The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute estimates that a careful bicyclist will crash on average every 4,500 miles. Some states require riders to wear a bicycle helmet, and even where it’s not the law, a good bicycle helmet is a solid investment in your health and safety. Pronto’s Bicycle Helmet Buying Guide will help you separate marketing buzzwords from actual performance to find the bicycle helmet for your next ride.
Choose the helmet that matches your riding: sport or recreational, road, BMX or mountain bike. Sport helmets are great for casual use, road helmets are the lightweight choice of the casual cyclist, BMX helmets provide extra protection for harder crashes and mountain bike helmets offer maximum protection for rugged terrain.
To ensure you get the proper bicycle helmet size, measure the circumference of your head just above the eyebrows. If shopping for a woman or child, look for helmets specifically designed for them. Custom-fit your bicycle helmet with adjustable pads and straps, and move it around until you are certain it won’t come loose on impact.
Most bicycle helmet construction uses EPS or EPP foam. Single-use EPS foam is less expensive than EPP. Bicycle helmets made with EPS foam should be replaced every five years to maintain proper impact resistance. EPP foam in BMX and mountain bicycle helmets will withstand multiple impacts. Carefully examine products that use proprietary foams to determine whether they perform as the manufacturer claims.
Look for bicycle helmets that offer good ventilation, with large front vents to ensure maximum airflow. Look for sweat control systems with removable pads or mesh linings that can be washed and replaced to keep the bicycle helmet feeling fresh.
Look for a bicycle helmet that offers CPSC certification, which is the minimum set by the U.S. Government. ASTM and Snell Foundation safety certifications both go above and beyond the federal standard, with the Snell Foundation certification recognized as the toughest standard. If a bicycle helmet does not offer one of these certifications, don’t buy it.
Bicycle Motocross, a competitive sport where bicycle riders race on a dirt track that features high banks, jumps and hills.
Expanded Polystyrene, an inexpensive single-use foam often used in road and sport bicycle helmets. EPS foam compresses over time, so these bicycle helmets should be replaced every five years.
Expanded Polypropylene, a foam designed to withstand multiple impacts that is often used in BMX and mountain bike helmets.
Straps mounted inside a bicycle helmet that keep it firmly in place on your head during an impact.
A bicycle helmet with inner pads or linings that can be removed and machine washed.
Manufacturers classify bicycle helmets in four categories: sport, road, BMX and mountain bike. Also known as recreational helmets, sport bicycle helmets are general-purpose helmets preferred by the casual or occasional user. Designed for commuter use, road bicycle helmets feature lots of ventilation and lightweight materials. For more significant protection, BMX bicycle helmets enclose the entire head with stronger impact-absorbent materials than road and sport helmets offer. Mountain bikers frequently face rugged terrain, so they require the strongest impact-resistant bicycle helmets.
Keep these things in mind when shopping for a specific type of bicycle helmet:
Size matters. Properly sizing and fitting your new bicycle helmet before use is the only way to ensure complete protection. Avoid “one size fits all” bicycle helmets that can be too large or too small.
In order to determine your correct bicycle helmet size, measure the circumference of your skull at the point just above your eyebrows. Manufacturers may have proprietary bicycle helmet sizes, but most conform to the sizing used for hats. Women should look for women’s sizes, and children should have specialized bicycle helmets that are lightweight and offer extra protection.
Once you have a bicycle helmet that’s the correct size, look for moveable pads and adjustable straps to custom-fit your new helmet. Many manufacturers provide a band or system of pads inside the helmet to fit it snugly to your head. The straps, sometimes called the retention system, should hold your bicycle helmet securely in place.
Once your helmet fits properly, buckle your straps and move your head front-to-back and side-to-side. A correctly fitted bicycle helmet should move less than an inch during this range-of-motion test. If you can push your helmet back to expose your forehead or push your helmet forward to cover your eyes, readjust the straps to fix the fit.
One of the most confusing points in shopping for a bicycle helmet is the types of foam used in bicycle helmet construction. While some manufacturers have proprietary foams developed specifically for their product line, most bicycle helmets use EPS or EPP foams.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is the most common foam used in bicycle helmets. Bicycle helmets made with EPS are single-impact models, as this type of foam loses its absorption capacity and shape after a crash. This foam is an affordable choice in road helmets, as cyclists will hopefully not have frequent crashes. EPS bicycle helmets should be replaced every five years, as the foam may compress and lose effectiveness over time.
Expanded polypropylene (EPP) foam appears in fewer bicycle helmets, but it does retain absorption capacity and shape after impact. EPP is useful in BMX and mountain bicycle helmets where riders may crash more frequently and constant helmet replacement is impractical.
Some bicycle helmet manufacturers develop proprietary versions of these foams as a marketing tactic to differentiate their bicycle helmets from others on the market. Examples of these proprietary foams include GE’s GeCet, which is a more durable EPS; Zorbium, which claims to be more effective at absorbing impact; Tau’s ReUp, a combination of EPS and EPP; and Brock, another multi-impact foam. Some high-end bicycle helmets feature carbon fiber that reduces the weight of the helmet, although this construction adds significantly to the price tag.
Don’t be tempted by proprietary foams. Dig around until you find out what is actually in the bicycle helmet, and check online reviews to see if it does what the manufacturer claims it can do.
Ventilation is an important aspect of bicycle helmet design. In more physical bike riding, such as BMX or mountain biking, good ventilation is essential to avoid overheating and to retain a healthy core body temperature.
Excessive ventilation can reduce the effectiveness of a bicycle helmet, focusing impact pressure to specific points. Look for large front vents, which allow for maximum airflow to the head. Road helmets typically incorporate more ventilation than BMX or mountain bike helmets, as these cyclists have less exposure to crashes and jarring impacts. If you’ll be doing a lot of hard riding, look for a sweat management system, which is a series of pads or a mesh lining that can be easily removed from the bicycle helmet and washed as needed.
Don’t pick up a helmet without a sticker indicating one of these certifications: Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), or the Snell Foundation. CPSC is the bicycle helmet standard, and a federal safety standard passed in March of 1999 states that all bicycle helmets sold in the United States must meet the CPSC standard.
The ASTM safety certification for bicycle helmets goes above and beyond the CPSC minimums. The Snell Foundation safety certification is the toughest set of standards, incorporating highly rated impact protection for BMX and mountain bikers.
Avoid bicycle helmets that boast certifications from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI safety certification is weak and outdated, and manufacturers use this certification when they cannot quality for the CPSC.
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