October 24, 2014 § 25 Comments
I came across a cyclist’s traffic law rant a couple of days ago. You can click on the link, or read my summary below:
- He obeys the traffic laws (mostly)
- Riders on his group ride break the traffic laws
- Riders on his group ride endanger pedestrians on the bike path
- Cyclists are their own worst enemy
- He’s gonna quit riding with those wankers
This is a common mix-and-mash polemic bruited by many cyclists, and it combines good points with utter horseshit. The good things are obvious — masses of cyclists who race down a shared-use bike path are endangering weaker, less protected pedestrians. That’s no more acceptable than racing your car on the street. Because you are “training” or in a hurry or because you have to win the sprunt doesn’t make it okay to endanger others.
From there, however, lots of cyclists fall off the logic cliff, and it’s very rocky down below. First, traffic law violations on the street, where a group of cyclists runs a red light or stop sign, are not what causes most accidents. Most collisions between bike and car are caused by car. In non-car accidents, bicyclists typically fall off their bicycles due to road conditions or bike handling errors, not because they were scofflaws.
Here are some examples from the last few days alone:
- Droopy-headed rider hit magnolia seed cone on group ride. Shoutypants, riding behind Droopy, braked. Dreamy, riding behind Shoutypants, wasn’t paying attention, and slammed into Shoutypants, whose face splatted against the pavement. This is a group ride where red-light running is endemic. In three years, and despite thousands of blown red lights, not a single rider has fallen off his bicycle or been hit by a car due to running a red light. Not once.
- Rider 1 was carefully descending from the college. Road construction crew had failed to remove incredibly deep and dangerous sand from the edge and center of the roadway. The sand, from recent paving, was the same color as the new asphalt and almost invisible. Rider 1 slid out, broke his collarbone and three ribs.
- Rider 2 was descending by the accident scene of Rider 1. Rider 2 also hit the sand and broke her pelvis.
- Dude in Santa Monica got doored, separated his shoulder and trashed his $10k bike.
- Rider on Newport Coast Drive was hit by a drunk driver and suffered catastrophic injuries.
- Rider dropping down the hill to the MB Pier almost got taken out by right-turning cager who didn’t see the cyclist next to him.
- Rider slipped on some sand on the bike path and fell off her bicycle.
These aren’t cherry-picked examples; I could easily add a hundred similar incidents. But I couldn’t give you one — not one — example of a cyclist who either got hit or who fell off his bike because he ran a stop sign or a red light. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, so please feel free not to email me your personal experience of how you fell off your bike when you scofflawed a stop sign.
The point is that you need to STFU when it comes to correlating traffic safety to obeying stop signs and red lights. Obeying traffic laws is good for lots of reasons, and having rules within your group makes for better group rides. But the reason people get hit by cars isn’t because they scofflaw. Bikers mostly get hit because cagers don’t see them — they’re impaired, they’re texting, or the cyclist is invisible, hugging the shoulder in a deathgrip.
The idea that cagers will hit cyclists because they “hate us for running stop signs” is as silly as the idea that motorists hit pedestrians because they hate them for stepping out of the crosswalk. For the most part, cagers hit things they don’t see, and if you’re really concerned about not being hit, the best step you can take is to run a bright headlamp and taillight every time you cycle.
Many riders have the mentality of second-class citizens, claiming that motorists “hate” them because they break the law. Newsflash: most of them don’t hate you, and the ones who do are going to hate you whether you stop or not. You, as a bicycle rider, are an annoyance every time you slow down a car or cause a cager to have to do something other than mash the gas pedal and point the car. Stopping at stop signs won’t make you less of an annoyance when you slow down a car, although the cagers might not mutter “fucker” under their breath like they do when you scofflaw through four red lights while salmoning up a one-way street.
Cyclists are not their own worst enemy. Cyclists’ worst enemy is something called a “car.”
If you want to follow the law and set rules for your group, then do so. If your group is a crazy bunch of marauding stop sign killers and that sets your teeth on edge, go ride somewhere else, start your own group, or go to the group at the beginning of the ride and tell them to quit scofflawing. If they laugh, tell you to FO, or shell you on the first climb, then go pedal elsewhere. But quit calling me my own worst enemy, because my worst enemy is beer.
