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Lifting the lid on helmet design

Sam Challis
18 May 2016

Trying to marry technology, trends and safety can be a head scratcher. So what's new in the world of helmet design?

The ubiquity of helmet use nowadays in the pro peloton makes it strange to think that the UCI only made helmets compulsory for races in 2003. The death of a prominent Cofidis rider, Andrey Kivilev, at Paris-Nice gave the UCI sufficient impetus to introduce the rule - it had initially been shelved as far back as 1991 following rider protest at the comfort and weight penalties associated with wearing a helmet in those days.

But with more exposure at the top of the sport since 2003, helmet usage and sales have been on the increase, providing manufacturers with the opportunity to heavily research and develop helmet technology. As such, the helmets of today bear little resemblance to those of several years ago, and even since Cyclist last looked at the market, they have come on in leaps and bounds. 

‘Helmets have changed massively in the last 20 years,’ says Jon Cannings, a senior designer at Lazer. ‘Looking back, they were chunky, heavy and generally poorly ventilated. Also, aesthetically they weren’t good looking. Lazer greatly values the opinions of its staff. Our personal cycling experiences, whether it is on the cycle paths to the office or the cobbled climb of the Oude Kwaremont, stimulate ideas that are often put into final production. Some of the prototypes around the office are interesting, to say the least.’

Idea generation and product development input coming from the company as a whole, as opposed to just the R&D department, are now a central part of the development model regardless of manufacturer. Oscar Huss, head of product development at Poc, agrees with Cannings. ‘We have an office full of enthusiastic riders,’ he says. ‘This allows us to always critically evaluate every helmet we do – how we could improve it. One natural outcome is the necessity to really focus on different materials and their composition within the product.
With that knowledge, we can engineer our helmets specifically for the intended environment to make sure they perform to the level required.’

An abundant source of amateur testers is undoubtedly an advantage, but extra input is required to create helmets that are competitive at WorldTour level. As Huss says, ‘Pros ride at a totally different intensity to most of us.’

‘The close collaboration with teams and athletes is fundamental,’ says Catlike’s Diega Tosatto. ‘We’ve worked with World Champions and teams like Banesto and Kelme before our work with our current team, Movistar. The feedback from professional riders is one of the main reasons our helmets are at the standard they are.’ 

With its lids adorning riders in the behemoth that is Team Sky, Kask has perhaps the most conspicuous relationship with a professional team, but it doesn’t rely solely on the pro riders’ feedback to inform its designs. ‘The Infinity was born from working closely with Team Sky, but going forward we are drawing on knowledge from helmets in other markets, for example our snow and equestrian ranges, to further develop our helmets,’ says Ylenia Battistello, brand manager at Kask.

In addition to feedback on performance attributes, the testing and development protocols that brands use today help inform a helmet’s most important aspect: safety.

Better safe than sorry

Safety can be a tricky issue for helmet manufacturers because different standards must be adhered to in different parts of the world – for example in the EU, standards are comparatively lax when measured against those in Australia. Recent EU reforms could have thrown up an additional barrier but some of the experts Cyclist spoke to suggest that modern materials and manufacturing processes facilitate helmet designs that surpass global test standards. ‘When we designed the Octal [Poc’s distinctive helmet used by Cannondale Pro Cycling Team], we tried to balance aerodynamics, ventilation, weight and safety,’ says Huss. ‘It’s only fairly recently that it has been possible to have all these attributes without compromise. Now it’s certified in all markets, without altering the design.’ 

It is the same story at Kask. ‘Our helmets meet the European CE, US CPSC, and Australian certification standards for safety. We don’t design a different helmet for each region, but rather one model that will meet all standards,’ says Battistello.

Where there are alterations in design, the differences are becoming ever more discreet as brands refine their models. ‘Standards in the USA and Australia require slightly different helmet densities but that now only alters our helmet’s weight by a few grams,’ says Tosatto, while Lazer’s Cannings adds, ‘Our helmets are now only slightly different depending on the requisite standards: EU helmets are slightly more lightweight but aside from that the Lazer aesthetic is preserved globally.’

‘Safety has become more and more important to riders in the peloton and the trends have followed in society in general too,’ says Huss. ‘There has been a broader appreciation that a helmet is a really important and valuable investment.’ It seems that nowadays safety is the number-one priority on the design brief, rather than aesthetics or weight, as might have been the case a decade ago. There was a time when many manufacturers would have had helmets in their ranges that only barely passed safety standards, in order to claim to be the lightest or most vented design. Thankfully that slightly risky strategy now seems to have been ditched. ‘When working on new products, we always first consider safety, then the performance requirements of the cyclist, then current trends. Ultimately we are talking about saving someone’s life, not fashion’, says Tosatto. 

