Photo: Here’s my cycling team celebrating a long time ago, at the end of the last stage of the 1986 Vuelta de Baja. Can you imagine if we had helmets on our heads? We’d have forgotten, by now, what amazing hair we had…
l-r, Martin Howard, Ken Knight, Todd Deangelis, David Huntsman
I’ve got this idea people will be a lot better off if they weren’t wearing bike helmets when they aren’t riding their bikes.
This isn’t about whether people should wear helmets when they are riding their bikes. It’s just about “when the pedaling stops…” It’s an image thing, and it’s what the helmet image conveys to the world. The image of someone in a helmet, walking around, going in to cafes, posing for pictures post-ride, is really odd. It’s not just that the helmet sends a “dangerous activity” message about bike riding; it’s also just how, well, off-putting and dehumanized a person is walking around with a helmet on.
I am aware of a study in England that showed drivers behaved in a more dangerous manner around people with helmets than they did around people without; I’d imagine a similar sentiment manifests itself off the highway.
I can tell you from personal experience that when I ride with a helmet, neighbors and parents of my son’s friends often don’t recognize me if I say “hi” to them around town. But without the helmet, they see me first and call out to me. (The point is not lost on me that when my son rides to school helmeted, he is not recognized – even by people who know him – to the extent he is when he is helmet-less.)
I know some people are worried about helmet-hair, but it’s really not that bad. Just run your fingers through your hair when you take the helmet off and it’s like you went for a jog, or just got back from the beach.
I think helmets discourage interaction with strangers and make bike riders more insular. I remember how we used to relax after a bike ride in the “pre-helmet” days, way back in the eighties. We did some of the same things we do now, although Peets Coffee and Starbucks hadn’t spread like McDonalds yet. So we usually gathered in pastry shops, like Paris-Pastry in Santa Monica or stand-alone coffee houses, like Van Gogh’s Ear in Venice or Caffe Pergolesi in Santa Cruz. We didn’t sit with ourselves; we sat wherever and interacted with the rest of the patrons. Because once we were off the bike we weren’t cyclists anymore. We were just people going for a coffee, like everyone else there.
What really strikes me as odd is group photos today where everyone is wearing their helmets, and sometimes big glasses, even when the bikes aren’t around. You can’t recognize anybody; they all look the same. I’m from a generation that didn’t need helmets and glasses, and in my old pictures I can see my friend’s faces. And we look like people, not “cyclists”. So at least for this reason, having photos of friends you can recognize in twenty-five years, take the helmet off when you get off the bike…
I’m trying to encourage friends to leave the bike helmet hanging on the handlebars. For example, when I take a picture of the kids after the Sunday bike races, I give them a chance to take their helmets off (and glasses) off. The pics are much nicer, and they will be able to tell each other apart when they see the pictures someday.