I have occasionally been known to explain to people that their helmet isn’t fitted correctly. Usually the issue is that it’s on the back of their head rather than the top, where it would only be any use if they fell straight backwards — an eventuality I’ve only witnessed once, when a rider in a bunch sprint threw his bike at the line in the approved fashion, but let go of the bars as he did so.
The result was as spectacular as it was dumb. His bike won the race. He was about fourth.
On the other hand, I’ve never criticised anyone for not wearing a helmet at all. There is probably a word for someone who will scoff at the rakish angle of your lid while not caring a jot if it’s missing altogether, but we might not agree exactly what word it is.
I have very strongly held views on helmet wearing. They are that it’s up to you. I am zealously liberal about this. There are good reasons to wear one. There are quite acceptable reasons not to. There are excellent reasons not to make them compulsory, including the reduced levels of cycling that have come about in places that have done so. You wearing a helmet or not makes no difference to me, my wearing one or not makes no difference to you. That should be an end to it.
But the argument won’t go away. Start any discussion about cycling and safety and third on the list after running red lights and cycling on the pavement you’ll find you’re talking about helmets. You’ll never get any further. If I were cynical I’d suspect it’s a ploy to distract us from more important matters.
And all of this ends up giving people a very exaggerated impression of their usefulness. I crashed during a race over the summer and went to the local A&E with a fairly advanced case of exfoliation. The nurse who was bandaging me up said, “Were you wearing a helmet?”
I said I had been. She said, “Just as well. Just think what might have happened if you weren’t.”
“But my head didn’t touch the ground! My helmet doesn’t have so much as a scuff!”
“All the same. If you hadn’t been wearing it you might not be here to say that.”
“Sorry, did that sting a bit?”
She might equally have speculated on what would have happened if the council hadn’t left a pothole, so deep it had cave paintings at the bottom, stealthily lurking under a shady tree. But she didn’t. No one ever does.
I encountered a very similar bit of logic one Christmas. I was out for a pre-lunch ride, when I got overtaken with millimetres to spare by a car that, it turned out, was being driven by a member of my family on his way to join us.
Before lunch, I politely mentioned this to him. It’s not impossible that I was striving to create the sort of atmosphere in which we would all move as swiftly as possible to the post-prandial ‘watching Doctor Who in a sulk and not having to talk to each other’ portion of the festivities.
“Were you wearing a helmet,” he said. I said yes.
“In that case I don’t know what you’re complaining about. It wasn’t like anything was going to happen to you.”
To assist him with telling the difference between a bike helmet and a cloak of invincibility, I went and got my helmet and invited him to try it on. Then I kicked him in the groin as hard as I could, and danced around his prostrate form shouting, “Still hurts, doesn’t it?”
OK, I didn’t. But had it not been the season of peace and goodwill towards the morons to whom you’re related I certainly would have.
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Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. As a rider he won multiple national titles in both Britain and Ireland and competed at the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. He was a three-time Brompton folding-bike World Champion, and once hit 73 mph riding down a hill in Wales. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine
As a writer, he wrote the award winning The Hour about his attempt on the sport’s most famous and sought-after record. He followed that up with Faster, about the training, the science the genetics and the luck behind the world’s fastest riders, and Re:Cyclists, a history of cyclists from 1816 to the present day.
He’s written for outlets ranging from Cycling Weekly to the New York Times, and has presented and and commentated for the BBC, Eurosport, Channel 4, and Sky Sports.
Before he did any of that he was a legal academic at Cambridge and Sussex universities. He now lives with far too many bicycles in London and Cambridgeshire.
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