Stubbornness and the art of riding a bicycle


"I ain't gonna wear no stinkin' helmet." I bet you thought I was going to say a friend of mine said that. Wrong. I said it, and I meant it.

Bike helmets are dorky. They make you look like one of those UFO creatures with the bulgy heads who mutilate cattle. No, it's worse than that. They make you look like one of those things from the movie "Alien" that attached itself to the guy's face, only the helmets look like brain-suckers attached to the top of your head. They've got holes and wrinkles and come in Day-Glo colors only an alien from outer space would love. I suppose if you looked like a superhero from DC comics you could pull off having a space creature on your head, but when you look like the "before" picture in a dieting ad, you haven't a chance of escaping dorkitude wearing one.

And why is there a point on the back of those bike helmets? Do we pedal so fast that it's going to make a difference in wind resistance?

When I was a kid, I had an uncle who was in the Air Force, and he brought me a Red Baron aviator cap that must have been worn some time around World War I. So that's what I wore when I rode my bike -- a leather cap complete with goggles. It was wonderful because the wool lining kept my head warm, and the goggles stopped the cold air making my eyes water. I never got hurt while wearing that cap. But do they make bicycle helmets like this today?

Nope. They take some plastic, put in some Styrofoam left over from packaging stereo equipment, and call it a safety helmet. They might as well label construction hardhats or hockey headgear a bicycle helmet.

You could quote the statistics about how dangerous riding a bicycle is, how a couple of years ago -- and this is true -- there were 698 bicycle fatalities in this country and a half-million injuries, but I wouldn't listen to you. It wouldn't even matter if some professor said bicycling was 11 times more dangerous than driving a car -- something that is also true.

Up until two years ago, I thought that bike helmets made me look like a dork, and that was that. I was also never was one to listen to advice. I am one of those people who have to learn from experience, and experience, in my case, usually came from bad judgment.

My first crash happened when I clipped a construction cone with my bicycle handle, leaped a curb and introduced myself to the sidewalk. The result: spectacular road-rash and bleeding, but nothing above the neck. I wrecked the rim and bent the front fork, but still no need for a helmet. Right.

The second crash occurred after I bought a mountain bike -- a necessary purchase after someone stole the bike from my first crash. Of course, that's another story about the need to lock a bike even if it's a million years old and looks like it came from a Third World garbage dump. I crashed the second time by flipping over the handlebars while going down a steep mountain path and hitting the ground with my rear end. I broke a rib but nothing happened to my head. The bicycle suffered a small scratch. I walked funny for a while but still rationalized that there was no need for a helmet. Right.

Then I had a minor crash when I answered my cell phone while riding in traffic, but that just made me stop talking on a cell phone while biking. Still no need for a helmet? Right.

The fourth crash involved sliding on some gravel, breaking another rib and this time doing damage to my head. I learned that a broken rib back near your spine does not hurt nearly as much when you laugh as a rib on the front of you. Head wounds also bleed a lot. This time, I thought to myself: I have got to wear a helmet; I need every brain cell I've still got.

So I went to the Goodwill store and found a $2.50 helmet about the color of the stuff babies leave in diapers. It didn't have a point in the back. It didn't have 15 adjustment straps. It's not a fashion statement.

It just sits on the top of my noggin and prevents me from cracking it like an egg.

Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He hikes and bikes (safely) in Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Helmets aren't dorky...
Harrison Carpenter
Harrison Carpenter
Oct 27, 2009 09:21 AM
...helmets are indispensable! Take from me, I learned the hard way.

Back in the day, I was a USAC category 2 racer--in other words, I rode fast, hard, and very often. Between races and training, I rode 6-7000 miles a year, in all kinds of weather, on all kinds of roads. I felt I was unstoppable. I trusted my body, I trusted my mind, and I trusted my bike-handling capabilities. From time to time, I rode without a helmet, especially when I went out on a relaxing, easy recovery ride, or a casual, short ride to work.

On one of those days, I collided with a truck, on a short, steep descent. The truck's driver had decided to make a rolling stop at an intersection without fully acknowledging oncoming traffic... me, on my bike, was the only oncoming traffic, and I was doing about 35 mph. I couldn't stop in time. When I crashed, I fell off the bike and landed head-first onto the pavement, fracturing my skull and traumatically injuring my brain. When I stopped rolling down the road, I became unconscious--in fact, comatose--in about 5 seconds.

I thank God that a doctor and his wife were driving on the road that day, found me, and contacted Flight for Life. If it weren't for them... well, you get the picture. I spent the next two weeks in a coma. After waking out of the coma, I needed another 6 months of rehabilitation, physical therapy, speech therapy, and neuropsycological therapy. Even after all that, I'll still be recovering from that crash for years to come. One of my ears is now deaf, and I suffer from seizures, both due to nerve damage. What is more, my brain now has enough scar tissue in it that my speech, reading, and comprehension abilities are suffering.

Today, I still ride, although not nearly as much, and not nearly as hard as I once did. My experience taught me to always wear a helmet, regardless of how casual a ride I'm going on. Although I trust myself still, I realized that I have no control over anyone else on the road. It might seem cynical, but I learned to not expect others to watch for me on the bike. It took a life-changing injury to make me realize that.

Please, wear a helmet when you ride! Don't learn the hard way, like I did.

Nov 01, 2009 01:18 PM
I certainly wouldn't trust my noggin to a used helmet!
Bike Helmet - Very Good Idea
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Nolan Patrick Veesart
Nov 02, 2009 02:43 PM
Chronolgy has caught up with me as well. When you short on talent, you'll be glad you have some crash gear on. Go to a bike shop that caters to commuters and everyday bicycle riders (that would be about 99% of bike riders) rather than racers. There are some very cool helmets on the market now that you can wear without looking like a space alien.
used safety gear?
Nov 03, 2009 02:39 PM
Wow, really? A two dollar and fifty cent used helmet? Huh. Well, that $37.50 you saved will come in handy for that ct scan...