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Pro cyclists speak with capital students about the importance of wearing a helmet.

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    Pro cyclists speak with capital students about the importance of wearing a helmet.

    Pro cyclists speak with capital students about the importance of wearing a helmet.
    By James Raia -- Special to The Bee
    Published 2:15 a.m. PST Wednesday, April 2, 2003
    It's unlikely any of the 400 students knew the names Garrett Lemire or Andrei Kivilev, and they didn't know Mark McCormack or Amy Moore, either. But the student body at Isador Cohen Elementary School knows cycling.
    Three questions into an assembly last week at the Sacramento school, one student asked McCormack and Moore: "When you're going too fast, do you fall off?"

    In various forms, the two riders have heard the question many times.

    As part of their yearly obligations to the Saturn Cycling Team, team riders appear at dozens of schools and trade shows. They bring their bikes and helmets and a simple message -- bicycle safety is important.

    Pro cyclists rarely fall off their bikes without extenuating circumstances. But two recent incidents proved fatal.

    Lemire, 22, of Ojai was killed March 15 after hitting an oncoming car when he swerved into an open road to avoid fallen riders during the Tucson Bicycle Classic in Arizona.

    Kivilev, 29, the rider from Kazakhstan who finished fourth in the 2001 Tour de France, died three days earlier at the Paris-Nice stage race in France.

    Kivilev had removed his helmet shortly before the March 11 accident in which he fell face first. He suffered a fractured skull and brain swelling, lapsed into a coma and died the next day.

    McCormack and Moore, whose domestic-based team races primarily in North America, compete wearing helmets, a requirement in all U.S. races.

    Helmets are also mandatory in Australia and Belgium, but not in many European countries.

    In 1991, the International Cycling Union, the sport's global governing body, imposed a helmet requirement.

    Riders protested, claiming helmets are too restrictive in warm conditions. The riders and the union reached an agreement to recommend helmet use, but each country still determines its own rules.

    "Just like there are traffic laws, there are times when the individual freedoms should not exceed the civic norms," said Jean-Jaques Menuet, the team physician who examined Kivilev and suggested the rider would have lived had he been wearing a helmet. Menuet and others have now called for a mandatory helmet law again.

    McCormack, 32, a husband and father of a 2 1/2-year-old son, agreed.

    "If you look at every other professional sport, there's a helmet rule," he said. "Why is cycling different? I'm all for personal choice, but after so many negative situations, it seems like somebody at the top should probably step in and make it a rule.

    "The (cycling governing body) has all these amazing guidelines about prohibitive substances," McCormack said. "Why is cheating more important than personal safety? They spend so much money on testing athletes and creating new tests to overcome the athletes who are trying to stay ahead of the curve of the tests. A lot of those tests, like the hematocrit (red blood cells) maximum levels, they claim are for riders' safety. If that's the case, then wearing a helmet could also be considered a safety issue. It wouldn't cost them any money to write down a two-sentence rule that riders must wear helmets."

    The children at Isador Cohen Elementary School don't know about hematocrit levels or the politics of the pro peloton.

    But Virginia Grabbe, the school's 78-year-old principal, enjoys cycling and encouraged the students' curiosity. Until recently, Grabbe led an annual student round-trip bike ride from the school to Goethe Park.

    McCormack and Moore spent nearly one hour longer than the scheduled one-hour assembly addressing the two groups of children. They repeatedly stressed safety, with Moore responding to one student: "If you fall on your head and you crack your helmet, it could still protect you. But you're not going to get any protection if you're not wearing a helmet."

    The riders answered questions ranging from how much their bikes cost to why men and women don't race together. The children examined the team's decal-plastered sponsor car and sought the cyclists' autographs.

    But as the crowd steadily thinned and the students returned to their classrooms, McCormack, a former national cyclo-cross champion who has competed on several continents, again addressed the helmet controversy and Kivilev's death.

    "I personally train with a helmet on, 100 percent of the time," he said. "I've been hit by a car. I've hit a dog. In those cases, I had my helmet on. It's not my riding skills I'm worried about, it's the unpredictable circumstances why you wear a helmet. You never assume your co-racers are going to crash and cause you to land on your head. But unforeseen circumstances come around.

    "Who's to say that a helmet would have saved his life?" he continued. "We'll never know, either. There are cases where guys descend mountains at 60 mph, and they slam into a pylon. Well, a helmet is not going to save them. Their damage would probably be a spinal cord injury. But 95 percent of the time you fall, it's not such a severe crash, and a helmet can be a saving grace."


    About the Writer

    James Raia is a Sacramento journalist. He can be reached at

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    ..."there are cases where guys descend mountains at 60mph, and they slam into a pylon. Well a helmet is not going to save them. Their damage would probably be a spinal cord injury."

    ..ah, um, well..that would be me. But without the helmet it would be doubtful that I'd be here corresponding with you fine folk.

    For that I'm thankful.


      Interesting. I had my SCI in a bycicle racing accident (BMX) and I was wearing a helmet. I beleive that the helmet may have saved me from a serious head injury as well. The SCI was my only injury from the accident and I was in the hospital for only 2 week, then to rehab for 5 1/2 month.



        oops..I meant to click edit not mistake.

        [This message was edited by Brad_D on 04-06-03 at 01:46 PM.]


          twice...duhh. sorry


            There is no question that in an accident between a truck and a bicycle, you are better off in the truck. There is also no question that my helmet saved my life and further saved me from traumatic brain injury. I wear a helmet while riding a handcycle even though I am much closer to the ground and slower than a bicycle because as my SCI accident proved, you never know what else is out there.

            It's worth suggesting (strongly) to anyone not wearing a helmet while riding to get one. It's painful to see professional cyclists (including, and perhaps especially, Lance Armstrong) not wearing helmets on training rides. Apparently there are at least three prime examples in this community of the importance of helmets.