Cycling Stories

Helmet Head

September 18, 2020


Helmet Head

Third Place: Summer 2020 Writing Contest

I was in disbelief as I listened to my sister’s words over the phone that August day: “Julie’s mom died last night. She and Mark (Julie’s brother) were biking in Bemis Woods when her bike hit a rock, and she fell. She hit her head so severely, there was nothing they could do to save her.” 

I sat at the kitchen table in our Florida condo, where my parents and I had just arrived a few days earlier for our last family vacation before I headed off to my freshman year at UW-Madison. My sister, married a few years earlier, hadn’t joined us for family vacations since, and, therefore, was back in our hometown where the accident occurred.  

When I hung up the phone, I was still reeling from this tragedy for Julie and her family. I couldn’t comprehend the fact that Julie’s mom—one of the younger, more energetic moms in our crowd of friends—was gone.  

This was 1995. Bike helmets definitely existed, but they were still a bit of a novelty. Really, only early adopters had taken to wearing them for rides. The majority of us had grown up riding without them, only minimally worrying about the possibilities of scrapes and bruises on our arms and legs if we ever fell. I hadn’t even thought about the risk of hitting my head.  

That incident, however, was a game-changer. When I returned home, I made it a priority to shop for a new helmet. I didn’t intend to hop back on my bike until I had one. And since that day, I’ve never ridden my bike without a helmet on my head.  

Every time I buckle the strap, I think about how this simple act can mean the difference between life and death—protection that takes less than one minute of my time. I try to understand why, now that we know better about the risks of head injuries and have continuously improved helmet technology, I still see so many people riding bikes without helmets in 2020.  

Do they not understand the risks? Do they think it won’t happen to them? Do they not care? Do they not have the time to properly fit a comfortable helmet? Are they really that worried about how their hair will look post-ride? 

For my friend, Julie, a helmet could have meant her mom saw her off to college that fall. Instead, Julie saw her mom buried just before making a life-changing journey from the Midwest to Florida to start her collegiate career. In a time that is already filled with anxiety and emotion, Julie had the added ingredients of tragedy and sorrow. 

For Julie’s brother, a middle schooler at the time, a helmet could have meant his mom stood right back up after her fall, with maybe a few scrapes that needed quick first aid. They might’ve ridden a little more gingerly back home because she was sore, and her helmet was a bit damaged. Instead, Mark had to rush to his mom’s side, watching in panic as he witnessed the immediate effects of brain damage, shouting desperately for help from anyone who could hear. Surely, that horrible tragedy’s moments remain embedded in his memories to this day, twenty-five years later. 

A helmet might have meant Julie’s mom was around to see both her kids graduate college and go on to live meaningful lives. Julie became a scientist as she had always planned, but she also wound up raising a small family, even though she swore up and down as a kid that she didn’t want kids of her own. Mark became a youth minister, inspiring tweens and teens to use their two helping hands for neighbors in need.  

A helmet could have meant Julie’s mom met and loved her grandkids with all her might. Spoiled them with Christmas presents, freshly baked cookies, and snuggles galore. A helmet could have meant Julie’s dad had his partner in crime to indulge with during his retirement years, traveling and unwinding in all the ways they’d dreamed. 

These thoughts cross my mind every time I hop on my bike and snap on my helmet. The tragedy of Julie’s mom’s death was a stark reminder that life could change in an instant, and we can’t always control when that instant happens. But we do have control of whether or not we wear a helmet when we ride a bike.  

True, the probability of something happening is slim, but I’m not willing to risk it. I’ve seen how it works out on the other side, how life and the lives around can be forever changed, the ripples of people that will be devastated by the loss that could have been prevented by the simple act of wearing a helmet. 

Candice Wagener is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two boys in Madison, Wisconsin, a bike-friendly city that provides ample variety for family rides.
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