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Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Bike Tour of Eastern Kentucky‘s Back Roads

Ale-8-One is a ginger-ale-like soda usually sold in glass bottles and popular in the hills of eastern Kentucky. During a bike trip through the region last month, for example, I washed down a burger with one on the back porch of a bed-and-breakfast owned by a man who once walked more than 3,000 miles across America on stilts. The next night, I blasted another out of the crook of a tree branch with a 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson.
I rarely drink soda and I’m not into guns. But what’s the point of travel if not to have new and sometimes discomforting experiences?
Eastern Kentucky, Appalachian coal country, was, in truth, a rather random destination, the result of browsing the routes plied by Megabus and realizing I could get to nearby Lexington from New York for only $63, round trip. (Warning: the bus trip is far from direct and took me a total of 17 hours on the road, with two connections.) As my method of transit within the state, I chose a bicycle. Bikes are the most social form of of transportation; people wave to you, and you can stop in anywhere to fill a water bottle or charge a phone. Though Kentucky has plenty of beautiful scenery, my hope was that this trip would be about people. Bring on the discomfort.
Joe Bowen and the bike he rode across the country.CreditRobert Rausch for The New York Times 
After some emails and phone calls with two avid Lexington cyclists — Randy Thomas, president of the Bluegrass Cycling Club, and Allen Kirkwood of the nonprofit Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop — I had a four-day, 160-mile back roads route through a bit of bluegrass country, best known for its horses and bourbon, and then east into the hills. I would pass by Red River Gorge in Daniel Boone National Forest, and tiny towns with nary a restaurant or motel before picking up about 20 miles of a new bike and horse path, the Dawkins Line Rail Trail. It ends near a small town called Paintsville, which happens to be home to a rare Enterprise Rent-a-Car office that could get me back to Lexington and my return bus.
But first, the bike. At Scheller’s Fitness and Cycling in Lexington, a Trek Domane 4.3 was $160 for up to a week. Once I had wended my way out of the city, things got scenic fast: car-free country lanes lined with deep-brown, four-rail fences enclosing lush pastures dotted with horses that barely moved in the heat. It felt like riding through a painting, until a horse’s tail whisked away a fly or a wind gust rustled a tree.
A couple of hours in, things began to change. Horses gave way to cows, fences got shabbier, the paint on homes more weathered. And I finally began to encounter people, as in the tiny, worn center of North Middletown, population 650 or so, where I stopped at a gas station and convenience store that was — typically, I would later learn — the lone source of action in town. I treated myself to a soft ice cream ($1.69) and asked a man sitting outside what was going on. “Nothing,” he said. “People are either on welfare or on drugs.”
Back on my bike, I headed through a route dotted with barns. Slender gaps in the boards of one older barn created a strobe effect as I rode past. Outside another, dozens of goats lounged in the shade, only to scatter as I approached, as had horses earlier in the trip.
Thirty-odd miles later, after an unfussy $9.99 catfish dinner at Kathy’s Country Kitchen in Clay City, I checked into the nondescript Abner Motel ($60 for the night), expecting to collapse on my bed. However, Mexican ranchera music was playing in the parking lot and I wandered out to inquire. A mostly Latino group of workers on a local gas pipeline was occupying a row of rooms, and had set up a barbecue.
Continue reading the main story
North Middletown
Country Side 
Red River Gorge 
Geographical Area
Clay City
Hazel Green
Sky Bridge
Angel Windows
A Texas-born Mexican-American gave me a Corona and pointed me toward the grill; Salvadoran immigrants from Tallahassee, Fla., talked about the time they had worked on a Nantucket golf course where Bill Clinton played; and a burly West Virginia ironworker named Jim urged me to try his co-worker’s freshly made salsa. Jim also tried to give me a tutorial on the use of white bread as a leak-stopper for cracked PVC pipe. Ah, people. So much more welcoming than horses or goats...
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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why I'm Done Wearing a Helmet

Breakfast rides became a popular Sunday non-event a generation ago. The rides were the idea of Harold Absalonson. This photo was taken March 28, 1983. (Rich Landers/Photo Archive/The Spokesman-Review)
Breakfast rides became a popular Sunday non-event a generation ago. The rides were the idea of Harold Absalonson. This photo was taken March 28, 1983. (Rich Landers/Photo Archive/The Spokesman-Review)
By Lindsey Wallace
I’m done wearing a bike helmet.
Now, don’t hold me to that. Maybe I’ll want one in the winter when the roads are icy. Maybe I’ll be required to wear one on a group ride. Maybe I’ll travel cross-country, planning to bike on deserted roads. But when it comes to casual riding, I’m done.
At the conference I attended last week, I mentioned, “I don’t wear a helmet, and I’m a public health professional,” to audible gasps and laughter. I invited people to ask me why later, and many of them did. I’ll share with you what I told them in just a moment, but let me preface this: I think the main problem around making an informed decision about whether to wear a helmet is hard because there isn’t great data around helmet use. Due to the confirmation bias, we’re all looking for information to back up the belief that we already have. Do your own research, use your own brain, and figure out what seems right and feels right for you.


A 1987 study of helmet use determined that helmets reduce the risk of serious injury by 85%. That’s a statistic you’ll still see all over the place. The problem is, that study was deeply flawed and has been refuted. Governmental agencies have stopped using this number due to issues with the study. Other more recent studies have investigated the question of helmet efficacy, and have found that the benefit is not nearly as high as we used to think. One well-done study that evaluated all the current studies out there (called a meta-analysis), found there to be no benefit to helmet use when you take into account all types of injuries. Helmets protect against certain kinds of injuries (those to the head) and increase the likelihood of other injuries (those to the neck). Any study about helmet use is very hard to do well. You can’t assign one group of people to use helmets and another group of people not to use them. All you can do is look at two groups of people and compare them. The people who wear helmets are likely more safety-conscious than those who don’t, which makes comparing the two groups very difficult and will make it appear that helmets are more protective than they actually are.
People will so often put up photos on social media of obliterated helmets and say, “Holy crap, look at my helmet! It saved my life!” But helmets are not supposed to shatter. When a helmet protects your head from a serious injury, the styrofoam inside will be compressed and stay that way. Most of the pictures I’ve seen are of helmets that have broken apart. It’s likely that the helmet did not protect someone from a severe injury.
Cyclists don’t die from just falling off their bikes, they die because they are hit by cars. Bike helmets only protect against certain types of injuries to certain parts of the head, and the evidence is not compelling that they even do that well...

Bikes are not cars, and infrastructure is better than helmets

vancouver bike lane

CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Vancouver bike infrastructure
We do go on about bike safety, primarily the question of whether the emphasis should be on building better infrastructure for cyclists so they don’t get squished or mandating helmets for their head to try and protect them when they do. On the Alternative Department for Transport, a UK website, the author notes that in the UK people do wear helmets and hi-vis vests- because they are afraid not to.
If we genuinely want to make cycling safer, more helmets aren’t the solution. They are really a good indicator that the streets aren’t safe. When people don’t feel safe when cycling, they will wear a helmet – and hi-vis vest – with or without advertising.
Higher helmet use shouldn’t be a goal, it should be seen as a failure of policy, an embarrassing statistic. An increase in helmets is a sign that the government has failed miserably in their duty to provide safe streets.

The Minister of the ADFT (he doesn’t give his name) goes on to suggest that the real solution is better infrastructure, with good bike lanes optimized for safety. He suggests that helmet laws and promotion campaigns are just a way for governments to shift responsibility, as if they are saying saying “if you get hurt, you’ve only yourself to blame”...

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