Why I don’t wear a cycling helmet

Today, on my way to the shop, a car pulled up beside me at a traffic light. The driver wound a window down, and politely, with genuine concern, asked me why I don’t wear a helmet. Don’t get me wrong, he was really nice and clearly meant well.*

I was also criticised for not wearing a helmet in the comments on a recent article in a local paper about negative attitudes to cycling in Dundalk. The issue is not quick and easy to explain. Much of my reason is captured in this excellent article, but there’s a bit more to it for me.

I used to be a helmet fanatic, and fought endlessly with my son to get him to wear a helmet. One day, he challenged me to get him the facts on how much safer it makes him when he wears a cycling helmet. I turned to the internet with complete confidence, only to find that the helmet issue is not simple at all. It seems a no-brainer: they make you safer! but it’s not. An argument can even be made that some kinds of brain injuries are made more likely by wearing a helmet. What statistics there are don’t make an indisputable case for helmet wear increasing your safety, and even those are contentious – the vast majority of cycling accidents don’t get reported, as most result in only minor injuries. An argument can be made that helmets may even increase cyclists’ risk of being hit by a car, .

Complicating matters more, not all cyclists are the same. You can’t assess the risks for a pro racer flashing past at 60km/h, and try to apply rules based on those risks to a utility cyclist hardly ever going over 10km/h.

We’re not done yet, there is an even deeper layer of complication. The exercise inherent in cycling holds health benefits. Like it or not, people don’t like wearing helmets. The helmets look stupid, they’re a pain in the arse if you’ve cycled to the mall and now have to figure out what to do with it, and for those wanting to cycle to work, there’s a difference between brushing wind-blown hair to look neat for the office, and trying to do something about horribly flattened, sweat-soaked hair. You may not feel the same about your appearance or the inconvenience of what to do with the thing when you arrive, you may not agree with people’s objections to them, but the reality is that if people have to choose between cycling with a helmet or not cycling at all, they’d rather not cycle at all. Bring in mandatory helmet use, and you get an immediate decline in cycling. So here’s the question: what holds the biggest health risk: lack of exercise, or cycling without a helmet?

Lastly, let’s assume a cycling helmet will indeed save you from serious injury or even death in every single serious cycling accident. Firstly, most cyclists go through their lives without ever getting into a serious cycling accident, as in, something that puts you in hospital. Secondly, I believe we would get a lot more bang for our buck by working on staying out of accidents than advocating for helmet use. I think a high visibility vest and cautious cycling contribute much more to a cyclist’s safety, in the big picture, than a helmet. Much more than that, cycle lanes, especially segregated cycle lanes, are probably the most enormously effective steps we can take to make cycling safe.

More on the side of speculation, I think our preoccupation with cycle helmets is a form of victim blaming. Don’t feel cycling is safe? Wear a helmet! That’s comparable to saying: “The ship doesn’t have enough life boats. Each and every passenger therefore needs to learn to swim”, rather than saying: “Wow, maybe we should put enough life boats on the ship.” We make posters and launch campaigns to get kids to wear helmets, and do nothing at all to get drivers to stop driving like arses, nothing at all to get them to respect cycle lanes and not park in them.

I started looking around me as well, when first my son challenged me about the helmet issue. I realised that the majority of utility cyclists, people who cycle just to get around town, don’t wear helmets. So one day, I stopped wearing mine. I found an interesting thing: I’ve always been a careful cyclist, but now I was so aware of my vulnerability that I became even more careful when on my bicycle.

Should I get into an accident, it’s possible my lack of a helmet could lead to serious injury or death. I wager my risk of serious injury or death is increased more by the act of cycling itself, over driving or staying home, so for me, it’s a matter of considering how big that risk is, and I don’t think it’s big enough to justify the drawbacks.

I also know no matter how safely I cycle, I might get into a fix through no fault of my own. Yet overall, I feel the risk is not big enough to justify the inconvenience inherent in helmet use for utility cycling. So am I anti-helmet? Not at all. If you’re comfortable wearing one, do so.

*At the time of writing this article, as I did not want to be an asshole, I declined to tell the whole story. The more time passes, though, the more I think it’s too good not to share: I listened to this concerned motorist questioning my lack of a helmet politely, explained that my not wearing a helmet is not an oversight but a thoroughly considered decision. I then, still very politely, asked him if he was aware that he was not wearing a seat belt.

You can’t make this stuff up.


Hotness, and other madness

Yesterday’s cycle was… strange. It was my first trip with my brand new very swanky bib tights, and lo, they are good. I had to stop soon to take off my rain jacket, though, as the deluge promised by the forecast was nowhere in sight, and I was boiling, boiling hot. Yes, I too think this is somewhat strange in 10’C weather, but well. I at least gave two guys in two different cars something to get excited about, it seemed.

