The boy riding his bike along the shoulder of a residential street last Friday looked like a budding Lance Armstrong if he had been wearing a helmet.
Instead, he looked like an egg waiting to break.
Legs churning, the kid navigated the bike lane like a veteran. But without a lid, not only was he breaking the law which requires minors to wear helmets, he was also like an outdated veteran from last century when it was typical to see Tour de France pros sans helmets.
A crash by Italian pro Fabio Casartelli on July 18, 1995, changed all that. The Olympic gold medalist lost control on a descent in the Pyrenee Mountains and died of head injuries. At first, Tour officials said a helmet would not have helped Casartelli. But the doctor who examined the cyclist’s body said otherwise.
There was a small but very violent impact to the top of the skull The impact caused several fractures within the cranium, Dr. Michel Disteldorf said.
I’ll leave out the bloody details. Even gruesome images aren’t enough to inspire some adults to wear helmets.
When I met with some longtime friends in San Clemente for a bike ride a few months ago, I discovered them topless. Even a former paramedic I know routinely rides without a helmet.
With three crashes on Sunday, Armstrong lost any chance of being a Tour de France contender. But at least his noggin was intact. Just the day before my little sister, Jennifer, 44, faced a similar ordeal alone in the Oregon woods.
IN A SPLIT SECOND BLOOD GUSHING
Jennifer Holcomb is a former attorney, a full-time mom and one tough, smart woman.
How tough? She qualified for Boston at her first marathon. The second time she ran Boston, she didn’t realize she had the flu until she started vomiting yet she still finished under four hours.
On Saturday, Holcomb was nearing the end of a 14-mile mountain bike ride at about 5,000 feet when the next thing she knew, she was flying. But with the same laws of physics that affected Armstrong and Caasartelli, Holcomb’s flight was brief. Something about gravity. Holcomb slammed into roots or rocks, maybe both. In the split second it took to open her eyes, she was only thankful of one thing. She knew where her bike was hurtling toward her.
She untangled herself from the machine and saw her knee was badly banged up. Then she saw blood gushing near an elbow.
After four miles and a 40-minute drive to the nearest doc-in-a-box, Holcomb watched her skin sewn back together. And on Monday, Holcomb put on her scratched helmet (She should get a new one after a crash, experts advise.) and got back on the bike.
CHEAP BUT SAFE LIDS
Seeing the young Lance Armstrong on the road without a helmet unnerved me. But later I discovered the kid was in the majority. According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, just 15 percent of children wear helmets when they ride.
That’s a pretty depressing statistic. But who can blame them when they see adults who chose not to wear helmets? What’s even more depressing is when you discover how many deaths might have been prevented with helmets.
Head injuries cause 75 percent of our 700 annual bicycle deaths, according to Randy Swart, director of the all-volunteer Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. Medical research shows that bike helmets can prevent 85 percent of cyclists’ head injuries.
Sometimes, I hear helmets are too expensive. But Swart’s research indicates high costs are more about style, weight and gizmos than safety.
You can pay more than $200 if you want to, but Target, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and other discounters have models that meet the same impact standard at an everyday price of $10, Swart said. And for about $20 to $30 they have better-looking and better-fitting models.
The basic impact protection of the cheap helmets we tested equaled the expensive ones, Swart reported.
In the rare instances I’ve shown photographs on these pages of cyclists failing to wear helmets, I’ve received e-mails scolding me for promoting unsafe riding.
Those readers have excellent concerns. But I also wonder if hiding lidless riders lull some into a sense of complacency.
As adults, people like my old friends visiting San Clemente and my firefighter buddy have the legal right to go helmetless in California.
But perhaps the rest of us can benefit by the mistakes of others. My other sister, Deborah, suffered a stroke in the late 1980s, a few years before California started requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets in 1992.
When I visited her in the hospital, I saw a surprising number of burly men with head injuries. I discovered they were motorcycle riders.
With her usual droll wit, Deborah, shared what nurses called helmetless bikers:
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