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VN Archives: Did it matter — or not — if Lance wore a helmet?

Do professional riders have a responsibility to be role models and set a good example for young cyclists?

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VeloNews January 17, 1994, cover

At the Back was a column in every VeloNews magazine for decades. It was a place where riders and staff writers would share personal stories in their own voice. This year, we are going to be running an At the Back column every week for members to enjoy. In this piece from January 17, 1994, Maynard Hershon questions how far pros have to carry their personal responsibility to set an example for others.

I just spent a few days in awesome Austin, Texas, invited by the Texas Bicycle Coalition, a model activist organization, and by my club, Violet Crown, another model outfit. (Violet Crown publishes, I think, the finest, most creative, most authoritative club monthly in the U.S.A.)

While in Austin, I noted that a local cycling newsletter had printed a front-page photo of proud Austin resident, world pro road champion Lance Armstrong, surrounded by a circle and slash. Don’t Do What He Does, was the message.

Why? Lance, it seems, doesn’t always wear a helmet. I admit in front: Lance’s helmet-wearing habits are not an issue with me. He can wear or do whatever he pleases. I would rather, between us, that he wore his helmet — but I don’t want to tell him he has to or try to pressure him into putting it on.

There is no bicycle helmet law in Texas. Lance is an adult. He makes his own decisions. He has a mother nearby who loves him. He doesn’t need us to adopt him and teach him our versions of personal safety right and wrong. We shouldn’t need to try.

How much do we expect? It’s enough for me that he stamped L-A-N-C-E across the worlds and other races with stylish displays of strength and aggression. It’s enough that he delivered a huge jolt of excitement to U.S. cycling. It’s better yet that he seems unchanged by all the hoopla, all the money. Same dude.

Those feats are enough for me and perhaps for you, but they’re not enough for everyone. In this country, tremendous pressure is brought to bear on individuals like Lance Armstrong to behave a certain way, to toe some line imposed by others, to wear that helmet whether you want to or not.

If I were Lance, the unrelenting pressure to wear my helmet might have a contrary effect, keeping it off my head in defiance. I wouldn’t like the feeling I let myself get pushed around by people who don’t know me and probably don’t give a damn about any other aspect of my life.

And only here. Do French fans care if Jeff Bernard wears his helmet? I think not. Will Bicisport refuse to run photos of Moreno Argentin in a cotton cycling cap? Again, no.

You’d think primary pressure would come from the sponsor. One assumes a helmet sponsor would prefer (cough) to see that helmet buckled in place at every photo op. That is, after all, what he or she provides product, or product and cash, to accomplish.

I’m flying blind on this, my contact at Lance’s helmet supplier having neglected to return my calls. We must assume sponsor agreements read: “sponsor’s products at all times,” meaning the athlete wears just that rain jacket, just that helmet. But what if it’s not raining? Or what if the rider doesn’t wish to wear a helmet at all?

The Austin newsletter publisher apparently feels ol’ role-model Lance should always wear his helmet on the bike and whenever there’s a camera nearby; witness the page one circle and slash right there in Lance’s hometown. Mr. Newsletter’s not alone in this either: U.S. magazines that run photos of Lance without his helmet get critical mail.

A factor here, no doubt, is today’s rampant safety consciousness, more accurately safety obsession. People settle on some “safety” issue or other and become crusaders, beating one drum, ignoring countless others. Are they sincerely fearful for Lance’s health … or are they relentlessly peddling some agenda of their own?

Original At the Back article from print magazine
The UCI began requiring helmets at events in 2003, following the death of Andre Kivilev.

For example, if Lance buys an old car or pickup, it’ll have crummy seatbelts, no airbags, no collapsible steering column, no antilock brakes. Will letters pour into magazines begging editors to use their influence to stop Lance from getting behind the wheel before disaster strikes?

Will we hear one “safety” crusader’s voice raised in protest when Lance decides to brave the interstates in a 1964 Mustang or an old GMC? Will cycling’s concerned moms and dads protest photos of Lance leaning on the fender of a purple 1969 Roadrunner for fear their kids will want widow-maker Roadrunners of their own?

How safe is safe enough? What if the public finds out through a dutiful press that the battery in Lance’s kitchen smoke detector is dead? What kind of example is that? Has he let us down yet again?

We mustn’t underestimate, I suppose, the need of one individual to tell another what’s good for him — and appear to be an authority at the same time. When you write about someone like Lance, even critically and at a distance, you share a little limelight.

The earnest newsletter publisher found me in Austin at a Texas Bicycle Coalition dinner. He urged me, as an “authoritative” VeloNews (and Texas Bicyclist) columnist, to make some statement about Lance’s failure to shoulder role-model responsibilities.

I told the guy I always wear my helmet and I give my friends heat if they show up without them. We’re cycling hobbyists, my friends and I, riding in packs of other cycling hobbyists. We stand a good chance of falling off our bikes or knocking each other down.

For training, I said, pros mostly don’t wear helmets. I mentioned that I’d ridden with the Motorola team on training rides, maybe 20 of us (sigh …), two abreast, on winding, tree-shaded Sonoma County roads. Two helmets: Norman Alvis’ and mine.

I explained how solid, how secure those guys look on their bikes. They’re not often going to fall off, I suggested. They know about crashes and head injuries. They’re the thoroughbreds of cycling, real by-God bike riders. Let ’em decide for themselves.

“Think about this,” he countered. “Some kid could see Lance today, training or riding in one of our unstructured training races without his helmet. Years hence, that kid could think: Lance didn’t wear one, why should I? And that kid could be killed by an avoidable head injury …”

And if Lance is riding after midnight on a dark empty road, he probably oughta wear a helmet — someone impressionable may be surveilling with infrared.

When you’re a star, there’s always someone watching, is the point, I guess. Or you have to act as if someone is. Jerry Seinfeld calls it “part of being a full-service celebrity.”

Like it or not, the new letter guy said, they’re role models as elite athletes. People want to look like ’em and act like ’em. That’s why their product endorsements are so valuable. They have to think about that responsibility and behave accordingly.

Is there nowhere for a star to run, nowhere to hide, even in his hometown? Perhaps in a Volvo with dark tinted safety glass all around … Is dark tinted glass legal in Texas?