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.
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May 3, 2012 § 11 Comments
I got the following letter from Colin Baden, CEO of Oakley, and in the interest of fair and balanced journalism (a despicable concept), I have decided to share.
Dear Mr. Wankmeister:
The chief director of our marketing program, Jean-Luc Francois de Peeperville-aux-Faible, brought to my attention that you have been publishing what can only be described as one-sided, ludicrous, offensive calumnies in regard to my firm’s fine products. Moreover, you openly admit to having an incestuous relationship with one of our minor competitors in which you receive “swag” for favorable reviews. This is contemptible. However, I take this opportunity to challenge you, Mr. Wankmeister, to do two things. First, provide my firm with equal time so that we can explain to your reader what it is we do and our corporate philosophy. Second, provide us with some of the same publicity for our upcoming Cinco de Mayo Ride that you have provided to the Belgian Waffle Ride, an event promoted by the previously mentioned insignificant competitors about whom we are not even remotely concerned. I’ve attached a PDF of our ride’s flyer for your review. I look forward to speaking with you in person.
Colin Baden, CEO
So…what’s a Wankmeister gonna do with a missive like that? First of all, I’m posting the ride flyer. That’s it, to your left. Hope you’re getting all frothy at the chance to ride with a dork on a steel bike. Second, I’m posting the transcript of my interview with Mr. Baden. Enjoy.
Telephone: [Ring, Ring]
Oakley HQ: Bonjour!
WM: Uh, hello. May I speak with Mr. Baden?
Oakley HQ: Personne ici parle Anglais. Avec quien voudrais-vous parler?
WM: Huh? Does anyone here speak English? Mr. Baden, please.
Oakley: Joosst a meenoot, please.
CB: This is Colin.
WM: Yo, Colin. Wankmeister here. ‘Sup, dude?
CB: Oh, thanks for calling. I was hoping to get a chance to speak with you.
WM: I see you’ve got this Cinco de Mayo ride thing, hot on the heels of SPY’s Belgian Waffle Ride. I take it you’re a Mexican?
WM: Cinco de Mayo. It’s a Mexican national holiday. Celebrates the defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla.
CB: Defeat of the French? That’s terrible! Everybody loves France! I’m an honorary French citizen! I thought it was a taco and beer festival. We’re trying to use this event, along with co-sponsor Rapha, to promote our vision of what we want cycling to become.
WM: What’s that, exactly?
CB: It’s a new concept. It’s called Bike Looking.
WM: Bike Looking?
CB: Sure. It started in France, out of a collaboration with Luigi Martini della Pottbelli, the Italian women’s underwear designer who came up with the Assos Zegho, and Nigel Cloddingham, the British ballerina who designs for Rapha. They realized that rather than all of this sweaty, nasty, unpleasant exercise that’s involved when you have to pedal the bicycle, wouldn’t it be better if we could just get people all in one place with really elegant, pretty, perfectly tailored bicycle clothing, and have them stand around admiring each other’s polished new bicycles while updating FB over cappucinos? Of course, with an idea like that, the first partner they thought of was Oakley. We were flattered to be a part of it. It’s our vision of what cycling should be.
WM: Uh, sounds really fucking stupid, I mean, interesting. So, tell me about the Cinco de Mayo ride. 42 miles around a bunch of fucking Irvine business parks? What self-respecting cyclist would do that shit?
CB: We wanted to do something that I could also participate in. Not some long, arduous, he-man type ride where everyone got sweaty and dirty and where you had to train for a year type thing. More something suited to, you know, the average person. Here at Oakley we’re all about average.
WM: I see that you’re providing beer by, uh, Tecate, whereas SPY’s BWR had local craft beer with a custom BWR batch and label. What’s the thinking behind Tecate?
CB: Glad you asked. Tecate is owned by Heineken, a multi-billion dollar global conglomerate that specializes in selling urine-flavored beverages on the strength of clever, large market, mass advertising. We like how they think. Do you drink your own urine, by any chance?
WM: Uh, not usually.
CB: You should try it some time. It’s sterile.
WM: Uh, yeah, sure. So, uh, moving along, dude. SPY’s CEO is a Cat 1 ‘cross racer, national caliber ex-marathoner, accomplished surfer, and world record holder of the Beer Mile. This seems to inform SPY’s approach to its product: active, polarizing, irreverent, walking the talk. Could you tell me a little bit about your cycling background?
CB: Ah, well, I, um, er…
WM: Which USCF category do you currently race?
WM: Never mind. I’ve noticed that at all of the local races here in SoCal, one of your big competitors, SPY, has a very visible and supportive presence. They sponsor teams, give out lots of free shit, put on epic events, have a rad van. It’s very grass roots. What is Oakley doing to counter this?
CB: SPY? SPY? Don’t make me laugh. Please. Let me put this in perspective. I’m very much into music. Are you?
WM: A little. Not much.
CB: Okay. Look at it like this. I like to tell people that Oakley is Barry Manilow. Platinum records. World famous. 800-lb gorilla with plastic surgery and a hairpiece. Sequins. Loved by chubby, middle-aged housewives everywhere. SPY is a garage band. Get it?
WM: You mean, like the Yardbirds?
WM: The Yardbirds. They used to be a garage band back in the 60’s.
CB: Exactly. How funny! What a funny name! The Yardbirds! Yes, exactly! SPY is the Yardbirds! We’re going to use that! Good one, Mr. Wankmeister!
