Whats up with the fixies?
April 26, 2008 7:58 PM   Subscribe

{Hipster,Scenester}filter: What's up with all of the kids on fixed gear bikes these days? And why don't they wear helmets?

I'm noticing it more and more these days...the hip/scenesters on the fixed gear bikes darting in and out of traffic, cycling en-masse through the boulevards. I'm just wondering whats up with it; I asked my pro-cycling friend who told me they've traditionally been used for training and endurance, but I doubt the kids are into that. And why aren't they wearing helmets? You would think darting and buzzing in and out of downtown street traffic helmets would be on the last, but does it damage their purported street cred?
posted by virga to Society & Culture (56 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The bikes are cute. Helmets are not.
posted by greta simone at 8:00 PM on April 26, 2008

Fashion is a big reason, obviously.

But from a practical perspective, it turns out that 96 zillion gears just really aren't necessary for city riding. Most cities are flat. (There are way more gearless bikes in northeast cities than, say, San Francisco.)

When you lose the gears, you also lose the shifters (and for some people, the brakes). That's a lot of weight and cabling eliminated, and the bikes are more aesthetically-pleasing as a result. So there's a fashion-feedback loop where not only is the practice seen as cool, the bikes themselves are cool.
posted by nev at 8:06 PM on April 26, 2008

Fixed-gear is ideal for urban riding because 1. there's basically nothing to maintain and 2. you can stop without putting a foot down; so, messengers ride them. Since messengers are in the hipster world-view the most "authentic" urban riders (actually, it's Chinese-food delivery guys, but they ride stolen bikes) that's who they emulate.

They don't wear helmets because there's a lot of product in their hair. (I don't hardly have hair, but I don't wear a helmet because I've been riding on the streets of NYC for 25 years and have finely developed echolocation or something.)
posted by nicwolff at 8:08 PM on April 26, 2008 [4 favorites]

Chicago is a big fixie city. Chicago is also very flat.

As to the lack of helmets, stupidity is my guess. I've picked a lot of people off the pavement, and every one that went off in the back of a ambulance wasn't wearing a helmet.

Fixed gears will teach you how to spin -- you really don't have a choice.
posted by eriko at 8:29 PM on April 26, 2008

It's fashion on both counts, but it's pretty snotty to boil that down to plain stupidity. It's a pretty human thing to be swayed by trends. Obviously all kinds of people all over the world adhere to trends, knowingly or not, even some (gasp!) Metafilter members. But I guess the temptation to look down one's nose at "hipsters" (a hypocrisy commonly practised by, you guessed it, hipsters) is too great to resist.

Myself, I bike everywhere about 9 months per year and vainly fell out of the habit of wearing my helmet. Truthfully it's just because I moved back to Montreal and none of my friends here wear them. Newsflash: helmets are damn ugly. Some cities it's more acceptable fashion-wise. Montreal is self-consciously hip so helmets are pretty rare here, but I'm trying to get back on the wagon. It kind of depends on when I'm going, where I'm going, how far it is, and what the roads and traffic are like.

I don't ride a fixie but I know at least two people who do. The advantages are pretty clearly outlined on the Wikipedia page: lightness, better traction in snow/rain, etc. I like my gears, personally, and Montreal is pretty hilly.
posted by loiseau at 9:19 PM on April 26, 2008

Here in Portland, Maine there are plenty of people still using derailleurs, but very few people wear helmets. The only consistently helmeted group are the road bikers/spandex pod people; when a man wearing skintight pants is behaving more sensibly than you perhaps it's time for some self-reflection.

I think some people like fixed-gear bikes for the simplicity, some for the fashion, some for the hard-core athletic element. I think they're pretty cool as well but come on, this town is basically a huge hill. If you can climb around all day, I salute you, but I'll stick with my wimpy mechanical advantage.

As for helmets, nobody wears them because they're ugly and a pain to keep track of. Well, I wear one, but then again my bike has rusty pedals and peeling bar tape so fashion is kind of a lost cause anyway.
posted by selfnoise at 9:20 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

I live in brooklyn. If you live and work in brooklyn, then almost everything you want to do is pretty close by, and you don't really need much of a bike. Having a simple, cheap fixed-gear bike is almost like being able to fly.

Also, if you're just dealing with everyday neighborhood traffic (which is comparatively minimal) then you're less likely to be dogmatic about a helmet. Instead of mentally chastising all these "poseurs", instead consider that they own a helmet but are only going a few blocks and decided it wasn't worth the hassle. That's a calculated risk they're taking, and it's nobody else's business.

