They are on top of mind but rarely thought about, a compulsory part of riding that doesn't have anything to do with the bike and a literal life saver for the cost of a tee-shirt. That's right, bicycle helmets aren't generally a huge consideration in the bike riding experience but they could prove to be the difference between surviving a crash or not. Modern day helmets are as much about performance and style as they are about safety, and wearing one is required by law in Australia, so it's critical to make an informed decision about what sits on your noggin.
We've put together this guide to help explain how a helmet works, the features to look out for, the difference between helmet types and what you can expect for a set budget.
In many states, you are required by law to wear an approved helmet while riding your bike. This is to consist of a protective shell, liner and retention strap underneath the jaw. Approved helmets meet requirements of construction, design, performance, markings and safe use instructions and are some of the most stringent in the world.
There are some specific requirements regarding permanent attachments such as no external rigid projections greater than 5mm in height and no internal projections likely to cause injury. There are also requirements of the materials used such as guaranteed durability when exposed to sunlight, extreme temperatures and rain, and stability under the influence of aging. And perhaps most importantly, helmets also need to comply with performance elements such as not obscuring vision, significantly reducing the force to a cyclist's head upon impact, distribute the force of an impact and provide secure enough hold to remain on a cyclist's head in the event of an accident.
It's clear to see the development of a helmet is extensive, which is further reinforced by Lazer's Product Manager Audrey Yu who explains that, "it takes at least one year (at the minimum) of sketching, designing, 3D work, testing, sampling, certification, pilot runs and graphic design before there is talk about production. For high-end helmets, this period runs close to 2 years."
The extensive list of requirements should provide all cyclists with peace of mind when strapping on an approved helmet.
How do helmets work?
A helmet's primary role is to prevent head injury in the event of a crash. In order to do so, helmet's must have a means of absorbing impact energy, a means of distributing load and a retention system.
In order to absorb and distribute the load, helmets are made from a polystyrene foam that compresses on impact that cushions the blow and distributes the force. As this foam can split or get caught, a hard, smooth outer shell is used on the outside of the helmet to keep the foam together and enable the helmet to slide on the ground to avoid any jerking movements which could damage the neck. This outer shell also adds a layer of protection to puncture type accidents which the foam would otherwise be susceptible to. Most outer shells are made from plastic but some more expensive models use carbon fiber composite for greater strength and less weight.
A helmet should stay on in normal conditions without the aid of the retention system underneath the jaw but this system is required to prevent the helmet coming off following jolting forces and fast changes of direction caused by secondary impacts and movements.
Another feature you'll commonly see is padding on the inside of the helmet but this is purely for comfort and not protection.
Getting the right fit is essential with any helmet. We all have different size and shaped heads that need to be taken into account, otherwise, the safety of the helmet could be compromised.
Sizing: Brands will typically have 'small', 'medium' and 'large' size helmets but these are not governed by any standards and so what is medium in one brand may not match with a small in another brand. As a result, you'll need to measure the circumference of your head and check the helmet sizing to ensure the correct fit. To do this, simply wrap a tape measure around your the widest part of your head, starting approximately 2cm above your brow line. The helmet should fit snugly enough to remain in place if you were to hang upside without the aid of the retention system.
Shape: Helmet shape is not something many brands talk about, however, it's worth knowing that each brand has its own idea of what someone's head is shaped like. Italian brands are typically narrower, while American brand helmets typically feature a more rounded shape. While it's possible to measure for sizing, shape is something that really means you have to try on the helmet before purchase.
Retention system: Some brands refer to their retention system as a ratchet system used to tighten an inner shell, but in this case, we are referring to the retention system underneath the chin. When properly tightened you should be able to fit two fingers between the strap and your chin and the strap should make a V shape underneath your ears. Both areas should be easy to adjust and remain securely in place.
Tightening mechanism: Many helmets have a secondary retention system that tightens an inner shell or brace around your head and occipital bone (the back and lower area of your head). This system creates a snug fit and another layer of comfort and stability. However, it's important to ensure the shell shape is right and that you don't rely purely on the tightening mechanism for what's otherwise a poorly fitting helmet.
Pressure points: When trying on a helmet, be mindful of any pressure points or uneven pressure throughout the helmet. Any pressure in a given area suggests the helmet is the wrong size or the wrong shape for your head.
Hair port: For those of you with long hair, a hair port may be a consideration. The port is designed at the rear of the helmet to accommodate ponytails without influencing the fit or safety of a helmet.
Sunglasses: If you're one to ride with glasses or sunglasses, it's a good idea to ensure your helmet fits with your eyewear. The only way to check this is to take your eyewear with you when trying on helmets. Make sure the helmet's shell or tightening mechanism doesn't touch the frame or arms of your glasses.
It doesn't matter how well a helmet fits if it isn't properly secured, so here is a quick video that explains how to fit a helmet.
As a minimum, you should be checking that your helmet has the sticker indicating it meets the required safety standards. Additionally, there are also other safety factors that could influence your decision.
MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) is a relatively new concept that is starting to appear on more and more helmets. The concept is based around reducing the rotational force and the amount of energy transferred to the head in the event of a crash. In order to do this, a thin, low friction liner is positioned on the inside of the helmet that allows the outer shell to move very small amounts on impact. Reducing the energy transferred to the head results in less significant injuries and reducing the rotational force is thought to significantly decrease a concussion.
Product Manager of Monza Sports Sean Du Toit explains some of the technology that features in Bell's helmets. "As well as MIPS that most of our helmets feature, Bell also offers several helmet designs incorporating Progressive Layering™ construction, incorporating two separate layers of EPS foam in different densities to address a wide range of impact energies. On the mountain side, we have models featuring a patented tool-free removable chin bar design that converts a helmet from full-face protection to a lighter and more ventilated option---like two helmets in one."
The number of vents a helmet has and the color are two other factors that could vastly improve safety. A brightly colored helmet will enhance a rider's visibility reducing the chance of being hit by other road users. And while it might seem like more of a fashion or heat consideration, the number of vents can influence safety too. Large or multiple vents can reduce the amount of contact between the helmet and the head, which could reduce the helmet's ability to distribute force.
A final consideration is the length of time you've had your current helmet. There is no hard and fast rule of the expiry date of a helmet but some manufacturers may have replacement guidelines of when to upgrade to a new one, regardless of if it has been involved in a crash or not. As a general rule, if the colors of your helmet are sun faded or the strap is fraying, the time for replacement was many years ago.
If you have had a crash, then your helmet needs to be replaced immediately. The foam that cushions the impact does not bounce back and so helmets should be thought of as a single use item in the event of a crash. Some manufacturers have a crash replacement program, providing riders with a discount on replacement helmets following a crash. And while it might not seem obvious straight away, even dropping your helmet from a height could be enough to compress the foam layer and require a new one.
Different helmets for different cycling disciplines: Mountain, Road, Triathlon, Commuting
Despite all helmets protecting your head, depending on the cycling discipline you choose, they all go about it in different ways. Below is a description of each helmet's subtle differences between various cycling disciplines.
The first thing you'll notice about mountain bike helmets is the extra coverage they provide. When riding on the road, most crashes are forward of the rider, unlike mountain biking where crashes could be in all directions. As a result, there is far more coverage over the occipital and temporal regions, and in the case of downhill mountain biking, a full face helmet providing extra protection for the face, chin and mouth is required (as it is for BMX riding too).
Full face 'convertible' helmets are a growing trend with trail and enduro rider that allows the removal of the chin guard for climbing or less challenging trails. Mountain bike helmets are often designed to provide better ventilation at lower average speeds, which mean fewer but larger vents. A rarely mentioned negative of such vent design is noise – mountain bike helmets with large vents typically get quite loud if used on the road at speed!
Mountain bikers will typically favor a 'visor' or 'peak' at the front of the helmet to provide some protection from the sun and glare, as well as serving to deflect overhanging foliage. Another unique feature of some mountain bike helmets is the provision for lights or a GoPro to be attached.
As mentioned, most crashes on the road occur to the front of a rider and so the coverage is much more focused to the front and sides of the helmet. The goal of a road helmet is to be light and provide good ventilation at higher speeds. As a result, premium road helmets use carbon fiber composite material to shed weight while remaining strong and have channels running through the helmet for the air to be guided over the head, which keeps you cool.
Ultra lightweight helmets can weigh as little as 200g but you'll pay a premium for it. There has also been a big focus on aerodynamics in road riding and so many manufacturers are smoothing out the surface of their helmets and reducing the number of vents in favor of more aero gains. Clever creations like the Kask Infinity get the best of both worlds by having a vent that can be open or closed or like the Lazer Z1 that comes with a removal aeroshell, that is also handy in winter to trap the heat in.
Most road helmets don't include a visor, with the key reason being that such an addition gets in your field of view when riding in the low and aggressive position of a road bike.
Triathlon is a predictable cycling event that doesn't involve quick changes of direction or fluctuations in speed, instead, the cycling leg of a triathlon is all about aerodynamics. As such, triathlon helmets will commonly feature 'tails' that enhance the flow of air over a rider, making them more aerodynamic. The only issue is riders need to maintain a specific position to take full advantage of the benefits. More modern day triathlon helmets are similar to road riding aero helmets, whereby the tail has been cut off, which allows greater movement of the head without negatively affecting aerodynamics. Worth noting, triathlon or time trial helmets rarely ventilate as well as a more traditional road helmet – all in the name of speed.
Commuter helmets are far more basic than others listed as above as speeds are not as great, aerodynamics are not a factor and neither is heat dissipation as the effort is not as high. As such, commuter helmets often feature fewer vents and are styled to be a little more subtle and less 'sporty'. Some more premium options include integrated lights.
Kids helmets are basically slimmed down versions of adult helmets, but there are a few key points we wanted to point out.
