Helmets Aren’t Stupid But Using Them as the Sole Measure of Safety Sure Is

27 09 2012

Before I get into this rant, I want to remind everybody that this is my personal blog, and all opinions expressed here are my personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any organizations that I may be affiliated with. So if you’ve got beef with what I’m going to say, direct it at me please.

So, here we go. Helmets. Their use, efficacy and mandated use are possibly the most polarizing issues in the cycling community today. I’ve purposefully avoided directly addressing helmet use in my blog because I don’t want to host a regurgitated, staid debate that does nothing productive and just pisses people off. But something recently happened that I feel compelled to share.

I was excited to hear about an educational bike tour that the city was putting on. I even shared links to the event over facebook and through local bike related organizations, invited friends, and was genuinely looking forward to it. On the day of, I agonized over which bike to take, and decided I’d challenge myself with the old CCM as the organizers classified the difficulty of the ride as “beginner to intermediate.”

The CCM was ready for some river valley adventures.

I rushed to the rendezvous after work and immediately felt out of place. There I was on a single speed loop frame wearing a skirt, and everybody else there (with the exception of the folks I knew) was sporting spandex and fancy road bikes, looking ready for a race. Admittedly, I was confident I wouldn’t be the first one walking once we hit the hills in the  river valley, and was loving the thought of showing this homogenous group what a real cyclist can look like. I’d even brought my tools in case someone broke down.

It wasn’t meant to be, though. As we were socializing before the ride started, one of the organizers approached me and told me that I would not be allowed to participate because I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

I was stunned. I thought this was going to be a casual ride, and nowhere on the event publicity had it mentioned that helmets were mandatory. Some of my friends came to my defense and told her that I was a very safe and capable cyclist, but she claimed that if the group were even seen with a non-helmeted rider, it would make them look unsafe and irresponsible.

It was all so arbitrary. They were judging my skill, safety, and whether I was a threat to myself or others by my choice to not wear a styrofoam hat. If I’d been riding a bike with no brakes and flat tires I’d’ve been good to go in their eyes as long as I was wearing the prescribed head gear. Part of me wonders if they would’ve been so hard line if I’d been decked out in cycling gear and riding carbon, but it still boils down to fashion sense and not sporting the right uniform. I have a little bit of experience in organizing group rides myself, and safety is also a priority for me (hey scoffer, I said safety, not legality, they aren’t always the same) as I would feel responsible if something bad happened at my event. This means that if someone’s having mechanical issues, we don’t ride until it’s fixed, or if they’re riding like an idiot, they hear about it. Preventing accidents has way more safety benefits than all of the best protective equipment. That being said, there is one piece of safety equipment that I almost never forget – my gloves.

Regular readers may have noticed that there aren’t any pictures of me wearing a helmet on this blog. In the last 10 years, the only place I’ve worn one is on the bike polo court. I’m not knocking anyone else’s choice to wear a bike helmet because it is just that,  a personal decision. I live on my bike. I’m more comfortable riding than I am walking. Do I need a helmet to walk, even though I’m clumsy sometimes? Of course not! So why would I think I need one to bike? The chance of me falling on my head is equally unlikely. I also know that not everyone has the same amount of practice/skill/balance/confidence/sobriety that I do on a bike, so if they feel safer wearing a helmet, then great! I support anything that helps riders gain confidence.

I could go into how promoting helmet use increases the perception that cycling’s unsafe, or how drivers give more space to riders without helmets, presumably because they either identify them as humans before cyclists, and can therefore better relate to them and their fragility. I could talk about how helmets only seem to be effective in mitigating a very specific and uncommon injury.

For me though, the truth is simpler. I don’t like them. I hate they way they feel, I hate the way they look, I hate how I can’t feel the wind in my hair, I hate how they smell, I hate how bulky they are, and I hate how they effectively increase the diameter of my skull by two inches, making it more likely that I’ll bump my head into things (this was my experience during the few of years of my life that I was wearing a helmet all the time). Because of how integral bikes are in my life now, if I chose to wear a helmet, I’d have to do everything but sleep in it, and for me, the hassle and disincentive to ride far outweigh the potential benefits.

So, I wasn’t allowed to join the ride. There was a bit of a debate with the organizers and my friends stayed back with me in solidarity. Instead, we went on our own rides. I had this urge to take the CCM offroading, and Christal had a new 29er to test out, so we headed for the valley as the other riders walked their bikes down the block.

We can ride if we want to, we can leave your friends behind… (girl without hat & the safety dance).

Christal & her new ride.

I had a good time on our alternative ride. We explored some gorgeous corners of the river valley and challenged ourselves with some fairly difficult single track. Going up steep gravel paths definitely wasn’t the CCM’s thing, but otherwise it rode fine. “Gravel, pffft,” says the tenacious old bike, “when I was young all the roads were gravel or dirt. You kids today have it too easy!”

OK, so I wouldn’t want to bike here every day, especially with this bike, but I still had an awesome time. I felt so old-school. It reminded me of being a kid and exploring the ravines on my old mixte.

