Cycling Helmets: A Buyer's Guide
Whether you're a recreational road cyclist, triathlete, or off-road cyclist, there are different helmets designed precisely for each activity. With all of the helmet options available, it's hard to know where to start! All helmets have a hard outer shell and a padded interior and are built for maximum protection while still allowing the rider to stay comfortable and reach their goals. Of course, the most important factor is safety - all helmets sold in the United States are required to meet certain standards - and every cyclist must consider the riding surface and intensity of activity before deciding on the safest helmet choice. The three most popular types of helmets (based on activity) are road cycling, mountain biking, and BMX helmets.
For casual riders and elite athletes alike, road bike helmets are designed to be lightweight and aerodynamic while riding on the road. Large vents offer ventilation and air circulation, helping the rider stay cool. These helmets have an elongated design that reduces drag and allows the rider to be more aerodynamic. A basic, entry-level road bike helmet is affordable without compromising safety. When compared to higher level road bike helmets, less expensive variations typically have more air vents and in turn increased air circulation; this generally means more drag and slightly slower speeds. For the more competitive athlete looking to shave seconds off bike times, the more expensive time trial or "aero" helmet is the best option. These helmets have a teardrop shape; rounded at the front and coming to a point at the back of the head. These helmets are designed to decrease wind resistance as much as possible when riding in the aero position. Many competitive athletes believe this decrease in drag equals an improvement in performance. Additionally, the shell of higher priced road bike helmets is molded to the interior padding instead of being glued, making them lighter. While a basic road bike helmet has an adjustable chin strap, higher level helmets have a more intricate system that allows for the perfect fit.
Mountain bike helmets are designed to provide maximum protection for off-road riding. Because the potential for injury is greater when riding on an uneven surface, these helmets cover more of the head than the road cycling helmet - coverage is specifically increased for the back of the head. The design is similar to a road cycling helmet, but also includes a visor and a thicker chin strap to counteract the bouncing the rider will encounter when riding off-road. More expensive mountain bike helmets are generally lighter and have larger vents that cool the rider down, while less expensive versions are heavier and have smaller vents which can cause overheating.
Because BMX bikers are constantly encountering obstacles and therefore have an increased risk of collision, BMX bike helmets are sturdy and are built to provide enhanced coverage around the sides and back of the head. A BMX helmet is typically heavier than a road or mountain bike helmet. Air flow is decreased for a rider in a BMX helmet because these helmets have very few vents. Additionally, there are two main types of BMX helmets: open-face and full-face. Open-face BMX helmets do not cover the face but do fully cover the back of the head and part of the neck. In general, open-face helmets are less expensive. They are made with heavier materials, have less venting, and are adjustable. Full-face BMX helmets protect the forehead, back of head, chin, cheeks, and jaw. They are typically more expensive and are made of higher quality materials like carbon fiber, making them lighter and more comfortable. They can also be adjusted to ensure an exact fit.
Regardless of activity, it's important to choose a biking helmet with a snug fit that doesn't pinch and stays in place when moving. A helmet that doesn't fit properly can compromise safety. Again, all helmets must meet certain safety standards, so extra features are the reason for the huge variations in price. In general, more expensive helmets are lighter, more aerodynamic, and offer the ability to select a more exact fit.