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Buyer's guide: how to choose the right bicycle helmet

Alia Parker's picture
How to choose the right bicycle helmet. Cycle Traveller

A good bicycle helmet gives you a degree of protection against brain damage and potential death in the event of a cycling accident, so even though helmets are compulsory in Australia, it's important not to whack any old thing on your noggin. Fortunately, all helmets sold in Australia must meet Australian Standard 2063, which means the helmets are tested to ensure they “significantly” reduce and distribute force on impact. To make sure your helmet performs this action, it's important it fits properly and is suited to your riding style.

There are many different helmets on the market, but which one should you buy? There are two main questions I'm asked about bicycle helmets:

1) “What's the difference between a $59 helmet and a $299 helmet?”; and
2) “Is the $299 helmet safer?”

Before we move onto what impacts the price and safety of a helmet, let's take a quick look at your options. There are many helmet designs on the market, such as road cycling, mountain bike, urban, aero and time trial and dirt bike helmets. Road and mountain bike helmets are the most commonly worn helmets and they are also the most practical for cycle touring.

Australian safety standard labels. Cycle TravellerRoad bike helmets are designed for head-on impacts since most accidents that happen on the road involve the cyclist falling forward over the handle bars. As a result, they are generally more rounded at the front and don't have sun visors. On the other hand, most mountain bike accidents involve the cyclist falling backwards, therefore the helmet is designed to take the impact at the back of the head. The helmet is generally a little bulkier and sits lower on the cranium at the back compared with a road helmet. Mountain bike helmets almost always have a sun visor. Either of these styles are suitable for cycle touring, but when choosing between the two, perhaps take into consideration whether you are more likely to fall forward or back on the type of ride you're going on.

Price

The price of a helmet is often a good indicator of the quality of the materials used as well as the manufacturing process, however, to make sure you don't get ripped off, it's good to be able to identify a good helmet when you see one.

Helmets have three main features: the hard outer shell, an impact absorbing inner shell, and a chin strap. These days where road and mountain bike helmets are concerned, we can add a fourth feature – an adjustable harness.

Inner shell

The inner shell is most commonly made of expanded polystyrene, the same stiff foamy material used in an esky. It is responsible for cushioning the blow and distributing the force of an impact. This material is generally susceptible to splitting under force and snagging along the ground, so a hard, smooth and rounded outer shell is needed for protection. The inner shell commonly has padding attached with velcro on the inside for comfort and sweat absorption.

Outer shell

The outer shell holds everything together. It is normally made of a hard plastic coating like polycarbonate. On cheaper helmets, generally below $80 Australian dollars, the outer shell may not cover the entire inner shell. Most commonly, this is seen where the foam inner shell sits exposed at the back of the cranium, with the hard outer shell covering about 80% of the inner shell, most importantly at the front.

The outer shell may be a little thicker on more expensive mountain bike helmets to help protect the inner shell splitting on sharp objects. For road helmets, the more expensive options normally incorporate carbon fibre or a carbon composite material mixed with kevlar into the design. This improves protection in high-speed head-on crashes and reduces the weight of the helmet. Because the material is generally tougher, it can also be used to design helmets with larger vents for aeration. These helmets usually cost between $180-$300. While aeration is important for comfort, it's not necessarily a case of the larger the vents the better. In fact, the larger the vents, the less contact between your head and the inner shell, which means the helmet is less effective at distributing force. A nice balance is preferable.

Another feature of pricier helmets is that the outer shell is moulded with the inner shell, whereas the outer shell is often glued onto the inner shell on cheaper models. Such manufacturing methods combined with elements such as carbon fibre generally create a helmet that outperforms the safety minimum in the event of a crash.

Chin strap

The strap is responsible for making sure the helmet does not fall off, even when multiple blows to the head occur. It also keeps the helmet in place and stops it slipping back and forth. The strap should come down either side of the ear and join under the chin. A good strap should allow you to adjust the amount of space around the ear as well as the length of the strap. Adjust the length to be tight enough that the helmet can't be removed from the head, but loose enough not to cut into your skin.

Harness

Bicycle touring. How to choose the right helmet. Cycle TravellerThis retention system sits low at the back of the cranium and can be adjusted to improve the fit of the helmet. Many models use a rotating disc to adjust the tension, preventing the helmet from slipping on the head. This fourth element significantly improves comfort and I would not buy a road or mountain bike helmet without one. Check the quality and durability of the harness when assessing the helmet and price; some are more durable than others.

Fit

The right fit is critical. Always try a helmet on before buying it and if purchasing one over the internet, check the company's returns policy to make sure you can send it back to change the size or brand if needed.

The helmet should not place uncomfortable pressure on any part of your skull. If you experience this, the helmet is either too small or the shape of that particular helmet does not suit the shape of your head. Helmets may come in rounded or oval head shapes and these differ from brand and model, so trying a few to compare will ensure you buy the most comfortable shape for your head.

Your helmet should sit level on your head, not tilting back or forward. When the helmet is level, a correct fitting size should sit about one or two finger widths above your eyebrows, but this will vary depending on the length of your forehead. If the helmet isn't covering at least half your forehead, it's too small. If it's covering your eyebrows, it's too big. Adjust the harness so the helmet doesn't slip around the head. Then adjust the straps to be tight enough that the helmet can't be removed from the head, but not so tight that they cut into the skin.

Bottom line

In short, while all helmets sold in Australia meet the minimum safety standard, some helmets offer a higher level of protection than others. Understanding the differences between what's on offer will help you choose the right helmet for you. In general, helmets below $80 will meet the bare minimum standard. A good helmet in Australia will normally cost between $90-$150. More expensive helmets may be capable of holding together under greater force and generally offer more ventilation. But don't make these assumptions based on price alone; check the materials and manufacturing process used to make the helmet before buying it. Many expensive helmets are designed for race performance and may not be necessary for a cycle tour.

The right helmet will reduce the severity of an accident, but it is important to remember that there is only so much a helmet can do. Always take care to ride safely and be visible on the road.

Images: 1. Spacialized Tactic, mountain bike helmet; Bontrager Circuit road helmet, Giro Atmos road helmet with carbon fibre reinforcements. 2. Safety standard labels. 3. Mountain bikers. 4. Off-road touring with a Giro mountain bike helmet.

Comments

Sue's picture

surely if it is legal and fits correctly...price is just so much "show-off"

Alia Parker's picture

It can be to some degree, especially when it comes to marketing gimmicks, aerodynamic and high ventilated designs. But it's worth noting that the safety standards only set a minimum and some helmets perform better on impact than others. Unfortunately, the safety standards don't rate this, that is, they don't rank which helmets are safer than others ... they just all get lumped into the one group. That said, the minimum standards are pretty good for the average cyclist. Cyclist that spend a lot of time on the road, move at faster speeds or are into technical mountain biking might want a helmet that can stay in one piece under more forceful impacts.

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