by Stan Purdum
There was a day when buying bicycle helmet was primarily a matter of picking one you liked, fit you well and met your budget. And to a degree, that’s still true. All helmets sold in the United States are required by law to meet certain minimum safety standards, and in a crash, any helmet is better than none.
I personally have had my head saved from injury four times by helmets, two of which split while taking the impact that my skull would have otherwise received.
But today, there are many helmet options from dozens of manufacturers, over a wide range of prices, with several models including some recent technology.
With all these choices, how can you know which helmet is best for you?
Here’s some help: This year, two independent labs — Consumer Reports and Virginia Tech — tested several helmets, but not all that are available, and none of those that are sold in discount stores. CR tested for high-impact protection and VT for best low-impact concussion protection. While each lab found several helmets that earned high ratings in the category it was testing, only six helmets raked high in both categories. Those six are described here. Five are MIPS models and one is not.
MIPS stands for Multidirectional Impact Protection System, which is a slip-plane concept using two layers in the helmet to help the head rotate slightly on impact. The intention is to reduce the rotational forces during a crash, which are thought to be a prime brain injury mechanism and related to concussion. In testing, Consumer Reports found that MIPS reduced rotational force up to 43 percent, but its lab drew no conclusions about what that might mean for injury. There is still no consensus that the Virginia Tech formula for rating helmets for concussion correlates with reduced concussions. However, “since established standards organizations have not responded to concussion concerns, these ratings represent a good start at testing helmets systematically for lower-level and rotational impact performance,” says the nonprofit Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. It therefore seems wise for helmet purchasers to at least consider using helmets with MIPS technology.
All six helmets discussed here feature in-mold polycarbonate outer shells. Polycarbonate is a man-made material prized for it strength and flexibility. In-mold is an industrial process for binding the polycarbonate outer shell to the polystyrene liner to add superior mechanical properties to these materials.
Here are the helmets that rose to the top in both categories. We believe they are good ones to consider if you are concerned primarily about safety:
Five Stars for concussion protection (VT) and Excellent Impact protection (CR):
Bell Stratus MIPS
Bell describes this helmet as “flat out fast,” adding that it “combines lightweight aero efficiency with cutting-edge comfort technologies.” The Stratus is intended for all-around road performance, featuring 18 wide-channeled vents and its Overbrow Ventilation system to keep you cool during long climbs but “still fast for the flats.” It features Bell’s trademarked Float Fit system that allows adjustment not only to head circumference, but also to up and down horizontal fit. See this demonstrated at below. This system offers both comfort and a secure fit with an oversized dial that’s easy to adjust with one hand. The helmet, which weights 275 grams, also features stay-flat straps that keep their position during activity and includes MIPS for protection. Available in 10 colors. $150 on the Bell website, but as low as $90 elsewhere on the internet.
Louis Garneau Raid MIPS
Its maker says that in addition to MIPS protection, “this helmet provides plenty of coverage around the back of the head, specifically for trail-riding activities,” making it both secure and comfortable. Its Spiderlock 4D fit system combines side adjustment mode, with a new mechanism that controls the height at which your helmet will sit, and the Tri Glide PRO strap system allows you to fine-tune the position of the helmet’s straps. The included visor can be adjusted in three different positions for a fully customized setup. With 14 vents and moisture evacuation channels, the Raid provides a welcome cooling effect on hot days. It weighs in at 375 grams and can be purchased in black, red or hi-viz yellow. It does not include a visor. Priced at $99.99, but the same helmet without the MIPS protection is available for less.
Specialized Chamonix MIPS
The Chamonix MIPS is a one-size helmet, “designed for easy and accurate fit to a wide range of head sizes” says Specialized. Its fit system has a micro-adjustable dial for easy, secure, and accurate fit. With MIPS protection and optimal ventilation, the in-molded shell improves strength and reduces weight. Reflective webbing and decals increase visibility in low-light conditions. Straps are easy to adjust. Includes clip-on visor. Helmet is available in black and hi-vis yellow. $75.
Four Stars for concussion protection (VT) and Excellent Impact protection (CR):
Bell Draft MIPS
The Draft road cycling helmet, with MIPS protection, offers a rounded, compact profile that Bell describes as “a nod to modern road style.” The Ergo Fit system offers a slimmed down, easy-to-use dial for simple, one-handed adjustment. Its 25 large air vents and extended in-mold polycarbonate shell make it a cool and comfortable choice at 299 grams. Six colors to choose from. $60 on Bell’s site. As low as $40 elsewhere.
This is the only helmet without MIPS that passed muster with both testing labs, Available in seven colors and three sizes, the Giro Foray offers durable in-mold construction and the Roc Loc 5 fit system with two-way fit adjustment that enables you to get a helmet that “looks, fits and feels like it was made for you” says Giro. The Roc Loc 5 fit system allows you to easily custom tune the fit tension and the fore-aft tilt of the helmet in seconds using a single hand. The slim design is very light, and with 21 vents, it provides good ventilation. Does not come with a visor. Can be found for about $50. A Foray with MIPS is also available for a bit more money.
Scott Arx Plus MIPS
Scott says this helmet incorporates all the lessons learned from its top road helmets and calls the Arx Plus MIPS a great all-rounder, designed for racers and enthusiasts alike. It uses in-mold technology and a polycarbonate micro shell and offers good ventilation. The helmet, which does not include a visor, comes in three sizes and four colors and weighs about 270 grams. Can be found for about $100.
UPDATED — Bontrager Wavecel Helmets
Introduced in March 2019, Trek claims that its new Wavecel helmet technology is up to 48 times more effective at preventing concussions. This claim was verified by testing at Virginia Tech, and also received a 5 star rating there. Although Consumer Reports has not tested these yet, we felt we should add them to the list in case some readers are aware of this new technology and new safety claims.
Bontrager XXX Wavecel Helmet
See our review of this helmet. The XXX helmet is the top end aero road helmet from Bontrager, with a price of around $299. It has a claimed weight of 352 grams in the medium size. Bontrager describes the XXX helmet as “the ideal balance between protection, aerodynamics and weight to make sure your head and safety is priority #1.”
Bontrager Charge WaveCel Commuter Helmet
Bontrager calls this “an e-bike approved commuter helmet with great fit and feel and the advanced protection of WaveCel technology.” 428 grams in size medium. $149.
Bontrager Specter Wavecel Helmet
Bontrager’s Specter helmet is its all-round version for cycling, at a price of $149 and a weight of 341 grams in medium. Bontrager describes it as, “the best in versatility and comfort for everyday rides on roads, trails, gravel, and more. From dirt to pavement, fast or slow, this new wave of protection delivers the confidence you need anywhere you ride or race.”
Bontrager Blaze WaveCel Mountain Bike Helmet
Bontrager’s Blaze is a high end, $299 mountain biking specific helmet. It includes an integrated rail on top that allows you to attach an action camera or Bontrager lighting. It weighs 420 grams in a medium. Bontrager describes it as, “the best in performance and protection on any trail, from flowy singletrack to gnarly downhills. It’s built for style, comfort, and performance, and equipped with the industry’s best safety tech for whatever trails you roam.”
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.