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Buyer's guide: how to choose a cycling helmet

If all helmets are designed to meet the same safety standards, why do they vary in price so much?

Use your head

Although there is no legal requirement for riders to wear a helmet, unlike in Australia, it has become the norm for road cyclists to use them. While all helmets essentially serve the same purpose, there’s plenty of variation when it comes to fit, weight, ventilation and, of course, price.

If you’re racing then a helmet is required and has been since a ruling was introduced by the UCI in 2003. It, therefore, makes sense then that if you’re going to buy a new helmet to ensure you get a helmet that fits, meets the relevant safety standards, and suits the discipline you’ll be using it for.

The early hard shell cycling helmets, first launched in the late 1970s, were shunned by riders for a number of reasons, mostly to do with the terrible looks, along with the weight and lack of ventilation that made them extremely uncomfortable. The only form of head protection seen in the peloton in those days would be the minimal leather ‘hairnet’ style of helmet that offered so little protection as to be utterly pointless.

Today hard shell helmets can still be found, mainly used by BMX and dirt jump riders, with the majority of road riders preferring lightweight helmets that have a vacuum formed plastic cover in-moulded to a polystyrene shell. Within this format, there are helmets that cover all budgets and styles, with manufacturers offering options for different types of cycling, from casual riding and commuting through to road racing, time trialling and beyond. In this buyer’s guide, we’ll run through the key options when it comes to buying a cycling helmet.

Safety

Like everything today where there’s the possibility of injury and compensation claims, when it comes to cycle helmets there are safety standards that need to be met. In this case, it will be one of two European standards, either EN 1078:1997 or EN 1080:1997.

Given that all helmets on sale in the UK have to meet these standards, you would think that the price of helmets would be fairly standardised, too. Of course, this isn’t the case, so what do you get for your money when paying more?

Well, like most things cycle-related the more you pay, the less you get. Simply put, lighter and better ventilated helmets cost more. While this may seem counter-intuitive, it comes down to the fact that manufacturers have to recoup the development costs of creating every lighter and better ventilated helmets that offer the correct levels of protection.

It’s worth pointing out, when considering safety, that some manufacturers offer the option of a crash replacement policy. Of course, no-one wants to or tries to crash but, in the case of Giro as one example, if you send the importer a picture of the damaged helmet along with proof of purchase you can get a healthy discount on a replacement.

Fit

When it comes to purchasing a helmet, actually going to a shop and physically trying the various makes and models on is the only real option if you want to get the correct fit.

You may well have measured your head and know what size you theoretically want, but the measurement of the circumference of your head is not the only thing that needs to be taken into account when choosing a helmet. Different manufacturers make helmets that are different shapes. Some will produce helmets that are spherical while other will have shells that are more oval in shape. The only way to know which make suits your head is to go to a store and try a selection on.

You know you’ve got the right shape when you put a helmet on that has a snug but not tight fit all around, with no pressure points at the edges. While you may not be able to get a helmet that is an exact fit, moving the internal padding around the perimeter can help to get the fit just so.

The importance of a good fit can’t be overstated, as anyone who has ridden wearing an uncomfortable helmet will vouch for, so take the time to try on a number of options at your local bike shop.

Retention system

Since modern helmet designs were first introduced, the way they stay in place on the rider’s head has subtly changed.

Originally, it was down to the straps that travel down in front of and behind the ears and meet below the chin to keep the helmet on. Today on most helmets it’s standard to get an additional retention system which can be adjusted to fine-tune the fit.

There are a number of variations when it comes to the design of retention systems and how they are adjusted, but essentially they all work by pulling together what is essentially an adjustable webbing system across the back of the inside of the helmet. To run through a couple of systems, Belgian brand Lazer’s RollSys device uses a thumb wheel on the top of the helmet, while Italian firm Kask, like most manufacturers, have a ratchet dial on the rear of the helmet. Either way, what you should look for in a retention system is something which can be easily adjusted with one hand while on the move. More complex systems (often on more expensive helmets) will also some kind of height adjustment, again allowing you to get the perfect fit for your head shape. Finally, It’s worth seeing whether you can comfortably fit a cotton cap under the helmet and retention system.

