Helmets have turned my sport into a blood sport

I have been racing bikes every weekend for more than twenty years, a period spanning the introduction of helmets in professional racing. Some key dates:

1990:

Mandatory bike helmet laws introduced in Australia.

1992:

Dr. Behooving starts racing bikes

2003:

Helmets made compulsory in professional racing.

c2010:

racing goes to shit with crashes in every stage.

mark-cavendish-tour-de-suisse-crash

We’ve seen the same pattern with every sport from boxing to gridiron. (It might be unfair to count duelling, these days called fencing.) Reckless behaviour follows the introduction of armour as day follows night. It’s called “risk elasticity” if you need fancy terms to convince you.

The bicycle industry are laughing their heads off. Every crash in an amateur race is a trip to the bike store for replacement parts, new nicks and a new helmet. Crashes in pro races equal more viewers. The car industry plays the same game, filling their dashboards with entertaining distractions offset by more airbags. I’m heading to Rome on the weekend and am preparing lectures for my students about the ancients’ penchant for carnage. But look at us now!

Bicycle racing in the 1990s was a strict affair. Riders who did not hold their line in a sprint, who crossed a wheel, or who swapped turns in a bunch with any degree aberrance were given two choices: learn or quit. I felt privileged as a young rider when the older more experienced grouches accepted me into this cult, the rites of which all traced to the spectre of death if someone fucked up.

I guess the death rates are lower now that the world races with helmets, but the rites have been lost and broken collar bones and cracked frames are a routine occurrence. Join with me, if you will, in the enjoyment of a few clips from the twilight era of chivalrous sprinting, when crashes were the exception.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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5 Responses to Helmets have turned my sport into a blood sport

  1. Nick zintilis says:

    I do not know if the death rates are lower when wearing a helmet.
    I do know that skiien with a helmet( nowadays) or without (10 years ago) has made NO difference according to the Chief Medical Person in Switzeland. This he says is due to skieers taking MORE RISKS as they think that they are well protected by their helmet-they are not! Think Schumacher.(Tages Anzeiger in January)
    Nick Zintilis

    • Steven says:

      Add skiing to the list of activities that have degenerated into an arms race. Full body armour will be next. Absolute carnage.

    • crank says:

      Yeah, for some there is the call that car drivers should wear helmets, since driving is dangerous and causes many head injuries. But imagine how people would be driving their cars then! A routine run to the shops would look something like this http://youtu.be/s8uiVud7ykY

  2. rdrf says:

    Spot on (actually, to be pedantic it is “risk compensation” or “behavioural adaptation”).

    For a discussion about this with regard to helmets in general, see the discussion about the reasons for the effects of the compulsory helmet law in New Zealand which should have some resonances for you in Oz: http://rdrf.org.uk/2013/12/27/the-effects-of-new-zealands-cycle-helmet-law-the-evidence-and-what-it-means/.

    Also, on cycle sport (including some personal stuff), specifically with regard to my ex-clubmate Brad Wiggins: posts here http://rdrf.org.uk/category/bradley-wiggins/

  3. Malcolm says:

    I would be sceptical about helmets reducing deaths. Recent papers in the BMJ have shown no effect even on serious head injury admissions after helmet laws in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Hard to accept an effect on death rates if there is little/no effect on scalp lacerations.
    Helmet wearing only has ongoing credibility because of lack of open challenge. Most journalists strike a pro-helmet posture. Cycling organisations don’t invest much effort in education.
    I would be interested in hard data on deaths and head injuries in competitive cycling, if anyone has a source for them.

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