If you see someone chugging across a bridge into midtown on a fixie with no helmet, then chances are higher that they don't know what the hell they're doing (but it's still none of your business).
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 9:45 PM on April 26, 2008

Not a hipster, not a fixie-rider, but I'll tell you why I don't ride with a helmet; it just feels wrong. I learned how to ride in an area without helmet laws and neither I nor my friends ever got any guff about it. Now I live in an area with strict helmet laws and I simply can't get used to having the extra weight on my head. I hate it. It would be like asking me to wear Inuit snow goggles in order to drive a car.

Is it stupid? Absolutely. But I can't get used to it. I've ended up not riding any more because of it. These hipsters may be cut from the same cloth but haven't taken last stp I have.
posted by lekvar at 10:04 PM on April 26, 2008

I'm too old to be in your target demographic, but I'm building a fixed gear bike which I will ride with my usual helmet. Young people, though, tend to underestimate their vulnerability and overestimate what others might think of them. Wearing a helmet is like admitting that you're not the skilled and fearless traffic weaver that you'd like to be seen as.

Fixed gear bicycles, though, look great all stripped down to minimal parts. (Although mine will have two brakes. I'm not going to impress anybody.) You can now buy mass-market fixed gear bicycles with all sorts of 'alternative' graphics, but when the trend was getting big fixies were custom endeavors, unique craft objects. The candy-colored chains and deep-V aero rims get a little over the top, but you still have a chance to have a bike that looks like no one else's.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:44 PM on April 26, 2008

...almost like being able to fly

How Not To Ride Your Bike: nyc
posted by okbye at 10:47 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This a slight rant, so, sorry.

I've been building and riding fixed and single speed road bikes in Chicago for four or five years now. I stopped building fixed gear bikes for resell when it clicked with me just what a bad idea fixed gear bikes are for busy city streets. Over the years I've heard second hand (mostly from the Critical Mass mailing list) dozens of stories of kids getting hurt on fixed gear bikes. Now I only build single speed bikes with front and rear brakes.

People will argue until they are blue in the face about how superior fixed gear bikes are for Chicago's streets. These people are idiots. I have two nice dual pivot brakes on my single speed, if a car lurches in front of me and another guy on a fixed gear, guess who bites it? I don't care that every hipster in town does consider lentils a main course, or that they each weigh an anemic 110lbs... there is no way they can out brake me, and in Chicago, brakes save lives. Of course kids mostly ride with one front brake. Here's another test, get up to 20mph and slam on that front brake. Enjoy your new bridge work.

Anyway, for a short while I was selling bikes to just average types of enthusiasts, people looking for something inexpensive, easy to maintain, etc. Now anytime I sell a bike 9 times out of 10 it's to some hipster type showing up. They aren't bad people, it's just that they prioritize fashion in a way that seems to get on everyone else's nerves (mine included.)

The market place has responded too. Just four or five years ago single speed wheelsets were almost non-existent. If you wanted a single speed wheel you re-dished and re-spaced. If you wanted a fixed gear you threaded on a cog with lock-tite and a bottom bracket lockring for good measured and prayed that the thing didn't unthread when you back peddled. Now single speed cranks, wheels - all that stuff is available over the counter or online to any kid with their parent's credit card. And if you don't feel like getting your hands dirty you can buy entire factory built fixed gear bikes now. Hence, the hipster explosion.

It's kind of irritating in a way. These kids didn't help innovate, they just co-opted it. They threw money at it just like they throw money at their vintage-look clothes and haircuts. And that's always lame.

That said they are a pretty timid bunch and they never haggle. So yeah, they suck, but I sure do like taking their money.
posted by wfrgms at 11:00 PM on April 26, 2008 [24 favorites]

Seconding that, in my old age now I ride single speed. Brakes are good.
posted by nicwolff at 11:19 PM on April 26, 2008

Response by poster: thanks wfrgms; that is what i was curious about. as for the helmets, i just feel like the risk is too great not to wear one. it doesn't take much to destabalize a biker and whammo--hit the pavement.
posted by virga at 11:49 PM on April 26, 2008

I'll agree with what most people are saying about fixies and helmets so far. Fixies are great for flat terrain just because of their simplicity. That said even though you can brake with your feet on a fixie you should still have a front brake on your fixie because that's where most of your stopping power comes from (your inertia moves more weight to the front wheel while you're braking) so anyone riding a fixie without a front brake is asking for trouble at some point.

