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The Ultimate Bicycle Helmet Buyer's Guide

June 07, 2018
The Ultimate Bicycle Helmet Buyer's Guide

Bicycle helmets aren't generally a huge consideration in the bike riding experience but they could prove to be the difference in how well you fare in the event of a crash.

Modern day helmets are as much about performance and style as they are about safety. Wearing one is required by law in Australia, so it's critical to make an informed decision about what sits on your noggin.

The purpose of this guide is to help explain how a helmet works, why they matter, the features to look out for, the differences between helmet types and what you can expect for a set budget. So without further adieu, read on for all you need to know about bicycle helmets.

Safety standards

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In Australia, 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. Meeting the AS/NZS 2063:2008 standard, Australian and New Zeland approved helmets meet some of the most stringent safety requirements in the world. To know if a helmet has met such standards, look for the appropriate sticker inside of the helmet.

Further to the helmet laws, 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; distributing 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 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 AS/NZS 2063:2008 helmet.

How do helmets work?

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A helmet's primary role is to prevent head injury in the event of a crash. In order to do so, helmets 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 in order to avoid any jerking movements which could cause neck injury. 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, however, 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. In the past this was purely for comfort rather than protection, however, emerging technologies such as ‘SPIN’ found in the latest POC Ventral bicycle helmet utilise this padding as a way to minimise rotational forces on the head in the event of an impact, making the helmet safer.

Fit

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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 safetyand comfort of the helmet could be compromised.

  • Sizing: Brands will typically have small, medium and large size helmets, however, these are not governed by any standard and so what is medium in one brand may not match in size with 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 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.

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  • 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.

Safety

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At a minimum, you should be checking that your helmet has the sticker indicating it meets the required safety standards. Additionally, there are 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 the risk of 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."

While it may sound silly, the chosen colour can vastly improve safety. A brightly coloured helmet, or one that contrasts with your usual cycling attire, can greatly enhance how visible you are to other road users.

Why Replace a Helmet?

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Seeing as a bicycle helmet is one of the most vital accessories that directly contributes to your safety in the saddle, it makes sense to ensure it’ll perform at its optimum if you are unfortunate enough to suffer a crash.

If you have had a crash, then your helmet needs to be replaced. The EPS foam that cushions the impact is largely designed as a single impact device in order to save weight. Much like the bumper of a car, it 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 a replacement helmet following a crash.

But what if your current helmet it just getting on a bit in age? There is no hard and fast rule for the expiry date of a helmet but some manufacturers may have replacement guidelines of when to upgrade to a new one, regardless of whether it has been involved in a crash or not. As a general rule, if the colours of your helmet are sun faded or the strap is fraying, the time for replacement was many years ago. Whilst there are no confirmed sources to cite that the EPS, or EPP foam itself will degrade over time, its the other portions, including the holding glues and solvents that are likely to degrade over time.

POC cycling helmet product manager – Clas Nordström stated that “it’s also fair to say helmets are often thrown in a bag or back of a car at the end of a good day riding and have to manage a fair amount of day to day wear and tear.” This is arguably the main determining factor for the durability of a helmet. We approached a number of manufacturers with this question and the general consensus is that a helmet used by a cyclist riding multiple times a week should be replaced every three to five years regardless of major impacts. With Nordström adding, “[if you] do not look after the helmet then it might be that you need to replace it sooner than you would otherwise want to. Simple rule is to take good care of it.”


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.

Mountain Bike

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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).

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Full face "convertible" helmets are a growing trend with trail and enduro rider that allow 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 favour 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.

Road

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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, many premium road helmets use carbon fiber composite material to shed weight while remaining strong. They feature have channels running through the helmet for the air to be guided over the head, which keeps you cool.

Ultra lightweight helmets can weigh less than 200g, but you'll pay a premium for it. Recently, 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 favour of more aero gains. Many of the latest designs aim to offer an aero shape with carefully considered channels to ensure you don't overheat, while the likes of Lazer's Z1 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

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Triathlon is a predictable cycling event that doesn't involve quick changes of direction or fluctuations in speed, instead, the cycling leg 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 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, all while allowing an easier exhaust for hot air. Worth noting, triathlon or time trial-specific helmets rarely ventilate as well as a more traditional aero road helmet – all in the name of speed.

Commuting

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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

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 colours, whereas, by the age of six, they are effectively small adult helmets.

BMX

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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 from 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.


Budget

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The great thing about buying a helmet with the AUS/NZ 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 mould 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.

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.

Under AUD$50

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 colours, 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.

AUD$50 to AUD$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.

AUD$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 may improve aerodynamics. Weight also starts to significantly reduce as lighter materials and interal skeleton-like structures are used within the foam. Expect to be approaching 230g 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 open face helmets within this price range still provide exceptional features including greater head coverage, removable visors, secondary retention systems and integrated camera mounts.

Over AUD$250

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 all whilst further reducing the weight. 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 common for all types of helmets at this price range. On top of that, mountain bike helmets will feature adjustable visors and integrated camera mounts.


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, Fox Head, and POC for providing samples and insight in creating this article