When you think of a cyclist, which of the two following images comes to mind?

The figure on the left is someone cycling as a sport, and the figure on the right is someone cycling as transport. Can you see the differences between the two?

All too often people think of cycling only in terms of a sport, and they apply the standards of sports cycling to all cycling. It colours their perception and treatment of all people on bicycles.

Take the argument, for example, about whether helmets should be mandatory. In the context of sports cycling, helmets make some kind of sense. People in cycling races often push themselves to the limit, and ride at high speed in risky situations. You can see that from some of the spectacular crashes that occur from time to time in pro-cycling events. And it’s similar to motor-racing, whether in the context of a grand prix or rally driving, where drivers push themselves to the limit.

In both of those cases, where drivers and cyclists are doing sport, they are expected to wear helmets.

However a cyclist commuting to work – much like a car driver – isn’t going (or shouldn’t be going) as fast, and their behaviour and environment isn’t (or shouldn’t be) as risky. Nobody is taking a corner at 100km/h and nobody is taxing their vehicle to its very limits.

A car driver using their car for transport isn’t required to wear a helmet. So why do we still demand it from cyclists?

Some people say that cycling – all cycling – is dangerous, and they say that people should do everything possible to try and protect themselves from that danger. But we as a society don’t protect ourselves from every danger. We learn to manage risk on a daily basis, whether that’s a pedestrian crossing a busy street, or a driver overtaking another vehicle. We all take calculated risks on the roads, and cyclists are no exception.

People that choose to cycle without a helmet aren’t being reckless or irresponsible, and they don’t need legislation for protect. They choose, based on their knowledge and experience of the risks of cycling on public roads, to not wear a helmet. And they choose to do so, not because they think that cycling on the roads is dangerous (as most non-cyclists think), but because experience has taught them that it’s actually pretty okay.

Statistics prove it out. Cycling isn’t actually dangerous.

The health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks. The benefits of regular exercise outweigh the health risks from injury by a long way.

One study found that:

If 500,000 people in the Netherlands swapped their car for a bicycle for short trips on a daily basis, 3-14 months of life would be gained as a result of increased physical activity levels, compared to the smaller harmful effects of inhaled air pollution (0.8-40 days lost) and increase in traffic accidents (5-9 days lost).

https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/ehp.0901747

The risk from traffic accidents takes 5-9 days off your life, but the gain from regular activity adds 3-14 months on to your life.