Use your noggin, sporting a helmet, when riding a bike

August 30, 2005|by Tim Rowland

When I rode a bicycle across the country in 1976, two of the 15 members of our group wore helmets. One was the group leader, so she had to. The other wore a helmet out of choice, and we spent the next 4,280 miles trying to ridicule away her beliefs about safety.

I believe I was first told I should really be wearing a bicycle helmet sometime in the mid-'80s. By that time, there had been enough taxpayer-funded studies of the skull/macadam dynamic that science was pretty sure an inch or two of fiberglass would be an asset to those compelled to, from time to time, go flying over their handlebars.

But I was in no rush to have two pounds of Owens-Corning strapped to the old lemon. To me, wearing a helmet violated six of seven of the personal freedoms that are protected by the Bill of Rights, somewhere in the back.


The appeal of bicycling is the wind in your hair and the sun in your face and that's the view I was able to defend and maintain - right up until last month, when You Know Who got into the act.

We were at a July 4 picnic, and eventually the topic of conversation turned - as it always seems to do at parties - to the subject of traumatic head injuries.

In attendance were avid cyclists Chuck and Mark, who apparently spent a half-hour or so impressing upon the Consumer Product Safety Commission in High Heels the importance of helmet use.

I don't know where I was at the time, but I was absent and consequentially not available for cross-examination. Having lost the argument by default, I was forced to promise that I would never ride a bike again sans headgear. A promise which, being the grown-up, mature individual that I am, I intended to keep by simply not ever riding my bike again.

But soon I had the itch, so I decided to sneak a ride, a plan that was foiled by a broken valve stem. I had to go to Hub City Sports to get it fixed, where the aforementioned Chuck happens to be a mechanic.

You can see the bind I was in. If he happened to mention in passing to Andrea that I had been in for a bike repair without buying a helmet ...

Well, a split head would be the least of my problems.

So I asked Tracy, a saleswoman at Hub City, to show me something in a helmet. The first item was a slick, gray affair that looked pretty happenin' but also cost more than $60. The second entry was on sale at half price, and you could see why. It was a loud, red white and blue, Captain America-like job that could have doubled as bunting in the World Series.

I strapped it on and asked, "How do I look?"

There was what I have heard called a "pregnant pause," before Tracy, averting her eyes, said, "Fine."

Poor girl. Not accustomed to lying, I took it. Five years from now, when the cost will seem irrelevant, I will hate myself for doing so, but at the time I just couldn't justify spending the extra $30.

Chuck, meanwhile, was tricking out my dark blue bike with a sharp, mean, new style including blackwall tires and black handlebar tape, and I have to say I was pretty impressed. Back home I showed Andrea the new look. I strapped on the Captain America hat and straddled the dark machine.

"Not bad," she said. "It's what the Batmobile would have looked like if it had been driven by a lollipop."

For all her insistence that I buy a helmet, I would have expected more support.

I took the whole shootin' match for a spin, looking for something to be outraged about, confined as I was beneath my star-spangled prison. But I had to admit, it wasn't bad. It wasn't hot, it wasn't heavy and, protected as you are, you almost look for an excuse to wreck. I was being a safe and responsible user of the public highways, and all in all, I was pretty happy about things.

And that's when I first felt the itch.

The growing itch was square atop the old bean and the smart thing for me to do would have been to pull over, remove the helmet, scratch and then reassemble. But being an expert in the field of itchcraft, I knew if I did that, the itch would start all over again about 200 yards down the road, just to see if it could bring me to another stop.

So, still riding, I snaked my fingers up into the superstructure, inching the helmet several degrees to the western horizon. But every time I'd get to the itch, it would move just a little more out of reach. I don't know how an itch can do that, but it does. So the pattern repeated until the helmet was square over my right ear, and the chin strap over my left - much to the amusement of oncoming traffic.

But I managed all right. So kids, if an old dog like me can adjust to a helmeted life, you can too, and I encourage all of you to be safe. But when you go to the bike shop, just be sure to get the helmet in gray.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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