But what about the chilllllldren?

I once knew a right-wing-whackjob from Clarendon, Texas, who ran the local paper. It was called the Clarendon Enterprise, and you might think that the name was a testament to the free market glory hole. However, when you went into Roger Estlack’s office, you noticed a giant poster of the spaceship that carried Kirk and Spock to parts unknown, including, presumably, Mr. Sulu’s. The Texas Panhandle’s most fervent supporter of conservatism was apparently inspired not by the U.S. Constitution but by the aliens. At least that’s the message I took back home.

Roger’s favorite target was any piece of legislation that was “for the children,” and nothing could get a good, old-fashioned boil of foam spewing out of his mouth quicker than a policy to protect “the children.” One time the Texas Ag Commissioner tried to regulate french fries in schools, pointing out that grease-soaked lard grenades were hardly good for developing little bodies.

Roger mercilessly ridiculed the Nanny State. “We survived drinking from garden hoses, we survived bikes without helmets, and we even survived french fries, so get your stinking government out of my kid’s life!” he railed, or something to that effect. He was a childless bachelor at the time.

Of course, once Roger got married and had kids, he never again ridiculed children or measures for their protection as far as I ever saw, but that’s a different story. He probably drives his kids to school and fearfully checks out the school playground to make sure the equipment there is safe.

At the other end of the spectrum from Roger there are the bike helmet nannies, people who go absolutely berserk when someone shows up without a helmet, as I did last Sunday on a big ride commemorating the death of a local cyclist. The day before I’d come close to passing out from heatstroke, and rather than head out to the frying pan of West LA and Mulholland Drive with my helmet in place I chose to do what I did almost every day of my life from 1982 until 2005: I hopped on my bike and pedaled happily away without a helmet.

My history with helmets is a checkered one. I opposed the hardshell helmet rule when the USCF passed it in 1985 or 1986, and got suspended for a few months after writing a very rude and offensive letter to cycling officialdom stating my displeasure. What can I say? I was dumb. I reluctantly wore helmets in races, and refused to wear one anywhere else.

It was only in 2005, when I started riding in Houston and people on the local group ride became virulently hostile and physically threatening that I caved in and started wearing a helmet. My refusal to wear one was worse than making some kind of personal statement. They took it as a person attack on them, something that threatened their safety. (Huh?) Unhelmeted I was called an “asshole,” a “fucking idiot,” a “crazy bastard,” and was insulted as well.

No matter how much I hated helmets, I hated being yelled at incessantly and eventually gave in to peer pressure at least during group rides. Little by little it became a habit until one day, October 25, 2013, I fell off my bicycle at 40 mph and landed square on my head. I can’t say that the helmet saved my life, but it certainly saved me from certain brain damage. More, I mean.

Although there is pretty good science that says current helmet designs can cause as much damage as they can prevent injury, the existence of MIPS technology seems to finally have turned a corner and created a helmet that can protect from direct, straight-line force injuries, and can also protect from low impact rotational brain trauma, the primary cause of concussions. In other words, with the right helmet you’re pretty much safer with it than without it.

But it’s a funny word, “safer,” because you certainly give up a few things when you strap on a lid. Descending Mulholland  without a helmet at 40 with a gaggle of idiots as you leap chugholes and bounce off of loose rocks, you will — I promise — ride as if your life depended on every pedal stroke. Vulnerability begets care, and up to a point care is the best safety precaution ever invented. Second, when you click the chinstrap you give up some simple sensory pleasures. Most people will never know the feeling of having the wind in their hair. At 40. Going downhill. On a bike.

And they’ll be poorer for it.

But the biggest tradeoff is this: When you choose safety, you give up the benefits that come from taking risk and surviving it. This is no small thing, especially in the world of bicycling, where at its outset you are climbing aboard a 15-lb. piece of plastic and navigating narrow spaces with cars and trucks. And as Arik Kadosh never tires of pointing out, you’re doing it with protective gear that is the functional equivalent of underwear.

If someone is truly concerned about safety as their guiding star, why would they ride bikes on the road in a group? The answer is that safety really isn’t the primary factor, or, more likely, safety is a big factor and in general riding a bike is pretty darn safe whether you’re helmeted or not.

