Friday, January 21, 2011

Bike Helmets

Introduction

I bought a new bike helmet. No, you can’t see it; this is a blog, not Show & Tell. But the selection and purchase got me thinking about bike helmets. And a couple of things have been nagging me about helmets lately anyway.

First, in my New Year’s Resolution post I didn’t resolve to wear my helmet whenever I ride, though I’d thought about making this a resolution. Occasionally when riding my kids to school—on the sidewalk—I haven’t worn a helmet, and a fellow parent commented on this recently (using the phrase “bad dad,” no less). I doubt any of the school kids look up to me, but what if they did? I’m not in the habit of making resolutions I don’t intend to keep, but I’m on the verge of toppling off the fence on this one.

Second, I’ve been thinking about my comment in my last post about the dorky helmet James Bond once wore motorcycling. You may well imagine that I got a lot of heat for that, but you’d be wrong—I haven’t heard a word. Nor would I retract the statement that Bond, the fictitious and apparently invincible character, shouldn’t wear a helmet. But I guess I wasn’t really thinking about the stuntman, who, it now occurs to me, perhaps deserves head protection. (My myopia on that isn’t unique; consider the disclaimer in movie credits that says “No animals were harmed in the making of this film,” and then ask yourself, what did the crew eat on the set every day?)

This post examines my history with the bike helmet, primarily for the reader’s amusement.

What this post is not

This post is not an appeal to cyclists to wear their helmets. Why not? Is it because I don’t think helmets are necessary? No, it’s almost the opposite: the value of bike helmets is so widely acknowledged in this country, I really don’t need to make this appeal. Even the pro racers in Europe are required to wear legit, hard-shell helmets now, and every cyclist I ride with wears a helmet on every training ride. In the entire Bay Area cycling community, I know of only one rider who still goes helmetless, apparently due to vanity. (In his case, it backfires; to me, it just makes him look old, because a) riding without a helmet associates you with a bygone era, and b) he’s balding.)

(Within the shelter of these parentheses, I will concede that it would be pretty embarrassing to suffer a head injury during a short errand ride. Early last year I was riding, helmetless, to my kids’ school when the frame broke on my commuter bike. Part of my relief in managing not to crash was that I wouldn’t have to feel like an idiot for not having had a helmet on. But I’m not living up to the title for this section—I’m starting to nag. Fear not, the rest of this post will be decidedly non-didactic.)

My first helmet

Imagine my delight when I opened a gift-wrapped box on Christmas morning, 1979 or 1980, and laid eyes on my first bike helmet. I hope you have a good imagination, because there was actually zero delight. I suppose there was a bit of curiosity—this helmet, the Bell Biker, was among the first I’d ever seen—but instantly I knew I’d catch hell from other kids for wearing a helmet to ride a bike. It’s easy enough for kids now to embrace helmet use—not only are bike helmets ubiquitous now, but in many places it’s the law—but back then, bike helmets were unheard of. My brothers and I were waaaaaay ahead of everybody else here. Some people in such a situation become trend-setters, like the Plastics in “Mean Girls,” but my brothers and I were socially retarded to begin with. Whatever the odds of getting a head injury in a bike accident, we know they were lower than the 100% chance of being ostracized for our Bell Bikers. This helmet was a double-bummer: not only would I have to wear the thing, but it was my main Christmas present that year. Sweet.

The helmet was big and white and gaudy. I don’t have a photo handy but click here and scroll halfway down the page and you’ll see it. The print ad for this helmet showed a cut-away cross-section of the helmet with a ruler showing the thickness; the caption read, “The difference between our helmets and the others is about an inch.” Like that over-thick Styrofoam was a benefit. Since my three brothers and I all got helmets and my dad didn’t want us getting them mixed up, he bought 3M Scotchlite in four colors—one per kid—and added it to our helmets. I got red. For some reason, you got more in the roll of red Scotchlite than other colors, so I got extra stripes.

Eventually the helmet pads started to wear out. They were about a centimeter thick and made of soft spongy stuff, just like those off-brand sink sponges that your cheap college roommate bought instead of Scotch-Brite. The pads wore out fast, especially the front one that got most of the sweat, and after rotating his own pads for awhile, each of us would raid his brother’s helmet and swap out his own grody front pad for his brother’s less grody back pad. I got sick of my pads getting snaked, so I took a magic marker and made a dot on each of my pads—kind of like a rancher branding his cattle. My brothers thought this was a great idea and went one better: they inked their first initial and last name on each pad (e.g., “BALBERT,” “GALBERT”). What they didn’t realize was that their sweat would react with the ink, and they’d have all this backward writing on their forehead after a ride. I secretly enjoyed this. Since the labeling had been my idea, this was the closest I’d ever come to writing on my brothers’ faces with a felt tip as they slept.