As for the helmets I agree they don't look that cool but there's also the fact that there's no place to really put them at the end of your ride. You could lock it up with your bike but more than likely someone will just cut the straps and steal the helmet and they're just too bulky to put in a bag when you get to your destination. So anyways, I don't where a helmet when I'm actually going to a place but if I'm just going out on my roadbike I make sure to ride a helmet since I'm usually going out for a longer distance/time on roads that I usually don't have as much experience on.
posted by woolylambkin at 12:50 AM on April 27, 2008

I wear a helmet (a Bell Ghisallo), but I am very skeptical as to their benefit, if any. They might protect the head against direct impact, but that is not very common in bike accidents. Their straps, however, might catch on things, torquing and possibly dislocating or disarticulating the neck; the helmet itself increases the diameter of the head and hence its moment, which increases its ability to apply damaging torques to the neck during glancing collisions, never mind the head impacts that might have been avoided if the helmet had not been present and extending the size of the head by 2 inches on each side.

There's never been a good study showing that bike helmet use reduces overall morbidity or mortality of bike accidents. Until it comes around, I wear the helmet and shake my head a lot.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:04 AM on April 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Fixies are good for flat-ish city riding. So are singlespeeds.

Helmets are uncomfortable, funny looking, and their benefits are not well tested. "Anti-helmet" propaganda tells us that helmets are designed mainly for the situation where you are standing still, then falling over, and that in other situations the benefits of helmets are probably negated, and that they may even become a safety risk.
posted by beerbajay at 3:18 AM on April 27, 2008

I live in hilly country, and I was never able to ride a geared bike up the hills. Much easier on a fixed gear bike. Especially downhill, being able to control your speed without riding the brakes the whole way down. You get a throw away road bike frame from a local co-op. Spend a few bucks on converting it to fixed gear. Voila. Cheap light bike. It is an adjustment to get used to it, but the cost of a quality derailer is a bit too much for me. Not to mention when they bust while you're riding them (which I found was fairly common around here when I had a multi-gear bike that was more expensive than my current fixie).

As far as helmets go, we have one or two pedestrian deaths a year compared to about zero bicycle accidents and practically nobody wears a helmet. If you're in a bike friendly place, the odds of being put into a situation where the helmet will help are low. I don't have a gun in the house in case of a home invasion either. Then there are the multiple scientific studies that can't seem to prove that helmets actually decrease injuries (and sometimes lean towards the opposite), and the somewhat sketchy belief that helmets make drivers less cautious around bikers with helmets on. Now if I were on one of those 100km road treks, I'd wear a helmet, but I'm not. I commute 2 or 3 miles to school and back in a very bike friendly community.

So no, it isn't always about fashion. You may still find it to be poor judgement, but that's fine.
posted by False Jesii Inc. at 4:56 AM on April 27, 2008

Its a fad, of course.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:16 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

People that participate in bike races alot will sometimes ride fixies to help improve their cadence because the bike won't allow them to cost.

Ancedotally, I had two fixies but sold them because I needed the money and because I'm trying to keep my lifetime record of not breaking a bone going. That said, if I could ever afford to get another one I might because it really is a different riding experience, you don't/can't worry about being in the right gear as you ride and the fact that it'll push you if you try to coast makes it a different riding experience.
posted by drezdn at 5:38 AM on April 27, 2008

It's pretty obvious from the way you phrased your question that you get the fixed gear fashion and are looking to start a conversation and not for answers, so I won't bother responding to that.

Some cyclists don't wear a helmet for the same reason you don't wear a helment when you walk or drive. This has been done before.
posted by caek at 6:00 AM on April 27, 2008

Besides fashion, it can be sort of annoying lugging around a helmet, and they can be uncomfortable. Unless you shell out a lot of money, they are heavy and hot. Personally, I don't care how ugly I look with it. In fact, I don't really think mine looks ugly on me. That's a big reason I bought it. When I don't wear it, it's usually because I don't want to be carrying it around. I know. I should wear it anyway. I get the point. You're absolutely right.

Another thing you don't mention: I often see hipsters riding around without lights at night. Often without any at all, front or back, and if they have any, it's usually one or the other. This infuriates me greatly. I really have no idea why they don't do this. I guess because lights cost money? Maybe fashion? I don't know.