When buying a kids helmet, don't adopt the old philosophy of, "they'll grow into it", as a poorly fitting helmet won't help in the event of a crash. It's important to buy for the now, and upsize as required. It's also important that kids don't keep their helmet on while climbing, playing or doing other activities where there is a risk of hanging or strangulation. An example would be if the helmet got trapped on a piece of play equipment or tree branch.
Kids helmets will often feature visors to protect their eyes from the sun, plenty of vents to keep them cool, and lots of adjustabilities to get the right fit. In addition to the traditional buckle system, many kids helmets come with non-pinch or magnetic buckles to prevent pinching underneath the chin area. Toddlers and younger children are typically given helmets featuring fun shapes with vibrant designs and colors, whereas, by the age of six, they are effectively small adult helmets.
As mentioned above, some BMX riders will require a full face helmet providing extra protection for the face, chin and mouth but this is mostly reserved for those that race.
The other type of helmet features an open face and resembles an urban or skater type of helmet. These provide good coverage of the temporal regions and far more coverage of the occipital region, however, they do suffer of limited ventilation. BMX helmets are typically kept quite simple so to be durable and cost effective – they often provide various thicknesses of foam padding to adjust fit with.
The great thing about buying a helmet with a safety sticker is that a new $30 helmet is likely going to be just as safe as a $400 helmet. The difference lies in the build quality, weight, ventilation, aerodynamics and comfort.
Less expensive helmets tend to glue or tape on the outer shell, whereas more expensive options mold the inner shell with the outer and provide greater overall coverage with a reduction in weight. Generally speaking, more expensive helmets will be more durable under regular use, while the very cheapest helmets will show signs of wear sooner.
Easily removable and multiple thicknesses of padding is a feature on more expensive helmets that provide a better fit as a result. These pads are also replaceable, with many brands offering replacements for their more premium helmets. Softer, more supple chin retention systems and leather chin straps are also features of more expensive options.
For Lazer, the differences lay in "more refined details like straps, fit systems and padding, as well as premium features such as LifeBEAM systems for heart rate monitoring, aeroshells for aerodynamic performance and inclination sensors for body posture measuring".
Inbuilt electronics, such as those available on Lazer's premium helmets are not all that common, but a number of brands do offer optional lights, cold weather covers and other model-specific accessories.
Below is a brief description of what you can expect depending on your budget.
Kids and commuter helmets make up the majority of options within this price range, as do some very basic road and mountain bike helmets. Most helmets here have limited ventilation and so are only suitable for commuting or recreational riding. It's likely to be a one-size-fits-all design, and so comfort and a refined fit is likely not a feature earned.
The kids can choose from a variety of fun designs and colors, with the best options also providing a tightening mechanism for an inner cradle or shell to get a snug fit.
There are no true mountain bike or triathlon helmets available within this price range. Although you may be able to find a suitable helmet, it's worth going up a price bracket if you plan on more serious trail riding to have more head coverage and ventilation.
$50 to $150
Many more road and mountain bike options become available within this price range. However, full face mountain bike or triathlon helmets still aren't found yet.
Road helmets within this range should provide a snug fit with a secondary retention system that tightens an inner shell or cradle, ample ventilation and comfortable primary retention straps. Aerodynamic features aren't a focus as yet but that's not to say they don't provide some aero benefit over more basic options.
Mountain bike helmets within this range should provide good coverage, especially at the rear of the head, a visor as well as a secondary retention system.
$150 to $250
Almost all types of helmets are accessible within this price range, with the exception of the more expensive triathlon specific and full face helmets.
Road helmets within this range may feature MIPS (or similar technology), provide exceptional ventilation and focus on improving aerodynamics. Weight also starts to significantly reduce as lighter materials and molding outer shells are used. Expect to be approaching 200g for medium sized helmets at the upper end of this price range.
For mountain bikers, the world of enduro and downhill riding opens up with full face helmets that provide extra protection becoming available. Even non-full face helmets within this price range still provide exceptional features including greater head coverage, removable visors, secondary retention systems and integrated camera mounts.
All helmets including full face mountain bike and triathlon specific helmets are now available, as is the latest technology.
Inbuilt electronics that can communicate heart rate and head position are two of the most recent additions to road and triathlon helmets, reducing the need for the traditional chest strap and letting riders know their head position so they can optimise aerodynamics. Speaking of aerodynamics, that is a key focus for road helmets that now feature smooth surfaces with minimal vents or removable aeroshells. Some triathlon helmets even feature magnetically fastened eye shields or lens' to further improve aerodynamics.
MIPS (or similar technology), secondary retention systems, comfortable straps and removable padding is expected for all types of helmets at this price range. On top of that, mountain helmets will feature adjustable visors and integrated camera mounts. Weight is reduced in road helmets to almost 200g (for size medium).
We hope this buyer's guide has been helpful and provided some valuable information. You can browse BikeExchange for helmets, or search for your local bike shop to get further assistance. Thanks to Lazer, Bell and Fox Head for providing samples and insight in creating this article
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