How to Choose the Perfect Bike Helmet for Your Style of Riding
Using a bike helmet that fits perfectly and matches your riding style over one that doesn’t can reduce the likelihood of head injury from a crash, enhance performance, and improve ride quality.
Each cyclist has different needs, and there are many different helmet designs and prices to meet them. Your choice will depend on factors like cycling discipline, climate, head shape, and budget.
The problem with having so many options is that it is tricky to pick the perfect one. This article aims to make that decision easier by explaining the different types of helmets, safety standards, and technologies, how to ensure it fits, and what features to look out for in each category and price range.
We also recommend checking out a list of the best bike helmets we recommend to ensure you choose the perfect model for your needs.
Do Bike Helmets Work?
In the event of a crash, it’s clear that wearing a helmet reduces your chances of a negative outcome.
Dozen of studies and subsequent analyses and reviews of these studies have come to similar conclusions; bicycle helmets help prevent serious injury and death.
One of the most commonly referenced analyses was by Attewell, Glase, and McFadden in 2001. This paper concluded by analyzing data from several peer-reviewed studies that bicycle helmets reduce the risk of head and brain injury by 60% and 58%.
Further studies and revisions of this analysis and others have led to more conservative estimates of risk reduction based on the severity of the injury. For example, Olivier and Creighton’s 2016 review identified a 51% reduction in the risk of head injury, 69% for serious head injuries, and 65% for fatal head injuries.
Overall, it’s beyond doubt that helmets work to prevent injuries or death in crashes. However, this isn’t the only consideration.
The Effect of Helmet Wearing Behaviour
Almost all modifications to our behaviors have unexpected and unforeseeable knock-on effects. By attempting to reduce the risk of an activity, we can unconsciously or consciously change our behaviors to compensate.
This phenomenon is known as the Peltzman Effect. It posits that introducing a safety device like a helmet tends to increase the occurrence of risky behaviors because the perception of risk is lower. This compensation leads to lower-than-expected benefits.
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For example, wearing a bicycle helmet may increase the likelihood that the rider will take more risks on the road and go faster because of the belief in the helmet’s protective effects. Likewise, drivers may take less care when interacting with helmeted cyclists, such as making riskier overtake maneuvers.
We aren’t arguing that the Peltzman Effect will outweigh the benefit of wearing a helmet, but it’s important to be aware that wearing one isn’t a panacea for rider safety. We must always be conscious of our riding and practice good safety habits.
Better Infrastructure to Improve Safety
Well-developed cycling infrastructure is, without a doubt, the most effective way to prevent cycling-related injuries and deaths. If there are bicycle lanes, multi-use paths, and cycleways in your area, use them.
As you can see from the graph below, at the time of this research, over 50% of US cyclists wore helmets, compared to one or two percent in the Netherlands. Nonetheless, the US had roughly four times the number of cycling fatalities.
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This effect is likely due to the excellent cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands, which keeps cyclists away from cars, and a culture that encourages riding and puts cyclists at the forefront of drivers’ minds.
Unfortunately, until better cycling infrastructure is widespread, our best protection is to ride defensively, wear our helmets, and continuously advocate for more bike lanes.
Is It Illegal to Ride a Bike Without a Helmet?
Whether or not you must wear a bike helmet depends on your age and the type of bicycle you’re riding. The United States has no federal law governing bike helmet use. Instead, each state and county has its own rules.
In general, adults are not required to wear a helmet by law. However, in most states, it’s mandatory for youths under 16 (or 18 in some cases) to wear helmets. Likewise, it’s illegal to ride a Class 3 e-bike (28mph max speed) without a helmet in most states.
Different Types of Bike Helmets and Safety
The importance of bicycle helmets in preventing severe injury means standards and quality assurance are of utmost importance. For this reason, most nations have strict safety standards with which all manufacturers must comply.
These standards ensure helmets pass basic tests but do not include the different technologies and designs that improve on those standards.
In 1998, the United States government introduced a universal standard called the Consumer Product Safety Act for the production of bicycle helmets.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) oversees adherence to the standard. A sticker or printing of the CPSC logo should be visible on any approved helmet for sale in the US.
Individual countries like Japan or Canada and collections of countries like the European Union (GPSR), Australia and New Zealand, or Great Britain have their own systems verifying that a helmet utilizes the most up-to-date standard.
Another interesting helmet rating standard is the Virginia Tech STAR system. This ongoing, independent study of helmets and helmet technology provides unbiased ratings to allow consumers to make informed purchasing decisions. They provide a ranked list of the most protective helmets on the market based on those they’ve tested.
What Is a MIPS Bike Helmet
A MIPS bike helmet uses the company’s patented ‘multi-directional impact protection system.’ This safety system is a simple low-friction insert that sits between the helmet padding and the EPS foam shell.
This insert provides 10 to 15mm of movement on specific angled impacts to reduce the rotational force on the head. These angled impacts are the most common, and our brains are highly susceptible to rotational forces. Impressively, the MIPS inserts weigh only 25 to 45 grams.