WM: Moving along, dude. Is Oakley planning on doing anything on the local bike racing level in terms of sponsorship? Out on my rides, fucking everyone’s wearing SPY.
CB: No. We never give product or discounts to the local yokels.
WM: Why not?
CB: We believe that the way to sell our product is by making it inaccessible. So we sponsor the best racers in the world, knowing that the grubby guys and girls who are out there racing these criterions–that’s a kind of bike race–and the local roading races, mountaining races, stuff like that, those people will have to buy our product. I’m an architect by training. Build it and they will come.
WM: I see. Now, on the technology front. SPY apparently has some pretty exciting and innovative technologies. Can you tell me a little about Oakley’s R&D?
CB: Our what?
WM: R&D. Research and Development.
CB: Oh, that! Sure. Our researchers spend literally thousands of hours posing with different frame prototypes in order to find out which ones look the best at cafes and apres-ski. One of our newest frames, the SagSider, is assymetrically designed so that you can tilt your head onto the palm of your hand to get that silky, “Do me, doody” look without the frame looking whomperjawed up against your tilted head. We spent months at some of the finest milk bars in Europe to develop this look. It’s going to be a smash with our Bike Looking project launch. Rapha’s designed a special “Gentleman’s Kit” with a little bow-tie that goes with it, and you can switch out the flares on the bow-tie to match the interchangeable lenses.
WM: What about lens research? You know, improving the actual lenses to protect the eye, improve sport performance, provide better vision?
CB: I told you I’m an architect. And a pretty out of shape one, at that! Ha-ha! All this sitting makes my back hurt. Sorry. What were you saying?
WM: Nothing. So, any other plans to counter the SPY insurgency?
CB: Can I talk with you off the record?
WM: Fuck, dude, my middle name is “Discretion.”
CB: We’re working with a lady from Jamaica, Obeah Wanga de Igbo. She specializes in remote counter-marketing strategies.
CB: Yes. We provide her with a photo of the CEO of the competing firm, and she provides us with special phrases and tools to bring them to their knees. We start out with pushpins, then graduate to full scale, three-dimensional dolls and needles. I have to say, I think it’s working.
WM: Uh, yeah. Right. Well, good luck with that Cinco de Mayo Ride. I’m sure it will be a big success. And have a can of urine for me, okay?
CB: See you there?
WM: Um…you never know.
August 28, 2011 § 3 Comments
I was coming back from the Kettle Ride today with Taylor and Mike on the bike path that connects Washington Blvd. with Admiralty. A couple of hundred yards before the crosswalk on Admiralty there was a lady sitting in the grass, her beach cruiser flopped on its side not far from where she sat. Three firemen were hunched around her–there’s a fire station right across the street–and the howl of an approaching ambulance got louder.
I glanced at her as we passed. Beginning at the top of her forehead, where a properly fitted bicycle helmet would have covered her skull, and running down to her lower cheek was a giant pulpy smush of blood and skin and meat. It looked like an angry stonemason had punched her in the face with a large, steel-encrusted ham. Her boyfriend, similarly helmet-less, stood off to the side wringing his hands.
I reflected for a moment on the fate of a friend who had been taken out by a left-turning motorist who “didn’t see” the bicycle as she was texting behind the wheel. He had shot over the hood, into the windshield, and then straight up into the air, landing on the back of his head. The difference between him and the gal on the bike path is that he was wearing a helmet, and it had absorbed the entire blow, leaving him with a mild concussion. The girl on the bike path was going to need reconstructive surgery to put the top of her face and head back together.
Ain’t No Bicycle Crit Like a Hypocrite
I got suspended by the USCF back in the 80’s when they introduced the hardshell helmet rule for bike races. Not for failing to race with a hardshell, but for sending nasty letters to Richard Degarmo and the USCF staff protesting this outrageous violation of my constitutional rights to be a quadriplegic or dead. I was kind of like this concatenation of idiots, only more so, since there was only one of me. It took about twenty years to realize that helmets work, and that they save lives, and that people who ride around without them have either never been told of the hazards of riding without them, or they are total fucking crazies, or Noel.
When I moved back to Houston in 2005 and started showing up on the Sugarland ride sans helmet, I was subjected to a constant barrage of friendly comments by total strangers concerned about my safety: “Where’s your helmet, dumbass?” “You forgot your helmet, dumbshit.” “Don’t come on this ride, dumbass.” “You are too stupid and dangerous to ride with us.” “Why don’t you wear a helmet, stupid?” “You should wear a helmet, idiot.”
After a few rides I started wearing a helmet.
Now, each time I see someone pedaling around without one, I wonder, “What’s going on in that person’s head? Aside from nothing, I mean.” So over the course of the last few months I’ve been stopping people and asking them. Their answers are enlightening.
Guy on beach cruiser watching volleyball at Manhattan Beach: “Fucks up my hair, dude.”
Me: “Do you think it’s going to be easier to get your hair back in place after you take off the helmet, or to get your brains scooped back into your skull after they’ve spattered all over the pavement?”
Little kid pedaling down by Santa Monica Pier: “Get away from me, mister, or I’m calling the police.”
Tattooed bike racer: “I just rode you off my fucking wheel. Shouldn’t you be more concerned about your pathetic lack of fitness?
Me: “Good point.”
Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn
And, I suppose, neither do the people who ride with the whistle of the wind in their hair. There’s something about the carefree, rebellious, whipping feel of wind on a bare head that simply can’t be beat by anything. Except the solid whack of pavement, of course.