by Sebastian Wren
The Austin City Council is ONCE AGAIN considering a foolish mandatory bicycle helmet ordinance that would make it a crime to ride your bicycle without a helmet. About 4 times per week, I ride my bike down the street a few blocks to get some dinner or a snack at one of the local shops in my neighborhood. Doing that without my helmet would make me a criminal. I ride my bike a short distance to work when the weather is nice -- doing that without a helmet would be a crime. I take my bike trailer to the store once in a while. Doing that without my helmet would be a crime.
This seems so very, very stupid to me.
First of all, it is totally unenforcable. I don't carry identification when I ride my bike -- there is no law requiring a license for cyclists like there is for cars and motorcycles. You do not have to carry papers in the United States. So if I get stopped for riding without a helmet, how are they going to proove that I am who I say I am?
Second, it is simply not appropriate for government to create legislation designed to protect citizens from their own decisions and actions. It is not what government exists to do, and it is a short-sighted and slippery slope to step on.
Let me describe this slippery slope. Today it is a bicycle helmet law -- a few cyclists lives would be saved every year if all were required to wear helmets at all times. That sounds reasonable. Who wouldn't want to save the lives of a few cyclists? The same goes for motorcycles -- only a nut would ride a motorcycle without a helmet -- government must protect them from their own stupidity, right?
But wait -- tomorrow, it is helmet law for automobile drivers -- hundreds of car drivers would be saved if they were required to always wear a helmet while driving. Professional race car drivers do it, right? And how about those flame-resistant suits they wear?
The day after that, it is a diet law -- thousands of people would be saved every year if they were prohibited from eating sugary and fatty foods. Mandatory gym memberships for anybody who is overweight? Sounds like a good idea to me.
After that comes the condom law. Then they pass the air filter law. Before long, everybody is covered in bubble-wrap, breathing filtered air, and eating bland food.
If you believe that government should protect people from their own poor choices, then you have to get on-board with all of the other possible rules and regulations. The exact same argument could be made about alcohol consumption, tobacco use, and of course, over-eating. How much are we paying in health-care for low-income diabetics? It is shameful -- people should not be allowed to do that to their own bodies. It creates a burden on society.
So... let's ban poor, fat people! Who's with me? We would save millions if we required every over-weight person to carry proof that they have adequate health insurance to cover the medical costs incurred by their own obesity.
Oh -- I forgot to mention -- ladders. Good gravy, we've got to get rid of the ladders.
And who in their right mind ever thought it was a good idea to allow people to purchase a chain saw? You can pick one up at Home Depot, walk out, climb a ladder with it, and boom -- you're in Brackenridge, and I'M PICKING UP THE BILL!
Screw that. I say ban 'em. Ban 'em all... Cover the world with pillows! Outlaw all pointy objects!!!
Somebody stop me, I'm drunk with power!!!
If you go in for a penny, you are in for a pound. You want laws? I'll give you laws --
My friend is allergic to nuts -- let's ban them.
My other friend is allergic to seafood -- our government should make it illegal.
Liquor is deadly -- I'd vote against it in a heartbeat.
My girlfriend is allergic to sulfa -- I don't even know what it is, but I don't think you should be allowed to use it.
Tobacco is an unbelievable burden on our health-care system -- nobody should be allowed near the stuff.
Aspirin can cause uncontrolled bleeding -- our government has an obligation to save us from it.
All of the cleansers under my sink -- gone.
Guns? A responsible government would never allow them.
Cars? They kill more people every year than all of the cycling deaths in the past 25 years. I would vote to ban them.
Phen-fen? Our government was right to protect us from that. Henny Penny, I don't know why they stopped there -- taking Tylenol for a hang-over actually caused more widespread injury and death last year, but at least we got that Phen Fen off the market! Next we'll get rid of alcohol AND Tylenol so that won't be a problem any more either!
(The makers of Phen Fen, by the way, ARE culpable for concealing their knowledge of the fact that it was a dangerous drug with deadly side-effects.)
At what point does it all seem silly? At what point do we say, "Wait -- I'm not ALLOWED to swim without wearing a life vest? I'm not ALLOWED to go out in the sun without wearing sunscreen?! That's just going too far..."
I don't know where that line is for most people -- for me it is when we cross the line from government protecting citizens from other people to government protecting citizens from themselves.
I think we are already on that slope, and that's why we are even having this conversation in the first place. Seat-belts in cars are fabulous -- I fully agree. Motorcycle helmets are amazing things -- I'm with you. But once you let the camel's nose in the tent, it is too late. Then you have to wonder why we stopped where we did.