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October 21, 2014 § 12 Comments
It was Friday. I decided to pedal down to the Center of the Known Universe and have a cup of coffee. The sun was shining and it was in the high 60’s. Why go on a “serious” bike ride when you could leisurely pedal along the strand, taking in the waves, the surfers, the volleyball players, and the last few thongs of fall?
I reached CotKU in a great mood, shelled out $1.75 for a bad cup of coffee, and parked my rear on the bricks as an endless stream of talent ambled by. On the far side of the street stood an old man, waiting for the signal to cross. The light changed and he began limping across the street. His face was set in a scowl, but even though the light turned red long before he reached my side of the street, the turning cars and oncoming traffic waited patiently.
He got to the bricks and scowled some more. “Can I make sitting here?” he gruffly asked.
“Sure, pal. Sitting’s free.”
He sat down and scowled for a few moments, his angry eyes darting at the blue sky, the blue ocean, and the talent. I sipped my coffee. “Hey, you fella,” he said.
“Yes?” I answered.
“I gonna question for you.”
“Shoot,” I said.
“Let’s me say I was walking on a path down by this beach.”
“And let’s me say that some dumb bastard son of bitch on bicycle hits me and I fall onto a floor.”
“Sounds very reasonable.”
“So I’m lying on floor and some dumb bastard son of bitch on bicycle runs away from me and I’m me leaving there lying on a goddamned floor.”
“That sounds reasonable, too. Bad, but reasonable.”
“I’m lying on floor with broken goddamn ribs, I have three of them. You know how much it goddamn hurt trying to sleep on broken rib?”
“It hurt a goddamn bastard lot, that how much. And I’m lying there on a floor hurting like goddamn bastard and a walker man walks by and you know what he say?”
“He say to me ‘Are you okay, fellow?’ Can you believe a dumb bastard like that? And I say ‘What you think I’m okay, I’m lying on a floor with goddamn broke rib you dumb son of bitch. You can’t say anything more smart than that why don’t you keep your stupid mouth shut?”
“Then what did he do?”
“He go off and leave me there.”
“Sounds extremely reasonable.”
“So I got question for you.”
“You a riding on a bike kind of fella, eh? So if you run me over like a goddamn bastard and knock me onto a floor, how come you ride off like nothing happen? This country gone to shit because of you biker.”
“You’re asking me what I would do? Or you’re asking me if I’ve ever hit-and-run on a pedestrian?”
“I’m asking why everyone such a dumb bastard. You can’t say something makes a good sense, why don’t you keep a goddamn mouth shut?”
I thought about answering, but realized that it would probably fall into the “dumb bastard keep a goddamn mouth shut” category, so I kept browsing the talent and sipping my coffee.
“My rib hurt so goddamn much if I had a gun I shoot every goddamn bicycle in Manhattan Goddamn Beach.”
I glanced to make sure he wasn’t going to pull out a pistol and punctuate the conversation by shooting me in the head.
“And I gonna tell you something else, fella,” he said. My coffee was only half gone, but it didn’t taste good anymore.
“No, fella, you aren’t.” I pitched the cup in the trash, threw a leg over my bike, and started rolling down the hill. The bike gained momentum as it left behind the angry little black cloud sitting back there on the bricks. And then it hit me. It was still a beautiful goddamn day.
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October 20, 2014 § 12 Comments
Weekend wankers often wonder, “What makes the pros special?” and its corollary, “Why is that other wanker always ahead of me?”
The first question has been tackled in this blog post; read it if you really and truly haven’t been able to figure out why pros are fast and you are slow. The only things the writer left off the list are –
- They are young, you are old.
- They have good genes, you have blue jeans.
- They use drugs to enhance performance, you use drugs to perform enhancement
Along the same lines, there is a reason that the same hackers on the weekend ride keep beating you, and will always beat you.
- Beer. You are a drunk, and the people who beat you are not. For example, when Boozy, Smasher, and I sat down after the Donut Ride with a giant box of donuts and two cases of IPA, it was still only 10:30 AM. Ollie, who had crushed the ride and left everyone in tatters, politely declined our post-ride invitation and went home to put on his compression boots and sleep for six hours in an oxygen tent.
