When I started cycling as a kid, head protection was a must. Of course, it was 1980, so we didn’t have the most up-to-date technology—basically just a leather cap with some foam protection inside. All through my amateur years that was acceptable; nobody ever questioned it and my parents thought it was fine.
Things changed a bit during my first year as a professional rider on a half-Australian team called ZVVZ Giant AIS. By law in Australia, you must wear a regulation helmet and my team upheld these standards. By the end of my first year, wearing a helmet on a daily basis became habit.
Then, in 1998, I signed with a large, division-one team where things were different. We had the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a helmet and at least half of the riders chose not to race in them. In one extreme example, we had a sprinter who would wear his helmet at the start but insist on taking it off with 20 kilometers (12 miles) to go. As the race came to a close, he felt he wouldn’t be focused enough to take the final sprint seriously if he wore a helmet. Crazy huh?!
I only took off my helmet if we had a long mountain-top finish or if I was in a five-rider breakaway. I figured the risk of crashing would be very slim and more controllable. The photo of my first stage win in the Tour de France shows me without a helmet. I remember it was 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), and for the last 12 miles there were only two of us leading the race, which felt safer.
It wasn’t until 2003, after the death of professional cyclist Andrey Kivilev, that the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the sport’s governing body, made helmet use mandatory. I’m thankful they did. Six years later I sustained a very bad crash on the descent from the Col du Petit Saint Bernard, a Alps mountain pass that sits on the France-Italy border. During this descent, where you can easily reach speeds of 50 miles per hour, a helmet was my saving grace. I suffered a few broken bones and tons of road rash and scratches, but a knock to my head took the biggest toll. The resulting two-centimeter-long blood clot in my brain kept me off the bike for 12 weeks, long after my bones were healed. The helmet did its job perfectly—it took most of the impact and disintegrated completely. Imagine if I wasn’t wearing it.
To my shame, though, I must admit that I didn’t start donning a helmet during training until a friend of mine was hit by a car. The crash wasn’t at high speed and he would have likely walked away with just some bruises but he wasn’t wearing a helmet. Instead he suffered a serious brain injury and was in the hospital for a month. He’s made huge strides since then but is still unable to work or concentrate on one thing for a long period of time. Ever since I visited him in the hospital, and he couldn’t remember my name, I never trained without a helmet again. As a father of six, I have a responsibility to my family to try to keep myself safe.
If you’re still on the fence about wearing a helmet, consider this: An Australian study of more than 64,000 cyclists found that helmets reduce the risk of a serious head injury by nearly 70 percent and a fatal head injury by 65 percent. And what you pick doesn’t have to be hideous. Modern helmets are light, stylish, and made to fit well—some even come with built-in technology that blunts the impact a crash can have on your brain.
Whatever you decide, a quick reminder: Helmets are meant for one-time protection. After a big impact, they’ve done their job and need to be replaced. Please remember that. You only have one head, better protect it.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.