As far as why they ride fixies: fashion. Simplicity, which is part of fashion, as well as the overall hipster aesthetic and "philosophy". Cost sometimes. If they're paying more than, say $400, they could get a perfectly decent bike with or without gears. But if they're buying for cheaper, say under $300, you can hunt around for a used "vintage" looking bike, buy a cheap "mountain" bike, with 57 worthless gears, and worthless shocks, and a fancy-looking frame, which no hipster would be caught dead riding, for good reason, or maybe you find a decent used frame, or a whole bike in need of some serious repairs to moving parts, so you put it in working order as cheaply as possible, probably going single speed or fixie. I live in Minneapolis. It's pretty flat here. Also, just in my experience, many (most?) fixies I come across have at least front brakes.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 6:45 AM on April 27, 2008

Also, see here.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 6:49 AM on April 27, 2008

Not wearing a helmet is being portrayed here as a libertarian decision that affects only the rider, and no one else. As one with libertarian leanings, I'd like to point out that this isn't the case. When anyone with inadequate insurance suffers catastrophic head trauma, it is not acceptable in our culture to allow that person to vegetate and die unattended. We as a society incur outrageous costs in saving and prolonging that life, and those costs are passed along to everyone else who passes through the healthcare system. When you decide to become a drooling, pooping fence post it costs me money.

Here's the solution: helmet laws that allow an opt-out for anyone willing to buy a bond that will pay for permanent vegetative care. Libertarianism is all about personal freedom and personal responsibility. Don't whine about one while rejecting the other.
posted by dinger at 6:57 AM on April 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

In any contest between fashion and practicality, it seems that many people choose the former. I don't know that it's the majority, but I think it's a vocal minority. I equate not wearing a helmet with wearing flip-flops/crocs. People who do this are more concerned with "do I look good" than they do with "will I still be a functioning human being 20 years from now."

Having seen my father and my brother walk away from bike accidents that did severe damage to their helmets, I'm convinced that they work and are worth whatever "inconvinience" they may cause. As far as comfort goes, like the bike, it's worth spending the time and energy to make sure it fits properly. If it does, it's no more uncomfortable than any other piece of clothing. So, basically, excuses are just excuses. (I tend to be fairly adamant about things like helmets and seatbelts too.)

Fixies make sense if you're on your bike for a living. You can't afford to have your ride not working, so fewer moving parts means less that can break, and simpler repairs if something does. Anyone who doesn't do their own repairs, is probably a poser.
posted by Morydd at 7:14 AM on April 27, 2008

Camp A: Hipsters being hip
Loud paint, colored chains, no handlebar tape. The flop and chop is common, as are straight bars. Useless top tube pads are becoming more common. May or may not have straps on pedals. Helmets optional and unlikely. No brakes or one brake, NEVER two. Knows jack shit about bicycle maintenance, and will probably get severely hurt some day due to chain related failure. Natural habitats and activities include riding very slowly due to the inability to properly stop, walking their bikes, or RIDING DOWN THE GODDAMN SIDEWALK FOR FUCKS SAKE. Rides in packs, side by side. Unlikely to ride for the sake of the ride. The men probably chafe a lot due to wearing girl pants. Reads Pitchfork.

Camp B: The rest.
Mostly the same, except faster. Unlikely to be seen on the sidewalk. Has more respect for traffic, but barely. Bikes are usually plainer, gearset is usually bigger, and you probably won't see one without straps. Leverage-providing handlebars are more common, but for some reason, tape is still not so common. Brakes are still optional, but more likely to be mounted properly if they're present. More likely to be solo, or riding in a line. Still really into Deerhoof and Experimental Dental School.

Yes, I ride a fixed gear (with full brakes) but I really want to smack a lot of the riders around here. Especially the ones who almost run me over when I walk out of my apartment. Roads are for bikes, sidewalks are for people. Please, if you don't feel safe riding in traffic, just don't ride.

Anyway, if you've ever had a derailleur start ghost shifting, you can probably understand why people ride single speed. Once you're at that point, going to a fixie isn't that big of a leap. It's fun.

Re: helmets. Risk compensation means helmets may not be useful for a lot of people. That doesn't mean you shouldn't wear one, it means you shouldn't think you're superman when you wear one. They do make you safer, but not if you're going to ride like more of an asshole while wearing one, which is normally the case.
posted by onedarkride at 7:52 AM on April 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

Here's the solution: helmet laws that allow an opt-out for anyone willing to buy a bond that will pay for permanent vegetative care. Libertarianism is all about personal freedom and personal responsibility. Don't whine about one while rejecting the other.

I agree with this, with the caveat that we should also extend the uprfront bond requirement to any "free willer" who decides to walk on any surface that is not soft mud. The average human being in the postindustrial West stands on average 5'11" off the ground. Whats more, the average human is a biped: balancing his entire weight and height on the bottom of his shoes, a surface area of a couple square inches or less. I won't go into the physics of a three pound brain toppling down six feet onto a surface of hard pavement, but the results are drastically burdensome to the health industry since as you point out our gd society will not let us allow people who recklessly walk on paved surfaces and trip to die. Although I don't actually have any empirical data on pedestrian-hard surface incident rates and societal costs, from just thinking about it it must be enormous.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 8:06 AM on April 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Then there are the multiple scientific studies that can't seem to prove that helmets actually decrease injuries (and sometimes lean towards the opposite), and the somewhat sketchy belief that helmets make drivers less cautious around bikers with helmets on.

