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.
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