In late 2005 I started wearing a helmet every time I rode, and it wasn’t exactly by choice. Russell DeBarbieris and I would show up at the First Colony ride on Saturday in Fort Bend County, he with a temper and me without a helmet. And we would proceed to smash the ride.
I was new in Houston; although I grew up there I had lived and ridden elsewhere from 1982 on, so I didn’t know the crowd. They hated us because we didn’t do what they told us to, we didn’t let their designated leaders lead, and we smashed the ride into bits. Every time.
It was so much fun, except for the part that wasn’t.
Where’s your HELLLLMETTTTT?
They couldn’t drop us, and they couldn’t hang with us when we decided it was time to smash, but they could always say at the beginning of each ride, at the regroups, and at the brokedick end when Russell and I would be hanging around having our third cappuccino to watch them arrive in a shambles, “Where’s your HELLLLLMETTTT?”
At first it didn’t bother me. I’d never worn a helmet except in races, and after twenty-three seasons of racing and riding, I’d never been killed.
More than that, riding without a helmet felt completely different from riding with one. Not just different. Better. If you’ve never done a 100-mile ride in the heat with nothing but a jaunty cloth cap, don’t talk to me about how helmeted v. helmetless riding does or doesn’t feel. Because you don’t know.
Before they banned Russell and me from the ride, though, I had given in. It wasn’t just at the First Colony dorkothon that I got shouted at, it was everywhere. No one seemed to hesitate to ask me where my helmet was, and they were retort-proof. Blibby-blabby little people with their first pro bike and a whopping 5k on their legs felt completely confident asking me where my helmet was, even though they’d broken femurs, had concussions, lost teeth, shattered elbows, ripped off every shred of skin on one entire side of their body, busted both collarbones twice … didn’t matter cuz they wuz wearing a helmet.
Didn’t matter that I’d never broken anything and had virtually no road rash scars, didn’t matter that I could ride and they couldn’t, that I was a grown man and they weren’t, that I’d raised three kids and they were still living with mom and dad.
Didn’t fucking matter. Ever.
It wasn’t a question.
Peer pressure works. For a while.
So I caved and started wearing a helmet no matter what. Whereas in the past I had always worn one judiciously, i.e. “Am I racing?” “Do I have to?” “Am I alone?” “How long will I be surrounded by idiots?” I fell into the pattern of never leave home without it. The times I’ve fallen since then, I’d have had a helmet on anyway because it was either during a race, riding in/to/from a cluster like NPR or Donut, or that one time I practiced a wheelie on the back of my skull after separating from the group ride.
This past summer I was in Vienna and my buddy Damir had just brought over a bike for me. I was fresh off the bus from Bratislava and hankering to ride. Damir was lid-less and I rode sans helmet, too.
With the exception of the time my son Woodrow and I rode helmetless across Germany on cruiser bikes, this day was the first time since 2005 that I’d bothered to take note of the thousands of people not wearing helmets. Whether that was safe or not I might write about later, but you know what I noticed? Not one single person screamed “Where’s your HELLLLMETTTT?” as I passed.
No one cared. At all. For two weeks I rode without a helmet and there was enough IDGAF to start a Bank of No Fucks.
So back in LA I regressed to my pre-2005 ways. Wear a helmet when you think it might be gnarly, enjoy the breeze blowing through your hair the rest of the time, because at age 54, there are a whole bunch of people who have none. And you know what? No sooner did I appear on the streets of the South Bay than the catcalls started.
I wondered about that.
Where’s your DIIIIETTTTTT?
I wondered why people felt so free and easy screaming at me to wear a helmet. One particularly ill-mannered screecher advised me that it was because he was “concerned for my safety.”
I wondered how he would feel if the next time we saw each other on the bike I were to shout, “Where’s your DIIIIIETTTT!” and then explained that I was only concerned for his health due to the fatty buildup around his abdomen.
