Off my bike

I am not much of a weekend cyclist. I am a commuter. Almost every working day, unless I am in a too fragile state or the weather is particularly adverse, I ride a bicycle to and from work. It is about 8km each way and takes me a little under half and hour. (I ride fairly sedately, most of the time.) Commuting in this way is invigorating and convenient.

Almost 6 weeks ago now, I came off my bike.

There was an error of judgment on my part. The circumstances involved my trying to keep up with a rather handsome younger (than I) rider wearing a fetching bright red track suit sort of thing (so no, it wasn’t a matter of lycra-perving).

When you fall off your bike, your bike falls too. I was probably not fully disentangled from it when we [momentarily sentimental personification of the bike] first hit the pavement: for almost 5 weeks I had what started off as a nasty bruise inside my left forefinger knuckle where it was grasping the handlebar and from which it was probably wrenched with some force. Later I realised there was a similar, though less visible, bruise on my right hand. They have recovered now.

My helmet took a couple of blows from the pavement which must have shielded my head from what could otherwise have been a serious and in any event would have been a most inconvenient injury.

I sustained a few other grazes and bruises, including a light but broad graze on my chin, a scratch just on the left central tip of my lip and, most uncomfortably and for about 10 days problematic of all, above my left cheekbone and coming up to just under my eye. This formed a dramatic scab (a kind of paste of blood and Savlon) which took a little over 2 weeks to come off and has left a mild scar which is still healing. The bag under my eye swelled up even more than usual.

I have photographic evidence of this but the best pictures would compromise the pseudonymity of this blog, and more specific pictures would be a bit like showing you my operation scar.

The red-clad object of my desire emulation and occasion if not cause of my downfall cycled obliviously on.

A couple of things were broken on the bike, including a small part which I did not at first notice and for which I seem to have to wait a while for a replacement.

I generally wear a helmet and certainly would generally choose to for a ride such as the ride home from work where I suffered my fall – just near the Fish Markets at Pyrmont, to be precise. My helmet almost certainly saved me from injury, but this does not mean I presume to say that there should be a law requiring all cyclists to wear a helmet.

I have a grudge with the executive of the former Bicycle Institute of NSW (now Bicycle NSW) who have from time to time been piping up in favour of such a laws. It’s one thing to say they accept and will respect them while they are in force in relation to Bicycle NSW events. But it is a big step from saying “helmets are good” to “helmets are compulsory” and I don’t think these people are either mandated or particularly qualified to take that step.

Compulsory helmets block any scheme for bicycles available for “point to point” hire on the street as you can find in some European cities and even, as far as I could make out, in Shanghai. There are many short and low-stress trips which many could make on a bicycle for which I think it is an unreasonable and certainly exceptional manifestation of legal paternalism to require riders to don a helmet. Compulsory helmet laws undoubtedly mean there are fewer people riding bicycles. They’re mostly not walking instead: they’re driving cars. Is that the right outcome, even on a purely utilitarian basis?

5 Responses to “Off my bike”

  1. ken n Says:

    Ouch.

  2. Victor Says:

    The most difficult aspect to managing a fall seems to be having sufficient awareness to fall in a relaxed state and to let go of anything you are holding when all your bodily alarm systems call you do to the exact opposite.

  3. wanderer Says:

    Rhetorical, or did you really want a bite?

    Personal experience first. I’ve had two bad crashes: one racing, with a major life threatening chest injury / intensive care and the helmet made no difference as the head wasn’t a point of impact; the second was a low speed training crash the result of inattention by a rider two in front and this time the head was the point of impact (over the handle bars) with concussion, neuropraxia of dental and facial nerves, and a severe loss of confidence. My helmet was cracked and split open, better than the skull.

    My point here is that the type of injury is impossible to predict, at any speed or circumstance. Riding without a helmet simply accepts the possibility of a head injury and riding with one doesn’t exclude it either. It is not valid, I think, to say, as has been raised in defense of the civil libertarian stance, that riders without helmets ride more carefully and enjoy more respect by motorists. That’s wishful thinking, especially in Sydney.

    There can be no proof, no controlled trials, no retrospectivity – the numbers aren’t high enough (as was the case for seat belts). It is an extension of common sense, and/or an insurance necessity (think tour de france now, and they were slow to cover up), and a balance of the common good, including the cost to society (a long stay in intensive care for an uninsured patient is no small thing). Will the city, or state, be liable for an injury on a leased two-wheeler?

    Melbourne and Brisbane are struggling with this, flat river cities where bikes are easier (like London and Paris). Sydney will never be as bike friendly, the topography just isn’t so suited to cycling. Perhaps the answer is more thought about the type of helmet and how and where to be fitted and return same, hygiene notwithstanding.

    Do you wear a helmet because you have to or because you value your (ever decreasing number of) neurones?

    • marcellous Says:

      The assesment of the common good to society should include not only the head injuries avoided but also the exercise missed and the health consequences of that, and additional motor vehicle trips undertaken (and health consequences of them), as well as the greater belligerence or lesser solicitude towards cyclists that their having a helmet may licence [OK – there’s a chicken and egg argument here] and, possibly, misguided valour on the part of cyclists with helmets.

      I wore a helmet before it was compulsory (I had a “skid lid” back in 1978) , but I became countersuggestible when it became the law that I must do so. Eventually I buckled in to the law when I moved to WA for a while. Policing there is generally more zero-tolerance than in NSW. (My theory is that this is because the police there are routinely tough on aborigines and therefore have to be tough on everyone to be “fair”. ) Before that I rode frequently (not racing or training or in groups of cyclists) without a helmet and without adverse incident or even, I might add, admonition on any more than the one occasion from the NSW constabulary. I wear one now when I am riding all the way into town but although I accept that absolutely no ride is free of risk of any fall, I would rather not wear one just to putter round to the shops or even to the local railway station. The problem is that the helmet is another thing which may be nicked or damaged if left with the bike (at one stage my new helmet was definitely worth more than my old bike) and is otherwise an inconvenient object to carry when you leave the bike. That’s the sort of thing that dissuades people from riding at all. Then there’s the heat and discomfort of a helmet in summer in Sydney, at least. Next thing: get in the car.

      The problem with helmets and bicycle share/hire schemes is less or at least not simply one of hygiene and more one of getting the right sized helmet for every potential casual user.

  4. Street activism « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] I’m not the one who put it there, despite any suspicions which may be aroused in certain quarters. […]

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