From what I heard back from the people that stayed on the main tour, it was also a really good experience with exceptionally knowledgeable guides (minus their views on bike helmets, of course). I haven’t singled out the event for criticism because I want to see more events (educational bike tours) like this, and I don’t want to start up petty beef with the organizers when they’re doing something that I really support, it’s just this one stupid little thing…

One of my friends wrote a lovely letter, expressing his displeasure with how this was handled. The response wasn’t the one I was hoping for, but it was the one I expected. In the future, it will be clearly expressed in all promotional materials that helmets are mandatory, and the organizers will have some extras on hand in case anybody shows up without one. In other words, the helmet fixation will continue.





Elk Island Redux

21 09 2012

Three rides in three weeks down the same country roads, but even though the route was the same, the rides certainly weren’t.

Elk Island National Park is just east of Edmonton and is a fairly popular destination for touring cyclists, but I couldn’t remember the last time I was there, so I figured a beautiful Sunday would be a great day to check it out.

Rollin’ down the Parkway.

One of the biggest attractions at Elk Island are the herds of plains and wood bison that call this place home. Over the last century, the park has been crucial in the survival of both species, and many modern populations can trace their lineage back to the Elk Island herds.

Part of a herd of plains bison.

The presence of North America’s largest land animal creates a few extra challenges for cyclists. For example, 4 weeks after this ride, I still haven’t been able to get all the buffalo poop off le Mercier’s tires. And then there’s the threat of hitting one – this actually happened to an acquaintance of mine and ended in broken bones. The other surprise were the oversize texas gates everywhere.

Texas gates are usually used where a road crosses a fence to keep cattle inside the fence. These buffalo size gates are huge!

The first gate I encountered I just rode over, which shook me up literally and figuratively. Hoping I hadn’t aggravated my much abused wheels, I walked over the next gates. Luckily, most of them had some sort of bike gutter on them.

Taking a break in a shady grove.

There are many trails in Elk Island, but this is the only paved one. The unpaved ones just aren’t roadbike friendly.

Astonin Lake.

Cattails.

Lunch break by the lake.

Land of the silver birch, home of the beaver, where still the mighty moose wanders at will. Blue lake and rocky shore, I will return once more…

As the sun was getting low, I turned back towards the park gate to head for home. As I crested a hill with the sun in my eyes, I came within a foot of hitting a lone male bison on the shoulder of the road that had somehow disappeared into the long shadows. I’d always wondered how someone could crash into such a large animal, but now it made perfect sense. The bison seemed unperturbed and I crossed the road to observe him from a safe distance.

You’d think it would be impossible to miss an animal this size when it’s directly ahead of you.

The following week, the ravingbikefiend had a plan: a fast ride out to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, which is just east of Elk Island, with a caveat that only steel framed bikes would be welcomed. I was stoked to push Mercier to the limit with a faster rider to keep up to, but the day had a number of false starts. As we were about to hit the freeway out of town, I could feel my bottom bracket loosening up. That wouldn’t make it 100km, so we headed back to EBC for some emergency repairs. Satisfied it would hold up, we hit the road again. By the time we got to Sherwood Park the group was already quite spread out, and A-bomb decided she was going to turn back as the pace was greater than either of us expected. I caught back up to a waiting Keith and David, and with a brisk tailwind we made it to the village in ridiculous time – my new bike computer recorded a top speed of 58km/h, though I still couldn’t keep up with the boys.

Keith on his Cooper and David on his Miele, in a rare moment when I wasn’t lagging far behind them.

Meta blogging at the village: taking pictures of taking pictures of taking pictures of bikes.

Fancy lug on the Campagnolo’d out Cooper.

The tailwind on the way there stuck around to become a brutal headwind on the way back, and with my upright riding position, I was at a greater disadvantage than my companions. I basically only saw them when they stopped to wait for me, or when Keith got a flat.

Unscheduled stop for roadside repairs.

Radial tire wire is Keith’s nemesis.

One of the nice things about traveling with awesome bike mechanics is that when somebody else gets a flat, I can just sit back and enjoy the beauty of a skillfully performed fix.

Between the wind and the much faster than expected companions, I had my ass handed to me that day. I like to think of myself as a fast, efficient rider, but I’ve still got a long way to go before I can keep up with the best.

The following weekend was the annual Tour de Perogy. Here is how it went from my perspective: I slept in, missed meeting up with everyone, but decided to head out anyway and caught up with the group at the halfway point. Not long after that, I got a flat (first one in thousands of km of epic rides this year!), which  meant an unscheduled break for everyone else, and lower tire pressure for me the rest of the day. At the Ukrainian Village, I gorged on wildberry sorbet after eating the tempeh in peanut sauce I’d brought for lunch.  On the way back, I offered to lead the way as I knew it well, and pulled the peleton most of the way. About halfway home, it started to rain. Le Mercier really hates rain. My white cotton travel shirt was permanently reverse skunk striped with road splashings. Overall it was still a good ride, but I didn’t take any pictures.

