Brake Even: Safety’s Place in Bike Culture
By E. Max Bonem
Draisienne, laufmaschine, dandy horse, penny-farthing, and velopicede – the bicycle has had many names since first being introduced by the (most epically) German Baron Karl von Drais in the early 1800s. Since then, the bicycle has served as an excellent way to efficiently get from point A to point B. Lighter than a horse (maybe not as important these days, unless you live in Texas), cheaper than a car, faster than walking, cooler than roller blading, and helping out the metabolism and cardiovascular health of its riders, the bike has become a staple of modern day society.
On top of providing efficient transportation though, the bicycle allows humans to do something that we all (sometimes) secretly fiend for: the ability to go FAST. Just like most other feats of pace, when someone goes fast, there is always someone who thinks they can and wants to go faster. Much like velociraptors and chariots from times gone by, bike racing has etched its place into the global world of sports, with the highlight the Tour de France, the most well-known (and sadly tainted) bike race on Earth (Note: I’m not even going to touch the GINORMOUS YELLOW & BLACK ELEPHANT in the room here, that’s not what this post is about).
However, every four years the world puts aside its differences to celebrate/determine which country can perform certain tasks better than others, i.e. throwing a rock, running in a circle, paddling a boat (Note: I’m not even going to bother mentioning the Winter “Olympics.” Until they allow Curlers to drink tall boys (I’m thinking Molson as a sponsor) during matches or they up the ante for the Skeleton (that’s the head-first luge for you newbs out there) participants by requiring them to complete a Sudoku puzzle on their way down the shoot, I refuse to recognize it with any sort of merit), not to mention the level of fit-on-fit breeding that occurs during that fateful two week stretch of bright spandex and freakishly defined thighs. Amongst the running and the throwing and the ping-ponging are two events that have had major impacts on casual cyclists everywhere, the road race and more importantly (as you’ll see), indoor Track riding.
Every cycling event from the London Olympics was completely and utterly dominated by the Brits (seen above), led by Bradley Wiggins (not pictured above), who had but two weeks prior to the olympiad won the Tour de France (and has come out very publicly against doping and the notion that he would ever even consider such atrocious things), taking gold in the outdoor road race. He got to finish this most historic summer by circling Buckingham palace in front of the royal family and thousands of his countrymen and women. It looked like an awesome moment, but hey, we still won the war. (Am I right? USA!?) Similar though was the British track cycling teams, who whooped a ton of ass on the nutty velodrome track.
As you can safely assume at this point, track cycling became my favorite event to watch during the London games and I made hella googly eyes at the ridonkulous bikes that the British teams were whipping around on (each of which was specifically designed for each team member by McLaren (makers of the legendary F1) and reportedly ran over $100,000 a pop). Throughout the games, I had track bike fever, which I should point out are equipped without any sort of brakes and are fixed gear, which means that you do not shift and that you cannot coast – the bike only moves in accordance with the effort you put into it, and I started thinking about the logistics behind acquiring/riding/maintaining a fixed gear bike. I should make another note here, I know many folks who ride fixed gear that use brakes. I still think of them as being semi-crazy, but at least they recognize the value of being able to stop quickly.
You see, these two events, professional road cycling and track cycling, have had MAJOR impacts on the culture of riding in urban environments (unlike professional football, basketball, or baseball, of course). As a resident of Austin, TX, which has a serious cycling community that rivals those of Portland, Minneapolis, Brooklyn, Chicago, and San Francisco (cough, Yellow & Black Elephant, cough), I can attest to the impact of these sports on two radically different groups of people. There are a lot of cyclists here, not so much that ride for commuting purposes, but when it comes to riding for fitness, Austin is a MAJOR player. Part of that could be that you can ride here year around and it also could be that Austin is just an active/fitness-focused place (I live within a mile of at least five bike/running/triathlon focused stores so not only do people like to stay active here, they like to look the part as well). Even more so, it is hard to accurately explain the impact that Armstrong (well, the elephant’s outta the box now) has had on this city and the people who always have and always will support him. He gave Austin a face and that mindset of grit, determination, and just keep peddling has become part of the DNA of our fair capital.
On the other side of this though is the fixie/free-wheel street riding community that is primarily made up of college students and hipsters living east of downtown (note: yes, I have a beard, I rock a haircut styled after those popular pre-1960, and I used to own a single speed bike that I routinely described as being “pistachio” in color, I recognize all of these facts when making my assertion here). Most of these folks are riding these bikes for one of many reasons: they look cool (fewer components, cleaner appearance), they’re highly customizable, relatively cheap, easy to maintain, lighter weight, and did I mentioned they look cool? On top of this, some of these people do utilize brakes and a spare few can be seen wearing helmets (OH ME OH MY). And it is this very fact that I most want to bring up here: Helmets. Yep, this whole post was building up to a diatribe on bike safety.