The elephant in the room vis-a-vis safety isn’t just the basic risk of bike v. car, though. It’s also the risk that I call “equipment choice.” Several of the people who berated me for my failure to wear a helmet were riding on bicycle wheels made for 120-lb. Tour climbers. I’d contend that a 190-lb. rider bombing down Latigo or Mulholland or any other long, fast descent in the LA hills on a fiery hot day while seated atop an ultralight pair of carbon tubulars is taking a much bigger risk than I did riding without a helmet. My 32-spoke aluminum box-rim Mavic OpenPro clinchers with lightly worn 25 mm tires are, in that regard at least, a much bigger commitment to safety than the big boys and big girls riding ultralight race wheels.

And then, when you talk about bike safety, the two safest things you can do are 1) ride with a bright headlight and tail light at all times, and 2) take lane instead of cowering in the gutter. So it struck me as funny that people who don’t really maximize their own safety would find my helmet-less attire so offensive, ostensibly because of the danger.

Of course none of this is to encourage people to ride without helmets. People should analyze risk and act accordingly, which means, overwhelmingly, that people should wear helmets. But in some cases, the danger and the thrill and the freedom that come from being out on the edge add meaning and pleasure to your life in a way that safety, by definition, cannot. Even if riding helmetless for a single afternoon is a pretty low-risk act, having people behave as if it’s like jumping the Snake River Canyon seated behind Evel Knievel makes it ten times more exciting than it would otherwise be. Where else can you get the thrill of feeling like the lead gangster in the Hell’s Angels as a 50-year old guy with a droopy bosom and saggy tummy except by riding around on a bicycle in your underwear without a helmet?

“That Wanky … he’s a fucking idiot … and that’s daaaaaaaangerous!!!” Yes to the one, not necessarily to the other.

There is profound fun to be had doing things that other people call suicidal and dangerous, especially when, like last Sunday, it’s probably neither. Whether you’re salmoning up Tuna Canyon or heating your rims on the Las Flores descent, though, danger is sometimes its own reward, a reward much sweeter than anything you’ll get on the bike path. The thrill of danger is more than a nutty person’s weird behavior. A maxim from one of the oldest, deadliest professions says, with great wisdom, “Safe harbors make poor sailors.”

In other words, there’s a balance between doing things that may kill you and learning from the risk, and being a fraidy cat who starts and squawks every time he hears a mouse fart. It’s why people who race bikes in mass start events have generally better bike handling skills than the freddie in the recumbent who never deviates from the bike path. Not that one’s better than the other, except, when it comes to bike skills, one of them probably is. It doesn’t mean the better bike handler will live longer or have fewer crashes or make more money or have more fun, but it does mean that if you want better skills you have be put in challenging and, yes, dangerous situations.

So is riding helmetless a good way to improve your bike skills? Uh, no.

But the same impulse that lets you say “Oh, fuck it,” and pedal without a lid may be the same impulse that lets you line up and do a race, or try a challenging downhill course, or have a go at a job opening you would have never considered otherwise. Risk, danger, failure, disappointment, injury, and death can be really bad outcomes, but sometimes the only way to claw your way to the other side where you’re awaited by comfort, success, satisfaction, health, and vigorous living involves doing things that, taken by themselves, are ostensibly stupid and unnecessarily risky.

One good friend wrote to say that he didn’t want to start a debate when he saw me without a helmet, but his concern was purely selfish. He wanted me around because he liked me.

I assured him that this wasn’t a new retro-retro-protest movement, and I didn’t intend to repeat my bad behavior any time soon. I’d even been wrong about the weather that day; it never got particularly hot. But at the same time, after being scolded by so many well-meaning people, I did feel like I’d dodged a bullet, cheated death, somehow done something a little bit daring and wild.

You know, like when we rode bikes as children, and riding without a helmet wasn’t considered dangerous, it was just considered being a kid. And no one ever considered that kind of bike safety … for the chillllldren.

END

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56 thoughts on “But what about the chilllllldren?”

  1. If you live in the Texas, are you more likely to be struck by lightning or are you more likely to fall off your bike and smash your skull? What are the odds?
    What about Oklahoma? Whisked away by a twista or get knocked off your bike and break your head? I’ve always believed in choice. I wear my helmet because of peer pressure and the fear that the one time I don’t, I’ll kiss pavement. It’s just that one lousy time that hasn’t happened (yet) that keeps me strapping it on.

  2. Nice one, Brother! I started racing in the hairnet generation. The famous boulder busstop ride had maybe 1% people who wore helmets. Even the Boulder pros of the 80’s showed up to that ride sans helmet. That said I crashed hard about a month ago and broke my hip. The impact was so hard my helmet cracked as well. It probably saved me from further brain damage. My opinion is that I am glad I had my helmet on but far be it from me to live someone else’s life for them. If you or anyone else wants to ride without a helmet it is not up to me to turn into a finger wagging asshole. Personal Freedom Brother!