- Fatness. You are fat, and the people who beat you are skinny. For example, when Stathis the Wily Greek pedals away from you 5 mph faster going up a steep grade, the last thing you will see are the intricate vascular patterns on his calves and thighs. The last thing he will see when he passes you are several folds of a soft, white, jiggly tissue commonly found on whales.
- Meanness. You are nice, and the people who beat you are cruel. For example, when you are on the rivet on the SPY Thursday morning ride, hanging by a thread to MMX’s wheel, he will never ease off. Instead, he will carefully judge your state by listening to the rapidly increasing sound of your breathing, and then twist the pedals just hard enough to kick you out the back. He will really enjoy it, like plucking the legs off an insect while leisurely roasting it to death with a lighter.
- Goals. The people who beat you have racing/performance goals, but your goal is to beat everyone to the fridge. For example, after our first case of IPA and box of donuts for breakfast yesterday, Boozy announced that next year he would go on a diet and get motivated. However, when he woke up a few hours later, he didn’t remember it and instead asked if there was still any ice cream in the freezer.
- Fear. You are afraid of getting dropped, and the people who beat you are afraid of being seen in your vicinity. For example, when Rudy shows up on the ride you cower and hide from the front, fearing lots of leg-pulling-off as described in #3 above. He, however, fears that merely being around you for more than a second or two will be proof that that his career is nearly over, and he will therefore pedal quickly away.
- Excuses. You have many, and the people who beat you have few. For example, when Boozy, Smasher, and I were finishing our second breakfast case of IPA (but before Mrs. WM had come home from Zumba and thrown us out), we agreed that we would have totally won the Donut Ride if Boozy had used a different bike, Smasher had not bonked when he saw someone else start eating a gel, and I had been on a motorcycle.
- Teammates. Yours suck and theirs don’t. For example, the only people I had to help me yesterday were Olive and Stanley, two chihuahuas who occasionally provide contract work services for my law firm on complex litigation matters. They didn’t even bother to show up for the ride, much less pace me up to the leaders. The Wily Greek, on the other hand, had 72 riders blocking for him by falling off their bicycles and gumming up the chase with ambulances and police vehicles.
There’s very little you can do to change any of this, by the way, with the exception of a good 12-step program. And hey, it’s almost lunch time.
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October 17, 2014 § 7 Comments
The alarm went off at 4:00 AM. I had barely recovered from the NPR thrashing of the day before, and hurriedly gulped my coffee in order to make the 6:30 start time of the Thursday SPY ride in Encinitas. In addition to my busy pro masters off-season group ride schedule, which would be a big part of my resume for the coming year, I also had some serious business matters to attend to regarding a couple of employees who live and work for my firm in North County San Diego.
The ride started gently but finished like every grisly airplane accident: Body parts strewn about the asphalt, muffled groans of the survivors, and horrified looks of impending death carved into the ghoulish faces of the dead. The raging attacks of Abate, Full-Gas Phil, Dandy, Stefanovich, MMX, and Smasher reduced the 50-strong group to less than ten riders at the end.
After the ride, Abate, Smasher, and I pedaled around aimlessly until we found donuts. A fat, greasy, sugary bag of dough later we pedaled some more and said good-bye. I still had my serious business matter on my mind, and it wasn’t going to be pleasant. My associates had frankly been under-performing in some key metrics. Although we’d had a number of performance reviews, nothing changed.
Oliver would always say, “Yes, sir, I understand, I’ll start doing [ ---- ] right away,” but he never did.
Stanley, on the other hand, would want to debate things. “That’s not how it happened,” or “You need to take into consideration the fact that … “
It was very frustrating to have these guys collecting a paycheck and refusing to do what they were told. Very frustrating. And since they’d been with me for a couple of years, and I’d invested considerably in their training, it was going to be hard to let them go.
“What should I do?” I asked Smasher.
“You should have a beer.”
“It’s 8:45 AM.”
“Okay, then you should have two.”
“Only a terrible alcoholic would have beer before nine o’clock, and only a hideously terrible alcoholic would know where to find any.”
“There’s a little cafe near my place,” he said. “They serve great breakfasts and cold beer.”
We went to the cafe and ordered. The “breakfast” was a scrambled egg in a paper cup and a piece of cardboard painted to look like toast. The beer, on the other hand, was tap-fresh Stone IPA served in iced glasses. After a couple, the employee problem didn’t look so bad.
