Cycling helmets

Cycling helmets

A helmet is probably the most important purchase after your bike. It makes sense to wear a helmet whenever and wherever you're riding. What's the difference between a £30 helmet and one costing three times the price? Our experts explain protective headgear.

Think of your head as a big watermelon - and you know what a mess those things make if you drop them!
Although it is not a legal requirement to wear a helmet in the UK (unlike Australia and Spain) unless you are racing, accidents can happen to anyone and at anytime - slippery surfaces, riding too fast for the conditions, sudden encounters with stray animals, carelessness of other road or trail users, sudden mechanical failure, or due to your own inattention or fatigue - so it makes sense to wear a helmet whenever you are riding. Many modern helmets are now so light and well ventilated you'll probably not even realise you're wearing one.

Fit

Heads come in all different shapes and sizes. Fortunately there is a massive range of bike helmets on the market so it should be possible to find a good fitting helmet for even the oddest shape of head. Do take your time when choosing a helmet and try on different brands, you will quite possibly find that one to two brands don't suit you at all whereas the same size from other manufacturers provides a perfect fit. It pays not be too swayed by fashion, brand or colour. Just because your cycling hero wears Brand X that doesn't mean that's the best choice for you. An ill-fitting helmet is wasted money - as it could cause you injury rather than prevent it.

There are helmets to fit all shapes and sizes
Girl cyclingModern cycle helmets are lightweight and well ventilated, the better models have a simple harness at the base of the skull in addition to the straps under the chin. Most are made from polystyrene with a thin protective shell pf polycarbonate. In the event of an accident the polystyrene will be compacted, absorbing the shock and protecting your head.

Your helmet must sit squarely on the top of your head - not tilted forward or backwards. A good bike shop will have a mirror so you can check the position of the helmet on your head (as well as how gorgeous you look) and the staff should be able to help you adjust it perfectly. Straps should be adjusted such that the helmet feels firm and does not wobble on your head, but without feeling tight.

You should just be able to:
 
  • See the front of helmet if you raise your eyes
  • Just get two fingers between the chin strap and your throat
  • Feel the chin strap when you open your mouth wide
Most helmets are supplied with some extra foam pads so you can refine the fit to suit the shape of your head. If you can't adjust the helmet to suit you, try a different size, different model or different make.
If you are still unsure about the fit, don't be afraid to ask for advice, any good shop assistant will be more than willing to help you.

White will reflect light better (and reduce overheating) and it will be more visible on the road or trail.

Look for a helmet with ANSI 90.4 or Snell certification. Although not perfect, these tests show that the helmet has passed a minimum safety standard for competition, and as such most are quite suitable for most other purposes too.

Choose a white or light colour rather than black or dark colours. White will reflect light better (and reduce overheating) and it will be more visible on the road or trail.

Helmet types

There are many different types of cycle helmet, with different features, weights, prices, shapes and materials. Function and fashion dictate a lot of the elements of a particular helmet. Prices tend to be dictated by function and fashion (kudos of certain brands) as well as material construction. There are four distinct helmet categories:

Aero helmet
Aero helmet
  • Racing - road and cross-country
  • Downhill racing
  • Dual / air / street
  • Leisure riding
Leisure riding

The prevailing factors for leisure riding are fit, style and price. There is a good range of budget helmets available now, many of which share much the same specification of their much more expensive racing cousins but perhaps without some of the refinements. Style may be a little less racy, perhaps with fewer vents and without the additional retention straps, but for up to half-day rides at a not too strenuous pace, these helmets are fine, and will provide you with the necessary protection. Costs range from around £25-£60.

Racing - Road and Cross Country  

It is a regulation that that you must wear a helmet for all types of cycle racing (except curiously, time-trailling) to race in this country. With the extra effort of riding flat out you'll be generating extra heat, and you don't want to overheat. You can lose more body heat from your head than any other part of your body so it makes sense to let it escape when you want to stay cool. Race helmets therefore will have a large number of vents, strategically positioned to maximise airflow over the scalp and the best helmets are tested and developed in wind tunnels for the best aerodynamic shape. They are also lighter than other helmets and are a good choice for randonneurs or tourists who ride all day long.

Some off-road helmets have a peak or visor on their helmet to help deflect mud and foliage, but this is personal choice. Expect to pay £50-£100 for a racing helmet - more money usually buys lighter weight, better ventilation, improved construction methods and materials, and of course is usually accompanied by endorsement from the pros.
Street helmets look like a cross between a pudding bowl and the helmet your granddad wore in the bunkers of WWII.

Downhill

Downhill helmets are full-face affairs, similar to motocross helmets. Safety is paramount in downhill riding, where speeds of fifty mph can be attained. Throw in a couple of big jumps, a few rocks and a fearless attitude, and you can see why protection has to be the main focus.

Having a snug fit on a downhill helmet is also important. The helmet should feel a little bit tight when you first try it on, but it will form to the shape of your head as you wear it. A good test is to put the helmet on, do the strap up, and shake your head from side to side. The helmet should feel secure and not move at all. Such helmets are designed just for short burst activity and so tend to have poor ventilation and this can cause problems if used on longer rides (or even riding up to the start!) Materials are often real 'heavy duty' stuff, such as fibreglass, carbon and Kevlar. Prices range from around £70 for a good helmet to double that for the really top-of-the-range models.

Dual/Air/Street

Looking like a cross between a pudding bowl and the helmet your granddad wore in the bunkers of WWII, these helmets have been popularised by dual racers on the World Cup circuit. They are a throwback to the heady BMX days of the early 1980s and have become de rigueur for disaffected youth hanging round Safeway's car parks wishing to make a fashion statement and save money on a haircut. Although their protection is limited compared to the other styles these helmets are at the cheaper end of the price scale, and anything to get kids into helmets has to be a good thing.

Time Trial

Although not required for time trialling, many riders do choose to wear a helmet either for their own protection or for improved aerodynamics. 'Aero helmets' are usually a teardrop shape to improve the airflow over the rider and minimise air resistance. However, most are merely fairings and offer little or no protection inn case of an accident.

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