INDEX 2

THE H WORD

Don't even think about pedalling down your driveway without a helmet... Don't even think about being friends with someone who would cycle without a helmet.
-Suzanne Schlosberg, Fitness for Dummies

So that explains why my address book is empty except for that old number for my mother [note to self: try directory enquiries again]. My bareheadedness has turned me into a pariah.

If only I'd kept to the one true path I started pedalling down years ago when I was born-again into the congregation of the spoked wheel. Back then I would no more have cycled the streets of London, my newly-adopted milieu, without a helmet, than I would've danced naked in a church – unless it was Episcopalian, they seem to be more relaxed about things.

I was a true believer, and thought that anybody who neglected to strap one on was either a fool or very brave; there seemed little difference between the two. The fact that every so often, rain or shine, apropos of nothing,* no matter who was in office or how the FTSE 100 was doing, I came off my bicycle, was strong reinforcement. Although I never truly kissed tarmac surely it was a matter of time before we would have an intimate encounter: my hard head with its hard heart. As with other varieties of prophylactic, it was best to always be prepared.

Then one day I tossed my Giro high into the air and shouted 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, I'm free at last!' That's how I like to remember it, anyway. The truth is my apostasy snuck up on me gradually. As I grew more relaxed on two wheels I became less so with this thing perched up on my head. Every model I tried was hot and uncomfortable, no matter how many vents the manufacturer sliced into it. The entire package has to be kept seated properly to be truly effective, requiring the minute adjustment of hateful straps, which is beyond my organisational abilities.

Perhaps most important of all, the wind in my hair is a pleasant reminder that the male pattern baldness which runs in my family has skipped a generation.

Most fellow cyclists I've spoken to are less bothered. Many seem to forget they're even wearing one and quite happily waltz into Tesco safe from the impact of the odd flying tin of beans. Of course, it could be that when they lock up their bike their head is simply the most convenient storage facility.

Shortly before the turn of the new millennium I went topless, after a few weeks of on-again-off-again exhibitionism to test the waters. My wife wasn't too happy about this. Having borne witness to several of my non-cycling mishaps over the years, including a scary boy-meets-car encounter in New Jersey several lifetimes ago, and strangely immune to the comic effect of my walking head first into a lamp post some years later, she was in no mood to don black as counterpoint to my florescent livery. I persevered, citing Rights of Man, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Magna Carta, and other yellowing documents of dubious relevance. Besides, wearing a helmet didn't help the ghost cyclist in The Sixth Sense, now did it?

Although I had consigned the headgear to the loft, next to dusty piles of old cycling magazines long since sucked dry of their nutriment and behind that old WWII bomb I really should defuse one of these days, I didn't consider my journey to a helmet-free existence complete until the winter I deigned to put one on again as an extra safeguard against icy roads. After thousands of miles of freedom it felt unpleasantly odd to be imprisoned by straps and polystyrene. Within 10 minutes I was sweaty and uncomfortable and cross - not the best state to be navigating treacherous lanes. Off came the lid. Tree branches nearby rattled from the force of my sigh of relief.The helmet became a permanent exhibition in my personal museum of antiquities.

Which is all very well.

But I don't live, or cycle, in a vacuum, helpful as that would be to my average speed. While normally my attire is of little interest to anyone save me and my mirror - both of us dress for comfort - oddly enough other road users have been known to question it, their queries running the gamut from 'why no helmet?' [motorist] to 'why no helmet?' [cyclist]. This would be the perfect opportunity to defend the poor maligned skull, which is quite capable of protecting its precious cargo despite lack of SNELL-approval, or mention that dangerous rotational forces may in fact be exacerbated by helmets, or if my interrogator is absolutely convinced that such apparatus separates the saved from the damned, put them in my will to shush them.

If only everybody was content to live and let live.

I've followed The Great Debate for years but rarely offered an opinion because it all gets rather heated and as I may have mentioned, I don't like it hot. Suffice it to say the helmet wars are fought with statistics in one hand and anecdotes in the other, which is just as well for those of us who often ride no-handed. You can make up your own mind. I just hope that the freedom to do so won't ever be taken away.

Cycling Plus, April 2004

* OK, not nothing. My tumbles to earth have been facilitated by the usual suspects: ice, kerbs, a transit van, etc. One lovely spring day in 2003 whilst attempting to navigate a steep hill at an exceptionally low velocity I was even undone by a previously faithful toestrap. Such accidents are embarrassing but do serve to remind me that gravity is in charge and I should be grateful that Newton's hobbyhorse doesn't rock my world more often.