“Look,” said Smasher, who shares an apartment with my associates. “They aren’t bad, they just aren’t super motivated. Some things they do well, other things, not so much. Focus on their attributes, try to see it from their perspective.”
We had two more pints, then another two, then threw away the cardboard and eggs. “Let’s walk over to your place,” I said. “Now’s as good a time as any to have the talk.”
“Agreed,” he said. Through the fog I could see three or four other early morning customers washing down their AM beer with cardboard.
“What a bunch of drunks,” I said disgustedly to Smasher.
We reached Smasher’s place and the associates were there. They knew I meant business, but no matter how much they wagged their tails I didn’t crack so much as a smile.
We sat down on the couch. “Look, guys,” I said. Then I faltered. “I’m gonna take a quick nap and then we’re going to have to talk business.”
I stretched out on the couch and fell asleep for thirty minutes or four hours. As I lay there I could feel the warm furry little bodies of Oliver and Stanley curled up around my feet, which went from cold to toasty. They snuggled against my leg, repositioning only to increase the toasty-leg-factor.
When I awoke they opened their eyes, then came over to lick my nose. “Let’s get to work guys, shall we?” I said.
They nodded and bounded downstairs. All good.
October 15, 2014 § 16 Comments
I got a problem. It’s kind of hard to explain but basically I am sick of my team and want to tell them to fuck off without hurting their feelings but also can I keep my bike and shoes and helmet until my new team gives me my new stuff for ’15?
Breaking up is hard to do, but there is a humane way to let people know that you don’t like them even though you like their bikes and money and stuff. First, make sure the new team will take you. It’s bad karma to jump ship without having secured a landing place, otherwise you will probably land in a pile of shit. Second, well, there is no second.
Dear Wanky Dude:
I really like my current team, but there is another team that will give me more shit than my current team. What should I do?
Swag > Loyalty. Duh.
I hate team drama. One guy on our team is mad at some other guy on our team and the other guy is mad at the people who are mad at some other people. All I want to do is race my bike and be a professional masters racer. Also, our team deal isn’t the greatest. We only get a $10k bike for $3k, and aside from the four free kits and skinsuit and shoes and discounted wheels and free nutritional supplements (all of which are pretty much legal), all we get are race reimbursements and half-off tires and free helmets, along with team t-shirts and podium hats and jackets and free socks and a full winter kit and free performance eyewear. The winter kit is bullshit because we live in SoCal. I want to be a good team member but I can’t help feeling like I’m getting screwed. I placed in the top-20 three times last year, and got a top-10 placing in the Festering Pustule Race Series as a 55+ Cat 3 Masters racer. Should I be angling for a better deal, or is this pretty much the best I can hope for? Kind of sucks, right?
You aren’t getting screwed, you’re getting raped. Most SoCal masters racers with your pedigree command all the above plus a free TT bike and track bike and ‘cross bike along with a monthly stipend of $500 to cover beer and Uber/Lyft to and from your favorite dive bar. You should sit down with your team director and calmly go over your race resume. Remember not to shout or to call him a “fucking moron d-bag.” Also, remind him that 2015 will be your breakout year. You got this, bro.
October 9, 2014 § 21 Comments
When Manslaughter, Surfer, Pablo, and Boozy showed up for this morning’s Wednesday Waffle ride, we didn’t immediately notice the wanker sitting off to the side in his anonymous blue-and-black kit. As we pedaled off I saw him roll out with us.
“Daniel!” I said as I recognized him. “You coming with us?”
“Sure,” he said with a grin.
It’s not often that the best bike racer in America shows up for a mid-week flailfest designed primarily to see how much abuse a road bike can take in an MTB environment before the bike fails, the rider falls, or both. That’s “not often” as in “never.” But Daniel Holloway isn’t like other champions.
As we rode along the deadliest, most technical part of the ride — a pan-flat bike path with one flat right-turn into a parking lot — Surfer took the opportunity to show us some skilz, which involved him falling on his butt, scraping his elbow, bending his derailleur, and creating a location on the bike path that will henceforth be known forever as Cobley’s Corner.
Holloway was immediately behind him, and I couldn’t believe that he hadn’t also fallen down and run over Surfer’s aorta. “How’d you keep from running over his aorta?” I asked.
