Sunday, January 30, 2011

The lycra/denim helmet divide...

I have been hesitant to enter the Great Helmet or No Helmet Debate, not out of some fear of putting my neck on the chopping block, but because, age aside, I have always believed it is a matter of individual choice. My choice is to always have a helmet on; this is a decision that probably evolved from several contributory factors. First when I started racing, in the late 1980s helmet use was mandated by the United States Cycling Federation (USCF), if you were at a race and had a leg over the top tube, you had better have a helmet secured to your noggin, or an official could kick you out of the race (still that way today). After that it was just natural to have it on all the time. After all, during all my years of racing I have only crashed twice during races; far more often they occur during training rides, solo or group, or commuting. Funny thing is, before I started racing, I almost never wore a helmet, nor did I wear lycra - shorts and tee shirt was all, pretty typical Southern California attire. Second contributing factor would be experience. Almost too many crashes that I can remember. True, some of these have been at higher speeds than most people ride, but others have been at more sedate paces. A knock to the head, is a knock to the head, and as we know concussions are nothing to be trifled with, so why take the chance.

Anyway I have been taking random photos of people on their bikes for this blog for a good year now, and there seems to be a general trend. If these photos are any indication, people who wear lycra tend to also wear helmets. Conversely, people riding in regular street / work clothes tend to go without. Additionally, the percentage of lycra wearers without a helmet is smaller than the percentage of others with a helmet.

I am not sure what to make of this. I won't suggest that lycra wearers might be smarter, it could be that we are more susceptible to following routine. Many lycra wearers also race, and like myself, may have come to helmet wearing the same way I did. However, just as many people, and probably more, wearing lycra don't race. Rather, they train for fitness and health, camaraderie, or what ever other reasons they might have. Are they helmet wearers to "fit in" with the crowd? I don't believe so.

Sometimes I think it could be a local thing. Claremont is a rather smallish college town, and college students tend to do their own thing. They also may only ride between classes, or between school and town, and whether it is a correct assumption or not, they may equate distance with safety, and regard helmets as unnecessary as a result. In comparison, take a look at the photos of Meligrosa at Bikes and the City. A far greater percentage of the riders (mostly non-lycra) are wearing helmets. Many of her subjects seem to be daily commuters, or others who mostly get around town by bike. I consider San Francisco (where Bikes and the City) is written and photographed, to be one of the more bike-savvy locales in this part of the world and suspect that may have something to do with it. I also notice that Meli sometimes wears a helmet, and sometimes does not. I may have to look back through some of her older posts in search of a reason; what factors determine when to wear or not to wear.

Maybe I should conduct a local study, devise a questionnaire on helmet use; do you, don't you, when, why, lycra or no. Would it answer any of my questions, would it solve the riddle of the great lycra / denim helmet divide, or make it more complicated? It seems like there are an infinite number of variables which determine helmet use or lack thereof, and these may make generalizations such as mine void. I have used the word tend for this very reason. There is likely no hard and fast rule. Rather, there are tendencies, and I think determining them would make an interesting study.

And yes, I have picked the photos for this post that support the thesis, and yes I do have photos which are exceptions. I am not saying there is some universal truth here, just that there seems to be a trend.


  1. Michael,
    I truly like your article. It is very interesting. I must tell you that +/- 46 years ago, I was camping with a HS friend in the foothills. Coming home the next day, going down hill, I was called from behind. I put on my LEFT brake ONLY. I have a half moon in the top of my head where I had 6 stitches. Ah, such memories.
    Topping that off, Dec 2009 I was peddling home from Disneyland Hotel (DLH) to Diamond Bar at 3:30 am on a Sunday morning. I was the victim of a hit & run. Fractured: 3 cervical, 1 lumbar, L ankle; shattered: R heel!! It has been 13 months. I am not quite ready to get back on a bike due to the shattered heel. But, I SHALL RIDE AGAIN!!! I would most likely be DEAD if I had not BEEN WEARING A HELMET. I had IllumiNITE tights, reflective back pack, flashing tail lights and HVY jersey. It was either a DUI or somebody that just wanted to hit me since there would be no witnesses at that time. Somebody came along and saw me in the middle of the road in 5 or 10 minutes. I spent ten days in LA @ Kaiser Permanente Sunset & 32 days in a SNF (skiled nursing facility) in Pomona. 3 mos in a hospital bed, wheelchair and walker at home.
    I definitely would preach HELMETS SHOULD ALWAYS BE WORN. You never know. Just traveling ONE block and you could be dead simply because you did not wear a helmet.
    John Hunt

  2. Thanks for adding your bit here. I have been fortunate that in all the various crashes I have been in, two involving cars, my injuries have been mostly minor - seeing stars, broken fingers, dislocated knee, and the usual gashes and abrasions. But, I can still appreciate the time it takes to heal properly. Best regards.


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