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Bontrager WaveCel XXX helmet review

23 May 2019
Verdict:

A comfortable – if overbuilt – helmet that promises enhanced protection from concussion

Cyclist Rating: 
For 
• Potentially a step up in concussion prevention
Against 
• Heavy and hot by current standards

Safety has become a big issue in the helmet world recently. That may seem like an obvious statement – after all, the singular purpose of a bicycle helmet is safety – but it is an aspect that has occasionally taken a back seat while manufacturers have focussed on performance elements such as weight, ventilation and aerodynamics.

Now all the big brands are looking to find innovations that do a better job of protecting riders in the event of a crash.

Several companies have included Mips in their helmets – a slip liner that helps absorb rotational forces. Giro has launched its Aether, which has a sliding inner shell that works like Mips; while Specialized uses Mips but has also come up with ANGi, a sensor that detects a crash and sends out a message calling for help.

Buy the Bontrager WaveCel XXX helmet from Evans Cycles

Bontrager’s latest addition to the safety debate is WaveCel. This is a specially shaped honeycomb-like plastic structure that sits inside the outer shell of the helmet, and is designed to prevent the likelihood of concussion from rotational forces.

The idea is that when you crash, the structure collapses in on itself, absorbing the impact and lessening the effect on your brain.

Bontrager claims it took about four and half years to develop the technology alongside biomedical engineers in the United States. Sam Foos, brand manager for the WaveCel helmet range, explains how WaveCel works.

‘In the event of a crash, it goes through three different stages,' Foos says. 'The first microseconds are the most important because those will determine where the energy is going to go. In the past there’s been EPS [the hard foam material used in the majority of bike helmets], which is essentially designed to distribute that force.

‘WaveCel is a bit different in that in the first step it flexes, so it takes the brunt of that energy. Then it folds onto itself in a crumple state, and then in the middle of the material is a little “notch” that allows it to glide, and that’s where it really redirects that energy away from your head.

‘So in the first step it absorbs like the crumple zone in a car. No matter what angle the energy is coming from it will absorb it, and that’s why it is the shape it is. And then it also shears. That’s what ensures your head never really engages with the energy.’

According to Bontrager, the issue with standard EPS helmets is that they are really only designed to deal with straight-on impacts. More often than not, a crash is at an angle that makes the brain move inside the skull, causing injuries that are not easily repaired.

‘One of the best examples is a boxer,’ says Foos. ‘He can get hit in the forehead straight on and still go 15 rounds. We’ve evolved to take these brunts – it’s why we have foreheads.

‘But when we talk about angled impacts, we haven’t really evolved to compensate for that. If the boxer goes down, it’s usually because the inside of his brain is moving, it’s jumping around, being sheared and torn, and this is because it’s being hit rotationally.’

Bontrager claims that WaveCel reduces the likelihood of concussion as the result of a crash to 1.2% compared to 58% for a standard EPS helmet. In its literature, it boasts that this makes WaveCel 48 times more effective at preventing concussion than standard foam helmets.

That’s a pretty big boast, and of course it’s important to qualify it. Firstly, the ‘48 times’ claim is taken from data that refers to tests done in one specific set of conditions – a crash at 6.2m/s (22.32kmh) at a 45° angle.

Bontrager says that this mimics the most common speed and angle for bike crashes, but of course there are almost infinite possible variations that would produce different results.

Secondly, the tests were not entirely independent, as the scientists involved had a financial interest in the development of WaveCel.

Thirdly, Swedish company Mips, which makes a slip liner that similarly aims to prevent concussion from rotational forces, has released a statement saying that it did its own tests and found that WaveCel did not live up to its ‘48 times’ claims.

According to Mips, WaveCel is only slightly more effective than standard EPS helmets, although one could argue that it too has a financial interest in the outcome of test data.

The Cyclist viewpoint

Testing any safety equipment in the real world is always going to be a tricky business. No matter how thorough I want to be in the testing process, I draw the line at hurling myself from a bike at high speed in order to see how well a helmet performs.

This means that I am not really in a suitable position to be able to comment objectively on how effective WaveCel is at preventing concussion. Over the several weeks that I wore the helmet, I failed even once to engineer a crash, despite the best efforts of my local potholes.

As such, I have to ask myself two questions. Do I believe that the technology is as effective as Bontrager claims it is? And, are the potential safety improvements worth any reductions in performance?

In answer to the first question, I have no reason to doubt Bontrager. It, and its parent company Trek, is a highly respected business that produces many extremely effective and well-researched products.

I’ve no reason to think that WaveCel will perform any differently to what Bontrager claims, even if the ‘48 times’ figure does seem a touch on the exaggerated side.

As for the second question, there are certainly performance issues that need to be taken into account.

The main one is weight. I weighed the WaveCel XXX helmet – the top-of-the-range aero road helmet – at 361g for a size medium.

That’s heavy by the standard of modern road helmets. By comparison, my go-to helmet, a Kask Mojito, weighs in at 221g. A difference of 140g is significant.

To be fair, the Mojito is a lightweight helmet with no aero pretensions, however the WaveCel XXX is still the best part of 100g heavier than the Bontrager Ballista, the aero helmet that the XXX is modelled on. (Bontrager’s website gives the Ballista’s weight as 265g, size medium.)

Equally there are issues with ventilation. The WaveCel structure does block the holes in the outer shell to some degree, which meant that I could feel less airflow over my head than I would have liked.

On a quick commute to work, the weight and heat were barely noticeable, but on long rides in warm weather I did find that the XXX helmet began to weigh on me after a few hours.

That said, there were no issues with fit. I found the XXX to be comfortable on my head from the moment I put it on – snug without being tight – and the retention system allowed for easy adjustment with no rubbing.

As for aerodynamics, Bontrager claims that the WaveCel XXX has been tested to within a couple of ‘aero grams’ of the wind-tunnel proven Ballista. That is, there is virtually no measurable difference between the two.

Until Cyclist finds the investment to build its own wind-tunnel, I’ll just have to take Bontrager’s word for that.

Ultimately I found that I liked the WaveCel XXX for short rides, especially commuting, where the performance aspects were less crucial and the additional sense of safety was reassuring.

Buy the Bontrager WaveCel XXX helmet from Evans Cycles

As such, I might be tempted to invest in a Bontrager Charge WaveCel commuter helmet (the company has introduced WaveCel in all areas of its helmet range) and stick to a lighter, cooler helmet for long days in the saddle.

One admirable aspect of the WaveCel XXX – indeed all Bontrager helmets – is that the company will replace it free of charge if you are involved in a crash within the first year after purchase.

This ensures that people who have stumped up for an expensive helmet aren’t tempted to continue using it after a crash. It also gives Bontrager a ready supply of real-world-crashed helmets for analysis in its ongoing campaign to make safer products that will persuade more people to ride bikes.

As Sam Foos says, ‘We all know the risks going into our sport, but we want to keep doing our sport. That’s what motivates us at Bontrager, which is to make sure people have equipment out there that will let them continue to do something they love.’

Price: 
£199.99

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