7 Random Observations About Helmets

A Note from Fatty: Thanks to everyone–more than 50 of you–who participated in yesterday’s contest to win a very cool Vicious Cycles Jersey. Lots of great ideas. You can continue to add entries to that contest through 11/17/06, by the way. I’ll choose a winner over the weekend, and will post it on Monday.

This Has Never Happened Before
I recently had a completely new (at least for me) experience: I wore out a helmet. Or at least I think I wore it out: there’s a crack in the front of my trusty white Giro Atmos that I can’t account for. The helmet’s four years old, so I’m just putting this crack down to accumulated wear and tear.

So how is this new? Well, it’s the first time I’ve ever replaced a helmet before catastrophically destroying it through the medium of an epic crash. In other words, I’ve finally had a helmet die of old age.

Who would have even thought such a thing possible? Seriously. Until now, I thought there was only one way for a helmet to go, and that was with a bang.

So lately I’ve been doing some helmet shopping, during which I have thought a lot—too much, perhaps—about helmets. Here are some of my random helmet-related observations.

1. Helmets Are Not Exciting
I’m having a very difficult time getting excited about buying a helmet. This is peculiar, because I usually get excited about buying just about anything bike-related. I’ve gotten excited about buying bike shoes. I’ve gotten excited about buying a new kind of energy food. I’ve gotten excited about buying socks, for crying out loud.

So why am I blasé about getting a helmet?

I think it’s because of what the helmet represents. Every other item I buy for biking contributes to the pleasure of biking itself. The helmet, on the other hand, is an insurance policy you strap to the top of your head. No matter how many vents it has, no matter what kind of ratcheting gizmo it uses to keep it snug on your noggin, no matter what exciting racing colors it uses, it’s still a Styrofoam hat that develops a permanent stink after you use it a few times.

It’s not easy to get excited about that.

2. Helmets (or Rather, Lack Thereof) Make Me Act Schoolmarmish
In spite of their decided lack of sexiness, I’m a helmet zealot. The fact that I’ve crushed several and have never had a serious bike injury is evidence enough that they’re worth wearing. So when I see anyone without a helmet, I have to fight the urge to go tell the offender off. And if I see an adult and a child riding—neither wearing helmets—I’m likely to fail to resist that urge. At least a couple times, I’ve gone and told parents they have a responsibility to make their kids wear helmets, and a further responsibility to set a good example by wearing one themselves.

Nobody has ever thanked me for giving them this advice. And every time I have done this, I have immediately regretted it. Do I stop people in traffic if they’re not wearing seatbelts? No. Do I walk up to people who are smoking and tell them about lung cancer? No. Do I point out to strangers that listening to their iPods at maximum volume is going to cause hearing loss? No.

And yet, I have this strange, embarrassing compulsion to occasionally play the bike helmet vigilante.

Am I alone in this?

3. Genius Helmet Marketing Idea
I have an old helmet, on which I keep a helmet-mounted light. This helps me avoid having to attach the light each time I go night riding. I used the Velcro straps as well as double-sided tape to fix the light in place, and my setup works well.

Or, perhaps I should say that it works well except for when I’m using it. No helmet in the world—that I know of—is made to stay on snugly when the weight of a light (coupled with the drag of a battery cable) is added. The helmet either slides forward or backward. And then there’s the question of whether a helmet with a metal-and-glass contraption up top is going to do you any good whatsoever if you superman into a tree.

I suspect not.

So, if I were a helmet-mounted bike light manufacturer, I’d team up with a helmet manufacturer to design a bike light/helmet combo that doesn’t slide back and forth all over your head. It would be a bonus if it doesn’t require a MacGuyver-esque combination of Velcro, tape, and glue to hold the light in place.

Note to Giro and NiteRider: You can thank me for my brilliant idea by sending me a helmet/light setup as soon as you finish developing it. Size Medium.

4. Fit
I have a perfectly-formed, evenly-shaped cranium with no irregularities whatsoever, so this helmet-related observation is strictly hypothetical. But just say, for the sake of argument, that one’s head were shaped in such a way that no matter what you do, the helmet always seems to tip back so the front is high on the forehead? I assume that person would constantly be hearing from other riders who want to offer helpful advice, along the lines of, “Hey, your helmet’s tipped pretty far back there, Fatty.”

I’m assuming, here, that this person with the irregular-shaped head also has the nickname “Fatty,” just by coincidence.

So anyway, I imagine that this person with the funny-shaped head would answer, “Yeah, show me how to make my helmet fit,” and then would stand there smugly, arms crossed, while letting other riders discover to their satisfaction that the helmet is on the only way it’s going to go on.

Boy, I’ll bet that such a person—hypothetical though he may be—wishes you could get helmets that are custom molded to your skull.

So I’m sure glad that I have, as I already mentioned, a perfectly typical, symmetrical, smooth, non-lumpy skull.

5. Color
Here’s a nice, practical tip: get a dark-colored helmet only if you like the idea of your helmet doubling as a passive solar heater. Otherwise, go for a light color.

And don’t, for the love of all that’s good in the world, get a helmet with an outrageous pattern. It’s like wearing a loud tie. You may think it gives you a devil-may-care swagger, but it really just makes you look like a dope.

You know what a good color for a helmet is? White.

6. You Know, I’d Buy Locally if I Could
I have, in the past three weeks, gone to five different local bike shops. Not a single one of them had a Giro Atmos. Or a Giro Pneumo. They did, however, have lots of helmets with bright colors that scream, “I ride my bike between two and three times per year, and this one was on clearance!”

If you’re a bike shop employee, please answer this simple set of questions:

  1. Do you currently have any medium-to-high-end helmets in stock?
  2. Why not?
  3. Do you really think that if I’m shopping for a high-end helmet, I don’t need it ‘til next week, which is when you’d get it if you special order it?

So—even though I want to support my locally-owned bike shop, I’m looking online.

7. What Helmets are Really Good For
I’ve whacked my helmet into trees, rocks, dirt, and (once) a pedal, so I’ve been convinced of their life-saving value multiple times. Many more times than that, though, I’ve been grateful to my helmet for doing something much more mundane: taking a branch for me.

I really don’t remember how many times—more than 100, I’m certain—I’ve been riding along when I suddenly see a branch right at eye level. I duck my head and immediately hear and feel a solid *thwack* of the branch hitting the shell of my helmet. It’s the sound of disaster averted.

I love that sound.

It may be, in fact, the second best sound in the world.

PS: The first-best sound, in case you were wondering, is the sound of an airborne fist-sized rock bouncing harmlessly against your downtube, instead of hitting you on the shinbone.

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