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.

Riding After Midnight

18 05 2012

As the night time temperatures warm enough that frostbite and hypothermia are no longer a worry, the deserted streets beckon riders already weary of crowded bike paths and streets congested with more construction than Hazzard County (I can’t believe I just made that reference).

Riders in the night, crossing Gretzky.

Always a challenge keeping up with the Raving Bike Fiend.

Cyclists in the moonlight.

Zooming through a subterranean loading dock.

All the cars have left downtown, leaving so much room to play.

Even midnight riders have to stop for a traffic light now and then.

Passing through your neighborhood like ghosts in the night.

As I write this and look at the photos from recent late night excursions, I’m reminded that the streets are a lot quieter these days in my neighborhood, and not just because  school’s out. There have been a series of stranger-assaults on women walking alone at night. This is fucked. What is even more fucked, though, is that the police and (especially) the media’s response has been to generate panic, fear and victim blaming, warning women not to go out at night and not to walk alone. I’m not saying that this is nothing to worry about, and being vigilant and aware of your surroundings is always a good idea, but shit can happen anytime, anywhere, and the sad fact is that a women is far more likely to be assaulted in her own home by someone she knows than by a stranger on the street, no matter what the time of day or neighborhood. In fact, it happens so often that it isn’t considered newsworthy enough to report, or shocking enough to sell newspapers.

I’m a creature of the night. It’s both my playground and my solace, and I won’t let creeps and tabloid fear-mongering take that away. Dark, mysterious, unknown, it’s easy to fear the night, easy to buy into stories that fuel the anxiety, but I just want to say how quiet, beautiful, liberating, tranquil, consoling, calming, awe inspiring, energizing, limitless the dark hours, while everyone else is sleeping, can be. And if you don’t believe me, I have a challenge for you: take a late night ride on a weeknight, by yourself or with a friend, and see for yourself how much less action there is than during rush hour and how hospitable the wide open streets really are.

I Have Never Wanted to Catch up with a Car So Badly…

8 07 2011

A couple of days ago, I was on my way to a hot summer day at the sweatshop, riding down a busy four lane artery. I was in low gear and riding with one hand, because in the other hand was an extra-large squishee. A car passed pretty close to me (not unusual), but before they passed, out the passenger’s window appeared an arm, trying to grab at my ass! WTF! For a split second I hesitated, questioning whether I should sacrifice my chilly treat, then sprinted off (in low gear, which is still pretty fast on le Mercier, but I couldn’t switch it up it because of the riding-one-handed-in-traffic-with-downtube-shifters thing). It was only a couple blocks to the highway, and they made it to the off ramp before I could catch up and deliver my icy message to the lap of a dude who tried to grab a stranger’s ass.

Me Versus the Pickup Trucks

14 04 2011

Edmonton straddles the juncture of two great pickup truck cultures: the modern cowboy (or wannabe cowboy) of the south and the oil patch “rig pig” workers of the north, so pickups are ubiquitous on the streets of E-Ville. Still, it seems like I have a disproportionately high number of nasty encounters with dudes in trucks.

This episode begins a couple of weeks ago. I was riding downtown and was the first vehicle stopped at a red light, where I was taking the left lane as the right hand lane was blocked by parked cars on the other side of the intersection. As the light turned, I could sense a truck following uncomfortably close behind me, and as I moved back into the right hand lane after passing the parked cars, he passed me really close, fast and aggressively. “What a jerk,” I thought, but then something else caught my attention, “Whoa, what’s with the stickers?”

Downtown traffic being downtown traffic, I caught up with the truck again at another red light a couple of blocks later. I slowly approached, taking note of the license plate, and then the stickers – “fuck taxes” “fuck work” “fuck you you fuckin’ fuck” and a confederate flag!?! I rolled up beside him in the right lane, and he rolled down his window let off a barrage of profanity. Let’s just say it was extremely rude, misogynist, abusive, didn’t make a lot of sense, and at least 50% percent of the words used started with the letter F.

I was getting worried and having flashbacks to an encounter with a certain enraged driver last year that started with similarly taking the lane. I managed to keep it cool, though, and replied by reciting his license plate number, over-enunciating so he could read my lips. He shut up, rolled up the window, and drove away uneventfully, leaving me shaking my head. Funny thing is, I bet this dude and I have a (superficially) similar opinion of cops.

As I rode on and tried to make heads and tails out of this incident, I continued to be amazed at what a complete stereotypical angry redneck dude this guy was. He even had a mullet, a baseball cap and a plaid shirt. Add a little steam coming out of the ears and he’d be a cartoon. And those stickers? What kind of ignoramus sports a confederate flag in the 21st century? And “f— you, you f—in’ f—“? Was he trying to be clever by demonstrating how his favorite word could be used as a noun, verb and adjective all in the same sentence? Somehow, I doubt it. But it got me thinking about what other words in the English language are as versatile, and I could only think of one other example…

Remember the Smurfs? This dude was Angry Racist Blue Trash Smurf! “Smurf you, you smurfin’ smurf! You smurfing stupid smurfette, why the smurf don’t you smurfing try to smurf over into the smurf lane again, you smurfy smurf!” In his blue truck, with stickers for Blue supremacy along with “smurf taxes,” I wonder what parts of his anatomy are blue and smurf sized. With the image of Road Rage Smurf in my head, I was smiling again by the time I left downtown.

