The Low-down on Helmets
You should be well into your training for the 2016 Empire State Ride by this point in the year. And while your bike fit is most likely dialed in, and you hopefully have found cycling shorts that are comfortable, have you given any thought to the helmet that protects your brain?
By law, all helmets sold in the United States must meet standards set by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC). Some helmets are also endorsed by other organizations, including the nonprofit Snell Foundation, and there is still a large variety of styles and fits of helmets available on the market.
The two most popular styles are road and mountain bike helmets. And while both are perfectly safe and acceptable for the Empire State Ride, there are a few features that may attract you to one or the other. Road helmets are often a bit lighter in weight. They typically feature very generous ventilation and a fit that allows the rider to see ahead while riding in the handlebar drops. Mountain bike helmets are often designed with ventilation that works to facilitate air movement inside the helmet, so that you still cool well even at the often-lower speeds associated with trail riding. The fit is frequently lower in the back to provide additional coverage, and many feature a visor.
Most road cyclists prefer a road-style helmet as they are a bit less bulky and are often more aerodynamic in design, although there is nothing incorrect about riding on the road with a mountain helmet. The one caution is to never ride on the road on a full-face mountain bike helmet. You may think you are providing extra protection, but they are designed for downhill racing and limit the rider’s sight lines and flexibility.
As far as material construction, most helmets feature a shell and a liner. The shell is designed to hold the liner together in the event of a crash and to slide on impact to alleviate force to the head and neck. Shells are designed from a variety of plastic compounds, and in high-end helmets, carbon fiber is added to increase strength and decrease weight.
The liner, often made out of Expanded Polystyrene Foam (EPF), is designed to dissipate the force in the even of an impact. In other words, it is designed to crush and therefore take the impact that would otherwise injure your skull.
Another system uses Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS), which allows the helmet to rotate a few degrees upon impact to accommodate direct as well as rotational forces. Both styles are certified and approved.
Regardless of which on you prefer, fit is the most important attribute. There is no use in spending hundreds of dollars on a carbon-fiber helmet if it wobbles on your head. The best way to find your size is to wrap a measuring tape around your head (horizontally level) about 1 inch above your eyebrows. The measurement will correspond to the XS, SM, MED, LG, XL sizing on helmets.
Once you find your size, you’ll want to be sure the shape fits your head. Each manufacturer has a slightly different fit, and a helmet that fits your friend’s head may be too wide or narrow for you. The liner should fit comfortably and not pinch your skull. From there, you are able to fine-tune the fit using the rear adjustments (usually a dial or sliding ratchets). The helmet should be comfortably tight.
In some helmets you are also able to adjust the height of the helmet. The rear portion of the helmet “cage” should fit snugly around your occipital bone (the bone that protrudes from the back of your head at the top of the spine.
Straps should be adjusted so that the helmet is level. The biggest mistake you can make is to ride with your helmet tipped backward. This position does not provide any protection in the event of a crash. Tighten the side and chin straps to make this adjustment and be sure the chinstrap is positioned below your chin in a snug fit. It should always be buckled. When dialed in, you should barely see your eyebrows from the front. If you try to move it, the helmet should be tight enough that it does not shift. After a while, you should “forget” it is even on your head.
Oftentimes, higher-end helmets will come with a variety of pads that may be added to the interior to increase comfort or minimize hot spots. These are not designed to protect the head, but they do help customize the fit. Ultimately, a well-fitting bike helmet fits like a second skin. It is designed to protect your head by “becoming” your skull and taking and dissipating impact before it reaches your brain.
Even if it is not a law to wear a helmet, research and statistics show that they greatly decrease the chances of brain injury from impact. And while you may have read that drivers are more likely to give more space to a rider without a helmet (as they perceive the rider as more vulnerable), riding WITH a helmet is still far safer. So buckle up and ride!