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:
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.