Question the need for a person to wear a helmet, and brace for the backlash. That's been the experience of former Tour de France cyclist Chris Boardman after he set out to tour Manchester with the BBC by bike sans helmet - but did he have a point?
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

Monday, the BBC broadcast a short piece on cycle safety that featured British Cycling policy advisor Boardman touring Manchester on a bike. He guided Louise Minchin, a cycling novice, around the city, explaining some basic tips for keeping safe.

His points were simple. Plan your route. Be careful around junctions and intersections. Position yourself away from the curb and hold the lane. Be wary around trucks and larger vehicles where vision is obstructed. Obey traffic signals.

Only, Boardman, unlike Minchin, wasn't wearing a helmet.

Not wearing a helmet!

In a safety video!

Sacrebleu!

"Chris Boardman wearing no helmet and riding in black jacket and jeans. For an item on cycling safety - you can't get more stupid," wrote one commenter on the BBC's facebook soon after it was released.

"This is bad Chris! Netherlands have fully protected cycle lanes. We're not there yet! Also black jacket and no lights! Worst example ever from a top British cyclist!," wrote another.

Boardman didn't forget his helmet. He didn't not have access to one. He chose not to wear one. This was a very deliberate attempt by Boardman to get a point he's been hammering on about for some time about the helmet debate; it's the wrong approach.

"People wear helmets and high vis as they feel it's all they can do to keep themselves safe. It shows just how far away Britain is from embracing cycling as a normal and convenient form of transport," wrote Boardman defending himself on the British Cycling website in follow up.

"Normalising" cycling has been a big part of Boardman's campaign to boost cycling participation for quite some time. In the video the contrast is stark between him and the BBC presenter he's with. Minchin, frankly, looks dorky, helmeted and high vis. Meanwhile Boardman, wearing a wind jacket, no helmet, and jeans, looks, well, normal.

Kinda like in Utrecht, where helmet use is scant.



The real debate should be about cycling infrastructure, road awareness and education campaigns, and participation. In a lot of ways it is, both in Britain, and Australia.

"Helmets will not save you from broken arms, crushed rib cages and punctured lungs, so wearing a helmet will not fix the issue with British road safety. Fix the roads, the junctions, create more cycle paths. That is what needs to be done. Simply telling everyone to wear a helmet is a quick 'brush it under the rug' response that fails to adequately address the problem," another commenter pointed out in Boardman's defence.

This is something I agree with, at least partially. On the commute across city I'll always wear a helmet. On a longer rider, fully lycra-clad, when racing, of course. But if I'm running to the chemist, meeting a friend for a coffee, well my helmet use isn't as regular. There is a substantial difference between going toe-to-toe with cars on major arterial roads and riding a kilometre down a cul-de-sac.

The problem for Boardman however is that while places like Utrecht are utopic, they're far removed from the present infrastructure on offer in Britain and Australia which have hugely under-invested in proper cycle ways.

Helmets where incidents with cars are common are going to reduce the severity of injury, and the number of fatalities. The evidence to support this is overwhelming. Ignoring this reality is foolhardy.

"By such a high profile cyclist refusing so publicly to promote helmet usage," concluded yet another commenter, "he is putting others at risk. If we had the cycle infrastructure of Holland then so be it, but we don't and he is being irresponsible."

Exactly.

Still there's something to be said for Boardman's boldness. While his message may be lost in the ensuing social media storm his heart is in the right place. Nor is Boardman advocating for helmets to be done away with; hell, the man even has his own line of helmets. His campaign is about capturing the proper context.

"I understand exactly why people feel so passionately about helmets or high vis. I understand why people wish to use them. But these actions seek to deal with an effect. I want to focus the debate on the cause and campaign for things that will really make cycling safe," adds Boardman.

"I want cycling in the UK to be like it is in Utrecht or Copenhagen and more recently New York City - an everyday thing that people can do in everyday clothes whether you are eight or 80 years old. I want cycling to be a normal thing that normal people do in normal clothes. Is that wrong?"

At least we're talking about it.