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Adults riding bikes in America is a dangerous, expensive affectation

Posted by John Reed on

My Baby Boomer generation has famously refused to get old. Those of us in the front rank (born in 1946) are now 69 years old. So we are getting old whether many of us are willing to admit it or not.

The kooky belief seems to be if you work out and buy groceries at Whole Foods, you don’t get old. Thus bicycling, which is arguably exercise, being done by adults.

When I was a kid in the 1950s and the early 1960s, adults did not ride bikes. We were much poorer then—no TV or car at my house—so, if anything, we had more reason to ride bikes then than now. We rode the bus to work and school. Any adult who rode a bike would be laughed at then. My mom tried it once, for some errand, and was laughed at. She was not exercising.

Bike capital of the world

In June, my wife and I went to Copenhagen. It’s the bicycle capital of the world.

These guys are the pros. Not racing pos, but pros in the sense that they ride bikes for economic reasons. With one exception, riding bikes is not an affectation for them. “They use the bikes to get from Point A to Point B, right?” asked my son. They’re not claiming to be exercising. They are not showing off their bodies or their lifestyle. They are going to work or school or shopping.

Well, there is one aspect of affectation. There is no car or truck manufacturer in Denmark. All motor vehicles are imported. And there is a 180% import duty on cars. So a car that would cost $50,000 in another country will cost $50,000 + (180% x $50,000) + the cost of transporting it from the country of manufacture = $50,000 + $90,000 + transport = $140,000 plus transport.

In other words, one of the reason the Danes use bikes instead of cars is cars are essentially banned. They have cars and trucks—I suspect somehow exempt from the duty—but it seemed the main mode of transportation was bikes. That is an affectation of the political ruling class. Self-righteous, holier-than-thou attitude toward less bike-oriented countries, that is, the Rest of the World.

But other than that, they ride their bikes to get from Point A to Point B.

Bikes are dangerous

A study done at the University of California at San Francisco—a very prestigious medical school—found an 81% increase in bike injuries among those over age 45 from 1998 to 2013. In addition to getting injured more, they are also injured more seriously. They are more likely to go to the emergency room and more likely to be admitted to the hospital for overnight stays as a result of their bike accidents.

Doctor Benjamin Breyer, the author of the study said, “If you take typical 25-year-olds and 60-year-olds, if they have a similar crash, it’s more likely the older person will have more severe injuries.”

My fellow Baby Boomers will immediately say, “No! that only applies to those who are not in shape. Although I am 69, I take care of myself therefore my body is equivalent to that of a 25-year old.”

Sorry, but that’s not true. I have been doing leg curls and leg extensions with a lot of weight regularly each week for decades. I did them this morning at the gym. Yet at age 61, when I hit the ball in play in a handball game and exploded out of the batter’s box toward first base, I pulled my quad. Age matters.

My book on coaching freshman and JV high school football notes that high school varsity players, 17- and 18-year olds, pull muscles and get cramps regularly. Freshmen and JVs—14 to 16-year-olds—never do. Age matters. The varsity players are not exercising less than the younger players.

Many middle-aged women wrongly figured they could wait to get pregnant until their 40s because they were carrying a water bottle and running 10Ks. Their eggs did not care. They found they were infertile or had defective babies more often. Age matters.

Riding a bicycle is too dangerous for adults over about age 40. They can get the same exercise by other means without the danger. That is not to say that you will get a disabling injury every time you get on a bike. You won’t. But it only takes one injury on one day.

In Switzerland, my wife and I used bikes that our hotel supplied to go along Lake Maggiore to the nearby town of Locarno. Soon after she got on her bike, my wife was hit by a car and knocked to the ground. The car drove away. She got back on the bike and continued the ride, with some lacerations and a pain that took weeks to go away. She was 65 at the time. That makes two points: one, the injuries are not always disabling to old people and two, riding a bike on a road with cars is dangerous.

I thought that particular path was for bikes and pedestrians only. They have pretty weird roads in southern Europe including Southern Switzerland. But on balance, given the dangers, the lesser ability of middle-aged and older people to survive such falls uninjured, and the readily available alternatives, middle-aged and older adults should not ride bikes in traffic. Not in America or Switzerland or Denmark.

Hip fracture more than double mortality over 65

“Older women who experience a hip fracture have a twofold increase in mortality risk in the first year after the fracture, researchers found.

“During the 12 months following the fracture, 16.9% of the women died, compared with 8.4% of controls, for an odds ratio of 2.3 (95% CI 1.9 to 2.8), according to Erin S. LeBlanc, MD, of Kaiser Permanente Northwest in Portland, Ore., and colleagues.”

Can you break your hip by riding a bike? It’s an excellent way to break your hip.