The MIPS company provides the technology to over 140 brands and has tested over 50,000 helmets since beginning in 2007.
WaveCel and KinetiCore Helmet Technology
Two newer impact protection technologies have emerged over the past decade, the first of which was WaveCel.
This helmet technology uses a network of shock absorbers that absorbs the energy of an impact, firstly by using crumple zones and secondly by flexing and gliding, which diverts rotational forces from your head (similar to Mips).
The theoretical benefit of this technology is that it provides protection from more types of impacts and is more effective at dampening the effect of rotational impacts. Although the study that demonstrates this may be biased as some of the researchers have financial interests in WaveCel.
KinetiCore is a brand-new (2022) technology released by helmet manufacturer Lazer. KinetiCore uses carefully placed blocks integrated into the EPS foam shell to reduce the forces from direct and rotational impacts.
Lazer claims its new technology improves ventilation by 12% and is 23% lighter than MIPS.
What Is the Difference Between Mountain Bike and Road Bike Helmets?
Each cycling discipline has unique demands and requires different attributes from a helmet. The two most contrasting helmets are those for mountain biking and road biking.
Road cycling helmets must be lightweight, aerodynamic, and have lots of ventilation. In contrast, mountain biking helmets—except those for cross-country MTB, which share road helmet characteristics—are more protective with extra coverage in the back and visors.
Some MTB helmets use a full-face design, such as those used in downhill racing.
How to Choose and Fit a Bike Helmet
A suitable bicycle helmet can have a notable impact on your ride experience. Several factors should influence your decision, the most important of which is fit. A poor fit will compromise protection in a crash and can become quite uncomfortable as the miles build up.
Other important factors include comfort, the type of discipline you ride, if you compete, climate (temperature and rainfall), and protective technology. Let’s take a deeper look at how to choose a bike helmet.
How to Measure for a Bike Helmet
To measure for a bike helmet, take a flexible tape measure or a piece of string and wrap it around your head at its widest part, usually starting somewhere on the forehead. If you use string, measure it with a rigid measuring tool.
Most manufacturers offer sizes in metric (cm) or a combination of metric and imperial. For example, here is Bontrager’s sizing scale for adult helmets:
- S: 51 – 57 cm / 20″ – 22″
- M: 54 – 60 cm / 21″ – 24″
- L: 58 – 63 cm / 23″ – 25″
- XL: 60 – 66 cm / 24″ – 26″
By knowing the circumference of your head, you can quickly determine the best size helmet in a given brand’s sizing range. If you fall between helmet sizes, try both and pick whichever fits better and is comfortable, usually the smaller of the two.
Choosing the Right Size: How Should a Bike Helmet Fit?
Each helmet manufacturer has a slightly different fitting, so we’d recommend visiting your local bike shop to try on a few brands to see which is the best for you. You could purchase a helmet online if you know that a specific brand fits you.
When trying on a helmet, it should fit snugly and stay on without using the straps, even with your head upside down. The pressure should also be evenly distributed; you don’t want excess pressure on a specific point on your head.
You can test the fit by shaking your head with the helmet on. If it’s adjusted correctly and fits, it shouldn’t move more than an inch when you shake your head. If the helmet moves a lot, you may need a smaller size.
Most modern helmets have an adjustment system, such as BOA, which allows you to adjust the fit by twisting a wheel in the rear or on top of the helmet. These retention systems provide a tailored fit within the size’s range, for example, 23 to 25 inches.
How to Wear a Bike Helmet
To wear a helmet that fits correctly, ensure the straps are both even length, and then place it on your head horizontally. The front of the helmet should sit roughly half an inch above your eyebrows, so it protects your forehead.
Tighten the adjustment mechanism until it’s snug. Then, close the straps around your chin and tighten them, so they are snug but not uncomfortable. Ensure the straps dividers sit just below your ears to keep the straps in place.
To check the straps are tight enough, open your mouth wide and feel a little pressure on the top of your head. If not, tighten the straps further.
Bike Helmet Features and Characteristics
The type of riding you do and where and when you do it will determine the features you look for in a bike helmet.
Our heads release lots of heat and sweat when we exercise, so having a helmet with plenty of ventilation is essential when riding in hot weather to help regulate body temperature.
Ventilation is also beneficial even if it’s not particularly hot. However, during winter or periods with lots of rainfall, a helmet without ventilation or minimal holes will keep you warm or stop some rain from getting through.
Again, if you’re concerned with speed, a lightweight helmet is ideal. In general, the more expensive the helmet, the lighter it will be.
High-end helmets can integrate the latest technologies while keeping weight at a minimum. For example, Lazer’s KinetiCore is an impact reduction technology that cuts down the weight by 23% compared to Mips.
Getting a lightweight helmet is also a good idea if you do long endurance rides, as any excess weight will put a lot of pressure on your neck and shoulders.