A five minute tour through the ISI shows that you are demonstrably wrong. For example:


from the abstract: :"Helmet users in this group still had a much lower mean ISS (3.6 vs. 12.9, p <> 15 (4.4% vs. 32. 1%, p <> 15 (89.4%) were not wearing helmets. We conclude that helmet nonuse is strongly associated with severe injuries in this study population." ISS=severity of injury

Without trying hard, I found 42 other articles that say the same thing, and 1 that didn't.

What are your feelings about global warming?
posted by overhauser at 8:06 AM on April 27, 2008 [5 favorites]

crap. that copy and paste didn't go well. Second try:

Helmet users in this group still had a much lower mean ISS (3.6 vs. 12.9, p <> 15 (4.4% vs. 32. 1%, p <> 15 (89.4%) were not wearing helmets. We conclude that helmet nonuse is strongly associated with severe injuries in this study population.
posted by overhauser at 8:13 AM on April 27, 2008

I'm getting messed up by html coding:

Helmet users in this group still had a much lower mean ISS (3.6 vs. 12.9, p less than 0.001) and were much less likely to have an ISS greater than 15 (4.4% vs. 32. 1%, p less than 0.0001) than were nonusers. In this group, 42 of 47 patients with an ISS greater than 15 (89.4%) were not wearing helmets. We conclude that helmet nonuse is strongly associated with severe injuries in this study population.
posted by overhauser at 8:15 AM on April 27, 2008

CDC traumatic brain injury statistics

28% falls, 20% driving cars, 3% cycling
posted by norabarnacl3 at 8:19 AM on April 27, 2008

Meh, purposefully or not, you are displaying a lack of understanding of statistics. Many more people walk and drive than bike so of course there will be more fall/car head injuries than bike injuries. The appropriate way to look at the effects of bike helmets is to compare injury rates and severities between bikers who do and bikers who do not wear helmets.

I suspect, however, that you are just trolling now, so I'm going to stop talking and go out for a ride (with a helmet).
posted by overhauser at 8:33 AM on April 27, 2008

Scenester kid here (well, 22 year old punk/indie child).
I traded my mountain bike for a bmx, but I think the fixed speed deal is two reasons
1. lower maintenance, less things can get buggered up, and easier to fix yourself.
2. some kind of cycle courier inspired fad I think, more fashionable and retro.

But I'm guessing it's closer to the second, the trendy elite of having a single speed.

as for helmets, I occasionally don't wear one, I do if I'm planning to get anywhere fast, or I'm expecting a lot of traffic. But if I'm just rolling through town, I don't bother because I'm going pretty slow and when you're in city traffic (as opposed to suburban traffic) you're looking around a lot, looking to cut through heavy traffic. Having the added weight of the helmet can be annoying and occasionally painful if you're flicking your head around a lot. Also there's no where to put it, and it's difficult to carry around especially if you're going to a show. And finally, you don't want to mess up your awesome scenester haircut.
posted by chrisbucks at 8:44 AM on April 27, 2008

28% falls, 20% driving cars, 3% cycling

That's not 20% driving cars. That's 20% motor vehicle crashes and 3% Pedal Cycle, non-Motor Vehicle. So the 20% includes bike-car collisions.

And what does it mean that there's a relatively low incidence of non-MV cycling-related head injuries? Could it mean helmets are effective?
posted by hydrophonic at 8:53 AM on April 27, 2008

As somebody who severely cracked a bicycle helmet in a crash, but walked away with nothing more than lots of abrasions down one side of my body and the slightest hint of a headache I'd say riders who don't wear helmets are mad.

And those that spout the inconvenience argument — don't kid yourself: the road isn't any softer just because you're just going 'round the corner to pick up some milk in your civvies than it is if you're doing a 160.9km ride (I'm an Australian) in your lycra.

That said, I ski off-piste through rocks and trees on slopes that American resorts would definitely rate double-black, and I've never worn a helmet. And half the time I'm wearing a beanie to keep warm.

So I'm just as much of an idiot.
posted by puffmoike at 8:58 AM on April 27, 2008

Properly sized and adjusted helmets are comfortable, put a heck of a lot of people wear poorly fitted helmets. If your helmet is causing you discomfort or pain (?) get one that fits and read the instructions on how to adjust it.

