Cycling Helmet Buyers Guide

Image Credit: Nicola / Wikimedia Commons

Cycling Helmet Buyers Guide

Whilst there's no legal requirement to wear a cycling helmet in the UK, it's a no-brainer for a cyclist to wear one, given that they can be the difference between life and death and can prevent serious head injury in the case of an accident.

Also, if you want to compete in an organised cycling event or enjoy the facilities of most bike parks, you'll be required to wear a cycle helmet.

Obviously, a good helmet should not just have a good helmet design but should properly protect your head. Cycling helmets need to be strong and tough. However, they should also be secure and comfortable. The best cycling helmets provide protection and ventilation and are comfortable to wear. Depending on your biking requirements, they can also offer cutting-edge aerodynamics.

Different cyclists will have different requirements and there is a huge range of helmets out there to choose from today depending on your individual requirements. A time trial road cyclist will have vastly different requirements to an off-trail mountain biker, for example, and a commuter will not need the features a triathlete does.

With so many helmets on the market, it can be difficult to choose between all the different type of bike helmets. So how exactly do you choose the right helmet for you so that you can look good but not compromise on your safety or ride?

This guide will look at the types of cycling helmets available on today's market and other things that you should know before buying one, such as fit.

Photo: Mirror Miror Helmet Gold/Bobbin Bikes

Choosing Your Cycling Helmet

Construction and Safety Features

First off, it should be noted that a cycling helmet should always be replaced if you have been involved in a collision or if it has been damaged (such as by being dropped). Any damage to the helmet's structure will mean it may not perform well in the future in situations where it is needed most i.e. in an impact situation.

You should never buy a second-hand helmet as you may not always know if it has been involved in a prang.

A helmet can also suffer from integral weaknesses due to age or wear and tear that may not always be visible. Therefore, all cycling helmets should be checked regularly.

European Safety Standards

Any new helmet you buy should be labelled with a European CE EN1078 standard sticker confirming that it meets stringent European safety standards. Certain websites selling to the UK will not always meet these rigorous standards and/or may fake the safety stickers, therefore it is essential to buy your helmet from a reputable retailer.

A helmet may be an online bargain for a reason. British cyclists could be riding around with expensive knock-off designer items on their heads which will offer little to no real protection in the event of an accident. Always buy wisely.

EPS Foam

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam absorbs, converts, and then channels crash energy, preventing the energy produced from an impact from reaching the brain. EPS is far superior to softer padding in this regard as unlike softer padding, it does not bounce back after impact to deliver energy to the very area you were trying to protect.

Multi-directional Impact Protection System MIPS

Many major brands use Multi-directional Impact Protection Systems (MIPS) now. This innovative and revolutionary new technology offers an extra layer of protection inside the helmet, allowing the helmet to slide relative to the head in the event of an angled impact.

Helmets with this safety feature are recognisable by having a thin yellow liner inside them, and they also are marked with little yellow logos.

Cycling Helmet Fit

It is not just a question of getting a cycling helmet brand and design that has been ruled as being safe for the purpose intended in the country you are in. The helmet must fit properly in order to be effective. You can have the best helmet but if it's not fitted right, or is too big or small, then it's not doing its job correctly.

When considering fit, comfort must be another main consideration along with safety. It's also important that your cycling helmet allows you all-around good vision so you can see properly while cycling. This includes when cycling with goggles.

Strap

All helmets will have an adjustable strap, and each helmet will state a range of head sizes that it's designed to fit. The more expensive helmets will come in a wider range of sizes, while less expensive helmets usually come in just one shell size but will have adjustable straps and retention systems to enable a good fit.

It is important to note that different brands will have different internal designs, so a helmet from one manufacturer may not fit on your head the same as a helmet from another manufacturer. As well as adjustable straps a bike helmet may utilise a dial-fit tightening system.

Measuring Your Head 

Helmets are measured based on your head's widest circumference, which is around one inch above your eyebrows. If you want to measure yourself, get a tape measure and measure this part , ensuring to keep the tape level and above your ears.

A cycling helmet should sit low on your forehead, level above your eyebrows, with no more than two finger widths between your eyebrow line and the front of the helmet. The retention system should feel nice and snug around the back of your head. Once on, the helmet should not feel so tight that it's digging in, but on the other hand, it should not be wobbly.

When it is on, the upper straps should form a ‘V' shape directly beneath the ear. If you can fit more than two fingers between the chin strap and your chin, the helmet is too loose.

Strap buckles should fit close to beneath your chin while allowing you to still open your mouth to drink water or eat something like an energy bar on the move. To find a snug-fitting helmet, start by measuring your head size, then match it up with the correct option from the supplier's size range.

Visor or Removable Visor

Some road or mountain bike helmets may also feature a removable or built-in visor. An integrated visor can help protect the rider from falling or low-hanging debris such as tree branches - keeping objects away from the face and eyes. However, an adjustable visor on a road bike helmet can also act as a sun visor and help to better streamline the product.

Types of Cycling Helmet

Whilst every legitimate cycling helmet on the market will offer you some protection in the event of a collision, different helmets are designed specifically for different types of riding.

Road Cycling Helmets

Road helmets are usually the lightest of all the types of cycling helmets, designed with comfort and aerodynamics at the forefront.

Ventilation

 Comfort when riding over long distances for prolonged periods, weight, aerodynamics and ventilation are all key factors to consider when purchasing a road helmet and trying to keep your head cool.

Good ventilation allows good airflow to your head, allowing heat to escape so your head won't get too hot and sweaty during a long or hard ride.

