Bicycle helmets redux: tough organizational choices, but I’m out

I’ve authored three blog posts in recent months about bicycle helmets:

These posts came to the attention of National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), the national body that governs high school mountain bike racing. I had taken their training to be an assistant coach this fall for the Cannon Valley Mountain Bike Racing Team for area high school students.  They also came to the attention of the Cannon Valley Velo Club (CVCC), where, as a member, I had volunteered to be the mountain bike ride coordinator and therefore became a club officer.

I wrote to NICA, summarizing my position:

I think public officials and other community leaders should stop the promotion of helmet-wearing for around-town bicycling and instead, work on all the other issues related to getting people, including kids, to ride bikes more, including doing what it takes to make the activity safer. There’s a considerable body of research to support this.

I have very few, if any, kids reading my Locally Grown Northfield blog. My blog post that’s titled “Photos of Northfielders biking around town without helmets: all the cool kids are doing it” was not aimed at kids and contains no photos of kids. The phrase “all the cool kids” is a generic, cultural reference that doesn’t directly refer to kids but anyone (for example, Suing Madonna, Self-publishing, Quitting Facebook).

But it’s very likely that kids will find out about my helmet-related blog posts, either on their own or from teachers, parents, or members of the local bike clubs. If they ask me, I’ll explain my position.

In Northfield and elsewhere in MN, the vast majority of high school age teenagers using their skateboards and BMX bikes in municipal skateparks don’t wear helmets. Insurance doesn’t require it as long as the obstacles are under 48 inches high. But if you go to a BMX or skateboard stunt show, all the performers wear helmets. Most kids would understand why: speed and height make a difference. An analogy: should parents let their kids play in the street? Pretty much everyone would say that it depends on the age of the kid, the type of street, and the type of play. Kids gradually learn the subtleties of playing in the street and by the time they’re in high school, it’s a non-issue. Likewise, with helmet-wearing.

Boys especially don’t want to appear to be overly concerned with safety. I insisted that my three sons wore helmets from the time they were toddlers but once they were 14 or so, they refused to do it for around-town biking. They had no hesitation on wearing a helmet when I took them mountain biking or road riding.

I’m 100% in favor of promoting the importance of wearing helmets for mountain biking, road biking, gravel riding, and all forms of bike competition and I would hammer this point home and enforce it rigorously with the high school student athletes. And I would not use my coaching/face time with them to promote my position about helmets and around-town biking.

NICA gave me a choice:

…while NICA’s rules do not govern what Griff does outside of the context of his high school mountain bike coaching, NICA does find his position on helmet use contradictory to our risk management and safety standards. Thus, NICA staff are not supportive of his position regarding helmet use nor his public blogging on this subject. NICA encourages Griff to chose between abiding by the NICA rules at all times – in order to serve as a role model – or not coach.

I replied in part:

One thing I didn’t state in my “Griff’s position” statement was that it never occurred to me that my blogging about helmets for around-town biking would have anything to do with mountain biking.  I simply never made the mental connection. If I had, I probably would have avoided the issue altogether.

While it’s unfortunate, I don’t regret doing it.  I really do believe in what I wrote about the issue so I can’t in good faith go back on it. So I have decided to withdraw as team director and assistant coach.

And while I’ve put in a lot of hours in this over several months, I have no regrets — no bad feelings whatsoever.  I’ve really enjoyed and benefited from all of it, especially the two-days of Leadership Summit training…

I met with the officers of the CVCC to clarify my position that I would always insist that anyone on a club-sanctioned mountain bike ride with me would have to wear a helmet. Their response:

In the end, most felt that we can’t as a Club endorse a position which suggests publicly that riding without a helmet at any time on the bike is advisable.  It was very tough to decide whether this meant that individuals within the Club are speaking for the Club, but in the end it was decided that anyone whose name is on the CVVC home page “Club Officers” table could be construed as speaking for the Club.  Given that your position as expressed in blog posts is in conflict with our helmet policy (and that you stand by this position), we decided that this means your name should not be listed as a club officer.

So as a club member, I can informally invite others to go on mountain bike rides with me. I just can’t be an official ride leader.

I harbor no ill will towards either NICA nor CVCC, even though I strongly disagree with them. It’s a tricky issue and insurance/risk management makes it even more so.

There are many ways for me to contribute to the sport of mountain biking and bicycling in general. I won’t be shy about letting you know what I’m up to.  If it’s Northfield-related, I’ll let you know here on LoGro. Otherwise, stay tuned to my Mountain Bike Geezer blog and/or follow MTBikeGeezer on Twitter.

8 comments to  (Including 2 Discussion Threads) Bicycle helmets redux: tough organizational choices, but I’m out

  • 1
    Tracy Davis says:

    Wow, Griff. Thanks for the update and for your very even-handed description of the positions on both sides. It’s unfortunate that the CVVC thought that a disclaimer that board members’ personal opinions were their own was insufficient.

    Did you ever wear your “Vote No” shirt to any events?

  • 2
    kiffi summa says:

    Griff: I agree with Tracy; I was appalled that the organization would lose such a dedicated biking instructor/enthusiast because they were incapable of drawing a line between promoting the organizational principles, and the personal opinion, of a person so dedicated to the sport.

    The discussion here showed a lot of ‘truth-seeking’ from both sides, and that kind of well-rounded inquiry should be applauded.
    Too bad you had to quit the organization.

  • 3
    Kathie Galotti says:

    What Kiffi and Tracey said. On the other hand, I think any organization that wants to dictate what opinions you are allowed to voice publicly might best be an organization avoided.

  • 4
    Myrna Mibus says:

    Well I’m bummed because the reason I renewed my CVVC membership this year was because of your involvement as the new Mountain Biking coordinator. I kind of get the NICA and CVVC stance because I personally found the no helmet talk unsettling, at least in the way it was initially presented. But after thinking about it and reading more I could also see where you were coming from. Anyway -- I could say more but won’t other than I sure hope you informally invite me to go on some mountain bike trails with you again!

    • 4.1
      Griff Wigley says:

      Myrna, if you follow the discussion on the CVCC email list or Facebook page, I’ll occasionally alert people when I’m looking for fellow mountain bikers to join me on a ride. I just won’t be able to officially organize and lead a ride for a specific group or level.

      Hopefully, someone else who’s a member of the CVVC and a mountain biker will take on that role.

  • 5
    Griff Wigley says:

    Kathie/Tracy/Kiffi,

    I really don’t see this as an effort to stifle my personal opinions on the part of either organization.

    I think they’re just being cautious because of their concerns about safety, insurance, and lawsuits. I think they’re being overly cautious, of course.

    • 5.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Griff: you mis-read what I said: I never said they were trying to “stifle” your opinions…

      I said they were not able to parse out the differences between a personally held opinion, and those that would be expressed when acting for the organization.

      Maybe you’re too busy to read carefully? :-)

  • 6
    Griff Wigley says:

    Minneapolis Bicycle & Pedestrian Coordinator Shaun Murphy doesn’t wear a helmet for around-town biking. See the article today’s Strib:

    When he does bike, he doesn’t wear a helmet because he doesn’t want the activity to appear dangerous or scary. “I just want it to be seen as something that a normal person can do,” said Murphy. “You don’t need special gear. You just get on a bike and you just go.”

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