Here's a case where a helmet did exactly what it was supposed to do.

To lock a helmet up with your bike, put the lock or chain between both triangles in the straps. A thief isn't going to cut the straps--that would make the helmet useless. Locking it through both triangles means that unthreading the straps all the way would also make it useless. (This won't protect you from the occasional really stupid thief. I've had one helmet messed with in 20 years of locking them up.)

Or just clip it to your bag. What's the big deal about that?

Or just wear it all day long and everyone will be happy.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:11 AM on April 27, 2008

>Many more people walk and drive than bike so of course there will be more fall/car head injuries than bike injuries.

This thread isnt the place for a helmet battle (not enough visibility for one) but since you implicated my understanding of statistics I will simply reply that the point I was making was that if we are going to enforce helmet laws on cyclists because of societal costs, we should enforce such laws on people who fall and motorists, as those groups combined constitute almost half of tbi.

I would be quite interested in seeing some injury rates for cyclists who wear and do not wear helmets (not conditioned on there having been an incident). The main point of the helmet debate is, as was mentioned in the prior linked meta thread, there are two probabilities at play: the probability of getting into an incident and the probability of escaping the incident without serious injury. Nobody argues helmets probably substantially increase the second probability. The point is the first probability - of getting into a serious incident - is on the order of getting into a serious incident walking around or driving. Entirely negligible, especially when one is proactive in his cycling safety. The overwhelming majority of cycling incidents are caused by factors within the control of the cyclist: i.e. he was not following road rules, biking at night without lights, poorly maintained gear, etc. Cycling helmetless is analogous to going outside without a bullet proof vest: no doubt bp vests drastically reduce serious injury from getting shot, but your chances of getting shot are generally negligible.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 9:26 AM on April 27, 2008

overhauser, it's obvious that nonhelmet wearers in that population were engaging in riskier behaviors and thus sustaining more severe injury. Your study proves that helmet use correlates with risk avoidance on the bike, nothing else.

As for the argument about long-term care costs, a c-spine injury is far more likely to result in dependence on others for activities than a brain injury is. And no one disputes that bike helmets increase the risks and severity of c-spine injury when such injuries are sustained.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:40 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's not all that different from people who never take their SUVs offroad. A trend started, people got on board because it looks cool, despite never getting the best benefits out of the thing they bought. For the record, I would recommend anyone who lacks uninjured 25-year old knees to avoid using a track bike on the street - all those stops add up to a lot of force on your knees that a bike with brakes would never require. I was a messenger in NYC eons ago, and I always rode a bike with brakes.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 9:40 AM on April 27, 2008

Oh yeah, in my rant I didn't even say anything about helmets!

Okay this is where I show what an idiot *I* am...

A few years ago I was passing a city bus on the right. The bus was stopped at a red light which turned green as I was approaching. From around the front of the bus, from my left, came a guy on a bike who was trying to beat the light. We collided directly in front of the bus. I was going maybe 10 mph, the guy in his rush was probably going faster. Neither of us could see each other because of the bus.

I did an end-o and landed sprawled on my back about 10 feet away. The guy may have stayed upright, just not sure because it was all such a blur. Anyway, the guy helped get me up, apologized. I was sore, shaken, but otherwise ok. My bike amazingly didn't have a scratch on it.

This all happened on Clarke St. about a short block from my old apartment. I made it home, cleaned myself up and then noticed my helmet. It had a crack which split the foam into two hemispheres and the back of the helmet was crushed. I didn't even notice it while it was on.

The helmet had done its job - absorbing impact by fracturing the foam. It saved me from a trip to the emergency room. It may have even saved my life.

So I was a super duper helmet proponent for years afterwards. I saved the busted helmet and would bring it out at parties to show off. "See how it broke down the middle," I'd slur, "fucker saved my life! This is why you should wear your helmet!"

But then I moved and shortened my bike commute to just a mile through mostly empty residential streets. And suddenly the helmet wasn't that compelling anymore. Before I had been commuting five or six miles through the Loop, dodging cabs, pedestrians, car doors, and other cyclists. A helmet was a great idea for such an environment. But my commute now is so relaxed, so meager that it has really lulled me into a sense of security. I feel like I know every pothole, every dip in the road, ever intersection - and that familiarity causes me to be a little more carefree.

I still strap on the helmet when I go for longer rides, particularly rides that include busy streets. I don't leave home without because I know how accidents can happen.

