Choosing a Cycling Helmet

Perhaps no other piece of cycling gear is as important as a helmet, yet some riders refuse to wear them and others wear them incorrectly. An improperly worn helmet is as bad as no helmet at all, so taking the time to select the right one is important. Too many cyclists eschew helmets thinking that they aren’t really needed. Some cyclists argue that their reaction times are so fast that they can avoid hitting their heads, while others complain about how uncomfortable and hot they are.

Provided that the helmet is certified by Snell or ANSI, the least expensive helmet will protect as well as the most costly model. Lower price helmets tend to be bulkier and less comfortable than more expensive models. As the price increases, so too do the numbers of vents, while the helmets themselves become more streamlined and aerodynamic. While a $30 helmet will protect well, it isn’t going to win any points for style. Sophisticated design allows companies to produce a helmet that’s smaller and lighter without compromising safety.

Helmets Make Sense
The Consumer Products Safety Committee estimated that in 1994 there were over 600,000 bicycle-related injuries, while the National Safety Council reports more than 1,000 bicycle-related fatalities occur each year. Of those, more than two-thirds are due to head trauma.

With these statistics, it’s a wonder that NOT every cyclist is wearing a helmet. Poor understanding of fit and comfort causes a lot of riders to avoid wearing their cap. But modern helmet designs are vastly more comfortable than models made even five years ago. Massive vents provide great circulation and reduce weight, while padding and retention systems hold the helmet firmly in place.

What’s more, some states require the use of helmets (at least for children) making riding without one illegal in many areas.

How A Helmet Works
The functioning of a helmet is extremely simple: A layer of foam surrounding the head spreads out the shock of any impacts while it also keeps the head from contacting objects that could cause trauma. The thin plastic layer on the outside of the helmet prevents scratches or damage to the foam layer and allows branches or other objects to bounce off the lid.

The two major certification bodies, ANSI and Snell, test helmets to ensure they provide adequate protection. Any helmet purchased should be certified by one or (preferably) both organizationsand should say so on the packaging.

Rear-Retention Systems
A recent addition to many lines of helmets is a rear-retention system designed to create a tighter fit between helmet and head. Many cycling injuries are caused by an improperly fitted helmet; riders seem to prefer them slid too far back on the head. The retention systems (such as Giro’s Roc-Loc and Bell’s Half-Nelson) put a strap at the rear of the skull, above the neck, which places the helmet in the right place and keeps it there even during aggressive movement.

Visors and Visibility
Check to make sure that visibility is good when tucked in an aero position. Some long-nosed helmets, or those with visors, make it difficult to look far away without tilting back the head.
Helmets with detachable visors are terrific for changing road conditions, or for changing riding styles. Snap on the visor and hit the off-road trail confident that small branches will be deflected. Or, pop it on for a rainy road ride. Take it off for long road rides in the drops where visibility is most important.

A helmet should never feel too tight and the chin straps shouldn’t pull at the neck, cut off oxygen, or cause pain. Neither should they be so loose that a few fingers could be slipped underneath the straps.

Be sure to adjust the straps anytime any changes are made to headgear.

Helmet Replacement
As a helmet is useless once it’s been involved in a crash, it’s also important to look for a company that offers a replacement program. The general idea is, “break a helmet and we’ll replace it for a fraction of the price of a brand-new one.” These programs were instituted when manufacturers realized that people were riding with the same one or even worse without a helmet after a crash because of their replacement cost. (A related program offered by Giro involves children’s helmets. Giro offers a great deal where children’s helmets can be traded in toward the purchase of larger sizes.)

Remember this rule above all else: If your helmet is involved in an accident, replace it. Period.

Find One for Your Head
Every helmet model will fit differentlyand helmets from different manufacturers will have a completely different feel. To find the best-fitting helmet, shop at a well-stocked bicycle store. A good bike shop will carry dozens helmets. Many models should be on display, with a variety of sizes available in each model.

Market leaders such as Giro, Bell, Specializedand others all produce different styles of helmets for different kinds of riding. Road helmets tend to be lower, flatter and more aerodynamic. Mountain biking helmets have a slightly less aerodynamic shape but offer more protection against overhead objects and frontal collisions.

In order to conform to a wide range of heads, helmet manufacturers produce a vast array of sizes, modifiable even further by padding, straps, cinchesand ratchets. Typical sizing systems include extra small/small, small/medium, medium/large and so on. Children’s sizing tends to run by age and is even more critical than adult sizing.

Most helmets come with extra padding strips that can be strategically placed inside the lining to make a helmet feel more comfortable. It’s important to use only manufacturer-provided padding since non-approved materials can damage the helmet and the head.

Selecting a helmet that fits and is comfortable is vital since comfort will lead to use.

First-time shoppers should try about every helmet they can find to get a good feeling for the way different brands and models fit. To simulate road conditions, it’s a good idea either to get on a bike with the helmet (easy if the shop has a trainer) or to crouch over in a riding position.

Helmet selection should initially be done with the help of a knowledgeable salesperson. (Once you’ve gone though the process, you can go ahead and pick out other helmets on your own.) Properly adjusting all the straps is the key to a good fit, so take the time to have the buckling mechanisms adjusted by a pro.

It is not a good idea to buy a helmet from a mail-order source unless you are absolutely sure the helmet will fit. However, buying a spare helmet of the same brand and model would be a safe bet. Slightly more risky would be purchasing a different model by the same manufacturer. Still, it’s better to spend a bit more money on a helmet and buy a major brand from a major shop.

Riders who do both road and mountain riding might look especially hard at mountain bike helmets. They protect equally as well on and off the trail, but provide some durability that suits the road as well as it does the trail.

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