To helmet or not to helmet?

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Friend, icon, writer, advocate for clean sport, and all-around great guy Steve Tilford had a brutal fall this past Friday on a training ride and suffered severe head injuries. Steve was riding without a helmet. The obvious conclusion for many people is, “Wear a helmet.”

I didn’t wear one outside of races until 2005, and that was simply from peer pressure. I had shown up on some First Colony rides outside of Houston without a helmet and people cursed me. This encouraged me to ride with a helmet even less, but each ride I was showered with insults. In part this was because the First Colony riders were jerks, in part it was because they hated getting schooled by an old helmetless dude on a steel bike, and in part it was because of the brutal conformity enforced by road cyclists.

Zero of it had to do with any personal concern for my well being, as the same chumps who derided me for riding without a helmet were the same ones who chopped my wheel, rode erratically, refused to learn basic courtesy or bike handling, and created a road hazard every time they pushed their bike out of the garage.

Eventually, though, I caved, and then it became habit, and the one or two times since then I’ve ridden helmetless it has felt weird and risky and vaguely unsafe.

That’s odd because the data doesn’t clearly show that helmets make cycling any safer or that they reduce injury. I won’t try to engage in the debate (much), but what seems clear is that any safety benefit from wearing helmets is offset by the fact that it discourages riding, which is then associated with a whole host of risks resulting from a sedentary, cager-based lifestyle. I’ll also add that after ten days in Vienna, I saw thousands and thousands of cyclists and hardly any helmets except on the heads of the one or two sport riders I saw buzzing through the city’s streets.

Which brings me to my point, and it’s one I reached while sitting on a bench overlooking the bike path in Redondo Beach one day. While looking at the surfers fall off their boards and, in between sets, the cyclists pedal by, I noticed something. Most cyclists go really slowly. They go so slowly that with few exceptions their heads are going to be plenty fine if they whack the pavement. They’re also going so slowly that the chance of falling is greatly, greatly reduced. And of course there’s good research that shows most helmets do nothing to protect against slow, twisting falls that aren’t strong enough to break your skull but will give you a concussion or closed head injury.

But then there is a much smaller group of riders who are really hauling ass. The speed differentials between the slow riders and the fast ones, when observed from above and several hundred feet away, was amazing. The faster riders, people going over 20 mph, were clearly going to get badly fucked up if their heads came to an immediate stop against the concrete.

Moreover, I thought about how the improvements in equipment have generated a few extra miles per hour for virtually every sport/fitness cyclist, regardless of ability. Standard steel bike speeds of 17-18 mph are now easily eclipsed such that people commonly ride in the low to mid 20’s, and much faster when traveling with a group. This doesn’t even get into the issue of e-bikes, which make it possible to go at speeds that were unthinkable for all but the most elite.

Of course those few extra miles per hour create exponentially greater force on impact, and the low skill sets of the average wanker blasting along the bike path at 24 make collisions inevitable.

While watching the speed differentials of the cyclists I thought about group riding, where the speeds are often so fast, and I have never second-guessed riding with a helmet since. In Steve’s case, he absolutely knew what he was doing. He’s one of the best racers in U.S. history, is experienced, old, and has fallen down more than enough times to know the risks. For whatever reason, he chose to ride without a helmet, as he’s done a billion times before, and this time he got badly, badly hurt.

Heal up, Steve.

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