So, I'm sort of a hypocrite when it comes to safety. Sorry about that.
posted by wfrgms at 9:55 AM on April 27, 2008

I grew up using my bike to get wherever I needed to go (Moms didn't form carpools back in those days), and sometimes that meant a four-mile ride to the mall. No one wore helmets in those days (mid-1970s); in fact, I don't know if cycling helmets were even available at that time. Somehow my friends and I all grew up escaping any injuries save for some scraped knees and elbows from occasional falls. When I was in my late 20s, I'd slap on my Walkman and ride my bike (an old Schwinn with fat tires) every night after work for six to 12 miles for exercise, again sans helmet. I got married a few years later and my over-protective husband insisted I wear a helmet for my cycling excursions. So there I was one day, sitting at a stop sign on my Schwinn, wearing my protective helmet, when a bunch of kids (maybe young teens) pulled up on their pimped-out mountain bikes next to me. They proceeded to point and laugh and then one of them called out to me "Oh my gawd, you're like 50 and you're wearing a helmet!"
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:04 AM on April 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

and the somewhat sketchy belief that helmets make drivers less cautious around bikers with helmets on.

Wearing A Helmet Puts Cyclists At Risk, Suggests Research

Science Daily — Drivers pass closer when overtaking cyclists wearing helmets than when overtaking bare-headed cyclists, increasing the risk of a collision, the research has found.

Dr. Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University of Bath, used a bicycle fitted with a computer and an ultrasonic distance sensor to record data from over 2,500 overtaking motorists in Salisbury and Bristol. ...

posted by jamjam at 10:49 AM on April 27, 2008

It's not all that different from people who never take their SUVs offroad. A trend started, people got on board because it looks cool, despite never getting the best benefits out of the thing they bought.

I think SUVs:mountain bikes is a better analogy. I commuted on a mountain bike for years before I finally got a road bike, and a lighter bike with thin slick tires is so much better for city riding. (Not that you can't find places in the city where a mountain bike is fun. I used to include short runs up and down stairs in my commute.)
posted by hydrophonic at 10:50 AM on April 27, 2008

jamjam, that study induced a grand total of one cyclist.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:53 AM on April 27, 2008

the point I was making was that if we are going to enforce helmet laws on cyclists because of societal costs, we should enforce such laws on people who fall

Ah, so you were trolling. It's big of you to admit it.

and motorists

Those are called 'seat belt laws'.

overhauser, it's obvious that nonhelmet wearers in that population were engaging in riskier behaviors and thus sustaining more severe injury. Your study proves that helmet use correlates with risk avoidance on the bike, nothing else.

Ikkyu2, I think you're overstating your case but you have a point. The thing is, while you can bike as safely as possible, you can't control how stupidly everyone else behaves. So you might be able to minimize risk, you cannot eliminate it with your awesome bike skills. To wit:

Occupational injuries among Boston bicycle messengers

Results Most working couriers have suffered at least one injury resulting either in days lost from work (70%) and in visits to a health-care professional or hospital (55%). The annual incidence rate for injuries resulting in days away from work was 47/100-bike couriers. Bone fractures accounted for the most days lost from work, followed by dislocations, sprains, and strains. Collisions and avoiding collisions with motor vehicles, including being "doored," and collisions with pedestrians accounted for the majority (66%) of events leading to injury.

As for c-spine vs head injuries, anecdotally I can say that in a year of ambulance driving/emergency room work in St Louis I remember many, many serious head injuries but I can only recall one c-spine and she was completely ran over by an SUV. As for the literature search:

Bicycle helmet efficacy: a meta-analysis

From the abstract: Based on studies from several countries published in the period 1987-1998, the summary odds ratio estimate for efficacy is 0.40 (95% confidence interval 0.29, 0.55) for head injury, 0.42 (0.26, 0.67) for brain injury, 0.53 (0.39, 0.73) for facial injury and 0.27 (0.10, 0.71) for fatal injury. This indicates a statistically significant protective effect of helmets. Three studies provided neck injury results that were unfavourable to helmets with a summary estimate of 1.36 (1.00, 1.86), but this result may not be applicable to the lighter helmets currently in use. In conclusion, the evidence is clear that bicycle helmets prevent serious injury and even death.

So there is weak correlation with improved chance of neck injury (as the 95% CI is so high), but this paper did something nice: they compared emergency room visits with reported rates of helmet use in the local populations where possible and they claim that people without helmets are overrepresented in the hospital population - meaning that you are more likely to end up in the hospital if you aren't wearing a helmet while biking. These are your odds improvement per ride, not per accident. (I should go back and rewrite the beginning of this post but I'm too lazy.)

