The Helmet Problem

bicycle girl

Has anyone ever pinned a photo of a woman in a bike helmet on their Pinterest page? Perched on a cute retro cruiser, dress fluttering in the wind, flowers and baguette in her basket, her hair is always flowing free in the sun—not mashed under a bulky helmet. Helmets save lives, but can we feel pretty in them?

Not long ago, pedaling toward happy hour with friends, I got one of the most flattering compliments I’ve ever received from a stranger. Coasting downtown in heels, tights and a dress on my black mixte, I heard a young man shout: “What’s up, Copenhagen chic?” My heart fluttered briefly with the flattery, but ultimately sank with guilt because I knew I was doing it wrong. I had wanted so badly to look stylish that I’d left my helmet at home in favor of the sock bun I’d labored so hard to—questionably—master.

Maybe things are different in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where more of the city’s traffic is bikes than cars. You never see the uber-chic Europeans on Copenhagen Cycle Chic wearing helmets. And, certainly, many Americans still head out casually on two wheels without a helmet. But in the U.S., I know too many people who’ve made violent contact with cars and other objects to pedal around town sans helmet and also sans guilt.

A couple years ago, a hurried pedestrian bolted out from between parked cars in front of me downtown. Instantly I was over my handlebars, my face slamming into his shoulder and both of us tumbling. The wind knocked out of me, I was left to work my restaurant shift that night with a black eye where my face had met his shoulder. It showed me that even relatively low speeds and forces can result in pretty serious injuries.

Few of us would head out on a mountain bike ride or a road ride without noggin protection, but it’s so tempting to hop on the bike on the way to the café or grocery store and leave the helmet at home. It doesn’t look cool with our outfits. And it mashes down our hair. But my boyfriend likes to remind me: Do you think a car won’t hit you because you’re ‘just going a few blocks on your cruiser bike’?

I wish I could honestly say, Helmets are cool! Or, hey, check out this new helmet that will magically leave your hairstyle intact while you pedal to work! But the truth is, it comes down to ego and priorities. I know two things for sure: One, I love riding my bike, and hope to do it for a long lifetime. And, two, I know people whose lives have been saved by helmets. So, even in a dress, I might sigh in lament for a second, but then I’ll adjust my ponytail to fit below my helmet. I might never be able to rock a perfect sock bun, and my helmet probably won’t look that cool with my outfit, but I trust that once my wheels are rolling down the pavement and the breeze is in my face, the pure joy of cycling will push my fashion worries away.

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