Helmets come in a variety of styles aimed at fulfilling the needs of riders across a range of cycling disciplines, but they all share the same basic function of protecting fragile skulls from unexpected encounters with road or trail.
No rider who has seen or been involved in a close-shave crash would think of turning a pedal without first making sure their head is afforded the best possible protection, but a good helmet must also be lightweight, well-fitting and adequately ventilated if it’s to be comfortable for long hours in the saddle.
All helmets have to pass stringent safety standards before being sold, the minimum in the European Union being the EN 1078 mark (although some helmets on the market will be made to even stricter international standards), so even budget lids offer an excellent level of protection.
How often should you replace your helmet?
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The best helmet is the one you never notice until it’s needed.
Our guide will help you choose the best for you.
Best Bike Helmets Buying Guide: in-depth
All helmets consist of the same basic structure, with a polystyrene inner covered by a hard plastic outer shell.
While it’s the exterior shell that may catch the potential buyer’s eye, it’s the expanded polystyrene (EPS) inner that plays the most important function. This layer of compressible material is designed to break in a controlled way under impact, absorbing the forces involved and protecting your head and neck. The outer shell, meanwhile, is for the most part there to protect the inner from damage through scratches, knocks and debris, prolonging its life.
NOTE: Most bike helmets are designed to be ‘single-impact’. This means that when the EPS inner liner compresses in a crash, it doesn’t return to it’s original form and the helmet will have to be replaced. If your helmet takes a hard knock, it’s time to buy a new one.
This two-part structure is then attached to the head by means of a retention system, typically involving plastic bands with a rear adjustment mechanism to fit the helmet snugly to the skull, secured under the chin by straps which attach above the ears.
The type of retention system used will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, with each one typically coming up with a catchy name to describe the combination of dials, straps, fasteners and adjusters they have chosen to use. In the end, each will fulfil its intended function to some degree but better helmets perform better under real riding conditions – bear in mind that any retention system will likely have to be adjusted with one cold, wet, gloved hand at some point or other so simple, reliable and effective are the watchwords.
The retention system will also typically feature a number of lining pads to provide a comfortable fit on the head. The best of these use modern materials that draw moisture away from the skin (‘wicking’), while the ability to remove pads to wash them is pretty essential. Some manufacturers will not only provide spare pads (to use while the others are in the wash) but will also provide pads of different thicknesses to fine-tune the helmet fit.
On the subject of fit, a correctly fitting helmet, with all straps and adjusters snug and comfortable, is essential. It’s worth noting that while many helmet models are available in a range of sizes, sometimes offerings from particular manufacturers may not best suit a particular head shape. If you are having trouble finding a comfortable fit try to experiment with a number of brands or makers.
After protection and fit, the third essential element of helmet choice is ventilation. Helmets are designed with a range of air channels and vents the purpose of which is to draw cool air over the head through the front ports, while expelling warm, stale air from the rear.
The more vents a helmet has, the lighter it is, but also the less protective material it offers. Picking the right helmet sometimes involves a trade-off between light weight and cool, ventilated comfort, and big-crash protection. Ultra light helmets with large cooling vents are therefore preferred by road riders and cross-country (XC) racers, while more gravity-oriented riders will accept a weight penalty for improved security.
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MTB helmets traditionally differed little from road lids and indeed in many ways the two are interchangeable –a lightweight, high-end road racing helmet, for example, will likely be the lid of choice for any serious XC racer.
More pedalling efficient MTB disciplines like – trail centre riding, All-Mountain (AM) riding, Enduro racing have helmets that offer more protection and head coverage for a slight tradeoff in weight and ventilation. This is especially true in the case of the latest generation of AM lids that provide more coverage over the rear of the skull.
One thing to look out for on all helmets is bug mesh in the front vents – it may seem like a small addition, but there are few things more irritating or distracting than an aggrieved insect trapped against your scalp.
Finally, the presence of a visor (or not) is sometimes used to distinguish road racing helmets from MTB lids, but most can be removed to achieve that roadie aesthetic. Visors can be useful in preventing glare from the sun or as an additional measure to protect the eyes from protruding branches or airborne debris.
Helmets designed for road riding can fall under two main categories: city/commuter/leisure helmets and sport/racing helmets.