If you do a lot of road cycling, you may want to consider purchasing a helmet with removable pads so that you can clean and dry the pads separately. Some helmets also come with a spare set of pads. However, any good-quality pads have an anti-bacterial treatment to resist odours and all helmets should be cleanable to some extent.

The hard shell covering the EPS foam core should be integral and not just be glued or else it will peel over time if going on a lot of rides. In general, vented road cycling helmets offer excellent ventilation compared with other models on this list.

Aero Helmets (Or Road Bike Helmets)

Aero helmets offer speed over road helmets as they have less drag but they offer less ventilation and also tend to be heavier. If you're racing where a few seconds matter, such as in triathlons or elite road races, then these helmets may be the right choice for you.

Time Trial Helmets

An expensive helmet option, time trial helmets are designed for where even fractions of seconds matter to the cyclist. Everything is designed with maximum speed in mind, including protection in case of a high-speed impact.

These helmets have very little venting, and what venting there is on them is placed not to disrupt the aerodynamics.

These helmets' aerodynamics have been designed for riders riding in streamlined, very low, aggressively tucked positions, Design elements include a longer tail section to smooth the path between a rider's head and shoulders, and eye shields integrated into the brow of the helmet.

Mountain Bike (MTB) Helmets

If there's ever a time to wear a helmet, then mountain-biking is the time due to the high potential for injury in this sport.

Mountain bike helmets are designed to maximise protection and so are less concerned with aerodynamics than road bike helmets are.

While being lightweight and well-ventilated, these helmets need to be rough, tough and durable to meet the needs of off-roading, and some will also offer extra protection to the face and chin, essential for the more extreme trails. As such a full-face helmet is often recommended.

There are four main types of mountain bike helmet:

  • Cross-country (XC) Helmets
  • Trial Helmets
  • Enduro Helmets
  • Full-Face Helmets

Cross-country MTB Helmets (XC Helmets)

Cross country helmets (or XC helmets) are lightweight and well ventilated and are designed for cross-country racing on less dangerous trails. They offer the most minimal head coverage of all the helmets in the mountain bike helmet range as a result. 

Trail MTB Helmets

Trail helmets are heavier than XC helmets, but as they cover a larger area of the head, they give more protection, particularly for the head at the rear. Their vents tend to be smaller and another feature on them includes an adjustable peak.

A great combination of protection, weight, and ventilation, these mountain bike helmets are good, solid all-around performers.

Enduro MTB Helmets 

Enduro trails are tougher than normal trails, so enduro helmets come tougher, to offer higher levels of protection than regular trail helmets.

These will be heavier as a consequence and have less venting than trial helmets.

Some Enduro Helmets have additional features such as ear protection, on-helmet goggle parking, and removable chin-bars so you can convert the helmet from being open-face to full-face.

Full-face MTB helmets 

Full face helmets are for the extreme mountain bike rider, as they offer maximum protection to the head, face and chin as well as upper neck.

The heaviest helmet of the MTB bunch, with minimal venting (so may prevent breathing as effectively as open-face helmets), these are designed for maximum safety when pedalling on downhill trails.

The full-face MTB helmet has a fixed chin-bar and is designed to be worn with goggles.

BMX & Dirt Helmets

There are two types of BMX helmets available: open-face and full-face. 

Open-face helmets (skate style) are meant for less extreme riders who don't require the extra protection a face shield gives or the extra coverage around the sides of the head and upper neck. These helmets are far more pleasant to wear than full-face helmets since they provide much greater ventilation and don't feel as claustrophobic. 

Full-face helmets are made to keep the most daring riders safe and are most common in BMX racing. In addition to top-of-head coverage, the face is well-protected inside the helmet, and the helmet covers the complete head, including the sides and the upper neck. 

Although some  full-face helmets are made of carbon fibre to minimise weight, these helmets can still be heavy to wear. They don’t breathe as effectively as open-face helmets but the majority of them do contain vents to allow air to circulate.

Commuter and Leisure Helmets

A commuter helmet is a term given to any number of urban helmets designed to be used in conjunction with a commuter bike. Typically, they will feature a mixture of ventilation holes, optional visors, and funky designs. 

And whilst you can wear almost any helmet to commute in, although there are helmets specially designed for this purpose where visibility in traffic has to be the Number 1 factor. 

Features can include lights (or mounts for lights) on the front and rear of the helmet for extra visibility at night, and some commuter helmets have removable peaks to shade your eyes from the sun.

Click here for a commuter helmet review.

Skate helmet

Similar to a bike helmet and, depending on what type of cycling you're engaged in, not always suitable - a skate helmet mimics a typical rounded bike helmet in appearance. Skate helmets usually feature minor (or no) ventilation holes and no visor. Skate helmets are also unlikely to use EPS foam in their construction, instead protecting against minor bumps and knocks.

Collapsible Helmet

A fairly new and inexpensive helmet option (also great for commuters who want to save space) is the collapsible bike helmet. Make of concentric layers, these helmets fold in on themselves to allow cyclists to pack and unpack them as needed.

Kids Helmets 

Children should always wear a cycling helmet when out on their bikes. While safety must always be the utmost factor, the design and style are really important when choosing a kids helmet, as the reality is, if your child doesn't like it, they won't want to wear it.

As children grow, their helmets will also need to be updated for size and fashion. Helmets for kids will typically come in a range of colours and fun designs.

All types and styles of helmets are available for kids, including road helmets, mountain bike helmets, and leisure helmets. With so many styles and designs out there, there is bound to be a helmet your child will love.

Photo: Starling Helmet/Bobbin Bikes

Depending on the level of protection required by your style of cycling and where you intend to take your bike, there is a wide range of helmet options available. You can choose from budget-friendly vented road helmets all the way to higher-end helmets for extra coverage, protection, and even competitive edges.