Helmet facts


There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned, head-first collision with the pavement in excess of 37 mph to make you think about your helmet. Mine was a Specialized Fancyass Racer, a couple of years old, doing replacement duty for a newer Giro Superfancyass Racer that I retired when I backflipped my bike doing a wheelie and cracked my skull and helmet.

The moment when your head hits the pavement that hard, shit gets real, or, as they say, “Nothing ever happens until it happens to you.” The blow was so solid, so strong, so sure, so confident, so unforgiving, that in the microsecond before I went into shock I recall thinking, “Wonder if I’m a quad now?”

When you hit the deck your body goes into self-test mode. Start with the extremities. Toes and fingers work? Check. Then you move the head a little. Neck work? Check. Then a few seconds as you wait for the pain waves to wash over, then subside, and in between sets you check other body parts.

“Arms? Fine. Left leg? Check. Right leg? Oh, fuck. That hurts.” Then having identified the first most acute pain, you zero in for further diagnosis. A little or a lot of movement tells you that it’s broken or it’s not, and all the while your friends are staring at you anxiously telling you “Don’t move,” and “The ambulance is coming,” and of course, “Your bike’s fine, dude.”

It’s not until you find out the condition of the bike that you can relax and submit yourself to fate. Of course.

It was luck and it was physics

I’ve often thought that bike helmets were made to protect you in low speed crashes rather than high speed ones. Apparently, it’s just the opposite. Helmets are designed to withstand straight-on, high impact blows that are powerful enough to break apart the styrofoam and absorb the energy, deflecting it from your skull and brain. Lower speed, twisting hits may not be helped by helmets at all, as the force isn’t enough to cause the styrene to absorb the blow, which is instead transmitted directly to the skull and brain.

Bad shit happens after that, and to really understand the science you need to know about rotational acceleration and stuff. But if you don’t really want to understand it just imagine a block of tofu that gets shaken until cracks develop. Oh … the tofu is your brain, and the cracks are your new friend, Mr. Concussion.

If you really want to know more about your brain and its interaction with massive impact, read this excellent article here.

My own helmet was crushed. The exterior still hung together on my head, but the styrofoam was crisscrossed with cracks. Who would have thought that the best way to use a helmet was by smacking your head at huge speed directly on the tarmac? Since the blow, although direct, was slightly off to the left side of my crown, and since I hit at a slight angle, the force went from my head to my shoulders and finally the right side of my body, terminating in my right hip, upon which I came to rest.

I still can’t believe I’m alive, or not in the ICU, or not dealing with (even more) brain damage. But as that clever little FB posty thingy says, “Everything happens for a reason, and the reason is usually physics.” I hit hard enough to break the polystyrene. I hit it straight on as I rolled into a tuck. My shoulder and side absorbed the blow rather than my thin and fragile neck. Despite putting on a great show for my pals, I eventually got back on the bike and rode off to the coffee shop. The day ended with some careful medical treatment by Dr. IPA.

The great anti-helmet revolutionary

I started riding with a hardshell helmet in 2005. Before that I rode with my hair. For a season or two, in 84 and 85, I rode with a hairnet. Then, when the USCF required hardshell helmets for 1986, I rebelled. I wrote several letters to the USCF, which have hopefully been destroyed, in which I argued like a crazy person against hardshell helmets. I can’t remember what silly things I said, but I do remember using the example of not having to use a helmet on a motorcycle. Compellingly stupid stuff …

On my own I refused to wear a helmet, and laughed at all the chicken-littles who were so diffident towards their own cycling skills that they couldn’t stay out of trouble and instead had to depend on a silly helmet. In 2005, when I began riding in West Houston, my appearance on the rides in wool clothes, a steel bike, and no helmet engendered so much anger and hostility that I finally caved in. The helmet became a habit, and with a few notable exceptions (forgetting to put it on one morning before the Donut Ride), I don’t ride without it.

Thanks to yesterday’s massive blow to the head, my tofu may have actually solidified. There’s no universe I can imagine in which I’m on a bike and not wearing headgear. But in the back of my mind, I know it wasn’t all just about physics. It was also about dumb, uncaring, random luck.

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