Ratcheting fitting mechanism
Most helmets have a small dial or wheel at the back of the helmet or one integrated into the top, allowing you to adjust the size with one hand. This makes fitting the helmet much more straightforward. However, cheap helmets may have replaceable pads that change the inside diameter, which is more time-consuming.
Suppose you’re a competitive road cyclist, XC mountain biker, or passionate weekend warrior. In that case, you may want a helmet with an aerodynamic shape to reduce drag and boost your average speed.
Most aerodynamic helmets sacrifice ventilation and add extra weight to reduce drag. Several models balance the two, but they come at a premium.
Most road helmets have the same amount of coverage. In contrast, MTB helmets vary depending on the brand and intended use. For example, most MTB helmets have additional protection for the back of the head that covers roughly down to where the head and neck meet.
Helmets for more extreme MTB disciplines, like downhill racing, have full face coverage and integrated goggles.
Impact reducing technology
As we covered above, Mips, WaveCel, KinetiCore, and POC’s SPIN technology are all solutions to improve the helmet’s level of protection in the event of a crash.
These technologies add to the cost of a product but are worthwhile considerations if it fits your budget. Regardless, all helmets must meet minimum safety standards with or without these systems.
Visors help shield your eyes from the sun, glare, and dirt or debris coming from overhead and are typical on mountain bike helmets and some commuter-style models. Some models make the visor removable so you can take it off in certain conditions.
Road cycling helmets typically don’t have visors as they can block your vision when riding in a forward and down position.
Accessory mounts and lights
Commuters and urban riders have very different requirements from those riding for sport on roads or in the mountain.
Built-in LED lights and mounts for lights or a dash-cam-style camera are possible extras on best commuter helmets. In addition, some mountain bike helmets may have mounts for a live-action camera like a Go-Pro.
Which Type of Helmet Is Best for a Bike?
The type of helmet best for a bike depends on your riding style. We recommend choosing yours based on your riding style, and the climate you ride in once fit and comfort are the priority.
- Road – Standard, Aero, Convertible aero
- Mountain – XC, Convertible trail/enduro, DH
- Triathlon/Time trial
Helmet Pricing: What to Expect for Your Money
Prices vary massively between helmets based on their features and specialization. Thankfully, if you’re purchasing it from a reputable online retailer or a bike shop, it will meet safety requirements.
Around $25 to $75 will get you a basic recreational, road, or mountain bike helmet without any extra features. However, in this price range, the products are relatively heavy, more complicated to adjust, and have poor ventilation.
The $75 to $150 range opens up more specialized helmets in the MTB disciplines, those with extra coverage and potentially basic models with face coverage. Most commuter helmets fall into this price range. In addition, road bike helmets in this range are more advanced, with more aero designs, improved ventilation, lighter materials, and potentially impact reduction systems like MIPS.
Around $150 to $300 is where comfort, coverage, easy adjustment, aerodynamics, and lightweight materials all come to the fore. Most of these models have impact reduction systems like MIPS or WaveCel. Specialized downhill MTB and triathlon helmets are also available in this price range.
Helmets costing over $300 will be lightweight, performance-oriented, and feature unique technologies such as heart rate monitoring. In addition, this is where you’ll find all of the high-performance helmets used by professionals in each cycling discipline.
Choosing a Kids’ Bike Helmet
Follow the same measurement and fitting steps as you would for adults when choosing a helmet for your child. Don’t pick one they will ‘grow into,’ as it will not protect them fully in the event of a crash.
Instead, ensure it fits snugly but comfortably and is easy enough to adjust so they can do it themselves. Some of the best kids’ bike helmets have additional features like magnetic straps that avoid pinching under the chin.
Bicycle Helmet Care and Replacement
To maintain your bicycle helmet in optimal condition for longer, you should do the following two things.
Firstly, store it in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight, as sun exposure and heat increase the rate of wear. Secondly, wash it every month or so or after a particularly sweaty ride to remove salt, as salt is corrosive and can speed up deterioration.
How to Clean Bike Helmet
Clean your bike helmet with warm, soapy water (mild dish soap) and a non-abrasive sponge. Don’t submerge the helmet in water. In addition, don’t use heavy cleaning solvents as these may break down glue or the foam in the helmet.
We’d also recommend checking the manufacturer’s guidelines for specific recommendations. For example, to see if removable pads are machine washable.
How Long Do Bike Helmets Last
Knowing when to replace a bike helmet means you can replace yours when necessary, so it continues to provide the maximum protection in the event of a crash. Depending on usage, the CPSC recommends replacing it every five to ten years, but some manufacturers offer suggestions of three to five years.
If you ride frequently, err on the side of caution and replace the helmet every five years. Sun exposure, moisture, and general wear and tear will all contribute to the degradation of the helmet over time. On the other hand, if you have a helmet that gets used once every few weeks or months, consider replacing it after seven years.