Towards a Lovelier Helmet .1

 “Bird nest head” by SusanSanford

First I must confess . . .

  1. I almost always wear a helmet.
  2. I don’t mind wearing one and usually forget I’m wearing it.
  3. I still think helmets look awkward and . . .
  4. . . . the two or three times I’ve forgotten my helmet have been the two or three most memorably delightful rides – wind in my hair and all that, but more than anything, an increased awareness of the air and scents and sounds of the country I was cycling through.

Secondly,  can we agree that . . . ?

  1. Bicycle helmets may or may not keep you alive.*   **   ***
  2. Some of us will keep wearing helmets on the chance that the may outweighs the may not.
  3. Bicycle helmets still look ridiculous . . .
  4. . . . while they reduce our awareness of the environment around us,  compromising both pleasure and safety.

*may (New England Journal of Medicine “Effectiveness of bicycle safety helmets”; Palm Beach Bike Tours “Do Bike Helmets Really Save Your Life?” )

**may not  (Scientific American “Helmets Attract Cars to Cyclists”; “What’s wrong with bicycle helmets; Contradictory evidence about the effectiveness of cycle helmets”; The Daily of the University of Washington “More Harm than Good”  )

*** may/may not discussions (EcoVelo “My Stance on Bicycle Helmets”How We Drive “To Wear or Not to Wear” (check out links in comments as well); portlandize And now . . . the bicycle helmet post“)

So what I’m saying is that though I wear it,  I don’t love my bike helmet.  In the first place, as far as day-to-day functionality goes – mine doesn’t.  It wasn’t designed with any thought to what a day-to-day cyclist might need in headgear.

It doesn’t keep rain off my face.  It doesn’t keep sun out of my eyes.  It doesn’t shade me from sunburn on long summer rides.  It doesn’t do anything but sit on my head like a big bobble-headed insurance policy or dome-shaped good luck charm.   We hope a bike helmet’s primary purpose will never arrive.  But wearing one suggests that sooner or later it will.  This is the first reason bike helmets look silly – they’re designed primarily to say, Watch out! I’m about to fall down . . . !

Not that humans don’t have a long need for protective charms.  And I wouldn’t be averse to protective wings painted/woven/etched into my cycling headgear.  Or peace-producing lotus blossoms or the blessing of scriptural calligraphy or multicolored ideograms wishing universal tranquility and harmonious progress – which leads me to the next problem with helmet design.

I was reading yesterday from a book about the Sutton Hoo helmet, dug up in the 1930s by archaeologist Basil Brown (who – delightfully! – shows up on the printed page with his shiny black two-wheeled English roadster, “some of his fieldwork called for ingenuity, bicycling around the lanes and using binoculars when access was not permitted . . .”  No helmet for Basil Brown, of course, just “a rather disreputable trilby hat.” )  As for the ancient Anglo-Saxon helmet he found . . .

“In a startling symbolic composition, a snake body provides the protective rim across the crown.   Its beady garnet eye and gaping mouth meet the beak of a fierce bird, whose wings make the eyebrows, whose body forms the nose and whose tail forms the moustache of the implacable human armoured face.  This was protection, physical and psychological, of a high order, a helmet of a kind imagined by the Beowulf poet, such that ‘no sword, however sharp and tough, might cripple the wearer when he joined battle with his enemies.'”

But what does battle-gear have to do with my daily cycling?

Indeed.  It’s chuckle (or sigh)-worthy that even the Sutton Hoo author sees a connection in the next sentence but one:

“It would be hard to say if its aspect, with its heavy metal dome and dark sagging eyes, has borrowed or created the image of the modern helmeted biker in dark glasses.”

He’s talking motorcycle biker, of course.  Because helmets on Harley riders, as those on rampaging Vikings, are not meant just for protection.  They’re meant as intimidation.  They want to look dangerous.  Yes, transportation on our public roads is cast as a battle – and maybe that’s part of the problem.  But of course, no one is going to feel intimidated by the bright-colored  upside-down styrofoam coolers we bicyclists wear.  So the second reason bike helmets look silly is because they’re modelled on apparel of intimidation without having the guts (or the antlers) to back it up.

third reason bicycle helmets look silly is that they are designed for speed, à la Tour de France racing gear.   I’m sorry, but most of us are never going to go fast enough for our clothing to make any appreciable difference in air-drag.  I am more than aware that it is the swooped back shape of my Giro helmet that makes my headgear as goofy as flames or lightning bolts painted on a Volvo.

But if, despite our ambivalence about the whole effectiveness thing and the added hidden dangers of neck-snapping etc., we still feel a little head-protection is desirable – how about shifting gears from helmet to headdress?

Needle lace headdress, private collection: “Traditional headdress resembling a flower garden, adorned with needle lace flowers of diverse kinds, including honeysuckle, violets, hyacinths, roses and carnations.” from Istanbul Café 

How about moving from “pre-crash” to cloche?


Rifla by Kathleen Scully also seen on For the Love of Bikes

Or at least, how about concentrating more on the real, day-to-day functions of a bike-hat – beyond just protection from that swerving SUV we hope never happens?

 Huong Lan‘s scooter helmet, Vietnam – note the comments (repeated and detailed) about the usefulness of this design from her readers 

Isn’t it about time for a sudden explosion of bike-hat design?

. . . and if this French folding helmet isn’t far enough out for you, how about a flat helmet?  Though, after wearing one of these around town would you still feel like saying ‘Vive la France!’ ?

And honestly, how much protection would these actually provide?  Is this just a sneaky way of easing us back into bareheadedness?



4 thoughts on “Towards a Lovelier Helmet .1

  1. I love these fancy helmets. I also sometimes think that my helmet, and the necessity of wearing one, makes me a little less likely to ride. Which is dumb, but somehow true also. I want that fold-y one to do the job. I would totally wear that.

  2. We have to wear helmets here in Australia, and I must admit, I felt stupid looking at all the racer types at first.
    I ride a Dutch bike, so speed isn’t exactly my main feature here.
    I ended up going with a plain black bucket-style helmet, and now I make covers and hats for it.
    At the moment, it’s got cat ears on it, because everyone knows that cat ears will always improve an outfit.

    There’s a market for stylish, functional helmets. I hope someone rises to the challenge soon!

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