Because, ya know, without the jacket I was clad in the tights and my sports bra. Which in my defence looks like a crop top, not a bra. I hope. Feck it, I was very, very hot.  Continue reading

View from the Rear Part Two

This is a continuation of this post, which you really should read first if you want to make any sense of what follows.

Thanks to the kind efforts of a lady called Nuala, who calmed me and assured me it was fine, I managed to overcome my ego and do my thing.  I didn’t finish the race – having only trained three weeks at that point, I hadn’t intended to, I wanted to get a feel for what it would be like – and copped out after the bike leg.  And even though it was part of the plan, falling out felt like a betrayal, like a slunking off.  I was starving, so I went into the pub for tea and sandwiches.  I got a few looks from the hard men at the tables, and they all said to me: you didn’t finish*.  You don’t deserve these sandwhiches, that cup of tea.  I would finish the next one, I vowed.  And so, I did.

I finished it so long after everyone else, that the long horizontal poles on which the bikes are hung in the transition area, were all packed away.  Not another bicycle was in sight – well, except for the mountain bike with which the only person slower than me had tackled the race.

Let me tell you, there is no feeling as awful as the one of crossing the finish line to no other sound than that of your own laboured breathing, getting handed a slip of paper with your time on by a guy of few words who you can almost hear thinking: ‘finally’, scraping together your gear in an abandoned, quiet parking lot, then slinking to your car to pack it away.   Continue reading

View from the Rear Part One

This all started with a bread board.  I stood behind a group of exceptional humans as I contemplated the fact.  They were special because they were all made from bone, sinew, and muscle.  Especially muscle.  Fat?  Nah.  Fat cells disintegrated on contact with these people.  I got thinner just standing near them.  My cycling shorts and running shoes were little more than a disguise: I was an impostor here.  My cotton tee shirt came closer to the truth, bearing the legend: “Pete Puma’s Super Intelligence Serum – favoured by morons everywhere”.

I can’t say for sure what went through their heads as we waited for the ‘start’ signal that would mark the beginning of the race, but I can guess.  I’m sure it was serious stuff, like a mental visualisation of them running the 3.2km course through the rural paths near Dundalk where the race took place, making a smooth change from runners to cycling shoes, pedalling hard and efficiently through the 17km cycling leg, then repeating the 3.2km run and finishing strong.  Maybe some were thinking of the person they wanted to beat this time, pictured themselves passing him or her and crossing that magic finish line first.

I’m not entirely sure if anyone else was pondering the profound influence of bread boards.

Continue reading

Day after Valentine’s with my second-greatest love.

Yippee! Warm weather after a terrible cold snap. I had a good feeling about Sunday, I just knew it was going to be fantastic. And oh, it was. I started out with my leg warmers and a long-sleeved shirt. The leg warmers were the first to go, as it really was quite warm. South African friends, I should qualify: it was around 8’C. This was enough to inspire me to blind passing motorists with the sight of my really, really white winter-legs.

Ronan, my sweet darling, is still the best bike in the world. Second-greatest love after Micky!

I headed into the Cooley mountains, around Ravensdale, where there are numerous little hidden coves of tranquility. Hey ho, I think I was listening to really loud Snow Patrol when I took this photo. God bless the mp3 player.

I really wanted to cross the Windy Gap pass over to O’Meath, but astonishingly, I got lost. Actually, that should not be so astonishing, I make an art form out of getting lost. What is astonishing is that I got lost in a place I have cycled around in loads of times. At any rate, I cycled up a random little obscure tarred road, and lo, I ended up here:

Well. What to do now? The only way to go was here, and I don’t have a mountain bike.

Hmmm. While I thought over my options, I did something about being too hot. Observe, pack taken off, as were gloves and glasses.
Next went the long-sleeved shirt, and yes, now I was clothed in my bra and cycling shorts out in the open. It was hidden from view.
Then, evidence of the first short-sleevedness in almost six months. Of course I had to just aim the camera more or less in the right direction, so the results were a bit random. I think this is a rare nice-looking photo of me.
Micky thinks this one is nicer, and it achieves the aim of showing the short sleeves of the hippie tee shirt I have now had a chance to wear.

I was sooooo tempted. I just wanted, wanted to go up this dreadful trail. But oh, no mountain bike! Nothing but a hybrid, a road bike really. No nice fat tyres that can handle things such as this. It would be madness to go up here:
So, of course, I did.

And I was rewarded with this:

Of course, I had to push Ronan much of the way, and walking through mud with cleats means poor wedges got all mud-caked. I had to scrape it away with a stick before I could clip into the pedals again.
Ronan was also a very dirty boy when we were done with our little adventure.

