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Heads and tales: Inside helmet maker Met

In-depth
2 Mar 2021
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More than any other item of cycling kit, a helmet has to find a perfect balance of aesthetics, performance and safety. Cyclist visits Met in northern Italy to find out how it’s done

Words: Sam Challis Photography: Juan Trujillo Andrades

In an age when any would-be entrepreneur can pick a helmet design from a Chinese catalogue and create a brand, Met still does things the old fashioned way.

It has been making helmets for over 30 years, and despite having moved its main production operations to the Far East to reduce costs, it’s fiercely proud of its Italian heritage.

The design, development and testing of all its helmets still takes place in the foothills of the Italian Alps, and the company still has connections with the WorldTour as helmet supplier for Team UAE-Emirates.

Since the early 1990s, Met has protected the heads of riders such as Richard Virenque, Luc Leblanc, David Millar, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish. This is, you would think, a brand that displays an archetypal Italian zest for cycling and life.

As such, I’m a little surprised when I arrive at Met’s headquarters to be faced with what appears to be a massive corrugated metal box on a bleak industrial estate in Talamona, northern Italy. Given that I’m almost in the shadow of the Stelvio, I expected something a little more flamboyant.

Standing at the imposing front gate, I wonder if I’ve got the address wrong, until I notice a small Met banner fluttering forlornly off to one side of the forecourt.

Thankfully my first impressions turn out to be misrepresentative. Despite the uninspiring frontage, the interior of the building is tastefully minimalist, a spacious concoction of wood, exposed blockwork and glass.

Five minutes after arriving I’m sitting down in the airy company kitchen at the back of the building, alongside a number of Met’s 25-strong workforce, about to tuck in to a home-cooked meal. The polenta, vegetable omelette and beef carpaccio has been prepared by one of Met’s founders, Lucianna Sala.

Small in stature, welcoming and exuding a calm authority, she comes across more like a matriarch fussing over her extended family than the senior partner in a successful business.

If anything, it’s an image Sala has been keen to develop in her workplace, and that extends to the staff eating together most lunchtimes.

‘As you can see we are quite family-orientated,’ says Sala as she takes a place at the head of the table. ‘We have always thought that as we spend most of our lives working in an office, we want everybody to be happy to work here. Therefore we encourage a nice environment.

‘You need light, you need to see outside, you want to have everything you need at the office. If you feel comfortable, you are more productive.’

In Met’s case, ‘everything you need at the office’ includes a garden, livestock and an allotment, on to which the doors of the kitchen extend. Hens cluck and scratch at the soil, while horses and donkeys clop around a field that extends high up the flanks of an Alpine mountain.

 

‘Those hills are the ideal testing ground for our products,’ says Sala, as she gestures to the small roads and trails that criss-cross up through the dark pines.

The Giro di Lombardia is raced in this area. ‘As we set so much store in our employees, by extension their real-world feedback is critical to developing our prototypes.’

How times change

Sala and her husband, Massimiliano Gaiatto, started Met in 1987 but were involved with cycling long before that. ‘Max’s family owned Brancale,’ says Sala.

Nowadays that name belongs to a niche shoe manufacturer working out of America, yet back in the 1980s the name hailed from Italy and was far more mainstream – Greg LeMond won Tour stages with Brancale leather on his feet.

Yet shoemaking was not Gaiatto’s true calling, so he and Sala left his family’s business.

 

‘Max found making cycling shoes too stressful,’ says Sala. ‘One particular pair of shoes took over two years to develop for LeMond.

‘We intended to leave cycling but we noticed a future in bicycle helmets – no one was wearing them but it was something interesting to develop because, thanks to there being limited interest in them, we were so free.’

As there were no safety standards at that time, it was up to Sala and Gaiatto to decide how best to make their helmets protect riders’ heads.

‘As the market gathered momentum we were in a great position of having been one of the pioneers. Most of the technologies were developed by us. When others were tentatively making polystyrene shells we were designing ABS injection-moulded helmets,’ says Sala proudly.

‘We’ve kept the same attitude towards innovation ever since and now we have produced 126 different helmets. Max and I work well together because we are so different. He’s the engineer – always developing and tinkering and caring for the details – I’m more of an artist.’

This seems an appropriate point at which to meet Matteo Tenni, Met’s project manager. He is keen to show off the artistic first step in the development of a Met helmet.

A softly spoken but articulate engineer, Tenni has been with Met for 17 years and follows Gaiatto’s pedantic way of thinking – Sala jokes that Met’s Asian suppliers are never happy to see Tenni when he visits because they know they’re in for a grilling.

‘Our designers are totally free to explore – we trust in their creativity,’ Tenni says. ‘Designers working so well with engineers like myself is down to Lucianna and the environment she has fostered here.

‘Knowing your colleagues personally helps you understand the role they play professionally.’

We move on to the designers’ quarters, which feature all the clutter and colour of a space used by the creatively minded. Product samples, one-off experiments, inspirational mood boards and sketches cover the desks and walls.

Fortunately the high ceilings and large windows help to make the room feel like an artist’s studio rather than a student’s messy bedroom.

Once the designers are happy with their sketches, several are chosen and the process changes from analogue to digital as the sketches are created in CAD software.