The social outcast effect

As predicted, the helmets made my brothers and me pariahs. It was tempting to think this was my dad’s actual reason for making us wear them, just to build character. (After all, he never got us sunglasses, which might have looked cool, or sunscreen, which might have at least made us smell like the lifeguards that got all the chicks.) But more likely, our dad was just ahead of his time. (Decades later, he cautioned me about trans fats, long before I—or anybody else—had heard of them.) When our dad suggested that we wear our helmets roller-skating, I finally put my foot down. Does this mean I stood up to my old man? Of course not—I just stopped going to the roller rink.

It was my second helmet, though, that made things really bad. I got a Bell Tourlite when my first helmet got run over by our car in 1983. I have always suspected my brother Max was involved in the destruction of that first helmet. First of all, it was crushed right after Max and I had been in a big fight; moreover, moments after the helmet was smashed Max came running into the house with it, gleefully holding it above his head like a trophy. Of course I couldn’t pin anything on him and I got in big trouble. My mom took me to a bike shop for a replacement, and they were out of the Bell Biker. I hated the Tourlite on sight: it had tiny vents, fancier stripes, and a dorky tinted visor. The front pad wasn’t velcroed on but just sort of sat there, framed by soft foam. It was a fake chamois pad and looked just like a club cracker. I knew this pad would get lost (or stolen by an envious brother) in no time, and I wasn’t wrong. But I couldn’t very well protest the Tourlite purchase, since I was in trouble anyway. I tried to make the helmet less awful by snapping off the visor, and I guess it helped a bit. Here’s a photo of it:

My best friend at the time didn’t like the Tourlite at all. We were in the process of drifting apart anyway, and this escalated the process. “Why’d you get that?” he complained. “I thought we agreed it was ugly!” It seems silly to claim that a friendship could be compromised by a helmet, but it really could, and was. In fact, my brothers Geoff and Bryan were also snubbed by one of their best friends over their helmets. He’d ride to junior high with them, but a few blocks from the school would make them go on ahead. “It’s not that I don’t like you guys,” he said, “it’s just that I can’t be seen with you.” (Rest assured, he got his: not long after this, his own parents started making him wear a helmet too, along with his little brother, who suffered the added indignity of being made to ride only on the sidewalk.)

That same summer, when I was fourteen, I went on kind of a blind date. There had been two girls my age hanging around the neighborhood one day, and I fell into a weeks-long phone-based quasi-romance with one of them. (I never figured out which one it was.) Finally we agreed to meet up, and chose a video arcade downtown as our rendezvous point. This presented a problem: the place was about five miles from my house, so I had to ride my bike there, and I knew if I showed up wearing a helmet I’d be spurned for sure. At the same time, I was convinced if I rode all the way across town without the helmet, I was bound to run into my dad and get busted. (This may seem paranoid to you, but my brothers and I would frequently bump into our dad at any hour of the day and in any part of town. It was weird.) So after much deliberation I decided I’d better wear the helmet. I got a half a mile or so out when I changed my mind again, rode home, and ditched it. All the way to the arcade I sweated it, worrying about seeing my dad. To say I felt naked without my helmet isn’t enough; I felt like I was naked in church. When I got to the arcade I realized that after all my indecision and dallying, I was like half an hour late, and the girl had bailed. She never talked to me again.

Anti-helmet arguments

Of course my brothers and I wouldn’t have dared argue with our dad about the necessity of the bike helmet, but Max did argue with the other three of us. He alone dared ride without a helmet, and occasionally did get busted. His rationale was, “If I crash hard enough to need a helmet, I’m going to mess up my bike, and if I mess up my bike, I’ll want to be dead.”

As helmets became more common, many others developed anti-helmet arguments. One use of such arguments was to justify the use of a leather “hairnet” helmet in bike races instead of a hard-shell; as late as the early ‘80s a hairnet was all that was required for U.S. races. Some argued that a big hard-shell helmet increased your chances of falling, as if the weight of it would drag you to the ground—kind of a reverse-Weeble-wobble theory. Others argued that having a helmet on would encourage you to take unnecessary risks. When hard-shell helmets became mandatory in U.S. amateur races, some racers complained that the weight caused neck strain. (They must have been airheads for the helmet weight to even matter.)

