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Head masters: Inside Giro (video and gallery)

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23 Sep 2018
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In the 1980s Jim Gentes started a personal project to help better protect himself and his friends while riding. It grew to become the world’s leading helmet brand. Article in association with Giro

Words Stu Bowers Photography and video George Marshall

The office space at Giro’s Californian headquarters is so bright and colourful it’s like being trapped in a bag of Skittles. Vibrant art and swathes of cloth Pantone charts adorn the walls, clothing samples fill hanging rails, shoe samples are piled on desks and mocked-up shop displays are loaded with Giro’s complete 2019 helmet range.

An eclectic mix of road, gravel and mountain bikes lean against partitions and desks, and a good number of employees are still in their riding gear from this morning’s commute as they sip coffee and awaken computer monitors from their slumber.

Cyclist is met by Dain Zaffke, Giro’s director of marketing, who immediately explains how style and design are ingrained in Giro’s DNA.

‘We still live today by a code of design that was the bedrock of the company’s creation,’ Zaffke says. Giro was founded in 1985 by Santa Cruz-based industrial designer Jim Gentes, himself an active bike racer at the time and a former national cyclocross champion.

‘Back then bike helmets basically sucked,’ Zaffke adds. ‘They were really heavy and hot. Jim’s vision was to make something much more stylish, a helmet that he and his friends would actually want to wear, with better ventilation and an improved level of protection.’

The helmet Gentes went on to create was the now-iconic Giro Prolight, which launched in 1986. Few would disagree that it changed the landscape for cycling helmet design forever.

Helmet lifecycle

Gentes retired some years ago, but Zaffke tells us that he’s still actively racing at the age of 60 and his legacy – that of marrying style and function in a product where these attributes are often conflicting – is still evident in the company’s most recent creations.

Just two days before Cyclist’s visit, Giro launched the Aether, a completely new type of bike helmet and potentially another landmark for the brand.

The Aether uses a proprietary technology called Mips Spherical developed in collaboration with (you guessed it) Mips, the Swedish brain protection company.

The new helmet epitomises Gentes’s desire to create objects from a functional and aesthetic standpoint that simultaneously go beyond what is required with regards to safety standards.

It’s that creative journey we’re here to witness today because, while the finished products are manufactured overseas, Giro does all its own R&D right here in California.

The process includes a level of in-house product testing that’s so advanced the company isn’t just exceeding designated safety standards, but is actively involved with influencing them for the future.

Our journey begins through a door at the end of a corridor into what Giro calls the Dome (an acronym for Design, Observation, Materials, Engineering).

But before we enter, Zaffke introduces us to Eric Horton, the manufacturer’s director of design.

‘This is where the industrial design magic happens,’ Horton begins, introducing us to the part of the Dome known as the Shape Shop.

Picking up what appears to be a small foam replica of a helmet, he says, ‘Helmets begin their life as what we call eggs, with designers literally sculpting ideas three-dimensionally.

'A helmet is quite a complex shape, with as much going on with the internal structure as with the exterior. That makes it really hard to sketch and we don’t do too much of that any more.

'There’s a lot to be said for actually having the product in your hand as you’re working through ideas and design processes.

‘We used to work in clay first, and spent a lot of time making these beautiful clay models to express form and venting ideas, but we couldn’t really put those on a head and test them,’ Horton adds.

‘These days we’re working on eggs that are proportionally correct – exactly half-size. They’re based on an actual head form shape too, so that when they’re finished they are really close to the actual dimensions.

'The eggs are then 3D-scanned, extrapolated back to full size, then 3D-printed, allowing us to have a wearable prototype in a matter of hours.

'We can even apply a polycarbonate shell, straps, buckles and even interior padding to the 3D-printed prototype, to really see how the design translates.’

Then comes what might well be the most important point in the whole process – the ‘parking lot test’. As Horton explains, it’s no more complicated than it sounds, yet is a fundamentally important visual study.

‘We know that a helmet is going to be worn on a head, so we try to have something that’s wearable on a head form as soon as possible.

'We dress a cyclist top to toe, including eyewear, and get them on a bike just riding around the parking lot. That allows us to look at it properly in context and immediately see what the design really looks like.

'That’s when we can ask ourselves, “Do we have an idea that we can go with?”’

He’s the man

Moving along the room, one such work in progress is hidden away under cloths, clearly not for our eyes, and certainly not for the camera.

As Horton points out, the designers will already be working on concepts that are still a year or two out from market.

We step around Cricket, the Shape Shop dog complete with Stars and Stripes neckerchief, who is lolloping lazily across the workshop floor, and make our way into a smaller side room. Here yet more designers are busily carving details into helmet prototypes.

It’s all hands-on activity, and the work is noticeably intricate. They carefully shape the foam ‘eggs’ with sandpaper or carve them with Dremel-style power tools. Some details require the use of tiny files that look like they’d be more at home in the hands of a Swiss watchmaker.

We’re introduced to Greg Marting, who turns around from his work to greet us. I shake his outstretched, dusty hand and can tell from the roughness and firmness of his grasp he’s a man who’s worked with those hands for a lifetime.