Or what if every time I saw a friend guzzling one beer too many, I were to shout, “Quit boozing!” and explained that I was only concerned for his liver, family, job, memory, heart, and happiness.
And why limit the screeching to people who drink too much and who carry around a few pounds too many? Why not start screaming at fellow cyclists when they pass, “Quit banging your buddy’s wife!” and “Get those herpes lesions cured!” and “Where’s your mortgage PAAYYYYMENNNNT?” and any other number of admonitions to show how much I care?
Then I could follow up the public berating by emailing links to articles about the perils of shacking up, the dangers of alcoholism, the risks of having a stressful job, the evils of not getting marriage counseling, the repercussions of credit card debt, and even better yet, do it on #socmed. What a nice way to show you care, and to show everyone else you care, right?
Of course the reason that I don’t do those things is because I just did them, here. And see? It doesn’t look very good. Berating people like a pompous jackass because you think you have the right to tell them what’s good for them is the mark of, well, a pompous jackass. If you’re so concerned about my health, where were you when I broke my hip? Where were you when I was a raging alcoholic? Answer a) You were busy. Answer b) You hadn’t started riding then. Answer c) Huh?
Not everyone is that way, though. A couple of people have ridden up to me and politely inquired, “Why no helmet?” and I’ve answered. We’ve had a pleasant and civil conversation and parted without me feeling like someone just asked “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”
The hypocrisy of helmet safety nuts
In addition to wondering where people get off screaming at me about my helmet, I’ve paid close attention to the thousands of people I’ve seen on the bike paths here since August, yes, thousands, and have noted that many don’t wear helmets. The e-bikers seem to be the least helmeted of all.
And oddly enough, no one is screaming at them as they pass. No one is berating them at stop lights, accosting them in cafes, and as far as I know, badgering them on the Internet. Why is that? Why do the least skilled, least experienced, highest-motorized riders get a free pass? Why aren’t all the do-gooders screaming at them?
The answer, aside from the fact that the average LA commuting e-biker has fists like hams, is that the do-gooders aren’t really do-gooders. They’ve never read any scientific literature about helmets. They know zero about the correlation between mandatory helmet usage and decreased ridership in nations like Australia. They don’t understand Chris Boardman’s point that a few deaths and head injuries are a small price to pay if the trade-off is increased ridership and an across-the-board drop in the lifestyle diseases whose societal burden vastly outweighs any increase in head trauma. They don’t understand that sometimes wearing helmets can cause riskier behavior, or that not all helmets protect against all types of impacts, or that helmet standards are not, and have never been, devised to protect the brain but rather to meet industry-written, wholly unscientific standards. It has never occurred to them that emphasizing rider responsibility is often nothing more than victim blaming, when the real transgressors are 2-ton steel cages and the distracted steerers operating them.
In short, they are oblivious to the fact that helmet usage is a vigorously debated subject with strong, data-driven arguments on both sides.
Their ignorance doesn’t explain why helmet Nazis are compelled to screech, though. I think it comes from an American road cycling culture that is often based on humiliating others. Whether it’s your clothing, your equipment, your hairy legs, your gender, or your color coordination, road cycling has always feasted on the insecurity of riders by telling them they are doing it wrong, whatever “it” is.
Helmet Nazis are another outgrowth of this insecure cyclist desire to humiliate others, a nasty urge codified by the Velominati and their ilk. I’ve never had an experienced cyclist, with one exception, yell at me regarding my helmet, and this particular person is famed for his nervous insecurity in all things. The rest of the time the yammering is coming from people who are still trying to figure out how to get through a turn without taking out half the field.
Here’s the thing: I encourage you to wear a helmet if you think it makes you safer. If you want to have a discussion or even a debate about helmets, I might engage if I am absolutely bored out of my skull and have nothing else to talk about and no way to escape. Otherwise, you might consider refraining from asking me where my helmet is.
Because if it’s not on my head, you can be pretty sure it’s at home.
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