The concept of slapping plastic atop foam and strapping it to a cyclist’s head has long been eclipsed by outdoor helmet technologies that place a focus on comfort, safety and even a bit of style. Using multiple types of foam, new shell materials, upgraded ventilation designs, technologies to handle varying impact forces and a bevy of comfort strategies to encourage the proper wearing of helmets has given rise to a modern, highly engineered cycling and outdoor sports helmet. From Troy Lee Designs to Giro and Smith to Bern, among others, each brand places its own spin on helmet creation.
Troy Lee Designs plans the March debut of its A3 helmet, designed for mountain biking, that leads with comfort while upping the protection. “We are coming to market with this thing really with a comfort stance,” says Craig Glaspell, Troy Lee Designs global brand director for bikes. “Ultimately for a helmet, if it doesn’t fit well and isn’t comfortable, it is debated if safety is worth anything if it doesn’t fit your head well.”
While brands are wary to make safety claims for legal reasons, instead relying on laboratory tests and certifications—the upper echelon of cycling helmets meet and exceed these required certifications, such as the A3 gaining a 5-star rating from the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings—upping comfort, with the latest in safety technology can improve the helmet on both scores.
For the A3, Troy Lee Designs wants to make it so comfortable that wearers forget they have it on. Glaspell says that during testing when they started hearing stories of riders getting into their car with it still on, they knew they were on to something.
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The Troy Lee Designs A3 features an interior comfort liner attached to the latest in Mips, a third-party solution that promotes rotation of the helmet to attempt to fend off rotational forces during a crash. Glaspell says a lot of helmets that integrate Mips, the technology leader in fending off rotational forces within helmets, don’t offer full 360-degree coverage, but the A3 does while ensuring the liner has significantly more material. To combat concerns of airflow and ventilation, engineers designed a way to drive out the hot air and pull in cooler air. Plus, the comfort liner is customizable, allowing people to cut away perforations to remove fabric, if they choose.
Using a silver-based fiber from X-Static, the liner wicks moisture while being antimicrobial and the silver ensures it doesn’t retain odor. The A3 also includes a removable foam strip across the forehead that pushes sweat away from the eyes. Troy Lee Designs includes two extra pieces of the sweat management strip and an entire new comfort liner with the original purchase, allowing for long-lasting interior options.
Glaspell says comfort, though, starts with shape. Having made helmets for almost 30 years, the team has measured “other peoples’ heads” for a long time, and Glaspell knows that all the comfort liners and retention systems won’t work if the head form isn’t optimal. “It is a science and also an art,” he says. “We just have historically done a good job at it.”
On the technology side, the A3 couples Mips with a combination of traditional EPS foam for high-impact hits as well as a softer, low-density EPP foam placed in critical zones for low-impact forces, such as a tree branch or even hitting your head against a vehicle during unloading.
A new visor system on the A3 features magnets that allow for easy goggle stowage without displacing the straightness of the visor, as well as on-the-go height adjustment to fend off sunlight. “It is goon proof,” Glaspell says. “It is a simple system.”
The A3 features the growing-in-popularity Fidlock buckle system, a patented magnetic slide system easily opened with one gloved hand.
The three-part external construction helps engineers construct the interior foam protections and also gives designers—California-based Troy Lee Designs started as a custom helmet graphic painter—the option for multiple finishes on one helmet, opening the possibilities of aesthetics and graphics.
The Spherical Technology from Giro has led the technology charge for a brand known for the Manifest mountain biking helmet. The technology has also entered the Helios Spherical for gravel and road cyclists and the Grid for backcountry snow sports. Spherical Technology features a ball-and-socket design powered by Mips, meaning the design is basically two helmets in one, where the outer liner rotates around the inner liner during a crash. This engineering allows for progressive layering, so Giro can use two different densities of EPS foam, or, such as in the Tyrant, a layer of EPS and a layer of EPP for coverage on different types of impacts.
Developed at the California Bell+Giro Dome laboratory in partnership with Mips, the material and density of the inner and outer liners can be optimized for differing needs. The ball-and-socket design with rotation helps redirect impact forces away from the brain and eliminates the head contacting the hard plastic of the helmet.
Eric Richter, Giro senior brand development manager, says developing this Spherical Technology in their Santa Cruz facility shared by Giro and Bell gives the brand something nobody else has created, all while bringing in plenty of anti-microbial and moisture-wicking padding.
The technology started in a World Cup-level ski race helmet before moving to a road racing helmet worn in the Tour de France. To make it accessible to more riders, “we had to dig deep into the details to meet an aggressive $150 price point, but we really wanted to make the technology available to a segment of riders where falls are common and slow-speed crashes are part of almost every ride,” he says. As the snow helmet lineup with Spherical Technology grew in 2018, it made a debut for mountain bikers in the Manifest Spherical in 2020 and the Helios Spherical came out in late 2020.
Giro also has a mixture of premium features in the Manifest. The AURA reinforcing arch improves structural integrity while promoting air flow through venting. An interior fit system ups comfort with silver-based antimicrobial padding. The Manifest also features eyewear grippers to secure sunglasses, a goggle gripper on the back, an adjustable screw-in visor and a Fidlock buckle.
To answer the question of both direct and rotational impacts, Smith has employed a combination of Mips and Koroyd. “Both of those technologies are the leaders in their respective fields in managing high-speed impacts and rotational energy,” says Eric Thorsell, Smith senior engineering manager. “We feel really confident with those two things.”
Graham Sours, Smith global category director, says using the same Styrofoam found in coolers in Walmart doesn’t show much advancement, so with the evolution of impact comes new technologies. The Koroyd design, a structure of small cells that when impacted break like a crumple zone with each individual cell column positioned to crumple in a controlled manner, also allows designers to reduce the overall helmet size to make it sleeker.
The Koroyd cells take less space to manage larger volumes of energy and promote airflow, cooling the rider’s head. Now, instead of open air, this impact material covering the rider’s head also allows airflow. For higher performance road helmets and things where ventilation is critical and staying cool is critical, Thorsell says they can create large intakes that remain just as protective while simplifying the design.
Sours says the shells have also taken on technology, whether reinforced with carbon fiber or by incorporating Kevlar.
Sours says that as Smith moves forward—the brand just reentered into ski racing—expect to see a focus on head forms and technologies for interior comfort. “The safest helmet is the one that gets worn and is comfortable,” Thorsell says.
Bern launched a new outdoor helmet designed for snow sports in late December 2020, the Carbon Watts. This design layers carbon fiber onto the classic Bern design. The handmade process includes 10 steps that take up to five days to complete between molding, curing and finishing the shell.
Dennis Leedom, Bern’s CEO, says the design blends performance, technology and style together by creating a shell eight times stronger and 11% lighter than an ABS plastic helmet. “Since the carbon fiber is a woven material, it spreads any impact across a wider surface and makes the helmet more comfortable, safer and durable,” Leedom says. “In addition, the Carbon Watts shell protects against scratches and sun due to the high-quality UV and gloss coat.”
Bern plans to have the Carbon Watts certified for cycling use, making it accessible for all seasons.