Why I always wear a bicycle helmet

September 16, 2013

People tell me wearing a bike helmet is annoying. That it restricts you. It’s heavy. That they sweat too much inside it.

When they tell me this, I always cast my mind back to the fifteenth stage of the 1995 Tour de France. At the village of Saint-Girons, where the stage started, I met Casa (Fabio Casartelli), a gold medalist at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He was riding with Lance Armstrong’s Motorola team and I was competing with ZG Mobili.

The year before, we had both raced with the ZG Mobili team and were considered two young emerging talents of Italian cycling. Yet, marketing requirements separated us in 1995. As we were similar types of riders with similar abilities, Casa changed teams to race his own race.

We remained friends, but not the kind that hang out together outside racing. Rather, Casa was someone you could chat easily to while pedaling in the morning. Ours was a friendship where you looked for each other in the pack and we enjoyed each other’s company while on the road, especially if there were few other Italians on the Tour.

What did we talk about that day while riding the ascent? We’re Italians, so women, naturally. I asked Casa if he knew the Coca Cola girl, she was incredibly beautiful. Yet, Fabio was more preoccupied thinking about home and his young wife, who was then five months pregnant. 

Andrea Ferrigato is a former professional road cyclist. In a career spanning more than 15 years he had major wins in the Leeds Classic and Züri-Metzgete. He now works as tour guide for girolibero, an Italian cycling tour organizer and guides 30 Allianz riders through their annual tour of Europe to highlight the WHO Decade of Action for Road Safety. Helmets are mandatory on all his tours.
Andrea Ferrigato is a former professional road cyclist. In a career spanning more than 15 years he had major wins in the Leeds Classic and Züri-Metzgete. He now works as tour guide for girolibero, an Italian cycling tour organizer and guides 30 Allianz riders through their annual tour of Europe to highlight the WHO Decade of Action for Road Safety. Helmets are mandatory on all his tours.

That was a hard day’s riding. The stage climbed through several passes in the Pyrenees, the first being the Col de Portet-d’Aspet. That was not a particularly hard section and luckily none of the riders tried to break away, so Casa and I continued chatting as we climbed.

When we arrived at the summit, I’d worked my way up near the front and Casa was right alongside me. Suddenly the peloton was over the crest and taking flight down the decline – and they weren’t holding back. We were descending flat out. 

The road was wide, well tarred and made a series of easy curves for a few kilometers. Then came the ‘whiplash’. The whiplash in cycling jargon is when the speed cranks up an even higher notch or two and you have a hard time holding the wheel of the man in front of you.

Casa stomped down on his pedals and took off. “Go man, two more bends and you’ll be spent. I’ll catch you,” I called out to him laughingly. 

There then came a straight stretch, then a right-hand bend, a half bend on the left, and then back into a straight. I’d fallen maybe 50 meters behind the lead group. I leaned to the side to swing through a curve and ahead of me I saw a fall. Six or seven cyclists lay on the ground. I slowed down and was lucky enough to wend my way between them. I didn’t see anything but someone said a rider had flown over the road edge and into the void ….

After a short while, the road became an uphill climb and the furious pace subsided. Giancarlo Perini, all scraped and bloody, managed to join us. A few of the riders have minor injuries, nothing more, he said. “And the one who fell down the precipice?” I asked. “He climbed back up,” I was told. 

We climbed three more passes that day including the Col de Tourmalet, a tough climb up the highest mountain in the central Pyrenees. When we arrived at the finish line at Cauterets, Gianni Bugno, the Italian national road champion, told me Casa was dead. He had hit his head on a stone guardrail. 

There was a debate later if a helmet would have saved Casa’s life. I believe to this day it would have. A helmet could have saved him, he could have seen the birth of his son, we could have drunk cool water together after the long ascents, he could have got drunk on beer and laughed with his friends back home, and he could have gone on pedaling for many more years.

I had not worn a bike helmet for many years until that day. I was then young, fit and thought myself tough. I was challenging life and destiny to take me on. Since then I have rarely ridden a bike without one. I am not keen to go the way my friend Casa did, to miss the precious things he lost.

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Andrea Ferrigato
Fabio Casartelli was the third competitor to die since the Tour de France began in 1903. While helmets were compulsory for professionals in Belgium, Holland and the USA, they were discretionary in France and Italy. For professional riders, they were a sore point. When the International Cycling Union (UCI) tried to enforce their use in France in 1991, a strike by Tour riders forced them to back down. Voluntary helmet use rose in the professional ranks in the 1990s, but it was not until after the death of Kazakh Andrei Kivilev in March 2003 that helmets became compulsory. Only Australia and New Zealand require helmet use by cyclists in public areas. In some other countries, partial rules apply, especially for children. 

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