Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Are Helmets Getting Uglier?

''Form follows function'' - a design mantra attributed to Louis Sullivan; Chicago architect and designer of some of America's most recognizible buildings including Manhattan's Flatiron. The principle being that you need to ensure that an object will serve the intended purpose (be functional) before you set out to make it beautiful (perfect its form).

I think helicopters are an excellent example of form follows function. After all: when was the last time you looked at a helicopter and said ''That's one beautiful helicopter!'' Yeah, I can't remember either. And, I love helicopters - I'm a big aviation nut - but as much as I love the AH-64 Apache, it is NOT pretty. Functional beyond the shadow of a doubt, but ugly as sin.

Now that we've established my understanding of modern design (or lack thereof), I think we can also easily establish that we all understand that the primary function of a good helmet is to protect the wearer from impact induced injury. After all, how many of us wear a helmet to look cool?

Show of hands?

O.k., sir, I see your hand there in the back corner... but out of this room of a few hundred - you are in the minority.

I personally wear a helmet because on a couple of occasions where I have had the unfortunate experience of crashing; my helmets have sustained pretty serious impact - once even bouncing my skull off a large rock while mountain biking outside of Idaho City, Idaho. I can't say for sure that my helmets have saved my life; but I can say with absolute certainty that they have saved me from serious and painful injuries.

However, given the choice between helmets; I am honestly going to choose the coolest one - because the universal truth that you look more like a dork the farther you are from your bike extends to - nay; is amplified by - your helmet.

So - in this modern day when our understanding of materials and our ability to manipulate them is better than ever before - why is the cycling helmet seemingly regressing (in this individual's finite mind, that is) in terms of cool factor? It seems to me that the industry hit a design zenith with the advent of the Giro Ionos/Aeon and Specialized S-Works Prevail where the helmets looked great, were arguably cooler and more aero than a bare head (and mine is shaved bald - so that's saying something), and offered better protection than ever before. Why then does it seem that our ability to create a functional structure that ALSO looks great has seemingly been pushed to the wayside while other endeavours are being pursued - i.e. improved aerodynamics.

Granted - what we are seeing is probably just the helmet equivalent of the recent "Aero Road" revolution in road bikes. For example, our materials expertise has progressed to the point where teardrop section tubes don't carry the same weight, stiffness, and ride quality penalties they did just a few years ago - and so you're seeing greater popularity of these aerodynamic shapes outside of the time-trial/multisport segments as they bleed over into general road use. Cases in point: Cervelo Soloist, Specialized Venge, Giant Propel, and even the Kamm Tail design being applied to the latest generation Trek Madone.

So - perhaps what we are seeing is the [painful] evolution of the helmet of the future? Well, let's hope that form indeed follows function in this case - so that the forms improve in their aesthetics once the function is dialed; 'cause I'm going to need a new helmet soon...

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