Twenty-three years ago, I was, to paraphrase an early Jimmy Buffet song, God’s own cyclist and a fearless man.
I was living in Denver at the time, and biking was my life. By then, I’d been riding for 6 years and considered myself an expert on all things bike.
I rode a minimum of 50 miles a day, every day, rain or shine. On the rare occasions when something kept me off the bike, I obsessed about it all day, then rode that much harder the next day. Once I even bombed down a mountain pass, passing cars on the shoulder at over 60 miles an hour — without a helmet — well aware that the first mistake I made would be my last.
But then, hardly anyone wore helmets in those days. I certainly didn’t think I needed one, since experienced riders like me just didn’t hit the pavement.
The only risk, in my overly confident mind, was if I was knocked there by a car or another rider. And I’d made a careful study of traffic and defensive riding techniques to make that didn’t happen, priding myself on my ability to read the streets and anticipate the actions of everyone on it.
Pride, as they say, goes before a fall.
This particular day, I was riding fast as I approached a major three-way intersection. To this day, I could still tell you the exact location of every single car as I carved a perfect a turn, leaning hard to the right as my knee barely cleared the pavement.
The only thing I didn’t see was the large puddle of water directly in front of my wheel, left over from a brief thunderstorm earlier in the day.
As soon as my bike hit the water, I hit the pavement, sliding across six lanes of traffic until I hit the curb on the far side with enough force to pancake both wheels.
My clothes were shredded, leaving me no more than a few threads from an indecent exposure charge. Fortunately, one of the drivers who had miraculously avoided me wrapped me in a blanket, secured my bike and drove me to the emergency room, where I was diagnosed with a broken bone in my elbow and severe road rash from ankle to chin.
Somehow, my speed and the angle I hit the road kept my head off the pavement, confirming my belief that a helmet was unnecessary.
My sister, though, was not so convinced. The next day, she bought a helmet and made me promise to wear it. Once I was able to get back on the bike, I put it on just to humor her.
And I’ve worn one every time I’ve been on a bike since.
Because as I recuperated, it finally dawned on me that overconfidence is more dangerous than anything I might find on the road. And that every rider hits the pavement sooner or later.
Yet it took two more decades of riding before I used my helmet for more than hair net.
Then in September of 2007, I was riding along the bike path north of Santa Monica, just approaching the new L.A. County Lifeguard headquarters at Will Rogers State Beach, when I encountered a massive swarm of bees.
I’ve told the story before, so I won’t bore you with the details (you can click here if you missed it). But the next thing I knew, I was stretched out on the bike path as a lifeguard pulled an oxygen mask over my face, with no idea how I got there.
The doctors in the ER said I’d suffered a moderate concussion, and the fact that I’d been wearing a helmet had probably saved my life. And as I looked at the cracks veining through its foam lining, I realized they probably were right.
So if someone tells me they started wearing a helmet because of something I said or wrote, it means more to me than they will ever know. Because an accident like that, in a place like that, pretty pretty much confirms that anything can happen, anytime. And anywhere.
I hope they — and you — never need it.
But I can honestly say that my sister’s insistence that I wear one has a lot to do with why I’m still here, and writing this, today.
Police in Pasadena are encouraging kids to wear their helmets — something state law requires. A writer in Seattle examines the age-old conflict over where — and if — bikes belong. Bike culture comes to D.C. A cycling Fox News reporter in Milwaukee documents his encounters with dangerous drivers. Introducing the cycling art of schluffing — something I’ve done since I was about 6 years old. Brayj points out the failure of bike planning at UCLA, as well as calling our attention to tomorrow’s county Department of Public Works meeting to explain why they won’t be building the long-promised extension to the Arroyo Seco Bike Path.