I saw the airbag helmet video late one evening, after a few beers had left me in an uninhibited state prized by online retailers. You’ve probably seen it, too: an effortlessly cool Swedish lady’s fashionable scarf suddenly pops out into the shape of a motorcycle helmet. The helmet “scarf” sits around your neck, and when you get on your bike you activate the sensors so it knows when you’re falling. It’s amazing. The price tag of several hundred euros was way too expensive, especially because it only works once. But I cracked another beer and decided there’re only a few moments in life when you give yourself this kind of gift.
Let’s be honest, no one really wants to put on a bike helmet. So much so they actually had to make it illegal not to wear one. Still, many people break that law and literally risk their lives to avoid it. You either don’t care how a helmet makes you look, or you ignore it on purpose. My dad is a good example of the extreme of indifference – his helmet has flashing hazard lights on the back and a fluorescent yellow rain condom over the top. For the first part of my life, he was the one in charge of making me wear head protection. But eventually I had to take over.
The stage where you’re the one ensuring you’re putting on a helmet creeps up on you. The freedoms of youth drift away gently, like silt floating down a stream, until you suddenly find yourself gazing up at a Grand Canyon of accountability. If you’re a cyclist, that moment comes when you glance in the mirror and catch yourself fully decked out in luminous spandex with a mushroom-shaped hard hat on top. Then you hop on your bike, hunch over into the position you would take were you forced to relieve yourself in the forest, and you’re off.
The airbag helmet was a game changer. But when I went to put through my order, I discovered Hövding, the Swedish company that makes it, doesn’t ship anywhere outside the European Union. You can’t buy one in North America, where I live, unless you find an intrepid bike store in Oregon or some other such centre of hipsters. And they’re usually out of stock.
But my brother happened to be on a trip to England, a country close enough to Scandinavia to be within helmet-shipping distance. I put in the order, had it sent to where he was staying and he mailed it to me. With the speed of Brexit negotiations at the time, I was pretty sure England would be in the EU long enough to complete the transaction. In the end it just squeaked under the wire.
But it turns out airbag helmets are usually out of stock in North America because of how difficult it is to get them here. The helmet’s inflation, I belatedly learned, requires an explosive CO2 charge and explosives are a bit tricky to send by post these days. When I called to ask why my package hadn’t arrived yet, I was told it had never made it out of England. It had been quarantined in a hazardous materials centre in Coventry and was slated to be destroyed.
For the next three weeks I spent the early dawn hours arguing with British postal workers who seemed to relish telling me there was no way I could rescue the parcel unless I showed up in Coventry in person. I became a student of CO2 shipping, learning from experts in the field on both sides of the Atlantic. Eventually, I hit a breakthrough and managed to arrange for it to get picked up by FedEx. At this point I wasn’t even asking how much it would cost. I had come too far to worry about that now.
When it finally arrived, I realized I should’ve worried. The shipping bill had accumulated to hundreds of dollars, meaning that all told, the helmet basically cost as much as my bike. I forked over the dough and swore off Internet shopping while drunk.
Still, it was very cool to be able to whip down hills seemingly helmetless, the breeze rippling through my hair. But sometimes I’d return from a ride having reached speeds that would’ve been dangerous without head protection only to find I’d forgotten to click the sensors on. Just to be safe, I started activating the thing as soon as I put it on. That would prove to be the worst helmet-related decision I had made so far.
As I pushed my bike into the lane a few days later, the back tire clipped the gate and knocked the handlebars from my grip. Quickly bending over to stop it from falling, I felt a small pop at the base of my neck. In milliseconds, I was wearing the world’s most expensive motorcycle helmet-shaped airbag, safe and sound and dumber than I ever dared dream I could be. Standing there in the alleyway with it pressing against my ears, I could hear my father laughing in my mind.
I threw it in the dumpster and slowly cycled, swearing, to the regular helmet shop.
Richard Scott-Ashe lives in Vancouver.
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