Call me a libertarian if you want (I'm not one), but if we get mandatory bicycle helmets, I will be on a campaign to get mandatory helmets in cars. How can any reasonable person believe that driving a car without a helmet is safe? It is not an unreasonable burden to ask every driver to wear one. They are fairly inexpensive -- if you can afford a car (and gas), you can afford a helmet.
Drivers can get their hair messed up just like the rest of us.
If the Austin City Council wants to pass some laws to save people from accidental death, then they should at least go after the big fish.
Automobile passenger deaths in the United States in 2002 -- 16,337
Poisoning deaths in 2002 -- 17,550
Gun deaths in 2002 -- 12,591
Bicycle deaths -- 767
I'm not saying helmets are not a good idea -- they are.
I'm saying we don't need laws forcing all of us to wear them.
I am putting together a safety pamphlet to give to friends and naive drivers. It describes 10 of the most dangerous things that cars do to scare of endanger cyclists. You can download the document in PDF format here.
My friend Ray writes: "I'm looking for a new road bike. I have no idea what to buy and I can't find anything that looks like a really independent review of bikes for people with more money than good sense. :)"
On that front, I can so help you. I'm the bike wonk -- fear me.
First, let me dispell the weight myth. These days weight is much, much less important than fit. Everything is light enough now. Anything 18 pounds or less feels about the same. The drop down to 15 pounds is a bit dangerous, very costly, and you will never notice the difference. But bike FIT is still very important. Go to a good, pro bike shop, pay the $35 bucks, and get a professional fitting. I just went through this with my friend Leslie -- she had a wonderful Litespeed -- beautiful bike -- but it didn't fit her. I finally convinced her to get a bike that fit properly, and now her life is totally different.
Second, pick a material you resonate with. Different people like different things. I love titanium. Under my excessive weight, it feels right. Leslie LOVES her new carbon fiber bike. It's like butter. My brother Nick still loves steel. My friend Andrew found a Bianchi that is a blend of aluminum and carbon fiber. He loves it. Find what you like. And keep in mind that there is a lot of variation within materials -- some carbon is stiff, some is more supple. Litespeed titanium has a reputation for being quite stiff for titanium -- more like steel. Merlin (ah Merlin -- that's what I ride) is doing some amazing things with titanium and carbon blends.
Third, decide what you want to spend. Fuji makes a hell of a bike for very little money. Colnago makes a hell of a bike for a whole lot of money. My friend Dave ended up with an Orbea -- it's freakin' awesome. Leslie bought a Fuji that is almost identical to Dave's Orbea -- it cost $500 less.
Deals can be had if you know what you are doing.
Fourth, ride it a lot before you buy. A trip around the parking lot does not tell you squat. A good bike shop will usually let you "rent" a bike for a day, and apply that rental price to your purchase if you end up buying it. Take advantage of that. I had a Klein that was the most fun bike in the universe for 25 miles. After 25 miles, however, it started beating 9 kinds of crap out of me. I loved riding that bike over short distances, but I would never take it on a tour. That would be crazy.
Fifth, pick a component group you like. I ride Campagnolo, but Shimano is just as good and costs a lot less. I like the feel of the brake hoods on Campagnolo, and the handle-bars I bought (Italian) are designed to fit with Campy -- not Shimano. Other than that, there is really no freaking difference. Shimano works just fine. You can even mix groups a bit. I don't like my Campy cranks and bottom bracket (they creak on hills), so I might replace them with a carbon crank and a new bottom bracket.
Sixth, customize components. I built my Merlin myself, but that's the expensive and difficult way to do it. The cheaper way to do it is to get the bike complete, and then swap out a few key components. I recommend a really, really good carbon seatpost, and I STRONGLY recommend being really picky about your handlebars. Now that I have high-end handlebars, I wonder how the hell I lived without them for so long. When I built my bike, I searched everywhere for comfortable handlebars. In the end, I ordered a set of TTT Biomorphe-XL ergonomic bars from England -- they were $300 -- it was the best money I have ever spent. My hands don't hurt any more. Neither do my shoulders. I LOVE these bars. The other area where you can spend some money is a new set of wheels. Most high-end wheels are quite good, but you really will notice a step up to the more expensive, lighter, stiffer wheels. I have Campagnolo Scirrocos -- they are not expensive, but they are light and strong. I love them.
Hopefully that will get you started. Remember, when buying a bike, FIT is most important. If the bike fits you, everything else is negotiable. But if the bike doesn't fit you, then you will never really enjoy your new toy.