I don't care if you don't wear a helmet, and I don't believe in helmet laws. But it makes me mad to see people misuse and/or misconstrue good science to support their self-destructive behaviors. If you don't wear a helmet, you are at an increased risk of a bad head injury. Acknowledge that, and then behave as you like, but don't rationalize your behavior with made-up science.
posted by overhauser at 10:53 AM on April 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

I mean included, not induced.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:54 AM on April 27, 2008

I'm gonna ignore most of the helmet discussion for now; sometimes I wear one, sometimes I don't. I don't think either situation should make me put up a bond for paying for my vegetative state any more than driving a car should, but whatever.

I've been building and riding fixed gear bikes for three or four years now. I liked working on bikes, but didn't like fiddling with deraiulers. I also wanted something simple for commuting that was light, fun to ride, and didn't break. A fixed gear fit the bill.

Some people are following the trends, and others, well... aren't.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:22 AM on April 27, 2008

I never wear a helmet while riding in the city, but I haven't seen the reason mentioned yet. I find they severely change my directional hearing and the way I perceive what's going on behind me, in particular what direction that rapidly accelerating combustion engine is approaching from. It's like driving a Jeep with no side mirrors. But I wouldn't be caught dead without a helmet while mountain biking, for me it's just one risk outweighing the other.
posted by paxton at 12:12 PM on April 27, 2008

Wikipedia has a pretty good write-up of the helmet debate.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 1:44 PM on April 27, 2008

I'm guessing people who don't wear helmets on the whole have never found themselves in a situation where one has done what it is intended to do. Two years ago I was riding through my quiet part of the 'burbs, lights on both ends of my bike (it was early evening), wearing a jacket with reflective patches and obeying the road rules - that's everything you're supposed to do to stay safe on a bike, right?
As I passed through an intersection, a 4 wheel drive drove straight into me, mangling the front end of my bike and knocking me right off. My bike needed a new front wheel, and I walked away with some impressively gross scrapes on my face, a bad headache, sore hips and some fantastic bruises. My helmet however was destroyed - the casing was cracked to the foam - I still remember looking at it and realising that it could have been my head instead of my ugly, unhip, completely daggy helmet.
I see people riding without any kind of safety gear in the city all the time (which seems extra crazy to me in Melbourne where there are trams as well as cars), some also with their ipods on/talking on their phones and it is really frightening - it's crazy behaviour and I'm sure that if they'd had some minor accident like mine they'd realise how crazy it is too.
posted by sleep_walker at 5:16 PM on April 27, 2008

Nice to get pounced on for answering the question.

Seriously though, I live in Blacksburg, VA. Everytime there's an accident a school-wide email is sent out. Statistically, I'm far more likely to get shot by a fellow student or an escaped prisoner, fatally hit by a car while I'm walking, or randomly assaulted and end up in the hospital than have an accident while on a bike. This is not downtown anywhere. We're rarely riding amongst light traffic, if any at all. Hence, our risk evaluation is different. That shouldn't be an absurd concept.
posted by False Jesii Inc. at 5:20 PM on April 27, 2008

Wow, a twofer for useless thread topics. Helmets and fixed gears! It's like a Reeses peanut butter cup of pointless online bike discourse!

Anyway, all I was going to add was a response to a point by ikkyu2, who wrote in part: "Their straps, however, might catch on things..."

How the hell is a helmet strap going to catch on something? If the straps are so loose that they are swaying in the wind and can hook onto a nearby object, they obviously need to be tightened.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:29 PM on April 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Just adding more info on the helmet debate. Also, the British Medical Association's take on things.

I mean, "the tests on which these standards are based mimic a fall from a cycle rather than collision with a fast moving vehicle, which is most likely to harm an adult cyclist." Those sound like pretty useless standards to me. I'm not sure the BMA should count as "anti-helmet" propaganda as noted previously in the thread.
posted by bigdamnnerd at 2:17 PM on April 28, 2008

Also, here's a differing look at the data from one of the big "helmets are good" studies.
posted by bigdamnnerd at 2:25 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's a calculated risk they're taking, and it's nobody else's business.

Only if the responding EMTs don't have to triage them above another injured person on the scene because they chose that calculated risk. My cousin is an EMT and has had people die because he was treating someone else who chose not to wear a helmet or safety belt, and who likely would have been nearly unharmed had they been properly utilizing said devices.
posted by j.edwards at 12:00 PM on April 29, 2008

Helmets protect your brain. If you don't wear one you don't need one.
posted by srboisvert at 3:18 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some of those folks might be on single speeds with coaster brakes. That's what I ride and people always assume my bike's a fixed gear because it's got no hand brakes on it.
posted by dobbs at 9:08 AM on May 23, 2008

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