The focus on rider safety has fuelled the debate about new technologies such as Mips (multi-directional impact protection system), an inner cradle that uses the ‘slip-plane concept’ – allowing the helmet to rotate independently from the head to reduce the rotational component of an impact. While widely accepted by manufacturers (where it has been seamlessly integrated into existing helmets), some have expressed concerns over the efficacy and additional costs. Poc, for example, may have embraced Mips but the version of its popular Octal helmet that includes it is £50 more expensive than the standard version.

Kask and Catlike seem reluctant to jump on the Mips bandwagon. Catlike’s Tosatto says, ‘Sometimes trends come along that have no real technical improvement for the cyclist. We believe the improvements in terms of real-world performance or safety have not yet been fully quantified.’ Kask’s Battistello is more matter-of-fact, saying, ‘Safety is our overriding priority and our helmets are safe enough without the addition of third-party technology.’

What’s #trending?

The emerging trend for aero road helmets, like the one Mark Cavendish used in his win at the 2011 World Championships, prompted the UCI to ban detachable covers, dismissing them as aero ‘fairings’. With this easy on-off aerodynamic modification no longer an option, brands went back to their drawing boards and wind-tunnels. Aero road helmets rapidly became a bona fide helmet sector and it seemed there would be a shift from the pursuit of lightweight and well-ventilated helmets. Recently, however, we have seen the market backtrack slightly, and another sector emerge – the semi-aero road helmet – where the smooth shells of purely aerodynamic helmets have been reined back and more vents reintroduced. Catlike itslef has just released its Cloud 352 helmet, which incorporates over 300 tiny ventilation holes in a bid to remain aero.

So why the rethink? ‘Fully aero lids need a big lack of ventilation in order to gain aerodynamics,’ says Tosatto. ‘Catlike really believes ventilation can’t be overlooked, because when the rider is sweating a lot, losing a lot of liquids, dehydration will cause performance to drop quicker than the lack of aerodynamics.’

Cannings expands on this: ‘Many pros were complaining of overheating inside “fully aero” helmets, saying, “It feels like my head is cooking inside a bowling ball.” There’s a fine balance between comfort and aerodynamics. This is why we developed the Aeroshell [Lazer’s clip-on cover]. It doesn’t convert into a fully closed helmet – it still allows heat to escape from the rear.’

Semi-aero helmet design is about balancing airflow for cooling against a decent level of aerodynamics. ‘It’s the way most of our pros have opted to go,’ says Kask’s Battistello. Poc’s Huss still believes in having a choice though, saying, ‘It all depends on circumstances. Some riders opt for different helmets based on the course and overall needs. If they know there’s a long sprint at the end of a stage, the performance gain of a fully-aero lid is worth considering. Conversely, it may not be optimal for a mountain stage.’

Back to the future

Are helmets in their current guise nearing the peak of their developmental curve? ‘Right now with the safety standards where they are – quite rightly – it becomes increasingly difficult to raise the bar,’ says Cannings. Performance attributes have largely been optimised, safety levels have never been higher, weight has reached its lower limit and with the rise of the semi-aero helmet a balance between ventilation and aerodynamics has been achieved. So how will brands prevent their products from plateauing?

‘Research into fit and retention systems is increasing,’ says Battistello. She explains that a better fitting, more secure helmet may increase safety without the need to further develop the actual materials that go into the helmet. 

Elsewhere, brands are looking to innovative new materials to further helmet development. ‘Our “Cat-Lab” is always testing and looking for new materials and technologies,’ says Catlike's Tosatto. ‘Due to its physical and chemical properties, we think graphene has the potential to take helmets forward. We have managed to incorporate graphene nano-fibres into our Mixino’s aramid [an advanced composite] skeleton, which has increased the absorption of impact energy while lowering weight.’ 

Alternatively, where brands feel they have reached the end of the line in terms of improving the helmet itself, it may be we see more investment in other forms of innovation in new designs, for example, Lazer’s LifeBEAM, an integrated heart monitor in the helmet’s brow pad. 

From impediment and eyesore to performance enhancer and object of desire, the humble helmet has been on quite a journey. Cyclist is excited to see where it will travel next.

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