I just got back from my morning ride, but just barely. I was riding on Mesa, and a sweet, old lady pulled out from Steck onto Mesa without noticing the huge, red-headed cyclist wearing the long-sleeve, bright red jersey. She pulled directly in my lane in her luxury land-yacht - I had to quickly swerve into the next lane to avoid being hit. Fortunately, no other cars were there. The way she merged into my lane put me right next to her window, so I yelled, "HI THERE!!!" as loud as I could.
She nearly plotzed. She clearly did not see me. She just wasn't paying attention. At the next stop light, she rolled down her window and apologized profusely.
I could have yelled at her. I could have pounded on her car. I could have been rude and mean. And I would have had a right to do all of those things.
But we all make mistakes -- what is important is that we learn from them.
I smiled and reassured her that there was no harm done, but to please be more careful in the future. We chatted while the light was red, and I joked with her that a good scare like that in the morning is better than a strong cup of coffee.
In other words, I killed her with kindness. You'd be amazed how often that works. I've seen so many cyclists get angry and yell and hit the trunks or hoods of cars with their fists. I understand their rage and anger, but hate and anger are not productive.
By the time the light turned green, my friend in the land-yacht who had nearly killed me was thanking me and saying that she will be much, much more careful in the future.
I believe she will be.
Just call me Ambassador Wren.
A young woman riding her bike on Loop 360 was killed on Monday. Gay Simmons-Posey was riding near Bee Cave on Loop 360, apparently trying to cross the exit ramp, when she was struck by a van pulling a trailer. Then she was hit by another car. Then the monster driving the second car fled the scene and left her in the road to die.
She was 40 years old.
In the wake of this poor woman's tragic death the Statesman hosted a feedback forum on their website. The question they wanted people to answer: "Is it safe to bike on Loop 360?"
Many responses were intelligent and reasoned, but so many of them were ignorant and offensive. A lot of the more ignorant people said 360 is a highway, and cyclists should not be allowed. Some stupid people said cyclists should just "get off the road." One brainless moron said this was just an example of "Darwin at work." I find it frightening these rude and ignorant people are given legal license to drive. A car is just as lethal than a gun -- stupid people should not be allowed to have control over either.
"Greg" wrote: "It’s a HIGHWAY….. Scenic or not. Is it safe for bikers to ride on the shoulder of I-35? Bikes should be banned from highways, as they are in the rest of the country."
"Karen" wrote: "Is it safe for me to ride my well trained horse on any of those roads? No Way! Is there much difference? Not really. Roads were designed for vehiclular traffic - nothing else."
"Peter Hall" from Lubbock Texas wrote: "NO IT IS NOT SAFE! I have seen so many riders who ignore the several feet of the shoulder and ride on top of the white shoulder stripe. GET OFF THE ROAD! If you insist on riding out there you better take steps to protect yourself. You are not going anywhere near the speed of real traffic and you simply create an inexcusable hazard. Bikes are not allowed on MoPac, they should not be on 360. If you get hit, it is probably your own fault."
"LF" wrote: "As long as there are cyclists out there who feel they are above the rules of the road, there will always be drivers out there who hate them. Myself included. And by the way, I choose to drive my car on the road and ride my bike in the gym."
Ah... segregation -- that has always been such a great solution in other situations. Get off the road! Go ride someplace else! You are not allowed here! This road is for whites only!
Oops. That's probably going too far. They're pretty ignorant, but they're not as ignorant as racists.
The fact is, it is perfectly legal for cyclists to ride on Loop 360. The law is on our side. Ignorant Mo-Rons who want me to ride on the sidewalk can suck my funky chamois. I ride 100 miles a week. I'm not going to do that on the sidewalk or the veloway or the gym. Anybody who wants to take away my rights as a cyclist can bite my lycra-covered, perfectly round ass.
Furthermore, to be a cyclist in Austin means you have to ride on at least a few somewhat dangerous roads. There is no place to ride West of Austin without having to ride on some section of Loop 360, or 2222, or 2244, or Southwest Parkway, etc. In fact, most rides in West Austin will take you on several of those roads, all in one day.
The suburban areas of this city were designed for cars -- bicycles are trying to adapt and fit in as well as we can, but there are some places that are still quite dangerous and scary. Sadly cyclists are very vulnerable and fragile -- when an accident happens, sometimes we die. Yesterday another woman, also 40 years old, was hit by a semi on FM-1431 -- just a little bump to the semi, but head trauma and hospitalization for the cyclist.
