Helmets – Where to Spend Your Money

With cycling helmets ranging in price from $30 to $500 dollars on the Art’s website, you might be wondering, “What’s the difference between Bell’s Lumen and the Kask Bambino TT?” Both helmets have to pass the same impact testing standards, and are even constructed from similar materials! In this article, I’ll explain the differences in the wide range of helmet offerings, describing the differentiation in what you are paying for.

The first thing to focus on when selecting a helmet is its shape, and how it fits your head, which varies depending on the manufacturer. Art’s Cyclery uses a comparison system for classifying helmet shape, or ovality, across brands. On helmet product pages, we attribute each helmet as either an oval, intermediate or round fit, expressing the ratio of the width of the helmet to the length. While two helmets can both be sized for the same head circumference, one could be much wider and shorter than another.

Road cyclists will be far more concerned with the aerodynamics of a helmet than mountain riders. More expensive road helmets often have extensive design, engineering, and testing involved to reduce aerodynamic drag. A perfect example is the recently released Giro Synthe helmet. The video below gives you an inside look at design process involved.

Next, consider the helmet retention system, which includes straps that run in front and behind your ears and clasp together under your neck. The helmet also has some sort of a ratcheting mechanism that adjusts to the circumference of your head. Each type of ratchet offers different advantages. If you like to make adjustments on the fly for instance, Lazer offers helmets with a small dial on top of the helmet for easy and quick access.

While helmet features like these are important to consider, the real reason to wear a helmet is to protect your brain. Magnetic snap-on eye shields are awesome—no really, they are so rad—but useless if the helmet doesn’t provide adequate protection in a crash. Let’s now delve into the main structural technologies that protect your noggin in a worst-case scenario.

Most helmets are made of the same thing— an EPS, or expanded polystyrene, foam liner bonded to a harder shell. Helmets have not strayed far from the proven foam liner/hard shell design since EPS foam was first used in the mid-seventies.

EPS foam helmet liners begin life in the form of small beads of styrene that are later paired with an expanding agent. As the beads are heated, they expand, and are then packed into a mold of the helmet shape. Less expensive helmet models will feature a shell taped or glued to the outside of the EPS. In-mold technology, seen on higher-end models, allows the foam and shell to be molded together. This process allows for more aggressive and aerodynamic features to be incorporated, along with increasing the helmet’s impact absorption capabilities. In-mold also allows for more ventilation while maintaining structural rigidity. Helmet shells protect the foam from abrasion due to regular wear and tear, and vary from polycarbonate to carbon fiber. Shell material, ventilation, and engineering costs will determine price.

When your helmeted head hits the ground, the helmet you are hopefully wearing will absorb most of the impact force. This happens through a combination of the shell and EPS foam deforming, engineer talk for getting crushed, with the foam absorbing most of the force. Denser foams require more force to cause deformation, which some manufacturers interpret as a reason to make very dense, thin helmets, which still meet the safety testing requirements. Critics point out that dense foam creates more impact resistance in the helmet, but actually passes more impact force on to your head. Some helmet companies, like Kali Protectives, use multiple density EPS construction. This allows for much more control over how the forces are distributed through the helmet. Kali’s Cone-Head technology allows multiple-density designs with lower density foam closer to the head and higher-density foam closer to the shell. This creates crumple zones within the helmet for more effective dispersal of impact forces across more of the helmet, which does a better job of keeping the forces from being transferred to your head.


Kali Cone-Head Construction

A new technology seen in Smith helmets greatly reduces the amount of EPS needed. Koroyd, an assemblage of thermally welded co-polymer extruded tubes, creates a structure with efficient and consistent energy absorption properties, and can effectively replace much of the EPS foam used in helmet construction. Koroyd cores crush in a controlled manner on impact, similar to an accordion.


Cutaway Showing Koroyd in a Smith Overtake

Another recent helmet technology is MIPS, short for Multi-directional Impact Protection System. MIPS attempts to replicate the cerebral fluid in your head by allowing rotation of the head on impact. This can reduce the severity of crashes created by rotational impacts. Bell’s video below fully explains how it works and the benefits of MIPS.

The problem, I believe, with these newer technologies revolves around the methods of testing. The CPSC standard outlines testing standards, but is setup as a pass/fail system. This encourages manufactures to build the lightest, best-looking helmets that just barely pass. There seems to be a lack of independent study to confirm or provide additional data to helmet safety. Some would argue that helmet testing creates unrealistic scenarios and CPSC standards should be modified. While I’m not against this, I believe that first; every helmet should be assigned a ranked safety number similar to a crash test rating on cars. This way, manufactures would be encouraged to create safer and safer helmets, knowing that consumers would be willing to spend more money on increased protection. What if car crash standards were pass/fail? In this scenario, a 2015 Mercedes would receive the same pass criteria as a Ford Pinto.

A ranked testing system might create industry-changing designs like those coming from 6d. Perhaps some day, all helmets will look more like the ATR seen below. Until then, Art’s will do our best to help you research and choose the best helmet for your needs.

Rubber Side Down is a weekly column dedicated to the fledgling cyclist in all of us. Art’s Cyclery Web Content Editor, Brett Murphy is not a professional cyclist, and doesn’t try to masquerade as one either, but he does love to ride bikes. Whether you are clipping in for the first time or counting down the days until your first race, read on, learn from his mistakes, and keep the rubber side down.