The Case for Not Wearing a Bike Helmet
Helmets have been mandatory in the pro peloton for well over a decade. Where’s the data that it’s helping?
It’s become an article of faith among cyclists that you should always wear a helmet while riding and that not doing so is irresponsible.
I mean sure, this is mostly a load of crap, but whatever.
Nevertheless, when it comes to living the All Helmets, All the Time lifestyle, no group of cyclists has bought in more completely than the roadies. You can still show up at your local advocacy meeting with nothing on your head save for your vintage cycling cap and for the most part your fellow do-gooders will hardly look up from their couscous. But roll up at the Sunday group ride with your locks flowing in the wind like a Flandrian cresting the Mur de Huy in the ‘70s and you’ll find yourself greeted like your B sample just came back positive.
Of course, there’s a reason sporting cyclists are so particular about helmets: bike advocates just ride slowly to the food coop, whereas roadies soar majestically across the suburban sprawl, courting glory and tempting fate as they battle for the town line sprint. Certainly this sort of high-performance, high-risk cycling warrants the use of safety equipment in a way casual riding simply doesn’t—and it also warrants heaping derision on Lycra-clad riders who dare not wear them. Right?
Well maybe, maybe not. Helmet studies are problematic at best, so it’s difficult to say, and our feelings about them are based more on emotion than most of us are willing to acknowledge. Furthermore, despite our relatively high rate of bicycle-helmet use here in America we’ve also got a significantly higher cyclist fatality rate than in countries where helmet use is much lower. At the very least, we’ve got much bigger problems than what we’re wearing (or not wearing) on our heads.
Still, you’d think that at least in the context of go-fast stretchy-clothes cycling, the efficacy of helmets should be much easier to quantify and justify. After all, we’ve got a great big rolling sample group in the form of the professional peloton, for whom the UCI made helmets mandatory back in 2003. Prior to that, spectators had always delighted in the sport’s colorful coiffures, from Laurent Fignon’s flaxen tresses to Mario Cipollini’s considerably oiler ones. The UCI instituted the helmet rule in response to the death of Andrei Kivilev, of a head injury, during Paris-Nice. (Though sparing the world from the sight of Laurent Brochard’s mullet may have been a contributing factor.) It stands to reason then that comparing pre- and post-helmet rule head injury data in the pro peloton would provide some insight into the importance of wearing a helmet whilst speed-cycling.
When it comes to living the All Helmets, All The Time lifestyle, no group of cyclists has bought in more completely than the roadies.
Alas, it does not, mostly because there’s no data to analyze—the sport simply does not track such statistics. Anecdotally, however, the frequency and severity of crashes in the pro peloton is increasing, and pundits have cited a host of possible causes reasons ranging from changes in European road design to riders nodding off on Tramadol. Furthermore, the sport is still plagued by concussions, and of course riders continue to die from head injuries sustained in competition.
Given all of the above, there’s presently no basis for claiming mandatory helmets have made pro cycling any safer in the past 15 years—though it has resulted to near-100-percent helmet adoption among amateur cyclists, whose equipment choices are always informed by whatever the pros happen to be doing. And arguably any safety benefits helmets might impart on these cyclists is undermined by all the other ways they’ve been copying the pros over the years, including but not limited to: Riding around in untenable positions on bicycles with narrow, over-inflated tires while in a state of anaerobic distress due to a chronic lack of fitness, etc. The sheer number of weekend riders I see who hold onto lampposts at red lights or unclip at the first sign of danger because they’re not proficient with clipless pedals indicates to me that plenty of road riders are in over their helmeted heads due to this tendency to take all their equipment cues from the pro peloton.
None of this is to say I’m against mandatory helmets in competitive cycling. After all, rules are the very basis of sport, and whether it’s the Tour de France or your local criterium, submitting yourself to an arbitrary system of governance is the name of the game. Yesterday it was helmets; today it’s making sure your sock is no higher than the halfway mark between your lateral malleolis and your fibula head. Wear this, pee in that, whatevs.
So what’s really happening when the group ride spurns the bareheaded rider? Is it because they think he or she is being profoundly irresponsible? Or is it because helmetlessness undermines their (somewhat delusional) image of themselves as elite athletes pushing themselves to the very limits of human endurance, just like their professional counterparts? You’d think if it was really about safety we’d also be pushing the UCI to analyze crash data and the helmet companies to make better products. As it is, everyone seems perfectly comfortable to strap on whatever Peter Sagan happens to be wearing and call it good. Maybe we’d all be better off it we just called it what it is: Accessorizing.
Now go and measure all your socks.