There is good news coming out of this -- the Austin Cycling Association was just approached by TXDOT who asked for suggestions for ways to make Loop 360 safer. I quickly wrote this proposal and shared it with them. It is morbid to talk about the need to drive TXDOT to action quickly, but unfortunately that is the way the world seems to work. If we do not take advantage of this poor woman's death, Loop 360 will continue to be increasingly hazardous to other cyclists.
So I recently discovered a delightful google maps modification that I dearly love.
It is a simple tool that allows users to "draw" and save a map of a route. It was designed for people who wanted to create routes for running, but I've been using it for cycling.
For example, this link takes you to a map of a quick 17 mile route I do very often from my house.
I don't know if somebody already has a collection of favorite bike routes, but if not, I would be happy to create one here on my website. I would especially love to have good "country" routes close to Austin mapped out.
More Biker Chicks
I just got back from a mid-day, mid-week ride with my friend Leslie, and I have to say, I am seeing more and more women out riding. It was the middle of a work day, so it's not exactly a representative sample, but of the 12 cyclists we saw on our 31 mile ride, 8 of them were women.
I am positive that cycling is increasingly becoming a women's sport. I know it is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S., but I would love to know more about the demographics of the people who are taking up the sport. I would bet a dollar that most of them are women. I just bet.
This past weekend, I rode in the annual Rosedale Ride. As always, it was an awesome ride. Absolutely perfect. The route was wonderful, the roads were smooth, the support stops were friendly and well stocked. Somehow they even managed to make the weather perfect. I would guess that there were about 1,500 other cyclists riding -- that's how many cyclists the Rosedale Ride usually attracts.
But there was something very different about this year's
ride -- different from years past, and different from other organized rides I
have been on. This year, it was my
impression that the field of cyclists was evenly split -- male and female. At least half of the cyclists that I saw on
the 62 mile course were women, and that is quite unusual.
I have always thought that cycling really should be a women's sport. There is nothing particularly macho about it -- it doesn't involve hitting or tackling -- there is very little grunting or heavy lifting. When I was a kid riding in Tulsa and the hill country of Texas, I was subject to constant abuse from people calling me a "bike fag" because my chosen pastime was clearly a "sissy" sport. And I never even shaved my legs.
Cycling is a simple, graceful and elegant sport, and over
time it carves a physique that is very feminine. It involves strength and tone in quads, gluts,
and triceps, so cyclists end up with amazing thighs and butts, and nicely toned
arms, free of flabby jiggle that women seem to obsess about. This is clearly a sport for women.
And historically, the bicycle has been very important to
women, at least in this country. In the
late 19th century, when women were fighting for rights and suffrage in the
United States, the bicycle provided freedom to women. The bicycle allowed women to move about more
freely and independently, making them less dependent upon men. And the bicycle changed women's fashion,
giving women a good excuse to wear more sensible clothing. Susan B. Anthony said that the bicycle
"has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world."
But once emancipated, women stopped riding. My entire life, it has seemed to me that
cycling has been a completely male-dominated sport. Certainly bicycle racing has been almost totally
dominated by men, and perhaps that is somewhat understandable -- racing does
tend to be a bit more dangerous and aggressive.
But most cyclists don't race -- we just ride. And over 30 years of casual cycling, I have
almost exclusively ridden with men. Not
by choice, mind you. Every male cyclist
I know wishes more women rode. But for
most of my life, I've known very few women who ride with any enthusiasm or
regularity. For most of my life, when I encountered
other cyclists, which I do on every ride, they have almost always been men, and
on those rare occasions when I did encounter a female cyclist, she was always
riding with a man.
Women have told me that they don't feel very comfortable
with cycling -- they feel very vulnerable, and they don't like that feeling. What if they crash? What if somebody attacks them? What if they have a flat or mechanical failure? What if they get lost?
These are legitimate concerns, but for some reason, women
seem to be breaking through these concerns in growing numbers. I see more and more and more women riding. They're fixing their own flats. They are not getting attacked. And they are discovering that cautious
cyclists almost never crash. I believe
that the Rosedale Ride this weekend is evidence that we are reaching a tipping
point -- women aren't afraid any more -- they want to ride.
One of the people I rode with for part of the Rosedale Ride was an Australian woman named Lynette Chiang who rides around the world promoting Bike Friday bicycles and writing about her adventures on her website. She is a delightful, gregarious woman who loves to ride and socialize and travel. Her love of cycling and her nomadic lifestyle might have been quite unusual for a single woman a few years ago, but not so much any more. Most women would never dream of traveling around the world alone on a bicycle, but Lynette is evidence that the world is not such a dangerous place for a single woman on a bicycle after all. Over one hundred years after they first discovered it, maybe women are finally re-discovering the liberation that cycling can bring.
It's about time.