On a high shelf around the top of the room are a number of old finished foam eggs, some of which I recognise as being among the most iconic helmets in the manufacturer’s history, such as the Pneumo and the Atmos, both of which were the work of Marting.

‘All the most successful shapes Giro has done have been made by this guy’s hands,’ says Horton.

Once a product has gained the parking lot seal of approval, then it’s over to the mechanical engineering side to assess material densities and thicknesses.

Horton suggests that if everything moves quickly it could be as little as just a few weeks before they’re working towards opening up tooling with their factory for the first real-world prototypes. From there, Giro starts smashing them into things.

Head bangers

Giro prides itself on its in-house test facility, and with very good reason. ‘It’s an invaluable tool that we utilise every single day,’ says Zaffke.

‘The test team really guides what we do, and there’s limited employee access to the test lab,’ he adds, buzzing us in through a large set of double doors. ‘A lot of secret stuff happens in here.’

Greeting us with a broad, toothy smile is Niko Henderson, manager of product testing, who essentially runs the lab along with test engineer Patrick Burke.

I can see Burke is otherwise occupied as we enter, rigging up a helmet in what looks like a miniaturised fairground ride.

The fixture winches a helmet high in the air, and after a moment’s silence... wham, it smashes down onto a metal block below. The helmet has been destroyed in the time it takes me to cross the room to get a closer look.

‘I think my personal record is around $30,000 of broken helmets in a day,’ says Burke upon noticing my shocked reaction over how casually he just wrecked a $200 helmet.

There are more than 50 test fixtures in Giro’s armoury, most of which it developed itself. Not all are as dramatic as the one we’ve just witnessed.

Some are much more simple tests, such as the one involving what Giro calls the ‘helmet garden’ located on the roof of the building, where helmets are ‘planted’ and left for weeks at a time at the mercy of the Californian sun’s scorching heat and UV rays.

There are also giant freezers and ovens for extremes of temperature, and in the centre of the facility is Giro’s own wind-tunnel. Whatever the test, though, they’re all sighted on a common goal: to facilitate the development of products that will better protect our heads.

‘Any conditions you can ride in, you can crash in,’ says Henderson. ‘Certain material characteristics change with temperature, such as plastics becoming more brittle in the cold, which could potentially make something more vulnerable.

'Conversely, wet conditions affect the way you impact against objects, because water acts like a lubricant. We also consider the kinds of things your head might impact with – tarmac, a kerb stone, and so on – and we make fixtures to mimic these scenarios too.’

All in your head

The head forms we can see dotted around the lab are more than just simple crash test dummies. They are highly sophisticated bits of kit, each one made to mimic the weight of an actual human head (which Henderson informs us weighs around 4-4.5kg) and containing multi-axis strain gauges to calculate the magnitude of linear and angular accelerations during impacts.

One, known as the Therminator, is a head form covered in thermal sensors (see box over the page) and is a vital tool for
Giro’s design team to allay the dispute between cooling and aerodynamic performance by immediately assessing the impact of opening up or moving the position of vents and air channels within the shell design.

We are then introduced to ‘Brad’, who undoubtedly has the toughest job of anyone at Giro. Brad is a Biofidelic Rotational Anthropomorphic Dummy, weighing around 50kg, who bangs his head against a wall, day in, day out.

This specific test played a central role in the development of the Aether, in order to inform the engineers on the true values of the Mips Spherical technology at the core of the new helmet design.

As we look on, Brad’s next test literally hangs in the balance. Three, two, one, release and… bang. Another helmet’s life is violently brought to an end in the name of investigation. Burke inspects the helmet.

‘Yep, that’s dead for sure,’ he says, handing it to me. I’m surprised by how little discernible damage has been sustained after such a heavy strike.

‘It’s important that the helmet remains structurally sound,’ Burke adds. ‘We don’t want it to just fall to pieces.’ What Burke is more interested in is the thin coloured line on the adjacent computer screen, relaying the G-forces the head form sustained in the test.

‘That’s the bit that’s crucial to your survival,’ he states matter-of-factly.

A key message – and a word of warning while you read – is that impacted helmets don’t necessarily have to show obvious signs of damage to need replacing.

Burke explains the EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam that forms the core of almost every helmet on the market absorbs shock by squashing. Crucially, though, it doesn’t return to its original state afterwards.

‘If we were to perform a second test on the same helmet, we would see that the severity of the impact, as far as the head form is concerned, increases dramatically,’ he says. We don’t need any more convincing, so we leave Brad and the team to their destructive duties.

As our tour comes to a close and we find ourselves back in the office space, Horton tries to sum up the company’s ethos.

‘You can have all the best technologies in the world but a helmet doesn’t do anyone any good if nobody actually wears it,’ he states pragmatically.

‘Our job is to create a protection device that’s also an object of desire, to enhance the way you look on the bike. The technology should just be the icing on the cake.

‘The safety should be a given,’ he adds. ‘We’re all riders and whether we’re talking about gloves, footwear or helmets, the fit and comfort are the foundation of what we do.

'We want the products to disappear, but be there for you when you need them. When we’re designing these products we’re thinking about our friends and our family who might rely on them, exactly as Jim Gentes did when he started the company more than 30 years ago.'

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