the production process) and would require a whole new marketing push$$$. And that’s just from the layman’s POV. I could see those $500 Assos bibs pushing $800+…

      It’s cheaper to mark the rolling hazards and sit-out the 60-up sprint(or go clear with 1Km to go like David Millar and hope your Mom’s watching the TV). Or you could require the marked riders to wear a Red “D” for “dangerous” or other words starting with “D”… maybe tatoo it on their foreheads and the backs of their necks…paint it on their… I digress.

      1. You had me at “paint it on their.”

        I’m sure you’re right about the pitfalls, there are also issues like heat, bulkiness, and of course looking like a keirin racer. The moto heads figured it out, though. It would be great to see someone trying to figure it out on the road. Mike Puchowicz pointed out that a lot can be done just by making the fabric thicker.

        I dunno … falling sucks.

  18. I’ve been mountain biking 20 years and I never wore protective gear, besides a helmet until I went to my first bike park in 2012. I still don’t wear any on regular XC rides, even with a 50 foot cliff on an 8 inch wide trail.
    I have noticed quite a few more XC riders with full face helmets on but they are light weight, not like down hill helmets.
    It’s amazing how fast we can go on a road bike and dress the way we do but we do it. Is it smart? Of course not. It’s a risk. Tell me when we aren’t taking a risk every day of our lives, whether we are on the bike or off. Nevermind. Don’t tell me.

    1. Having the option for those who have recently crashed badly or who are planning on badly crashing in the near future would be cool. There are still road riders who refuse to wear helmets, and they don’t seem to be any more dead than the ones who do.

      The one time I’m not taking a risk is when I’m on the 405 during rush hour, late for court. There. I said it.

    2. Watch a guy try on a pair of cycling shorts in front of a mirror and you’ll get all the answers you need…

      and more that your didn’t even want to know…

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