Holloway looked at me funny and said, “As we approached the turn I was looking at his front hub and it was going at a funny angle and then I realized that he was going sort of fast, and even though you couldn’t see any sand in the turn we were on the bike path, and the bike path is surrounded on both sides by beach sand, so I just eased up a bit so that when he started to fall I was able to go straight and not hit …”
“His aorta?” I asked.
“Um, yeah, sure,” said Holloway. “His aorta.” He looked over at Boozy and Manslaughter but they gave him that look that says “Don’t worry he always talks like that just ignore it and it will go away.”
Since Surfer, who’s pretty good at not falling off his bike and has great off road skills, had fallen off his bike in a corner that most four-year-olds could negotiate blind, the pressure was off for the rest of the day for the rest of us. Now we could fall off our bikes with abandon and not feel too badly about it.
I first met Holloway late last year when he was in SoCal getting in some work at the Carson velodrome before shipping out for the Euro 6-day season. He had shown up on the NPR wearing a Mike’s Bikes kit that was unusual except for the red-white-blue stripes sewn onto his sleeve.
“Who’s that wanker?” I wondered, along with, “wonder where on eBay he found those stripes and I wonder if I could buy a set for myself, too?”
It turns out that “that wanker” was the fastest guy in America, which is fine and all that. But what was unusual, aside from the fact that he kept showing up to ride with the flea-bitten common herd was the fact that after the rides he’d pedal over to CotKU and hang out. It was Phil Tinstman-esque … a guy who’s head and shoulders above everyone else but is humble, fun, and down to earth.
Whoever Mike’s Bikes was, they had a guy who was making them look more than good. He wasn’t simply going above and beyond for the team that was paying his salary, he seemed to enjoy it. After meeting him I went home and bought twelve Mike’s Bikes jerseys, a Mike’s Bike multitool, four gallons of Mike’s Bikes chain and sex lube, and a gross of Mike’s Bikes spare tires. I was stoked.
In the times since we met that he’s ridden with us hackers, it has amazed me how he listens patiently to the sorry, delusional ramblings of 50-plus wankers and their pathetic pleas for coaching help. “So, Daniel, how can I get to the next level?”
“Which level is that?”
“You know, I want to go like Wiggins in a TT.”
Instead of saying “Consider purchasing a motorcycle,” he shares what he knows in amazing detail, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that he’s a hard-core advocate of clean cycling.
He’s also up for a crazy good time, as today’s ride showed. When we caught up to Manslaughter atop Sullivan Ridge, he was standing in front of a narrow chute that plunged off the side of the mountain to a place that resembled Horrible Injury, or maybe it was Certain Death. “Wanna try this little single track?” Manslaughter asked. “It’s called Joe Jr. Drop.”
“Where does it go?” I asked.
“Down to the old Nazi camp.”
“Sure,” I said. “Leaping off an unpaved cliff on a road bike into a Nazi camp. What could possibly go right?”
As I launched off the edge Manslaughter said, “Yo, Wanky. You might want to close the … “
I didn’t hear him, but soon figured out that he meant the little thingy on the side of the rear brake, which I always keep wide open and which now, on a steep, sandy, twisting trail wasn’t really slowing me down. At all. Fortunately, on MTB trails there are lots of things besides brakes to slow you down, and the one that worked quickest and most effectively for me was a big tree.
I fell off my bike, got up, and then braked again with a patented maneuver called, “I’m very afraid right now of falling so I’ll just fall down right here even though it’s straight and obstacle-free to get it over with.”
Also, who knew that road bikes didn’t work well on sandy, steep single track? Just before we reached the bottom, Manslaughter yelled back at us. “Hey, you’re almost done. But watch the last turn, it’s technical.”
Holloway, who was in front of me, took note of the danger, then fell off his bike and skidded down the last few feet on his shoulder, with his handlebar stabbing painfully into his knee. We sat on a rock wall and watched him take stock, pleased at having ruined the lucrative Euro 6-day season of America’s top rider without having done hardly any injury to ourselves. Apparently, though, he was going to live, although a giant, 4-inch, purple bruise-welt-charley-horse on his knee was growing larger by the second.
“If we call Life Flight,” I said, “you’ll at least set the KOM going back up.”
