Selecting the Right Cycling Helmet

Not so long ago, only the most serious cyclists regularly wore safety helmets while riding. Today, more and more casual riders are embracing the practice of wearing helmets; in fact, at least 20 states currently have laws requiring bicyclists to wear helmets. Today’s helmets are light and stylish, giving cyclists of all ages and abilities the benefits of additional safety while promoting comfort.

Regardless of an individual’s cycling style, wearing a helmet should be an essential part of any ride. The key to getting the most out of a helmet is to find one that fits properly and is appropriate for its intended use.

Understanding the Basic Components of a Helmet

Before committing to the purchase of a helmet, it is important to understand the basic parts of most helmets and how they affect comfort, weight, function, and durability.

*Liner: This is the polystyrene foam that coats the inside of most helmets. In case of impact, the liner absorbs the brunt of the force and is the last line of defense for a rider’s head in an accident. When shopping for a helmet, look for a liner that rests comfortably on the head. A liner should be perfectly intact and free of dents, chips, or other damage.

*Shell: The plastic outer covering, or shell, is what gives a helmet its color and style. More than just for decoration, though, the shell also adds valuable safety, as it keeps the helmet together on impact, offers puncture-resistant protection, and allows the helmet to skid in case of a crash; this helps prevent head and neck injuries in an accident. The shell should not have any cracks or chips.

*Ventilation: Vents enhance a rider’s comfort, allowing air to flow over and through the helmet. This makes for a cooler, more pleasant experience. Obviously, the more vents a helmet has, the cooler the rider will be.

*Straps: A helmet’s strap system should match the rider’s cycling style. Sturdy, thick straps are best for off-road or rough terrain riding, while thin, light straps are a good choice for road cycling or racing. Straps should be fully adjustable for comfort and proper fit, and should feature closures that are easy to operate. For female cyclists, some strap systems are specially designed to accommodate a ponytail, making for a better fit and more comfortable ride.

Match the Helmet to Cycling Style

Not all cycling helmets are created equal. A proper helmet should match the rider’s particular interests and intended use.

There are three main styles of helmet, each specifically tailored to a distinct type of cycling: sport, mountain, and road.

*Sport helmets generally run between $35 and $55. These affordable and versatile models are an excellent choice for casual cyclists, commuters, and even skaters.

*Mountain bike helmets are slightly higher on the cost scale, costing between $50 and $130. These helmets are designed to offer the ultimate in protection for cyclists who favor rough trail riding or cyclo-cross racing. Many models are equipped with visors and full coverage for the back of the head, as well as strap systems that hold the helmet to the rider’s head more securely to withstand the unique obstacles of off-road cycling.

*Road bike helmets are the most sophisticated and expensive models, with a good quality helmet ranging anywhere from $60 to $230. Best for serious road racers or competitive cyclists, these road helmets are light, aerodynamic, and extremely well ventilated.

Look for Essential Safety Certification

By federal law, all cycling helmets sold in the United States must meet certain criteria for impact safety as determined by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC has developed a set of testing standards that all helmet manufacturers must adhere to; in most cases, the testing scenarios are far more severe than even the worst impact an actual rider might experience in an accident. Many helmets are also tested and certified by the independent non-profit Snell Foundation. However, the CPSC endorsement is the crucial one, and the certification seal should be prominently displayed on the helmet.

Get the Right Size and Fit

An ill-fitting helmet, or one that is the wrong size, greatly reduces its effectiveness in case of a crash. Choosing the proper helmet size and fit are vitally important to ensure a rider’s safety. Some models feature a single one-size-fits-all with adjustable strap systems, while other helmets come in a range of different sizes.

To help determine the correct helmet size, wrap a flexible measuring tape or piece of string around the head, about an inch above the eyebrows. Take this measurement when shopping for helmets and look to match the number as closely as possible. For helmets with predetermined sizes (like small, medium, and large) the manufacturer should offer a range of measurements appropriate for each size. If a rider’s measurement falls in between sizes, it is generally best to select the smaller size.

A sales associate at a reputable cycling shop or sporting goods retailer can also offer advice and assistance in selecting a helmet that fits correctly. Once the proper size has been selected, it is important to adjust the helmet for a more customized fit. Many helmets come with additional sizing rings or padded strips that can be added to the inside of the shell where necessary.

A helmet that fits well should be snug, but not uncomfortably tight. The helmet should rest level on the top of the head, with the front side resting just above the eyebrows. The forehead should be protected at all times; a helmet should never be pushed up off the forehead or tilted backward. The helmet should not shift noticeably when pushed front to back and side to side.

When the shell of the helmet fits properly, it is then time to adjust the straps. Buckle the chinstrap and tighten it until it rests against the skin. If the chinstrap is tightened sufficiently, the helmet should not move when pushed up at the front and the back. Open and close the mouth; as this is done, the helmet should press slightly against the forehead.

Additional Tips

*Always read the owner’s manual or manufacturer’s instructions before using a helmet for the first time.

*Replace a helmet after any significant impact, even if the helmet does not appear to have any noticeable damage. Generally, a helmet should also be replaced every five years or so, regardless of its impact history.

*Store helmets in a cool, dry place, away from ultraviolet light and the elements. Prolonged exposure to heat, pollution, and severe weather can weaken the shell and liner, greatly affecting safety and longevity.

*Use only mild soap and water with a soft cloth to clean a dirty helmet. Harsh chemical cleaners or abrasive materials can cause damage.

*Selecting the right kind of helmet, ensuring a proper fit, and caring for it appropriately will ensure a long and enjoyable cycling experience.