Costumes in U.S.; normal clothes in Denmark

 Here is a montage of hundreds of photographs of Copenhagen bike riders:

In those photos, you can see what we saw when we were in Copenhagen. They are wearing normal clothes—suits, high heels, casual clothes, tee shirts, cold-weather clothing, dresses, shorts—normal stuff. Here is what they are not wearing: bright-colored clothes either for safety or to pretend they are Tour de France racers. Hardly any are wearing spandex and those that are typically have black bicycle pants and a blue or white shirt with no writing on it.

Helmets are almost as rare as spandex.

The bikes almost all have fenders. When you are not allowed to have a car, and it rains and snows, you damned well better have fenders or you are going to get what they call the “freshman stripe” at the University of California at Davis—the Copenhagen of America bikewise. The “freshman stripe” is a wet stripe down both your front and back from water being thrown off your tires when the pavement is wet.

Almost all the bikes in Copenhagen have a cargo carrier on the front or back.

The bikes looked like they were made of sturdy steel to me, not carbon fiber or any of that.

In general, the handlebars were what I call the Longhorn steer configuration. That is, wide and high, so the rider can sit up straight rather than lean way forward in an aerodynamic, but uncomfortable, position. Again if you look at the collection of photos of Danes you will see they are almost all sitting comfortably upright.

 The bike paths in Copenhagen are a whole other thing. We figured out—there were no signs—that there are two sidewalk areas: one for pedestrians and one for bikes. Neither is in the roadway used by motor vehicles. Pedestrians are not allowed in the bike lanes, except to cross them. The bikers whiz by at 20 mph or so so being there is very dangerous for pedestrians and bikers who hit them.

They have lots of pedestrian plazas. I surmise the bikers are supposed to get off the bikes and walk them through those plazas. Most do.

They have a zillion bike parking places in Copenhagen, with a zillion bikes parked in each.

All seem to have locks on the back wheel.

All bikes seem to have a bell on the handle bars—required I would guess—and they use them.

I think they need to reduce bike use after about age 40 in Denmark for safety reasons. And they should probably require helmets. And get rid of that ridiculous tariff. Otherwise, they are doing the bike thing in a common-sense way. Bike use by people young enough to survive the crashes should be encouraged with the use of better bike lanes and more places to park your bike. Otherwise, leave it alone.

I saw none of the angry, aggressive bike riding in Denmark that has become a regular new story in America.

They ride bikes in the snow and ice in Copenhagen—you can see it in at least one of the photographs. That’s nuts. I don’t care what age you are. Too slippery.
American bike advocates need to mimic the Danes, or explain why they are doing things differently. The obvious reason is that in America, adults riding bikes is almost always an affectation, not a better way to get from Point A to Point B.

A comment below offers one old guy’s long term experience. It is irrelevant. The issue is not what one man experienced. It is what the probability of injury for the various age groups is compared to the alternative ways to accomplish the same thing. It has been well said by those who understand statistics that if you are allowed a small enough sample size, you can prove anything. This man purports to prove that bicycling is a safe activity for 79-year olds. That is not what the large sample stats say.

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  • Much of the danger is in attitude. I see bike riders willfully ignore stop signs, lane markings, traffic signals and then have the temerity to liberally use offensive hand signs when challenged for their behavior.

    John Chapman on
  • I studied in Amsterdam, a city very much like Copenhagen, and arrived there with my American attitude towards bike riding that you so poignantly ridiculed. My expensive and utterly impractical bike was stolen within a week, thank God, so I quickly became Dutch and bought a sturdy second hand to get from home to class and back, using those same bike lanes that you saw in Copenhagen. My dad, a native of Holland, explained to me how bikes are a part of everyday life in a small and flat country. More importantly, Holland is also partly below sea-level, a situation that is becoming more dire with rising sea levels. Although I am not a tree hugger, my bike was often chained to the Dutch tree that I saved by not producing any noxious fumes and burning fossil fuels, a salient fact you conveniently ignored when people use the bike to get from A to Better.

    Alexander Zwagerman on
  • There is no exercise benefit to riding a bike outdoors compared to riding a stationary bike but there is a great injury avoidance benefit. Bill Reed’s comment is mindless. Riding a bike outdoors provides no incremental health benefits and creates great injury risk. Reed’s own experience of almost getting killed on his bike proves my point as much as his survival proves his.

    John T. Reed on
  • I am 79 and still riding. Most of my cycling is done on a cycling trail which we share with walkers, joggers, and skaters. One of my cycling friends is 88, has around 38,000 miles on his bike. he has ridden extensively in Europe, rides the annual Death Valley diabetes ride, and a few years ago rode his bike to Washington D.C.. The closest thing to an accident was when I was ridding my bike to work about 25 years ago when I was chased up on the sidewalk by a confused driver. I stepped off my bike which she then ran over which destroyed my bike. I didn’t have even a scratch. I had my first heart attacks when I was 42 and my cardiologist (who also rides) attributes my longevity to my biking and other exercise.
    I think I will continue.

    Bill Reed on

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