• City/commuter/leisure: These are inexpensive and basic helmets with adequate ventilation and protection for a commuter-friendly price. They lack the features of high-end helmets (light weight, air flow) but sometimes with commuter-friendl additions such as high-visibility graphics and weather protection. By far the better option than no helmet at all.
• Sport/racing: Light weight, sleek styling and lots of ventilation characterize helmets designed for road racing and riding. High-end road helmets will make use of exotic materials to shed even more weight – but at a price. There are also discipline specific road helmet types including aerodynamic ‘teardrop’ time trial helmets.
Technology has also trickled down to the lower ends of the market meaning many inexpensive racing helmets now boast an enviable range of features. At the higher price points however manufacturers offer helmets that are lighter in weight, better ventilated, feature more size options, and of course, look more stylish.
An increasingly common feature among higher-end helmets is also what’s called underwrapping, where the inmoulding (which moulds together the inner and outer shells) continues on to the underside of the helmet to protect it.
Some manufacturers meanwhile offer a crash replacement scheme with high-end helmets, providing a new lid at a discount price if the original has been involved in an accident. This can be very useful, especially given that due to the nature of their design, it is advised that any helmet that has taken a significant impact be replaced, even if no failure is visible.
Whatever your budget, the quality of helmets at even the lower end of the market means that there is no excuse, in fiscal terms at least, for not giving your head the best possible protection.
Try to buy the best helmet you can afford however, bearing in mind that the more comfortable and unnoticeable it is to use, the less likely you are to opt not to wear it.
Street, park and dirt jump riders often favour ‘potty’ style helmets. Also popular with the BMX and skate fraternity, this type of helmet features a hard outer shell capable of sustaining multiple impacts (as opposed to the single-impact design of road/MTB bike helmets).
These helmets offer plenty of head coverage, a full field of vision (without the chin guard of a full-face helmet) and lots of space for stickers but they are heavy, and lack of ventilation means they are not ideal for long, sweaty rides on- or off-road.
Moto X-style full-face helmets feature a hard outer shell, extensive interior padding, a visor and a full chin guard. This level of protection is regarded as essential for certain cycling disciplines including Downhill (DH) and Freeride (FR) as well as BMX racing.
Because of the nature of DH racing, short race runs mean lack of ventilation is not usually a problem, although most will provide some means of circulating cool air through intake ports on the front of the helmet. Higher-end helmets will shave weight with features such as carbon fibre outer shells, while the best full-face lids also ensure riders have an adequate field of vision to either side.
When choosing a child’s helmet it’s important that they match the same criteria as an adult’s – the helmet must adhere to the relevant safety standards, the minimum in the European Union being the EN 1078 mark and it must be a comfortable and snug fit for your child.
Helmets for children generally come in two types – cycle-specific and multisport.
• Cycle-specific: These are smaller (and more colourful) versions of the bike helmets worn by mum or dad. They are lightweight with plenty of ventilation, secure retention straps and often additional safety features such as reflective stickers.
• Multisport: These are styled like skate- or potty-style helmets with more head coverage than a cycle-specific lid. They are suitable for use in lots of different wheeled sports, e.g. biking, skateboarding, inline skating etc.
A multisport helmet will be fine for younger kids or those that mix between bike/skateboard/skates etc. but for longer rides with mum and dad a cycle-specific helmet will be lighter and more ventilated. Meanwhile as children grow older their helmets become slightly miniaturised versions of those on the adult market, with high-end MTB, full face and road racing lids available in ‘youth’ sizes.
NOTE: It’s important to ensure that any helmet is worn correctly when in use. It must sit snugly on top of the head and be securely fastened, rather than being tipped back with straps flapping in the wind.
Also it’s worth adding that the most important thing about any child’s helmet is that it be worn, so colour schemes, themes and stickers etc are important if you want your small one to wear the helmet rather than leave it at home. One piece of advice is to get the child involved in choosing their own helmet, helping to build enthusiasm and excitement about it and hopefully ensuring that it will stay worn rather than being cast aside.
For replacement parts broken in minor impacts to new liners and pads instead of your sweaty old ones, we’ve got everything to keep your helmet looking as good and working as well as the day you bought it.
Check out our range of replacement visors, visor bolts, straps and chin buckles, liners, pads and more as well as a range of helmet bag and carry case options to help prevent scratches and damage in transit.