    1. Right? Sometimes we make choices that increase risk. On Wall Street it makes you a billionaire or a gutter dweller.

  3. Just ne sure to give me a “heads up” when they make those carbon/graphite nut protective underwear. Cause, you know…..

    1. The new DIKWEAR provides a carbon-kevlar layer of nutwall reinforcement that protects you from testicular torsion.

  4. Yes, The bike helmet is like the last line of defense. If you went the other way and show up at a ride in a ‘safer’ full face helmet, you would get singled out as well. Mob rule is scary.

  5. Arkansas Traveler

    Most people who have hit their head on the ground wear a helmet after- if they survive that first time. Not sure when exactly I became a member of the choir, but these days I’d rather leave the house with no pants on than no helmet- but that’s another story…

  6. Preaching to the choir here.
    I think people put in a helmet and think that absolves them of personal responsibility to be safe or know what they’re doing.

  7. Another chance to thank you for instilling in me the habit of riding with blinky lights front and back. And I’m fine with you not wearing a helmet. Just don’t fall.

    1. Ha, ha! I’m not fine with me not wearing a helmet … but once every blue moon or so …

      And I fell off my bicycle twice today. Helmeted …

      Blinkies rule.

  8. A helmet doesn’t help when you go over the bars and land on your face. Just saying…

    Really good points about wheel and tire choice!

  9. There was a study done in England that suggested that drivers of motor vehicles will approach a cyclist sans helmet more cautiously than a cyclist with helmet. Makes sense.

    Still, I do helmetize, religiously.

    Like to see you with the helmet light mounted on your head.

    1. But since the English drive on the wrong side of the road we have to take that study with a large grain of salt.

      And yes, I’m helmeted 99.9999% of the time.

  10. As the days are getting darker, I recently added a helmet light combo to my arsenal of lights. It has a headlight on the front and a red blinker for the back, all integrated with one on/off switch. It gives a whole new reason to wear the helmet. Along with that, I have the standard bar mounted light on the front, two tail lights on the back, and a red blinker on my backpack.

    1. I’ve hired a guy on a motorcycle to follow me around with a spotlight like they used to have in the old Batman shows.

  11. Ray F. never wore a helmet, ever. I went on a boatload of rides with that dude when I was a junior, way back when…jus’ sayin’….

    I tried to jump in a group ride down here in 2005 without a helmet and got castigated for it….you woulda thot I had Ebola! I used to train all the time with my team baseball cap or little cycling hat on backwards….but that “too cool for school” look gets nowhere when the mob decides you are ‘unsafe’….

    Still, Sal sez the helmet has to be worn…and SWIMO wins most arguments.

    1. It’s pretty weird that the group castigates you for doing something that doesn’t endanger them. This is what I experienced in Houston. It’s pretty deflating when everyone hates you.

      Fields showed up at a ride one time in Milwaukee, getting back on the bike after a decade, and was mercilessly attacked for not having a helmet. He said “Fuck you” and never rode again. This from a guy who was one of the best bike racers ever.

      1. Of all that old, aged group – the 1st wife liked Fields, Van Haute, and Grylls the best..all used to do that little warm-up routine with their patent leather danish hairnet hooked over the stem….way cool….Do you remember when one of the best reasons to be good enough to go pro was so that, finally, you didn’t have to wear ANY helmet?

        1. Can’t believe you remember the patent leather. Fields brought me back a pair of white patent leather Duegis with wooden soles from his year in Belgium.

          Long story about those shoes, which I put road cleats on. I remember one of the best reasons to ride a fuggin’ bike was so I didn’t have to wear a helmet!

  12. As this relates to other sports specifically the NFL and its concussion problems with current and former players. The league contiues to try to change the rules on and off the field to address the issue and cut down on the number of concussions players take during games to no avail. It seems like the amout just keeps going up. What if the NFL just took helmets out of the equation? All the other gear but no helmets. I bet the concisions and other head related injures would decline in a major way. Players wouldn’t lead with there head any longer to tackle because they wouldn’t have a weopon around there head to use. They would have to adjust the way they play just like you adjust the way you decend when riding without a helmet on a bike. So I think you have a point here Wanky

    1. Yep. Players hit harder because they have more protection, which increases the injuries.

      The main point is that although riding with a helmet seems sensible, there’s no reason to jump all over people who choose not to wear one.