Then it all gets decidedly hi-tech, thanks to the 3D printers Met invested in to facilitate the next step in development.

They’re impressive pieces of kit, one methodically whirring to trace wafer-thin layer onto wafer-thin layer while another hums as it fuses together gypsum powder, particle by particle.

‘These are working on our latest big road release, which is top secret,’ he says with a big grin.

I’m briefly puzzled by his openness – usually an unfinished new product is kept well away from the prying eyes of journalists – but it soon becomes obvious that the helmets in their current half-printed state give no indication as to how the final outcome will look.

Cyclist is being used for sport.

‘Although these printers were a huge investment, ultimately it saves us money because our development and production schedule is more efficient.

‘We can print a physical sample overnight, and we can get a helmet 99% finalised before opening the tooling with our suppliers. It means we can be quick to respond to trends and can put into production new ideas that keep us competitive,’ says Tenni.

 

He explains that the more traditional methods Met used to use – and which some competitors still do – involved hand-sculpting half a prototype then trying to judge the full design by putting it against a mirror.

‘It was so hit and miss,’ he says. ‘You’d then make a symmetrical prototype, make a mould and the first helmets. Only then would you be able to start safety testing, and if you failed it was back to square one.

‘Even if it passed, the design wouldn’t be optimised for weight, looks or aerodynamics. There was just so much more back and forth. With the methods we use now, what used to take years now takes months.’

School of hard knocks

Once the pre-production samples arrive back with Met, the most important phase begins – safety testing. Tenni leads Cyclist into Met’s lab and introduces us to Cesare Della Marianna, the technician in charge.

‘Our facilities cover all global safety standards – CEN, CPSC, etc – and many machines have been engineered proprietarily to surpass them,’ he says, pointing to one drop-height test rig so tall it necessitated cutting a hole in the ceiling to be installed.

 

‘There has always been a difference in what we need to test and what we want to test. We push our designs to be much safer than the standards stipulate,’ he says.

He gives me a brief run down of every machine, most of which are designed to find different ways of smashing a helmet into an anvil very hard. However, a row of mismatched metal boxes sitting side by side along one wall look distinctly different to the rest.

‘Here we’ve got the oven, fridge, sun and rain,’ he says, pointing to each in turn. ‘Or 50°C heat, -20°C cold, UV exposure and water immersion.

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‘Each changes the properties of the EPS and polycarbonate slightly. We test helmets after they’ve been exposed to different “weather conditions” as well as different types of impact.’

I try to calculate the possible combinations each helmet must be subjected to but my mind quickly boggles. Needless to say it’s a lot, but Met tests every combination in each of its designs. Della Marianna is keen to set up an impact test to demonstrate a typical procedure.

He selects a headform – a metal shape accurate to the size and weight of a human head with nine accelerometers imbedded within it – and straps a brand new Trenta 3K Carbon helmet to it. He installs it on a machine that simulates a blunt impact.

The headform is raised, then accelerated into the anvil, and a £265 helmet is ruined in the blink of an eye.

Watching it happen makes me wince. Della Marianna and Tenni then assess the data generated by the impact, looking at figures for shock absorption, rebound rates and transfer shock values.

The helmet, despite having being substantially rearranged, easily passes the test. Tenni discards the helmet and passes me the headform. It’s unfathomably heavy. I gain new respect not just for my neck muscles, but also the helmets we wear.

That they are able to effectively protect such a solid lump while also being light, aerodynamic and good looking is no mean feat, which reminds me of something Sala said over lunch.

‘A friend of Max’s, Filippo Perini, is a design consultant for us and throughout our history has been a big influence on the style of our iconic models and identity as a company.

‘He has 30 years’ experience in product design, working with brands like Lamborghini, and he says it is more complicated to design a helmet than it is to design a supercar.’

At the time I assumed it was an exaggeration for effect. But having seen Met’s meticulous way of developing, producing and testing helmets, I’m starting to think again.

Thinning up top

How Met’s Trenta 3K Carbon uses less to get more

The Trenta 3K Carbon helmet was developed to celebrate Met’s 30th anniversary.

Project manager Matteo Tenni says, ‘We started working around this idea of a carbon cage – we thought it had the potential to provide benefits over a conventional helmet construction of just polycarbonate and EPS.

‘As a base, we fabricate a solid carbon fibre shell out of 3K weave carbon. It is 0.4mm thick. Sections are then cut out to create space into which we can form EPS around, so it becomes embedded within the foam.

‘It is as complicated to do that as it sounds. It took 300 pre-production prototypes to determine a design we were happy with.’

The result is a helmet that’s slimmer than normal helmets despite being just as safe.

‘The structure is flexible to a far greater degree than regular helmets,’ Tenni adds. ‘We found that this multi-layer construction spreads and dissipates impact energy far better than normal, or can perform similarly with less material.’

This pared-back construction has obvious benefits for not only weight but aerodynamics, because the helmet can be physically smaller. And it’s not just Met who is impressed by the new Trenta 3K Carbon helmet – it won a Design & Innovation Award in 2018.

‘The award was an honour to receive because it shows our innovative way of working is being appreciated.’