In the weeks that followed my human flyswatter demo back in 2012, my stepmother sent me a number of links in emails. My memory is that they were each links to different types of helmets, some innovative, some not so much, but most of them some sort of variation on the full-face flavor. I didn’t really want to argue with her about how the nature of my crash wasn’t a statement about the lack of effectiveness of my helmet, or how impractical it is to wear a full-face helmet when on a road ride. Or how the peloton would react if you showed up dressed like a downhiller.
But those links did something. They did make me think. They made me ask questions of myself about the lengths I should go to protect myself. After all, I’m a husband and a father of two young boys who will need active fathering for a couple of decades yet.
So while the worst crash of my life was on the road, I hold as true the belief that I’m more likely to crash off road where the value of protective gear is much more self-evident. So I began doing some experimenting this spring. Bell sent me two helmets to try that don’t normally fit what I think of as my style of riding. Spy sent me some goggles because the Bell helmets don’t really allow traditional shades, and Kali Protectives outfitted me with some knee and elbow pads.
Before we go any further, let me establish one important detail. I do not huck. I am not huck-opposed, but I am huck-anxious.
So why would a guy who has had his 50th birthday pull a full-face helmet on? Well it’s not because I plan to start a new trend among road riders, relatives be damned. Oh, wait, scratch that. Relatives, specifically my wife and kids, are part of the reason for this little exercise. But only part. A full-face helmet on a guy who is mostly a roadie can’t be boiled down to owee-avoidance.
There is a deeper question I’ve wanted to consider, wanted to answer. My crash in 2012 shuffled the deck in an uncomfortable way. I don’t mean pain; I mean that it undermined my ability to chase what has been the single biggest driver in my riding. Lassoing gravity.
I realized that I couldn’t keep chasing speed on descents in the way I had. Going ever faster just wasn’t going to be an option in the future, much less in the present. So that begged the question: Would I just shut down the urge and descend like some French climber? That was as tasty as deep-fried cardboard.
There’s a common misperception that safety equipment causes people to take risks, that we wouldn’t descend mountain passes at 50 mph if not for the Giro Aeon. Um, no. I can say that at least for me, I’m not emboldened by pads or a helmet. Take away equipment I’m accustomed to using and my fear will increase, but a better helmet won’t suddenly cause me to descend at 60 mph, as if some special level had just been unlocked in a video game.
So, no, the fear doesn’t subside with more equipment. The fear doesn’t change for a guy like me. I put on the extra equipment to convince my self that if I do screw up, I might not get hurt as badly as I would have otherwise.
I see a camera mount as an excellent opportunity to capture my mistakes, not my rad airtime. But that’s only because there is no such thing as rad airtime with me.
Equipment of this nature is far more likely to sell to guys who fall in that 20-something, unmarried, kid-free demographic, not to guys who are, well, like me. And what am I? Approaching old. Timid by some definitions, meth-fueled streaker-crazy by others. Better on skinny tires that don’t leave the ground than fat ones meant to be aloft as much as possible. But most of all: not dead yet.
And that’s really what’s at stake. I don’t want to be that guy who can’t let go of youth. You’ve seen them. Still crazed for winning races even after 30 years of pinning on numbers. Every group ride defined by a need to crush his buddies. Taking risks that even the new guys think are crazy. Breaking bones at my age becomes increasingly risky; recovery isn’t so easy these days. If a long, hard ride can take four days to recover from, imagine how long it could take to recover from a broken collarbone.
But the flip side is no better. Just because I’ve had my 50th birthday, there’s no reason to hang up the cleats and take a long-term lease on the couch. Why stick a foot in the grave before the whole body is ready to go in? I don’t want to give up on fun, on living an invested, visceral life. That’s where the spice is, part of what makes life worth living.
I still love taking Mini-Shred to the skatepark and hitting the vert when no one good is ripping it. But I’m plenty frightened of a fall; last year I hyperextended my groin and that kept me off the bike for a week. Not fun, but that doesn’t scare me the way a broken hip does; that could screw up not just my riding, but my whole life.
I want to find the middle path, where I can stay engaged with my kids as they grow and give them a living example of someone who continues to be active throughout life. I want them to know I’m more than just a spectator in their lives.
Practically speaking, the helmet just above, the Super 2, is a dynamite $135 helmet in that it gives more coverage over my ears and further down the back of my skull. I’d probably have adopted it for most of my mountain biking if I could wear ordinary cycling eyewear with it. But because of the way the helmet comes down at the temples, you can’t slide earpieces beneath this helmet. So goggles are mandatory. The Spy goggles I’ve been wearing are such a colossal improvement on what I used for skiing in the 1990s; I wish I could roll the clock back to use these on the ski runs of Vermont. But goggles eliminate a surprising amount of peripheral vision; I’m more sensitive to that loss of visible range today than I was 20 years ago and that’s been a tougher adjustment.
The Full-9 is a level of protection that most cyclists never encounter. When I put on a road helmet, the sense I get isn’t that I’ve just made my head impervious to impact. It’s amazing what you can get for $319 when aerodynamics and ventilation stop being the top two priorities. The Full-9 is probably as close as I’ll come to pulling on an astronaut’s helmet. It’s an odd sensation. The wind is gone, my vision narrowed. While I appreciate the ventilation and the pockets for integrated speakers, same for the integrated camera mount, my concern is if I can talk myself into going off stuff that 15-year-olds think only posers ride, I want to know I’ve got a helmet that won’t just protect me, but will insulate me.
The serious truth is that you could encase me in bubble wrap and my body would still firehose adrenalin through my veins if I tried to launch over a six-foot gap jump. No amount of safety equipment can fix that, which is part of why I bristle anytime anyone says that bike helmets inspire risky riding. But somewhere between feet-up-on-the-coffee-table-getting-fat-watching-football and too-rad-for-the-ER is a middle space where I can still test my skill, chase some fun and in that, have a chance to live, side-by-side, with my sons.