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Helmet 101

Learn what differentiates helmets, how to care for your helmet, and how to properly fit a helmet.

You know helmets are built to protect your gray matter. But do you know which type best suits your riding style or how to care for and properly fit this very important brain bucket? If not, use that head of yours, and read on.

Sections in this guide:

Different helmet styles

Helmets not only come in a variety of kit-matching colors, they’re specifically engineered for the varying disciplines of cycling. From downhill racing to time-trial racing, helmets serve the same purpose but use different approaches to achieve it.

Mountain bike helmets are often divided into five categories: standard issue, skate style (the ones that look like mushroom caps), full face, XC, and, of course, Kids. Standard helmets tend to cover more of the head and weigh more than XC helmets. Full-face helmets protect your good looks in addition to your noggin with a chin bar. XC helmets tend to be very light and have multiple vents for cooling, while skate helmets provide maximum coverage and can handle extra abuse.

Road bike helmets are typically divided into two categories: standard road helmets and time trial helmets. Like the XC mountain bike helmet, road bike helmets strive to be as light as possible and to provide maximum ventilation without sacrificing safety. Time trial helmets are designed for maximum aerodynamics.

What’s the reason for difference in cost?

For both mountain and road helmets, what affects cost is construction and technology. You’re not sacrificing safety by using a less-expensive helmet, as long as it meets or exceeds industry safety standards such as CPSC or Snell.

As helmets go up in price, the shell design goes from being taped to being molded into the EPS (expanded polystyrene) liner. As manufacturers offer more shell sizes, the price increases because of the need for more molds. A less-expensive helmet may only come in one size with an adjustable system to hold it in place—if you have a peanut-sized cranium, you’ll have a big, goofy-looking overhang. However if you purchase a helmet that offers varying shell sizes, a small would fit your head without looking like you’ve got a mushroom on your shoulders. High-performance helmets use exotic materials, such as composites, and manufacturing processes that also affect price. For example, high-end downhill helmets borrow heavily from the moto world—some even use carbon fiber shells and meet DOT standards for motorized use. However, just because a helmet has a chin bar doesn’t mean it’s street legal.

DOT vs. Snell vs. CPSC vs. ASTM

To keep things as complicated as possible (sarcasm intended) there are multiple standards for helmets—especially full-face lids. Department of Transportation, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Snell, and American Society of Testing Materials all provide guidelines to measure a helmet’s ability to prevent injuries. The CPSC standard that most XC/road helmets pass is adequate for regular bicycle use but falls short in terms of extreme riding or motorized use. So some riders look to the moto world for helmets that will provide more protection and meet higher standards. What these higher standards lead to is heavier helmets (usually a pound more) with fewer vents. While DOT-approved helmets are considered safe for motorized use, Snell standards are still higher and include a system for testing the chin bar’s strength—something that neither the CPSC or the DOT cover—making Snell-approved helmets ideal for competition motorsports and aggressive DH, as well. Snell- and DOT-approved helmets can also be subjected to multiple impacts. Deeply rooted in all cyclists is a concern for weight—even in the gravity sector. Supporting an extra pound on your head during the course of a lift-access-riding day adds up to fatigue quickly. ASTM helmet regulations don’t meet the DOT’s penetration and multiple-impact standards, but they do meet or exceed impact standards—and, like Snell, ASTM has a chin bar standard. What this means is ASTM-certified helmets are lighter, well ventilated and provide adequate one-use-impact protection for all-mountain and free riding.

Bottom line:

  • Look for CPSC certification for XC/AM/Road
  • Look for ASTM certification for AM/FR
  • Look for Snell certification for ultra-extreme riding

Protect your Neck

Helmets keep your brain where it should be and prevent concussions. But that’s not the extent of injuries from cycling. Along with standard cycling armor, professional downhill racers and free riders alike are using neck braces to protect the spinal cord and stop extreme movement of the head so as to prevent against life debilitating injuries.

Helmet Care

Mix road and trail grime with salty sweat, and you’ve concocted one nasty helmet cocktail. Not only are dirty helmets gross to look at—and to put on your head—grungy straps and pads also give foul-odor bacteria a place to party … and reproduce like intoxicated, uneducated teens.

Most helmet pads are removable; pull them off, and use a mild detergent to cleanse, such as dish soap or laundry detergent (avoid harsh solvents, such as degreaser, as they will eat away at the straps, pads, and buckles). Use lukewarm water, and wash the whole helmet including straps, liner, and shell. You can let the shell soak for awhile if it’s extra grotty. Let the helmet fully dry, and reinstall your pads.

One nice trick to wash a helmet is to wear it in the shower. Hopefully, you already clean up after a ride; just bring the helmet with you. Shampoo your hair and put the helmet on and let the shower rinse it. Not only will you be ultra safe from bathroom-related head injuries, your helmet will be fresh the next time you hop on your bike.

Another technique is to use the washing machine to clean your pads. Make sure there’re no garments with hook-and-loop fasteners in the wash, as they’ll ruin the pads. Pads are delicate—don’t put in the wash under normal settings, only use the gentle cycle with warm water. The only drawback is you’re only washing the pads and not the rest of the helmet.

If your pads have deteriorated and need replacing, contact the manufacturer who should be able to supply you with new ones.

One might think that because helmets are for protection, they are inherently strong and can be treated roughly—not so. Like the impact zones of a car, helmets are designed to collapse under impact. Once it has absorbed any significant impact, the helmet’s protective properties are compromised, and it will need to be replaced. Don’t bang it up so it looks like you’ve taken some nasty diggers. Earn ’em the hard way.

Most manufacturers recommend replacing a helmet after three years—even without any visible signs of serious damage—because of normal breakdown during use. If the helmet is involved in any kind of impact, destroy it, toss the remains on the bone pile, and get a new one. (Creative but limited options exist to recycle helmets.) Don’t give someone else the chance to use a compromised helmet.

Among the worst things you can do to a helmet is leave it in direct sunlight for extended periods of time, or leave it somewhere like the rear deck of a car in the middle of summer where it will melt like a box of crayons … maybe not that gooey of a mess, but the bonds and molecular structure will break down. Store your helmet in a protective case or bag, and it will last longer and do a better job of protecting your invaluable egg.

Helmet Fit

Helmets on backward, helmets with buns tied up underneath, helmets riding on the back of heads. We’ve seen it all—and it’s not safe. Here’s a quick guide to properly adjusting your helmet straps for maximum protection.

It’s important to note that the straps are anchored in the two front locations. The left strap (A) is the longest.

Start with this strap by releasing the strap lock and, with the helmet level on your head, position it so that it’ll be located under your ear without touching it.

Now do the same for the other side, and make sure that the strap lock locations result in equal strap proportions and length, then lock them down. Feed any extra strap through the buckle.

Adjust the strap so that it just barely rests under your chin. You should be able to open your mouth without choking, but the strap should not be loose-fitting around your chin. Trim the straps with scissors, but don’t cut them too short just yet. Use the helmet a couple times. The straps will migrate and settle in as you use the helmet. After a few rides and everything’s settled in, and you like the fit, make a final trim of the helmet straps, and burn the ends with a lighter to prevent fraying. You’ll look pro.