Bicycle Helmet Basics:
Finding the Right Lid For Your Head
Helmets. They aren't the most exciting purchase of your biking life, but they are definitely the most important. A certified, proper fitting helmet can mean the difference between surviving a crash or not. At Excite Bikes we have a saying: you only get one noggin and it's a lot cheaper to protect it than to fix it.
Helmets of old tended to be hot, ill-fitting, sometimes heavy, but always ugly. Helmets have come a long way and the technology put into them makes them lighter, more comfortable, and safer than ever before. They look better, but it is still a helmet. Below we'll go through the main features you need to focus on to get a good fitting helmet to suit your riding. Read on, or use the links below to skip around.
Why Do You Need A Helmet?
The purpose of a helmet is to absorb impact in a crash instead of your skull. Helmets are made of foam designed to absorb the energy of and distribute the force of an impact across a broad surface reducing the incidence of skull fractures. Hard shells overlay the foam to keep it from splitting apart completely on impact and allow the helmet to slide along, and distribute force of impact. These shells are generally made of plastic materials, but as the price increases, you see materials such as carbon fiber and Kevlar being used. The shell also protects against punctures that the foam would be unable to withstand alone.
All of the trails in the Charlotte region require a helmet to be worn when riding. This is true for County, State, and Federal owned lands (e.g. Sherman Branch, Lake Norman State Park, Uwharrie) If you are out on the trails without a helmet don't be surprised, and don't get upset, if someone reminds you to wear one.
How Much Do You Need to Spend?
There are MANY government regulations and standards that must be met before a manufacturer can sell helmets in stores in the US. The materials used must meet performance requirements including durability following exposure to sunlight, rain, heat, cold, etc. Similar to cars, helmets must meet standards for impact performance, distribution of force, a restraint system (i.e. chin strap) that won't break in an accident allowing the helmet to fly off.
Price: A more expensive helmet may mean it is safer. The first thing you should look for in any helmet you are considering buying is a meets compliance standards sticker. If there's no sticker it's kind of like Spam, you're not really sure what you're getting. So what does more money get you? More technology, lighter materials, more ventilation, more comfort features, sometimes better looking, and for road specific helmets-more aerodynamic.
A helmet in the $60-$100 range for the average rider checks a lot of boxes including extra safety features, lightweight, good ventilation, and something you don't mind being seen in. You don't want to spend so much on a helmet you never wear it because you are afraid it will get damaged, but you want to spend enough that you will actually want to wear it.
The MIPS is a low friction liner that sits inside of the helmet. It is separate from the pads & retention system.
We now know that all helmets have to meet the same minimum safety standards, but what other factors should you consider when buying a helmet?
MIPS stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System and is a liner inside the helmet designed to reduce rotational motion and the risk of brain damage. Most head injuries happen at an angle which can create those rotational forces that our brains are not particularly fond of experiencing. The liner itself is based on how the brain responds to impacts. There is a thin fluid liner between the brain and the skull. When the head sustains an impact from a fall, the brain slips on the fluid helping to reduce the blunt force impact. The MIPS liner works similarly by allowing the head to move inside the helmet.
Living here in the South in July you might say, "Give me all the holes. As many holes as you can poke in the helmet." On the one hand absolutely the more ventilation you have the cooler you may be, but on the other you cannot just punch out holes willy nilly. Large or many vents could reduce the amount of contact between the head and the helmet as well as compromise its ability to distribute force. A good rule of thumb is the more expensive the helmet the more vents it will have.
Color is another factor when thinking about your helmet. This is primarily a consideration for road riding and urban bikers/commuters. A bright colored helmet can improve visibility because when you are on your bike among cars, the last thing you want to do is blend in. Safety-wise color is not as important for mountain bikers since they are not contending with cars.
Comfort & Fit
In order to do its job, whatever helmet you purchase must fit your head correctly. Here are a few tips to make sure you get the right fit.
Helmets at a lower price point will typically be Universal Fit and as prices increase most brands offer S, M, & L. However, like clothing, a small in one brand may not be the same as another. Even universal fit is not universal among brands. So, before heading down to the bike shop, measure the circumference of your head so you know what numbers to look for on the labels. It only takes a few seconds and is easy to do.
Grab a tape measure like the one pictured and wrap it around your head at the widest point. This is typically about the middle of your forehead, which is also where you want your helmet to sit when worn.
Once you know the circumference of your head you can compare it to the size charts provided either on a website (like the Scott Sizing Chart below) if ordering online, or on the box if purchasing in store. If possible it is recommended you try a helmet on before purchase. Every brand uses its own patented mold so there is no standard. Some may use a rounder mold while others may use a narrower mold. 55cm won't necessarily be the same fit across the board.
Your helmet should snug, allowing no more than one finger between the forehead and the front of the helmet. Check this with the retention system fully open so that you know it is the shell of the helmet not the retention system holding it in place. Make sure it isn't sitting on the back of the head, but about mid-forehead. The helmet should also sit straight on your head not off kilter.
Every helmet comes equipped with a retention system. Most come equipped with a dial or ratchet allowing the wearer to quickly and easily adjust the fit.
Shake Test: You should be able to shake your head and the helmet stays still on your skull.
Retention System: Most helmets today allow you to literally dial in the fit, tightening the inner shell around the bottom of the back of your head (occipital bones). Many retention systems allow for height adjustment as well.
With the retention engaged check for pressure points or sore spots. This could indicate that the helmet is either not the correct size or the wrong shape for your head. The retention system should not compensate for a helmet that does not fit. You should be able to stand with your head upside down, without the chin strap on and the helmet not fall off.
Chinstrap: The purpose of the chinstrap is to keep the helmet in place (on your head) during a crash. Hold your middle and index finger together, side by side, and hold it between the strap and the bottom of your chin and tighten the strap to that two finger gap.
Glasses: If you regularly wear glasses or sunglasses when you ride, it's a good idea to take them with you when trying on helmets.
Styles of Helmets
All helmets must meet the same safety standards, so all will protect your head, but there are differences in helmets based on the type of riding the wearer will be doing. We will look at the three most folks who come into the shop are looking for.
The helmets are typically designed with aerodynamics in mind. They have smooth surfaces and are intended to be light weight with ventilation at higher speeds. High end models are often carbon fiber to make them even lighter while maintaining strength.
You won't typically find a visor because they interfere with sight lines due to the lower, more aggressive riding position. Most road cyclists wear glasses or a cap with a short soft brim they can flip up to deflect sunlight.
On the road most crashes happen forward of the rider, so coverage focuses on the front and sides and less in the back.
MTB helmets are less concerned with aerodynamics and more focused on coverage. In mountain biking crashes happen in all directions, so you'll find these helmets come down farther to cover the back of the head, as well as, farther down in the temporal region (around your temples). These helmets have visors (or peaks as they are called in Europe) to deflect branches, and sun and glare. The riding position is more upright than a road bike, so visor interference in sight lines is not an issue.
Want to know more about different types of mountain bike helmets? Check out this video from Global Mountain Biking Network (GBMN).
Commuter helmets are often as much about style as they are safety and function. Some helmets are made to be noticed, others are made to blend in. Typically, they will have less vents than other helmet styles, a soft brim for deflecting sunlight, rain, and other elements from the sky. Many, particularly at higher price points, will have an integrated blinky light to make riders more visible to vehicle traffic. Some even include directional lights to indicate turns in traffic.