I finally did find the right way to go, but by then I was really knackered as I’d gone up and down all sorts of interesting-looking nooks and crannies.

I’d had a very, very glorious time, and went home, having done about thirty, thirty-five km. That’s a pathetic distance, but truly, much of it was as steep as what I’d done in Switzerland. I had the most wonderful thrill when, in one place, I got going again after a rest and the front wheel lifted off the ground when I pushed down on the pedal. I’d wanted to do some hill training, and I think that would qualify as steep.

God, I can’t wait to get out there again. I love cycling.

Switzerland Cycling Trip

I just returned yesterday from a cycling trip in Switzerland. It was… an experience.

The adventure started on Friday, 8 August, really, when I went to my local bike shop to have the bicycle packed for the flight. It was a busy time for Danny, the bicycle mechanic, with people in and out, a pile of other bikes waiting for attention and me not only watching (I’d have to put it back together again myself when I arrived in Switzerland and pack it again when I left), but also constantly picking things up to look at them and interrupting with a hundred questions.

Saturday morning we got up at 3:30am and left for Dublin airport at 4am. My flight left for Basel airport at 6:30. I got through checkin with my bicycle no problem, as I’d booked it beforehand and packed it according to Ryanair’s instructions. However, when I arrived in Basel and opened the box to assemble the bike… I found that in the previous day’s chaos, my bike’s saddle had been left behind.

No problem. I closed the box again and got on a bus to Bahnhof Basel SBB (train station), hefted my 15kg luggage which was packed in panniers and a bag very suited for cycling but hell to carry. I dragged my boxed bicycle, a total weight of another fifteen kilograms, after me. Lucky for me there was a bicycle shop just near the station, and I bought a saddle and seat post for the journey. Here is the bike at the entrance to the station when at last I had it ready:

Basel SBB was an experience in itself. There must have been a fancy dress something on somewhere, as people looking like this were all over the place. One lady wearing a teddy and suspenders was ahead of me in line to buy a train ticket.

When you get in the train, there’s a special little compartment for bicycles. Here’s Ronan, my bicycle, snug and ready for our journey.

It took me more time to make my way to Meiringen, where I spent the first night, than you’d imagine, as I am directionally challenged and awfully scatterbrained in spite of my best efforts. That night in my tent I had the Swiss version of a Mars Bar. The interior of the tent was soon in chaos.

There were loads of other cyclists at the campsite. Mine is the little green tent.

Next morning I set off on the route I intended to do. I aimed to complete Route 61, but back to front, as I wanted to get the longer train journey between Meiringen and Basel out of the way on the first day. I also wanted to get the worst part of the route, the climb up to Grosse Scheidegg, out of the way on the first day, not at the end when I would be knackered. What a wise girl I am. Here’s the starting point of the route.

It was Steep with a capital S. After two kilometres I texted Micky that I couldn’t do the route and wanted to give up. I was considering just doing some day cycles out from Meiringen instead. Micky sent me an encouraging text back, and I decided to change my tactics. I would pedal 100m, rest, then pedal another 100m.

In this way, I managed to make my way ever farther up the route. This was the first serious giant of the Alps that I saw.

Typical Swiss house I saw on the route. It’s interesting to see the piles of firewood stacked against the walls outside.

I managed a giggle when I saw this sign, thinking, “Darn, and I lugged my bugle all this way specially to blow it right in this spot.”
At this point, according to the height profile, I should have been another two kilometres from the high point. But as I sat here, I stared at that particular way the road winds, twisting back on itself, and it looked familiar. I whipped out my map, and true as bob, this was what the road looked like just before Grosse Scheidegg. I tried not to get happy, but I was right. The high point was just around the corner.

Looking out over this monster mountain, I sat at Hotel Grosse Scheidegg and had an ice cold juice. It had taken me seven hours to cover sixteen kilometres.

This is the Eiger, seen from Grosse Scheidegg.

It was downhill all the way from Grosse Scheidegg. I passed through Grindelwald in a flash, and went on to Wilderswil, just before Interlaken, where I camped for the night. Here’s the view of the Jungfrau, I think, from the campsite. At night I could see the lights of the Jungfrau railway right on the saddle between those two mountains.
And there’s my little green tent:
After a long search for a place to eat that wasn’t a restaurant, but just a plain old spot where I could sit with my wrinkled clothes and my messed up hair, I had the best hamburger and chips I have ever tasted here at the snack shack:

Next day I left for Thun, taking an easier path, along the lake, instead of the more difficult route I had planned to do. At first it was a bit of an epic finding the starting point of cycle route 8/9, but with the help of a lovely lady called Cathy, I was on the right road at last and pedalled along the edge of the lake. The water was crystal clear and the route beautiful.