A couple days later, I was riding downtown again, when I skidded to a halt, yelling “Holy crap, it’s the truck!”

A proud a-hole drives this truck.

A look at Smurfman's sticker collection. (Click on images to zoom in).

During the initial incident, I didn’t notice the stickers on  the driver’s side, but seeing them, my jaw dropped.

The SS lightning bolts are used by white supremacists to identify each other.

This dude is a straight up racist and white supremacist, and has covered his truck in symbols that proclaim his hatred to the world.

I feel ashamed at what happened next. I had an opportunity to do something nasty to his truck, to haul something disgusting out of a dumpster and leave it on his hood, or perhaps to just administer some old fashioned U-lock justice. But I froze, and other than taking these pictures, I didn’t do anything. Blame the busy street, the small crowd of people smoking outside a nearby building, the fear of Rabid Pitbull Redneck Smurf storming out of the building and catching me in the act, whatever the reason, I chickened out and lost my chance.

Two days after that, I was riding down Whyte Ave. with panniers full of cat food when a different blue pickup truck pulled up beside me, and the dude in the passenger seat threw a handful of pennies at me. (And yes, they hit me, and yes, it stung.) For those of you who aren’t familiar with E-Ville, Whyte Ave is a major commercial strip where cars can’t really travel much faster than bicycles, and sure enough, a couple blocks later I was right behind the truck at a red light. Thinking fast, I took off my glove and rubbed “DOUCHE” in 12 inch letters into the grime on the back of the truck (I would’ve added “BAG” but I couldn’t reach far enough). Three people waiting for a bus saw what I was doing and yelled “Hey, stop that!” and “What do you think you’re doing?’

As I finished the lettering, I yelled back “these guys threw a bunch of shit out their window at me back there!”

The guy who yelled stop smiled. “Yeah? Alright!”

As the light turned and the truck pulled away, the faces of the other folks on the sidewalk lit up as they saw my handywork, and as I rode off, I was followed by the beaming smile of the dude who would’ve tried to stop me.

It seems like happenings on the road with pickup trucks never end. White pickups have been particularly problematic at times for me, starting with the first time one tried to run me off the road when I was in university. When I told my dad about it, he produced a copy of Bicycling Magazine he’d received in the mail that day with a story of another cyclist being run off the road by a white pickup. Ever since then, I’ve been extra wary around them.

So last week while riding Porta-Bike, when someone shouted at me from a white pickup truck I automatically put up my guard. I nearly wiped out from cognitive dissonance, though, when I realized that what they had yelled was “Nice bike!” (no sarcasm detected).

Later on that day, the words coming from another white pickup were disappointingly more like what I’ve come to expect, and I thought to myself “it figures…”

The next day, riding the bike path alongside a parking lot that employees of the Remand center and/or police headquarters use, I flinched as a beer can flew over my head (bud tall can, to be exact). Looking back to its source, I saw the window of an idling white pickup truck roll up. It would be a no-brainer to call it in as a drunk driver, except it was in the secured parking lot for `justice’ system employees. I’d probably have more luck getting justice by banging my head against the prison wall. I shook my head and rode on, wondering what it is with this town.

I’ll end this long post with one more E-Ville anecdote. No trucks in this one, though.

The snow is finally melting, and it’s finally getting warm, and I found myself overdressed one recent lovely sunny afternoon. Removing my vintage wool coat, I stuffed it in my pannier but I couldn’t get it closed, so I just left the lid open and flapping and continued oblivious, on my merry way. At some point, my coat fell out, onto the road, and I didn’t notice as I was too busy enjoying the sun and slick tires and happy tunes on my ipod. A cyclist riding behind me noticed, though. He picked up my coat and chased me for three blocks before he finally got my attention.

So Mister Awesome Cycling Stranger, thank you once again for going out of your way to reunite me with my favorite outerwear. You made my day and brightened my life when I needed it most. When I was feeling overwhelmed by how shitty people can be to each other, you profoundly reminded me that it doesn’t have to be that way. Thank-you. Thank-you. Thank-you. (And you might think I’m fast, but you did catch me!)

Shop Talk

13 12 2010

Warning: this post contains some ugly language that some folks ought to find more offensive than they do.