We rode through the old Nazi camp and over a trail filled with giant shards of razor shale, then climbed a twisty, steep wall back up to Sullivan Ridge, then rode to the ICBM site, then continued down the dirt trail until it dumped out at Mandeville. When we returned to Manhattan Beach we parked at Brewco and fought the recession with several well-timed beer purchases and plates of nachos.
Through it all, Holloway was good-natured, and didn’t seem bothered that we had ruined his career by taking him down a path that no sane person would have done on a road bike. He was a professional, friendly guy who exuded friendliness and goodwill.
Now that is a champion.
October 8, 2014 § 56 Comments
I once knew a right-wing-whackjob from Clarendon, Texas, who ran the local paper. It was called the Clarendon Enterprise, and you might think that the name was a testament to the free market glory hole. However, when you went into Roger Estlack’s office, you noticed a giant poster of the spaceship that carried Kirk and Spock to parts unknown, including, presumably, Mr. Sulu’s. The Texas Panhandle’s most fervent supporter of conservatism was apparently inspired not by the U.S. Constitution but by the aliens. At least that’s the message I took back home.
Roger’s favorite target was any piece of legislation that was “for the children,” and nothing could get a good, old-fashioned boil of foam spewing out of his mouth quicker than a policy to protect “the children.” One time the Texas Ag Commissioner tried to regulate french fries in schools, pointing out that grease-soaked lard grenades were hardly good for developing little bodies.
Roger mercilessly ridiculed the Nanny State. “We survived drinking from garden hoses, we survived bikes without helmets, and we even survived french fries, so get your stinking government out of my kid’s life!” he railed, or something to that effect. He was a childless bachelor at the time.
Of course, once Roger got married and had kids, he never again ridiculed children or measures for their protection as far as I ever saw, but that’s a different story. He probably drives his kids to school and fearfully checks out the school playground to make sure the equipment there is safe.
At the other end of the spectrum from Roger there are the bike helmet nannies, people who go absolutely berserk when someone shows up without a helmet, as I did last Sunday on a big ride commemorating the death of a local cyclist. The day before I’d come close to passing out from heatstroke, and rather than head out to the frying pan of West LA and Mulholland Drive with my helmet in place I chose to do what I did almost every day of my life from 1982 until 2005: I hopped on my bike and pedaled happily away without a helmet.
My history with helmets is a checkered one. I opposed the hardshell helmet rule when the USCF passed it in 1985 or 1986, and got suspended for a few months after writing a very rude and offensive letter to cycling officialdom stating my displeasure. What can I say? I was dumb. I reluctantly wore helmets in races, and refused to wear one anywhere else.
It was only in 2005, when I started riding in Houston and people on the local group ride became virulently hostile and physically threatening that I caved in and started wearing a helmet. My refusal to wear one was worse than making some kind of personal statement. They took it as a person attack on them, something that threatened their safety. (Huh?) Unhelmeted I was called an “asshole,” a “fucking idiot,” a “crazy bastard,” and was insulted as well.
No matter how much I hated helmets, I hated being yelled at incessantly and eventually gave in to peer pressure at least during group rides. Little by little it became a habit until one day, October 25, 2013, I fell off my bicycle at 40 mph and landed square on my head. I can’t say that the helmet saved my life, but it certainly saved me from certain brain damage. More, I mean.
Although there is pretty good science that says current helmet designs can cause as much damage as they can prevent injury, the existence of MIPS technology seems to finally have turned a corner and created a helmet that can protect from direct, straight-line force injuries, and can also protect from low impact rotational brain trauma, the primary cause of concussions. In other words, with the right helmet you’re pretty much safer with it than without it.
But it’s a funny word, “safer,” because you certainly give up a few things when you strap on a lid. Descending Mulholland without a helmet at 40 with a gaggle of idiots as you leap chugholes and bounce off of loose rocks, you will — I promise — ride as if your life depended on every pedal stroke. Vulnerability begets care, and up to a point care is the best safety precaution ever invented. Second, when you click the chinstrap you give up some simple sensory pleasures. Most people will never know the feeling of having the wind in their hair. At 40. Going downhill. On a bike.
And they’ll be poorer for it.
But the biggest tradeoff is this: When you choose safety, you give up the benefits that come from taking risk and surviving it. This is no small thing, especially in the world of bicycling, where at its outset you are climbing aboard a 15-lb. piece of plastic and navigating narrow spaces with cars and trucks. And as Arik Kadosh never tires of pointing out, you’re doing it with protective gear that is the functional equivalent of underwear.