  13. In the 80’s, nothing was cooler than riding my Ciocc with my Clement cap with the visor flipped up. Until, of course, I bunny hopped a rut while sprinting over 32mph when the front wheel came off and the forks dug in while my feet were firmly strapped in with binder straps.
    Quasimoto was probably the best description. Six stitches and a face resembling hamburger meat was the least of my worries. I could not perform my job. Improvement came in weeks but I feared for my livelihood,
    The helmet I wore for races, I just could not wear while out pretending I was awesome. It was a Giro and it made me look like a flying dildo on wheels. I am still not sure which is worse(Dildo or Lord Quasi) but the incident had me off the bike long enough to improve my social skills, find a beautiful girl and make her my bride.
    I recently forgot my helmet and rode with my usual group without incident and without judgement. When I was dropped and later caught a group of mostly birds I greeted by shrill so intense I could not believe the voice was human.
    Man, if they only saw me take that jump(read 2X6 laid on top of a boulder) with my Spyder 500 they would surely have been impressed.

    My mother certainly was.

    1. Sometimes the best medicine is hamburger face and an extended stay in Club Medical.

  14. Peter Schindler

    Just remember that your life doesn’t belong just to you, it belongs to your family and friends as well. Any decision you make should take into account all of those that love you.

    1. It belongs to the people in your health insurance pool too. Brain trauma is seriously f-ing expensive to do something about.

      Maybe you’d like to volunteer to pay for a brain trauma recovery or three while riding around without a helmet? That seems like a sufficient exchange to me.

      There’s nothing to be done about forgetting a helmet sometimes.

      And, BTW, I own a POC mountain bike MIPS helmet. Not hot at all regardless of the weather. Let’s hope I never test it out!

      1. If we are denied the right to take risks because of the insurance cost when things go sideways, then you have to re-think the choice to ride in the first place, the clothing you wear in the second, and the entirety of your equipment in the third — especially your choice not to run front and back lights at all times.

  15. ‘Member coming to Austin as a high-schooler and doing the 1/2 Dam Loop (360 was just a gleam in the dynamiter’s eye then) with my crazy cousin and his friends, flying down Feedlot Hill on 2222 at 50+ mph on tubulars with nothing on my head. Never thought twice about it. Wouldn’t do it now without a National Guard escort. And a helmet.

  16. Nice one, as usual. Got to love a good helmet discussion.

    I believe everyone should wear a helmet, but I also stop short of demanding it be mandatory.

    Risk taking can still be attempted with a helmet on, no? Obviously risk increases with consequence (the bad kind), and pushing your limits will teach you lessons and increase skill, but how does wearing a helmet lessen that? Yes, you would be more attentive and that may result in being safer, but when applied to taking risks, isn’t danger actually a pretty big deterrent to giving it a try? Isn’t that why people launch themselves into big piles of foam until they are good enough to not die without using it? If you had no fear of dying/danger, you’d probably try most things once.

    There is plenty that has been said about the whole idea that people who don’t care about the potential consequences are more relaxed and can therefore react quicker to get out of trouble, while ultra-cautious people may be a danger to themsleves (like people who are really scared of driving). So maybe some helmet-less people avoid danger for this reason. Part of the reason you wear one, however, is because you are not always in control of what happens to you, be it dooring or a inopportune tyre blowout.

    So many angles…

    http://www.thestickybidon.com

    1. I wear a helmet. Mostly.

      But almost all of the justification for it comes from people telling you that you should because it’s safer, as if your increased risk was their problem.

      Better that it come from your own risk analysis.

  17. “Most people will never know the feeling of having the wind in their hair. At 40. Going downhill. On a bike.” Doing this is good clean fun. What a thrill. Whatever pain was endured to get you to the top of the hill just vanishes when you blast down it like that. I don’t do it much anymore as I wear a helmet about as much as you do, but every once in awhile…..

  18. I shudder to think of the training runs I used to do bombing down Kanan and Mulholland Canyon back in the ’70s and ’80s sans helmet. It’s amazing how immortal you can be when you don’t know any better and I will admit I do miss not wearing a helmet. Only for a few seconds, though. A helmet once saved my life and that was all the convincing I needed. But maybe that’s why I run more than I ride nowadays. There’s a lot less “accident “awareness” stress involved with running which is sad given the beauty of cycling.

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