Cycling is not a dangerous activity. Per hour, you are more likely to suffer an injury requiring medical attention while gardening; per mile, you are more likely to be killed while walking. Nevertheless, if you fall off your bike and bang your head you can do some nasty damage. Helmets are designed to limit that damage.
They’re made largely of expanded polystyrene (EPS), which compresses and crushes to absorb some of the impact. Helmets aren’t designed to protect you in a collision with a vehicle but in a fall from your bike, at a modest speed. Cycle helmets are not motorcycle helmets. They have to be light and well ventilated otherwise they would be intolerable to wear, and this limits the protection available.
Cycle helmets sold in the European Union must meet the EN 1708 helmet standard; all those shown below do so. Many helmets also meet other standards, such as CPSC (United States). The specifics of each standard vary but all involve dropping a weighted helmet onto a variety of anvil shapes to mimic crashes. The most stringent standards are those of the Snell Memorial Foundation (www.smf.org).
Helmets are made from inexpensive materials, and a more expensive helmet is unlikely to offer better protection. It will probably be lighter, better ventilated, and perhaps better fitting.
To be effective, a helmet must fit and must be properly adjusted and positioned. The brim should be no more than a couple of fingers’ width above your eyebrows, so it’s just visible in the very top of your vision. The straps should be snug but not tight. The Y of the straps should meet under each earlobe, and you should be able to get one or two fingers under the buckled chinstrap. It can take a while to adjust the straps until they’re just right. Take that time.
Most helmets have pads inside for comfort (removable for washing), and an internal cradle that can be adjusted at the back with ratchets or a dial. Some use a simple elastic strap. Whichever it is, the helmet should be stable on your head. Undo the chinstrap and see if it stays put if you shake your head or touch your toes.
Helmets have a lifespan of around five years, after which they should be replaced. They should also be replaced after any serious knock, as cracks or crushing in the EPS could stop it working effectively next time. Some helmets come with a crash replacement policy.
Most helmets are designed for one of three groups: mountain bikers (with helmet peak), road cyclists (without peak), and BMX or dirt-jump riders (skate style). You can use any of these for commuting. A helmet peak will help keep sun and rain from your eyes but is a fashion faux pas for some roadies, while skate-style helmets offer more head coverage and less ventilation. Choose a helmet that fits, is comfortable, and that you like the look of.
Here are some of the many helmets available.
Abus Urban I Reflective
As the name says, it’s designed for commuters and is liberally covered with reflective stickers. The ZoomLite cradle adjustment dial incorporates a 4-LED light for additional visibility. The Urban I is available in yellow or red, and you can have it without reflectives (and in other colours) for £5 less. There are 21 vents, providing decent cooling, and the front ones have insect mesh. The visor is removable. It’s available in an XL size, unlike many helmets. S/M, M/L, XL.
The Panoma is German brand Alpina’s entry-level off-road helmet. Its visor can be handy around town but is removable if you don’t want it. The Panoma is well ventilated, and the foremost of its 23 vents have insect mesh. Alpina’s Run System allows one-handed cradle adjustment, while the helmet straps can also be adjusted on the fly. There are two colour options aimed at women in the smaller size. Sizes: 52-57cm, 57-62cm.
No apologies for featuring two Specialized lids: they’re Snell approved. The Echelon is aimed at road cyclists and will suit commuters who like to put the hammer down on the way to work. It’s very well ventilated for a budget helmet, with good air intake and channelling over the head. Specialized call this their 4th Dimension Cooling System. The HeadSet SL cradle has an easy dial adjustment and four height positions for different head shapes. Sizes: 51-57cm, 54-60cm, 57-63cm.
The Slant is Bell’s top of the range ‘sport’ helmet, intended for commuters as much as recreational road and off-road riders. The visor clips on and off easily and it looks fine either way. With 21 vents, it won’t get too hot. The Ergo Dial fit system can be adjusted one-handed, while the chinstrap has cam-lock strap adjusters that stay in place well once fastened, minimising the need for adjustments later. Size: 54-61cm.
The Xilo is an entry-level mountain biking helmet that’s equally suitable for commuting. With 15 vents, airflow is pretty good at this price. The front vents are meshed to stop insects getting in and stinging your head. The cradle adjusts with a ratchet dial that Met call Safe-T Twist. The visor is removable if you want to adopt the roadie look. It comes in two sizes, making it a good budget option for smaller-headed riders. Sizes: 52-57cm, 54-61cm
Proof that you don’t need to pay a lot for decent helmet, the Align meets the strict Snell B90A standard. Ventilation and weight are reasonable and the one-size-fits-all design adapts easily to different head sizes with a cradle dial that Specialized called HeadSet SX. The chinstrap is straightforward to adjust as well. There’s some reflectivity on the webbing and it comes with a clip-on visor. Size: 54-62cm.
Cheap doesn’t have to mean nasty. Choose wisely and you can buy a decent new commuter bike for £250 or less.
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