Three weeks, three metric centuries plus. As the weather gets colder, the days get shorter, and I get busier (I’ve got an exciting new job!), it’s going to be harder to find time to go on more big rides. Here’s hoping I can squeeze a few more in before winter.





Ride Like You’re Trapped in a 1980’s Super Computer

20 09 2012

This Saturday night we’re going back to the future. This ain’t just another retro theme ride. It’s the long awaited TRON Ride!

Don’t miss the TRON Ride this Saturday!

After escaping the insidious Master Control Program on our light bikes, we’ll reconvene at BikeWorks to party like it’s 1982, with retro arcade games and a screening of the first ever computer-animated feature film. No movie before or since has looked like TRON, and no bike ride before or since will look like the TRON Ride. So break out the lights and glow sticks and get ready to explore the digital underbelly of this computer program we call “Edmonton, ” cuz we’re ditching the game grid.

Be there, and be square.

TRON Ride: Saturday September 22, meet at 7:30pm at BikeWorks North, 9305-111 Ave.





Retroreflective Manicure

2 09 2012

You  know those moments when you think of something so awesome but also so obvious and wonder “how did I not think of this before?” I had one of those last week – retroreflective nail polish!

Retroreflective means that a material reflects light directly back at its source. For night time cyclists, this means that the light from a car’s headlights is reflected back at the driver, making you look far brighter and more visible from a longer distance. Retroreflective materials are used in things like street signs and markings, high visibility safety wear, and to improve visibility of trailers & train cars.

Last year, I procured some traffic grade retroreflective glass spheres (spheres so small they’re almost a powder). I used them to turn bracelets and silk flowers high-vis in Retroreflective Goodness and to make the magnets in Bike Art Galore. The technique is easy: pour the glass powder over wet paint, let it dry & shake off the excess so there’s a single layer of glass spheres on the surface.

To apply to nails, simply embed the spheres in the final coat of wet nail polish! I did a blue stripe over a purple base coat and then just gently laid my nail down in the powder.

I only did the pinky and ring finger with the retroreflective material because this is still an experiment. The camera flash replicates the effect of headlights.

Hand signals just got way more awesome! Like with paint, the lighter the colour, the brighter it will be, and metallic colours look amazing.

So far, the retroreflective nails have worn better than just the regular polish, leaving me with another problem: how to remove it. I usually rub polish off with an acetone soaked rag but I don’t dare rub the retroreflective glass. Remember the Mohs hardness scale – glass scratches fingernail. I figure I’m going to have to invest in the type of nail polish remover where you dip the whole finger in if I’m going to have any chance of getting it off without damaging my nails. Another issue I’m having is keeping it clean. If I do up my whole left hand I’ll have to start wearing a glove (which I’m not a fan of) while I’m wrenching to prevent any bike grease from taking up permanent residence. At least one thing that I was worried about, the glass spheres detaching and getting into everything, hasn’t happened though.





Riding for Isaak

1 09 2012

Yesterday, the largest group of cyclists I have ever seen in Edmonton gathered in memory of Isaak Kornelsen, the cyclist who was killed on Whyte Ave earlier this week.

A section of the crowd in Churchill Square. Participants were asked to wear yellow in honour of Isaak.

The procession makes its way down Whyte Ave.

The mass took several traffic light cycles to clear each intersection.

The mass grew as it wound through downtown and over the High Level Bridge, and by the time we were on the south side the police were blocking off intersections for us. We rode down Whyte Ave to the ghost bike, where cyclists filled the entire block – all four lanes, and stopped to pay tribute.

The ghost bike, now barely visible under all the flowers.

There wasn’t a plan or program for this event. Things just happened spontaneously. For example, one rider was giving out yellow ribbons to people who weren’t already wearing yellow. At the ghost bike, after one person tied their ribbon onto the growing memorial, many more followed as a way to pay respect.

Tying on a ribbon for Isaak.

For me, one of the most poignant moments came when the crowd went silent. No one asked for a moment of silence, but suddenly, even with so many people present, the avenue was completely quiet.

Powerful, moving, incredibly sad but also inspiring, this ride brought together Edmonton’s cycling community to both grieve and pay tribute to one of our own, and to come together to heal, grow and bring about change so that an accident like this never happens again. It’s a potent reminder that we can all do better, as cyclists and drivers, as city planners, stewards and citizens, our seemingly small actions make a difference, and together we can create a safer reality for all.

Isaak, I’m not sure that I ever met you, but like so many others who only learned your name this week, you have touched my life. Your light still burns in this community, and will be a beacon as we roll into a more bicycle friendly future.

More pictures, blogs and media reports:

Facebook Event

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/story/2012/08/31/edmonton-kornelsen-memorial-ride.html

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151011857751650.422465.543581649&type=3

http://glennkubish.blogspot.ca/2012/08/ride-for-isaak.html

http://www.flickr.com/photos/35723494@N04/sets/72157631353420570/with/7907400666/