Buyer’s Guide: Helmet Safety

Contender Helmet Display

>We happen to think you are a great person and we are pretty sure that your friends and family feel the same way. So of course we want you to stay as safe as possible out on the road and trail. Unfortunately, even if you take all proper precautions cycling can be a dangerous sport. While there are a number of simple practices such as a basic safety bike check or obeying the rules of the road and trail, the reality is that if you ride long enough you will eventually find yourself on the ground. Keeping your head safe is imperative and luckily there are a ton of helmet options to fit any budget or riding style. With that in mind we hope this basic guide can help you find the right helmet. So in the unfortunate event you find yourself closer on the pavement or trail you have your head covered.

Luckily there is a slew of helmet options to suit every type of rider. With options from under $50 to over $300, new technologies and aggressive marketing makes deciding which helmet is right for you a daunting decision. The most obvious concern is safety. Protecting your head and brain in the event of a crash is the purpose after all. Luckily, every helmet sold in the US is required to pass the same standards established by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and will have a sticker showing the model has passed the test administered by the CPSC or the independent ASTM inside. As a pass/fail test, it isn’t possible to distinguish helmets based on their ability to protect against impact, that doesn’t mean however that there are not additional safety features offered by various manufacturers that you may want to consider.


While helmets designed specifically for road cycling tend to focus protection around the front, top and sides of helmets, some mountain biking and commuter helmets such as the Kask Rex or Giro Sutton extend further down the back of the head to provide better coverage to the back of the skull. In addition, many of helmets designed for mountain biking and commuting have fewer ventilation holes to improve protection from objects, such as pointy rocks and sticks, getting past the helmets protective foam. Even the road market has seen a large amount of resources put into improving protection for the areas most likely to impact the ground in the event of a crash. POC, for example, increased the amount of foam on the sides of their Octal helmet over the temples, where their research indicated this was the most exposed area to impact during a crash.




>Perhaps the best protection a helmet can afford is helping protect from an impact ever occurring. This is particularly important on the road. With more cars and unfortunately more distracted drivers than ever, one of the best ways to stay safe on the bike is to be as visible as possible. While helmets have traditionally come in heavily black or white colorways, the last few years have seen an influx of color options. While greys, silvers and blues may not increase rider visibility significantly the fluorescent yellows and oranges available on many helmets from the budget Giro Revel or Foray to the carefully selected “Attention Visibility Interaction Protection” (AVIP) colorways of the POC AVIP Octal MIPS should help drivers spot you from further away and decrease the chances of an accident. The Belgian manufacturer Lazer has probably developed one of our favorite features for enhancing visibility in their integrated LED upgrade for their Rollsys equipped helmets (many also available in a highly visible orange) including the Z1 helmet. While it is not an LED designed for daytime use, it is a convenient way to ensure you always have a light in case you are caught out as the day begins to fade.

Fluorescent Orange (such as the Lazer Helium seen left) and yellow helmets help increase rider visibility, while still looking cool, to keep you safe on the road compared to more traditional color ways such as the black Lazer to the right.
Fluorescent Orange (such as the Lazer Helium seen left) and yellow helmets help increase rider visibility, while still looking cool, to keep you safe on the road compared to more traditional color ways such as the black Lazer to the right.


Another new addition to the cycling helmet market is the Royal Institute of Technology/Karolinska Institutet of Sweden developed Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS). MIPS is a thin, low friction insert built to sit between your head and the helmet foam and is designed to reduce the amount of rotational force your head (and thus brain) experience in the event of a crash. Hopefully this reduces the trauma experienced by your brain during a crash. While there hasn’t been a lot of real world data, leading to verification of the lab results, most helmets featuring MIPS only suffer a slight weight and cost penalty ($20 for most Giro models such as the affordably priced Savant MIPS). We think MIPS is promising. For those not wanting to take jump to MIPS, some research indicates rounder and smoother designs are less likely to catch or “stick” to the ground in the event of an impact thus reducing the amount of rotational force.

The yellow MIPS insert (left) provides protection from rotational forces by creating a low friction interface between your head and the helmet foam.
The yellow MIPS insert (left) provides protection from rotational forces by creating a low friction interface between your head and the helmet foam.

While higher priced helmets do not inherently provide improved safety that doesn’t mean that don’t offer advantages especially for a rider looking for more comfort or better performance on the bike. Most notably, as helmet price increases ventilation, weights, retention systems and as of the last few years aerodynamics, on road helmets anyway, generally all see improvements with each price jump. These become important considerations when selecting a helmet. If you find the helmet you purchased becomes too hot during summer ride, or the retention system or shape causes hotspots you may be less likely to wear it. A helmet left at home does nothing to help protect your brain in the event of a crash.

Helmets should fit snuggly but comfortably. Start by measuring your head and comparing with the sizing guide from the manufacturer. Some budget helmets come as one size fits all but these days a lot of models come in several sizes to help you get the perfect fit without looking like you have a mushroom on your head. A helmet should be worn level, with the retention system in the back (the number of riders we see with helmets on backwards is somewhat disconcerting) and the front about midway down your forehead. The retention system should be tightened enough that the helmet does not easily slide in any direction, without feeling like it is squeezing your head in any unfordable way, and the chin strap gently touching to help insure the helmet will remain in place should the worst occur.

Finally, it is important to remember that all helmets have a shelf life. Indeed, most manufacturers recommend replacing your helmet every 3-5years (each brand has determined their own lifespan so check the owner manual for your particular model to determine the life of your particular helmet). While you may not of crashed while wearing your helmet they still suffer a lot of abuse from everyday use (being tossed on a shelf, accidental drops, and UV degradation to the foam), and as perhaps the most important piece of safety gear you wear cycling you don’t want to find out your helmet is no longer ready to stand up to the forces of a crash after the fact. It is also important to remember that helmets are designed only to provide protection from a single impact, so in the invent to a crash, especially if you hit your head (helmet) at all, it is always best practice to replace your helmet even if there are no visible signs of damage.


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