If someone is truly concerned about safety as their guiding star, why would they ride bikes on the road in a group? The answer is that safety really isn’t the primary factor, or, more likely, safety is a big factor and in general riding a bike is pretty darn safe whether you’re helmeted or not.
The elephant in the room vis-a-vis safety isn’t just the basic risk of bike v. car, though. It’s also the risk that I call “equipment choice.” Several of the people who berated me for my failure to wear a helmet were riding on bicycle wheels made for 120-lb. Tour climbers. I’d contend that a 190-lb. rider bombing down Latigo or Mulholland or any other long, fast descent in the LA hills on a fiery hot day while seated atop an ultralight pair of carbon tubulars is taking a much bigger risk than I did riding without a helmet. My 32-spoke aluminum box-rim Mavic OpenPro clinchers with lightly worn 25 mm tires are, in that regard at least, a much bigger commitment to safety than the big boys and big girls riding ultralight race wheels.
And then, when you talk about bike safety, the two safest things you can do are 1) ride with a bright headlight and tail light at all times, and 2) take lane instead of cowering in the gutter. So it struck me as funny that people who don’t really maximize their own safety would find my helmet-less attire so offensive, ostensibly because of the danger.
Of course none of this is to encourage people to ride without helmets. People should analyze risk and act accordingly, which means, overwhelmingly, that people should wear helmets. But in some cases, the danger and the thrill and the freedom that come from being out on the edge add meaning and pleasure to your life in a way that safety, by definition, cannot. Even if riding helmetless for a single afternoon is a pretty low-risk act, having people behave as if it’s like jumping the Snake River Canyon seated behind Evel Knievel makes it ten times more exciting than it would otherwise be. Where else can you get the thrill of feeling like the lead gangster in the Hell’s Angels as a 50-year old guy with a droopy bosom and saggy tummy except by riding around on a bicycle in your underwear without a helmet?
“That Wanky … he’s a fucking idiot … and that’s daaaaaaaangerous!!!” Yes to the one, not necessarily to the other.
There is profound fun to be had doing things that other people call suicidal and dangerous, especially when, like last Sunday, it’s probably neither. Whether you’re salmoning up Tuna Canyon or heating your rims on the Las Flores descent, though, danger is sometimes its own reward, a reward much sweeter than anything you’ll get on the bike path. The thrill of danger is more than a nutty person’s weird behavior. A maxim from one of the oldest, deadliest professions says, with great wisdom, “Safe harbors make poor sailors.”
In other words, there’s a balance between doing things that may kill you and learning from the risk, and being a fraidy cat who starts and squawks every time he hears a mouse fart. It’s why people who race bikes in mass start events have generally better bike handling skills than the freddie in the recumbent who never deviates from the bike path. Not that one’s better than the other, except, when it comes to bike skills, one of them probably is. It doesn’t mean the better bike handler will live longer or have fewer crashes or make more money or have more fun, but it does mean that if you want better skills you have be put in challenging and, yes, dangerous situations.
So is riding helmetless a good way to improve your bike skills? Uh, no.
But the same impulse that lets you say “Oh, fuck it,” and pedal without a lid may be the same impulse that lets you line up and do a race, or try a challenging downhill course, or have a go at a job opening you would have never considered otherwise. Risk, danger, failure, disappointment, injury, and death can be really bad outcomes, but sometimes the only way to claw your way to the other side where you’re awaited by comfort, success, satisfaction, health, and vigorous living involves doing things that, taken by themselves, are ostensibly stupid and unnecessarily risky.
One good friend wrote to say that he didn’t want to start a debate when he saw me without a helmet, but his concern was purely selfish. He wanted me around because he liked me.
I assured him that this wasn’t a new retro-retro-protest movement, and I didn’t intend to repeat my bad behavior any time soon. I’d even been wrong about the weather that day; it never got particularly hot. But at the same time, after being scolded by so many well-meaning people, I did feel like I’d dodged a bullet, cheated death, somehow done something a little bit daring and wild.
You know, like when we rode bikes as children, and riding without a helmet wasn’t considered dangerous, it was just considered being a kid. And no one ever considered that kind of bike safety … for the chillllldren.