Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hitting the Streets in Antwerp: Part II

Ok, remember how I said biking in Brussels was not nearly as tough as I'd heard? True.

So I get to Antwerp, where the very kind woman at the tourist office said I might find the streets less-than-bike-friendly until I got to the areas that are car-free. Once up from the parking garage at the Antwerp train station, (Antwerpen Centraal) I found marked bike lanes. Sure, they drop off at points (just like in DC, just like in Brussels) but they were easy enough to find and where they exist, they are clearly marked. So far, so good.

If you saw the previous post, you'll see I pulled out the iPod Touch to catch the flow of bike and pedestrian traffic along the way to the Grote Markt and the bike path along the Schelde. So far, so good.
"Real" Belgian weather. My friends here joke I've seen the fake stuff, since it's been mostly sunny in previous visits.

Then it's time to put away the camera, and cross the roadway to get to a lovely ride along the Schelde. The rain is easing up, and I am really looking forward to a nice, long ride. I start to ride through an intersection (it's busy, afternoon rush hour is well underway) and I feel a slight tug on the rear wheel. I'm not on a cobblestone surface, but I've hit a bump in the road where the paving stones that serve as the white center line have popped up a bit. I feel the bike list to the left, push hard to see if I can pull out of it and--it's no good. That rear tire simply slides out from under me and down I go. Hard.

 Belgian roadways: hard. Belgian cobbles: also really hard. I fell on the roadway. Ego bruised along with body parts.

I've alarmed one driver who rushes from his car to assist me and ask me repeatedly if I'm OK. I didn't pop up immediately, so it probably looked worse than it was. But I can feel that through my coat and my jeans, I've got road rash and impending technicolor bruising blooming on the left elbow and knee. I assure him I'm fine and thank him for being so kind. I'm mostly embarrassed as I limp across the intersection.

I get over to the curb and take a moment: my knee is really sore, and I've got that just-been-slammed- onto-a-hard-surface-reverberation going through my body. I know I'm going to be sore and stiff, but dammit, I'm here in Antwerp with a chance to ride a lovely route, so I get on the bike and ride it off. I probably look like your grandma as I ride along--stiff-legged and imagining the gore I'll find when I get home and peel the clothing back, but soon I'm just enjoying the ride.
 Along the Schelde, Antwerp.

I was wearing what's been billed as a helmet alternative, something called the "Ribcap". It's a German-made hat with protective material sewn in, and has a merino wool cover. Is it as protective as a helmet? No. Ribcap's own website makes this clear.  But it does purport to prevent injury, and you might put that in the "something is better than nothing" file.

But in this fall, it seemed helmet-vs-no helmet was not an issue. I couldn't help checking my cap for signs that my head hat hit the deck when I fell, but I have no indication that happened. (I figured dirt on the cap would show up, or a big wet spot, since it was raining.) I can tell you I took it in the knee and the elbow, and the left side of my body, but it seems the head wasn't involved.

I'm not saying a helmet isn't a darn good idea. But I've often thought about my own bike spills in my childhood: I recall bruising and scrapes and that awful jarred feeling, but never head contact with the ground. I'm one of nine kids, and thinking back to our collective childhoods, don't recall any head injuries from biking. (One brother had a spectacular spill from a skateboard while shooting down a relatively steep hill near our home. Another chipped a tooth after riding his bike down a neighbor's steps on a dare.)

Again, this is not saying that helmets are not necessary or at the very least a good idea. I routinely wear mine at home. I've covered my fair share of tragic incidents and have seen the results of serious and often fatal, collisions. But those who say helmets are not necessary like to point out in car-bike collisions, the helmet really isn't effective; that it's made for a fall (probably like the spill I took) and not the impact from a vehicle. I suspect the laws of physics are on their side. Still, most everyone I know, including police officers who have to deal with the aftermath of crashes, has at least one story of a life being saved or serious injury averted because the cyclist was wearing a helmet.

I also think about how the Brompton, with it's smaller wheel, does handle differently. Their website even mentions the extra care needed in the rain and on irregular surfaces.  Cyclist Stephane LeBeau, who I met here in Gent, talked to me about how a smaller wheel has less surface contact with the road than a full-size bike--he was curious about the Brompton's ride as well.  I'm not a risk-taker by nature, so don't push beyond my own abilities or the limitations of any bike, and I tend to pay attention to little glitches when riding and I'd noted how the Brompton isn't like my full sized bikes. Still, I had my little fall.

So what's the takeaway?  I'll let you decide. But one fall won't keep me off the bike, just as a fender bender--even one that leaves you injured--wouldn't necessarily keep you off the roads.


  1. Glad you're not too banged up! I find I have to be a little more attentive riding my Bike Friday folders--it's not just the small wheels but also the lower trail, which makes the bike nimbler but also more responsive to handlebar movements. Still, the only serious injuries I've had riding a bike have been on regular sized bikes. And my head has never contacted the ground, whether I was wearing a helmet or not--just a broken elbow and a seriously bruised knee, plus the bruise to my ego the first time I was riding with toe clips and straps and forgot that I had to disengage before putting my foot down at a stop sign.

  2. Thanks, Brian. Yes, I am all recovered (ok, a bit stiff on one side, but able to walk, and ride without discomfort). I do want to emphasize that I'm not a "who the hell needs a helmet" type. I don't think it's an indicator of risky or reckless behavior when a rider doesn't wear one, and I don't think it's an indicator of fear-based choices when people do wear them. The research seems terribly divided (it's been argued that like polls, the numbers depend on who's doing the polling, how the questions were asked, and what the size of the polling sample is) and I think it boils down to each rider doing what makes them most comfortable--and happy--on the bike.

  3. Glad to hear you are okay. Falls are nasty things.

    In probably 75,000 miles of bike riding, I have only come close to hitting my head once in a bike crash. I flipped over the hendlebars after hitting a curb stone in a parking lot. My shoulder took the impact and I rolled on contact. When my wife was walking across the street and hit by an SUV last year, she went airborne and apparently landed on her head. It seems to have been the least of her injuries (and she had many, many injuries).

    I wear a helmet primarily to mount my lights to and to cover my thinning hair.