Helmets are not cool. They are, at best, not “uncomfortable,” and, unless you’re a junior high science teacher rocking a periodic table flag on your recumbent bike, you probably look ridiculous wearing one. I guarantee that if you ask someone who doesn’t wear a helmet when they’re whipping around town (or even some long distance road riders) why they choose not to, rather than explain why, they’ll just tell you, “Yeah, I know, I really should.” Well yes, you should, but that doesn’t answer the question. I know that when I first moved here, I rode without a helmet because I just assumed that unless you were a serious cyclist, you really didn’t need a helmet. Well, let me say a few things about this whole thing and yes, you tatted-up, pierced, “fuck off!” looking urchins riding around on your fixies, I’m pointing y’all out.
I agree that fixed gear bikes are f-ing sexy, a bike with no housing (brake wires) or brakes just looks sleek and that simplicity resonates with a lot of people aesthetically. Also, I get the idea of “feeling like one with your bike” and feeling more connected to the road, I promise you I do. However, do you see any of the cyclists participating in the sport where these bikes come from (track cycling) riding without a helmet? I’m aware they’re going WICKEDLY fast and they’re required to for safety reasons, but, oh wait I just said it without saying it, these people strapped into their brakeless bikes are REQUIRED TO WEAR HELMETS FOR SAFETY REASONS and they’re on an indoor track, completely void of any obstacles that could cause harm, i.e. cars, trucks, busses, pedestrians, traffic lights, stop signs, yield signs, weather, darkness. (Quick trivia question: how many sports in the summer Olympics require the use of a helmet from participants? Boom: Fencing (iffy), Boxing (what they consider a “helmet” in Olympic boxing is what pro boxers wear during training), Equestrian (smeh), and Cycling. The one sport out of those where physical contact is not the end game or in anyway legal/beneficial is the one sport where you must, no matter what, always wear a helmet).
Literally, hours before writing this post, I saw a “freaky fresh, freaky fast” delivery guy stopped at a red light. He was clipped into a Specialized road bike that he had converted into a fixed gear and was trying to hold out for the green light by balancing the bike through the use of the fixed wheel movement and handlebar positioning. I then noticed that he had either engraved or wrote a message on his frame, which read, “Fuck that. No brakes.” Oddly enough, he had a helmet on, which I am going to assume is a company liability/safety thing and was not his choice, however, I felt the strong urge to approach him on the road and simply push his ass over. Proclaiming to the world that you don’t believe in ensuring your own safety (not to mention the safety of those around you) while your riding is just ignorant and stupid. People wonder why drivers hate cyclists, I think that just explained it all (much like Clarissa used to do).
I know you look cool on those bikes of yours, hipster dudes or chicks, with your matte black frame and your back wheel that’s a different shade of neon from your front wheel with your stubby little handle bars (“Oh its so I can fit between traffic easier, bro.” YEAH, I F*CKING BET IT IS! SARCASM!) and no brakes, but let me tell you a story. On Tuesday I was riding with a friend of mine as part of the training that we’re doing for the Livestrong Challenge in October and I did something that happens at some point to everyone that spends a great deal of time on a bike. As I was nearing a very busy highway overpass/congested intersection, I attempted to ride onto the sidewalk to avoid the narrowing amount of space allotted to non-cars on that specific stretch of road and as I neared the curb, a large truck that obviously didn’t see me cut over to try to dodge some traffic and came within about six inches of me. At this point, I seemingly forgot about the nearing sidewalk and ended up hitting the curb at roughly 15mph, falling to the right, and banging into the concrete headfirst as I spun onto the sidewalk. I quickly got up and out of the way of any traffic and realized I had sustained some minor scrapes and road burn, but the bike itself and most of me were just fine. I can still hear the sound of my head (safely enclosed within my helmet) smacking into the concrete and the immediate dread that I felt as I got to my feet. Was I concussed? Would this inhibit my training? Did I look cool at all as I literally “bit the curb”? The answer to each of these was a resounding “no” and it is all thanks to the fact that I was wearing a helmet.
We all fall down. I happen to be over-sized and clumsy so I fall down more than the average guy, but it is one’s ability to get back up that truly shows your love for whatever it is that brought you down. I’m going to keep riding and I’m going to pedal harder and harder every time I’m out there. Will I ride somewhere without a helmet on in the next week? Probably. I’ll freely admit that if I ride my bike out at night, I usually don’t wear a helmet. This is also the time when there are significantly fewer cars on the road and I’m at most traveling two miles from my home, but I digress. I got a swift reminder of why safety is not something to fuck around with, especially when it’s the part of your body that allows for such things as thought, cognition, sense, and every other mental ability that we humans enjoy on a second by second basis. Will I ever look cool rockin’ a dome shield? Hell no. What if it’s a cool triathlon/sprinting helmet that looks sort of like a sperm? Well, maybe. So to all of you out there riding day in and day out, remember that if you’re on the road, you aren’t a pedestrian and shouldn’t be treated like one. Understand the traffic laws and ride smart and hopefully Pappy O’Bonem won’t have to get up on his soapbox again anytime soon. Y’heard?