Thursday, October 25, 2012

How To Buy a New Bike Helmet

Part of my new "How To" series

My latest series of posts is focusing on things that I frequently helped people learn during my years in bike shops.

That is to say that these are some of the things that are sort of considered "tribal knowledge" - you don't necessarily know them until you've been at it a while and made some mistakes. Well, I've never felt that was fair and I've always enjoyed demystifying the bike industry for people. So; here's the next tip to help you along your journey to better enjoying your cycling experience:


Wow - that was formal...

So I'm going to focus on two areas primarily with a third area which is really less important - sort of like 2.5 steps to a better bike helmet. These should also serve to help set your priorities as you shop and try them on since I'm listing them in order.

  1. Fit
  2. Function
  3. (or 2.5) Price.
"Oh, here you go again, Matt - ever the salesman - you're telling me price is the least important factor? You just want to sell expensive helmets..."

Well, let's read on before we make that judgement; shall we?

Yes; price is not as important - although we're all crunched for money these days - a good helmet is worth the money if you're riding in it a lot. It will last longer and be more comfortable. I can't say they are any more protective - but they're at least no less protective than the less expensive ones. That said; after reading about points  1 and 2, you'll see why I put price last.

1. FIT
Here is where we start. This is where I always start with people I'm helping choose a helmet. Before we even look at brands or price tags; we discover what proper fit feels like and what feels right. Think about it - you'll have this thing perched on your head for; potentially, hours at a time and I don't want it to make you miserable. A comfortable helmet makes any day on a bike better.

Here's what you're looking for: The helmet should touch the top of your head and be comfortably snug around the circumference of your head without too much slack between the shell of the helmet and the adjustable retention system (if the helmet is so equipped).
Start by choosing a few helmets - you have to try three or more on for this method to have enough context to work well.
  • If the helmet has an adjustable retention system (Specialized has "MindSet"; Bontrager has "Headmaster"; and Giro has "Roc Loc" among others) adjust it to it's loosest setting to get it out of the way. 
  • Place the helmet on your head with the front just a finger width or two above your brow line
  • If there are any parts of the helmet that are too tight for the helmet to properly fit on your head or to simply be comfortable - grab another helmet or a larger size and start over.
  • If nothing is poking you or too tight; ratchet down the retention system until it is snug enough to keep the helmet from wiggling as you shake your head. Some people like to bend over and stand up for this  test: whichever way you think works best. If it fits snugly and comfortably set it aside for reconsideration. If you can't get it snug enough - grab another helmet or a smaller size and start over.
  • Once you have found two or three helmets that seem to be the right size and are comfortable to be contenders you are on the right track. Try them each on one more time to evaluate the differences. You may or may not feel much - but that is the point.  Everyone's head is different and you won't know until you try them on yourself.
If you have two or three helmets that emerge from this first step successfully without a clear winner then it is time to move on to step two...

Some people will start here - and that is o.k. There are plenty of people who wouldn't be caught dead road riding in a mountain helmet. But for me: I use the same helmet for all activities; road, mountain, commuting, or cyclocross, so I just try to choose a good helmet.

That said; some may not even be aware that bike helmets are often made for specific activities. Take a close look and observe:
  • A Road helmet will have a slimmer, sleeker fit with a greater quantity of long vents from front to back. This helps it channel air across your head at the higher speeds to keep you cool. It may have less of the plastic in-molded shell on it as well to reduce weight.
  • A Mountain helmet may be more boxy and will usually cover more of the back of your head, extending down toward your neck. The vents will also be boxier and often bigger to allow warm air to escape the head at the slower speeds of mountain biking. They will often also have a detachable visor attached to the front.

Think about how you'll be using the helmet and your riding style. I choose to use road helmets exclusively because most of my riding is done on the road. I'll be fine using one of those when I'm mountain biking; but I might be miserable using a mountain helmet on the road. If you, however; ride mostly off-road, ride more slowly on road, do a lot of commuting miles, or a little bit of everything: you may want to get a Mountain helmet in the mix.

Considering these things may help narrow the herd if there is no clear leader. Presumably though; you may still end up with two or three choices here. After trying them on a gain just to check the fit; it is time to consider the final point...

2.5. PRICE
Yes, price is a factor - but don't let it get in the way of buying a good helmet. If you can afford the nicer helmet and you like it better: get it. I have never had anyone tell me they wish they hadn't bought the nicer helmet. It is always the other way around...

So; through the previous steps; we may have weeded out some price ranges already. But, for perfectly logical and sound reasons other than price alone. They either didn't fit our head or were not suited to our riding. What we have left are a selection of a few helmets which work for us and may or may not have a few different price points represented. The more expensive helmets may have some features or benefits that the less expensive ones do - and that is worth considering if they fit your budget.

But, if we had ruled out certain helmets just because if their price tag we may not have found these particular models or brands and just how well they work for us.

I have had this method work both ways for me: people bought a less expensive helmet than the one they came in looking for or bought a more expensive one. But either way they have all felt the ended up with the best and most comfortable helmet for their needs - and isn't that the ultimate goal?

I hope this has been helpful and that you've learned something. If you have questions or suggestions; let me know. Leave a comment and I'm happy to help.

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