For most riders, what retention system works for you is simply down to personal choice, but for those with long hair it can be a deal breaker as some won’t work if you have a ponytail. Specialized even makes a women’s specific helmet, the Andorra, with a ponytail-friendly retention system. Once again, it’s a case of try before you buy if you have long hair. Even if you don’t, it’s advisable to visit a store to get first-hand experience about how the system on the helmet you choose works and how it should feel when you have the helmet on.

Weight

Like all things in cycling, when it comes to getting the lightest possible helmet you have to spend more – often lots more.

In theory, it should be easy to make a very lightweight cycling helmet; after all, most are essentially just a large chunk of expanded polystyrene will holes cut through it. However, the problem is that while it is very good material for absorbing impacts it has a tendency to also split when hit hard. It is for this reason that modern helmets have an in-moulded, hard plastic shell, and straps that run through the helmet’s interior to hold it all together and this is where the weight starts to get added.

The Limar Ultralight+ is among the lightest road helmets on the market at a claimed 175g, while the POC Octal is 200g to name another example. In reality, however, there’s not a great deal of difference in weight between mid-range and top-of-the-range helmets – and certainly not much you’ll notice.

The £59.99 Lazer Blade is a good example of that. While it shares many of the features of Lazer’s top-end helmets, it’s carrying a little extra weight at 234g, so, in reality, the difference is less than the weight of an egg. Of course, you don’t want to feel like your helmet is made of lead, but once you reach a certain weight and price, Unless you want bragging rights there are significantly more important aspects of helmet design to worry about than weight.

Aerodynamics

Most riders will be familiar with the extreme aerodynamic helmets favoured by time trial riders; usually teardrop shaped and free from vents. The lack of vents may improve air flow over the helmet but it does nothing for comfort.

However, the subject of aerodynamics in relation to helmets is starting to make its presence felt in designs for road racing and committed club cyclists.

The main feature of aero road helmets that have started to appear on the market in recent years is a lack of vents; not the complete lack seen in TT helmets but enough to direct airflow over the helmet rather than through it.

These aero road helmets first came to prominence when Team Sky were seen wearing Kask’s Infinity helmet, but things have evolved since then and the focus for manufacturers now is to produce a helmet which gives the rider an aerodynamic advantage without sacrificing ventilation. Current designs that seek to tick both boxes include the Kask Protone, which has large vents at the front and rear and a smooth top section, as well as the Giro Synthe, Specialized Evade and Bell Star. The R&D time put into developing these helmets, as well as the advanced manufacturing techniques, means they’re not cheap.

For those who want a helmet that can function as a regular or aero design, there are choices such as Lazer’s Z1, which has an optional aero shell to cover the vents and provide increased aerodynamics, or left off for increased cooling airflow.

Ventilation

I’ve already talked about how less helmet means more money and how more vents (again, normally for more money) can mean a reduction in the aerodynamics of a helmet but there is more to a helmet’s ventilation than simply how many holes it has in it.

Obviously, the more open a helmet is, and the larger the vents, the more air that can flow through it. But to think that way is to take a very simplistic view. Helmet designers don’t just concern themselves with the exterior. Internally, good helmet designs will have channels cuts into the polystyrene that are there to direct air flow through the helmet and over the rider’s head; the constant flow taking excess heat away.

One manufacturer that has taken ventilation to its extreme is Specialized with many of its helmet designs, including the Prevail, featuring what can best be described as an open mouth at the front which directs air directly on to the rider’s brow.

Padding/other features

Providing you’ve got the right shaped helmet in the right size you should only need to use minimal padding to get the helmet comfortable.

The padding should be easily removable and washable. If you need to use thick pieces of padding, the helmet could well be the wrong size or shape. Velcro is usually used to hold it in place and this means it can easily be taken out and washed when needed. You do remove the padding and wash it on a regular basis, don’t you? You should be doing so because not only does the padding serve to make the helmet that little bit more comfortable, it will also soak up a lot of sweat.

Although not a common sight yet, a trend that is beginning to appear is lighting built into the helmet’s shell. Current options include the Proviz Saturn and Torch T1. While the Saturn wouldn’t look out of place on a club run, the T1 is definitely aimed at the commuter market. It is doubtful that the idea will go mainstream just yet as the market currently demands low weight and the addition of the LEDs and associated batteries does nothing for that. At the end of the day, you pay your money and make your choice.

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