But there was one day when my friend Peter and I did stumble on a solid argument against helmets. We were out on a training ride and were bored out of our skulls. Pete decided, on a whim, to grab one of my helmet straps and drag me around by it. I retaliated by grabbing his helmet strap, and right away we were weaving all over the road. Suddenly our handlebars got all tangled up, and for a brief moment we stared at each other in shock. Then we were both sailing over the bars, and we stacked pretty hard. We went back to his place to treat our road rash and fix our bikes, and his mom said, “At least you were wearing your helmets.” Pete replied, “If we hadn’t been wearing our helmets, the crash never would have happened.” And he was right!

About the silliest excuse I heard was a couple years later when Peter was on the 7-Eleven junior team. As we headed out for a ride (I in a helmet, he not), his mom hassled him. “I can’t wear one,” he explained, “because we haven’t ironed out our helmet sponsor for this year and I can’t risk being seen in the wrong helmet.”

Fun with helmets

By the mid-‘80s, when hard-shell helmets became mandatory for racing, I could wear a helmet without shame. By that time the Bell V1-Pro had come out, and being a bit smaller than earlier hard-shells and styled after a hairnet, it was not so bad looking. Moreover, the pinstripes and logos were easier to remove, so you could give your helmet a stripped-down road-warrior look. Here’s a photo:

When the foam-only no-shell helmets came out, you could personalize your helmet: you could put on your own fabric cover, or not wear a cover at all. When I rode for the UC Santa Barbara team, we all got fabric covers to match our team uniforms. These covers had colored side panels and a white mesh center section that went over the vents. Screwing around while warming up for the UCLA hill climb, I turned my helmet cover sideways. The effect was that from a distance, it appeared my head was turned. My teammate Trevor laughed and turned his helmet cover sideways, too. This ended up giving us an unexpected psychological advantage in the race: as we both hammered at the front of the pack, a couple of riders toward the back thought we were just chatting while they got dropped. They were so miffed they complained to us afterward for showing off.

Here’s a photo (from a 1989 collegiate team time trial in Colorado) showing three different helmet choices. Trevor has removed the cover and used an ink stamp to make a barbed wire pattern all over his helmet. I’ve turned my cover sideways (well, askew). Mark has eschewed his free team-issue Bell helmet for the more fashionable Giro.

What I don’t have a photo of, but I wish I did, is our teammate Dan’s customer helmet cover that he made out of a pair of underwear (briefs, not boxers). He’d written “JOCKEY FOR POSITION” on the back in felt tip. He actually raced in that thing, and he was fast!

Helmets today

When helmets were something only safety-minded scientist-types wore, ugliness was okay—in fact, it was a badge of honor. In those days, manufacturers could get away with a pretty mediocre product: a helmet that was hot, heavy, and hard to get to fit right. But the helmets got better, and became more popular, and the two trends reinforced each other: a bigger market meant more R&D money.

When helmets became common (and eventually required) in the pro peloton, the state of the art got a nice boost. Pros demanded a decent helmet. (A nice side effect has been more money for the pro teams, as helmet companies pay for the privilege of outfitting them.) Modern helmets are pretty sweet: they’re light, have great vents, look pretty cool, and have these nifty adjustable ratchet systems to snug them up.

(Fit really is important. I once replaced the free Aria Sonics helmet I got from my bike team because I couldn’t keep it from sliding back on my head. On my first ride out with my perfect-fitting Giro helmet, I crashed really badly and was knocked out cold. The helmet performed perfectly; no question I’d be dead or severely brain-damaged had I been wearing no helmet, or an ill-fitting one.)

Even the modern kids’ helmets are really nifty—who wouldn’t want to wear one?

Who wouldn’t want to wear one? The Dutch, that’s who. None of the bike commuters wear helmets over there. (Perhaps it’s the same all over Europe; I don’t really know.) Granted, in the Netherlands the bike paths are great, the motorists seem alert, and the big black 3-speed “opafiets” bikes aren’t exactly built for speed. But still, you’d be hard pressed to find anybody (other than a bike racer) who even owns a bike helmet over there. Here’s a pretty typical photo:

I got that picture from a web photo album that a guy put together showing 82 bike photos he took in a 73-minute period on a fall day in Amsterdam. I counted 112 bikers and zero helmets on this website, and have seen much the same thing during my visits over there.

Ah, the astute reader has surmised, Dana is about to break his promises and start preaching! And he’s going to wax patriotic while he’s at it! Actually, no. I don’t wear a helmet when I ride in the Netherlands either, except on training rides. Neither does my brother, nor do my nieces and nephew over there. It just seems unnecessary, over there. I did a small bit of research and discovered a fascinating analysis concluding that you’re more likely to be murdered in the United States than killed while bicycling (helmetless, by definition) in Amsterdam.

But over here, I’m happy to wear my helmet. After all, I’ve paid my dues … the social outcast years are way behind me.

dana albert blog

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