This is Spiez, the last town I went through before reaching Thun:

All in all a wonderful experience, though it was one of the worst I’d had in a way. The cycling difficultly was way too much for me. However, I did it. While travelling along the flat, calm route to Thun, I swore I would never do something like the previous day’s nightmare again. Yet last night I already found myself thinking, “Now if I train more specifically for hill cycling, and if perhaps I attempt the route without fifteen kilograms luggage on the bike, I can try again and see if I can do it in less than seven hours…”


Day 1, Sunday 10 August: Height gain of 1364m (4 475 feet) over a distance of 16km (10 miles), achieved in seven hours. Average speed (when I moved) 6km/h (3.75mph) After that another 32 km (20 miles) done in an hour and a half. Yes, the rest of the route was downhill all the way (thank God). Total distance on day 1 was 48km (30 miles) over a total of eight and a half hours.
Day 2, Monday 11 August: Flat route of 37km (23 miles), done in four hours.

Note, 28 November 2009: I see I didn’t mention it at the time for whatever reason, but I felt as if I was developing a cold on the last day’s trip. When I arrived at the hotel, I had to first pack my bicycle for the next morning’s very early flight. It had started raining heavily by then, and I spent half an hour outside, soaked and chilled. Less than an hour later I knew I was very sick indeed. There were, fortunately, two single beds in my room, because I sweated so much I had to change from one to the other in the middle of the night. I was in pretty bad shape on the flight back. Back home, the doctor diagnosed my dry cough and illness as a combination of dehydration, overexertion and altitude sickness. Next time, I’ll have to spend two days adjusting to the altitude before tackling Grosse Scheidegg.

Yes, I did say next time.

Except if I can go cycling in Norway instead. We’ll see.

Idiots in Opels and Zen Moments

I have this theory about Opels from the early nineties: they bring out the arsehole in anyone who gets behind the wheel. This theory was borne out again yesterday when I cycled from Dundalk to Shercock.

My wrists and back were aching, and, being on a slight downhill, I went handsfree so as to be able to roll wrists and shoulders and ease the cramping muscles. I made extra sure to stay as close to the side of the road as I could.

Before I’d gone too far a car passed me and, when it was right next to me, blasted its hooter. It of course startled me, and I might easily have fallen off the bike. As it was, I didn’t, but if the fate I wished on the arsehole behind the wheel were to befall him, you’ll hear it in the news this week. Worldwide.

The car in question was a silver 1994 model Opel.

After stopping in Shercock for a brief rest, I set off on the Cavan road. My goal for the day was to cycle 100km, and I needed to go 12km beyond the village. About 4km on, I passed a house with two big dogs sitting in front of it. One of them was a German Shepherd.

The German Shepherd’s aggressiveness was apparent from a distance. He got up and came for me. I played an interesting game of pedalling with my eyes glued to the snarling dog, kicking out against his muzzle every time he attacked. It took a good 100m before he gave up.

I seethed right up to the spot where I turned around, exactly 50km from home. I swore to myself I’d never cycle in the South again (I usually cross the border to Northern Ireland when I go cycling). The county seemed filled with a selection of idiotic inbreds in Opels who haven’t enough brain cells to figure out their huge, agressive, slavering dogs should not be allowed to run around unrestrained.

Then all of a sudden I had this zen moment, which is remarkable, as I’m not even really sure what zen is. The stress melted away. I had a strange conviction the dog would not be there any more when I passed by again. My better self reminded me that stupidity is universal. It was just my bad luck to run into it twice in one day.

And lo and behold, the dog was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps its owners had heard and seen the commotion and locked the animal up. Drivers were, for the rest of the day, courteous and considerate.

I managed my 100km. The price is that my tendon injury has flared up again and I’m back on anti-inflammatories. Still, it was a good day. I’ll try to forget the idiot in the Opel. Maybe I’d inadvertently swerved into the road when I sat upright, and the angry driver didn’t realise startling me like that could send me under his wheels. I’ll remember the dog is just a dog, and that perhaps he had got out accidentally. The owners had, after all, rectified the situation by the time I passed there again.

I’ll remember the snack stop I made shortly after turning around. I’ll remember turning a single corner into a leafy little track and disappearing from the world, from whizzing cars, from modern life and its hectic pace. I took my shoes off, waded into a muddy stream and sat down on a half-submerged gate. A ripe nectarine filled my senses with sweetness while I listened to the quiet burble of water gurgling over stones. Mud squelched between my toes when I made my way back to the bike. I wiped them with a tissue before putting my shoes back on, then pushed my bike through a tunnel of green back up to civilisation.