When I was a kid, my dad was a mechanic, and I spent many hours underfoot in his small business and workshop. I didn’t pay much attention to things mechanical back then (even though I could fill my tires with a compressor before I left elementary school), and besides the air compressor, the only other things I remember are more ephemeral like the grimy concrete floors and the smell of grease and agent orange. And the blatant misogyny, like the walls covered in Sunshine girls and calenders of scantly clad women with power tools, the ubiquitous badly stashed porn, and the never ending disparaging remarks from the guys who worked there about the women in their lives.

All of this left me with a pretty thick skin for boys’ bad behavior in workshops, even leading me to expect it. When I started frequenting the local bicycle co-op, I was just glad that the men’s club I found there was more progressive than the male dominated spaces I remember from my childhood, and tried to brush off the more subtle ways that I felt unwelcome as a female in the shop. For example, the mechanics (though this also goes for pretty much every bike shop I’ve ever been in) would always assume I didn’t know anything, and I would often just go along, buying into the myth that because they were dudes and I wasn’t that I should trust their knowledge over my own.

Another subtle way macho boys clubs exclude anyone who isn’t a macho boy is with the language they use, and unfortunately, I still hear a lot of this in the cycling community today. Need to try harder? Then “Man up!” Didn’t perform to your expectations? Then you’re a “pussy,” or maybe you “pussed out,” “don’t be such a girl,” or perhaps you’re a “sissy,” or a “fag.” Do something stupid? Then you’re a “retard.” Something’s no fun? Then it’s “lame.” Some of you may be thinking “Oh, that’s not serious, it’s just men razzing each other, they do it all the time, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s ironic, feminists have no sense of humor, etc.” Let me spell it out: when I, as a woman, hear this sort of language, it sends a direct message to me that I am not valued for my knowledge & skill, and that I am not wanted in an environment where being like a woman is seen as a detriment. The same goes for queer folks, people with disabilities, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the masculine “norm.”

Boys, the English language is rich and deep, and I think you’ll find there are many ways to engage your competitive spirits without disparaging whole groups of people. You may even find that when you stop behaving like macho stereotypes, people who aren’t macho dudes may be more interested in spending time with you. For bike culture to progress beyond a subcultural fringe, we need to be far more cognizant of how our behavior and the way we communicate creates barriers to the very folk we are trying to win over.

Two years ago, EBC joined in an experiment that has already been running at many bike co-ops across North America and established days when, twice a month,  men aren’t allowed in the shop.

Women & Transgendered peoples' day at Edmonton Bicycle Commuters.

I have helped run these days since the beginning. I do it because I don’t see bike culture changing fast enough away from being a macho boys club. I spend every second Sunday wrenching because I want to know what its like to work in a shop not dominated by testosterone. I do it because the only female hands that have ever worked on any of my bikes are my own, and I don’t want to see another generation of girls grow up thinking that a penis is required equipment for holding a wrench or becoming competent in anything mechanical.

Please don’t misconstrue this rant as painting all men with the same brush, or equating maleness with something negative. I don’t know what I’d do without all the thoughtful, supportive, feminist men in my life, and I’ve been privileged to witness so much positive change in the bicycle scene in the last decade. I’m writing this because we still have far to go and because there are still a small but vocal minority of men who think it’s OK to say and do misogynist BS, especially within a male dominated space. Mostly, I’m writing this in the hopes that the men who hear it and are uncomfortable with it won’t leave it to the only woman in the room to call out chauvinism when it happens.

I Know Where I Won’t Be This Weekend

5 11 2010

Dear biggest bike shop in town,

When I first heard about the expo you’re putting on this weekend, I was excited about getting my bike geek on and checking out what’s new this year. That quickly changed when I saw the featured event:

Pork Chop Throw-Down
Prize: Trek Ticket Frame
Raw Round – Bring in a wrapped pork chop to be judged on cut, freshness, tenderness, fat content, appearance.
Cooked Round – Eligible pork chops will be cooked by a trained cook. Entries prepared similarly for fairness.
Judges will choose a pork chop winner based on best tasting.

Really? You couldn’t think of any other way to tap the obnoxious hipster market that was, say, even slightly related to bicycles? Do you realize how disgusting this sounds to someone who doesn’t eat swine, whether for religious, ethical, health or environmental reasons? There may not be as many vegetarians among off-roaders (the prize is a fancy downhill frame) as there are among utility & commuter cyclists, but why set yourself up to alienate a potentially large number of customers (who also buy a lot of bike accessories)?

My first reaction was “Eww.” Then “Gross.” Followed by, “Eww, what does this have to do with bikes anyway?” Followed by a shudder and “Eww” again. I’m afraid my visceral reaction to an event where everyone is encouraged to pack raw pork has outweighed any curiosity I had about shiny new components and gold medalists.

So, sorry, biggest bike shop in town. I don’t know what you were thinking, but it seems my hopes that you had grown a clue about catering to everyday cyclists were premature. You won’t see me this weekend.


E-Ville Rider