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All Cycling Helmets are Not Created Equal, Buyer Beware…


I’ve owned a cycling helmet or two and I’ve also written a post or two on helmet fashion

I’ve tended to stick with Bontrager or Specialized simply because that’s what the local shop carries – I’m more partial to the shop than brand.

This post isn’t about fashion or color scheme though, this one will get right down to safety – and not from a protection standpoint either. All helmets have to meet the same standards. This post is going off the rails, and getting into something I didn’t know was a thing until a couple of weeks ago.

I picked up a Bontrager Starvos Mips a couple of weeks ago because Specialized did away with the S3, and I planned on riding the 5200 more this year anyway… I retired my two year-old S3 and donned the Starvos for my first ride.

The first thing I noticed was the perfect fit of the straps – it was truly awesome and far better than anything I’ve owned with a big “S” on it. I also loved the boa closure system – top notch… I headed out the door, threw leg over top tube, turned right out of my driveway into a headwind and the wind noise was obnoxious. Headwind, crosswind, even with a tailwind, the wind noise was horrible – so loud I couldn’t hear traffic coming up behind me.

Friday I couldn’t stand another day on the trainer so I went out solo with the new dome protector. The wind noise was distractingly loud. I was thinking it had to be me, that I simply needed to get back in the groove again. Maybe the winter had been too long… Two vehicles snuck up on me in the first five miles. That had never happened before, not even when I was a noob (see that last photo above – still makes me laugh at how little I knew).

By the time I was pounding out that last mile I was driving myself nuts. It couldn’t be me, it’s like the helmet split the wind and it was slamming directly into my ears, that’s the only way I can describe it. When I got back to the house I left my bike outside and went in to grab my old Specialized S3… sure enough, I could (and did) hear a car coming about 400 yards sooner. It wasn’t me, it was the melon cover. Fortunately, because I do most of my shopping at a brick and mortar store, the owner swapped it out for me.

Folks, all helmets are not created equal.

I really hate to add one more thing to be aware of, but this was a big deal for me. I liked that Bontrager helmet, but I couldn’t live with the amount of noise it created.

And before you take to the comments, it wasn’t the straps. The straps fit better than anything I’ve ever worn.


20 Comments

  1. theandyclark says:

    You’re comment that all helmets have to meet the same standards caught my attention. I’m 99% certain that a helmet saved me from at least a serious concussion a few years ago, and possibly a skull fracture, so I’m in the “helmet fan club”. However, I knew diddly squat about any safety standards and I decided to do a little research.

    You are correct in that there are a uniform set of standards (staggeringly boring reading, but there’s a summary at https://www.cpsc.gov/Business–Manufacturing/Business-Education/Business-Guidance/Bicycle-Helmets). That said, as best I can tell these are voluntary standards. I would think that most bike shops check them, but not so sure of other sources. A helmet should have a Consumer Product Safety Committee (CPSC) inside if it meets standards, or possibly an ANSI (American National Standards Institute) or ASTM (got me) sticker. This is for helmets in the USA – not sure how it works in other countries. That means that the helmet model has been tested for its ability to stay on the head in an accident and ability to absorb an impact.

    Unfortunately, as our host has indicated there is no test for noise level and I can definitely see how that would be really annoying, a safety concern in it’s own way and probably not good for your ears to boot.

  2. Anon says:

    There’s no actual mandatory standard for British cycling helmets, though virtually all on sale will comply with BS (British Standard) EN 1078, which will be similar to other European standards. Some opinion has it this isn’t a very high bar to meet, and isn’t as good as the Snel standards previous helmet generations we constructed to meet. I imagine even US standards will not require testing to the levels you may think… But the noise issue is one I hadn’t heard before, a very good point.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I’d never get into a debate about whether or not standards are good enough or not. I’m no engineer, nor am I a doctor… in… erm… how head bones break when they hit concrete. I just know that the guys who scrape the brains of cyclists who don’t wear helmets off the ground ALL say a helmet is useful… That’s good enough for me. 👍

  3. Mips Technology is the way forward…. In the bicycle shop that I manage we have this feature in many of our helmets. Highly recommended and safety is at the top of my list when working in the bicycle industry. thumbs up to this blog post.

  4. It’s a tough one too as you can’t really properly “road test” a helmet before purchase. My aero road lid (Bontrager Ballista) is MUCH quieter than my older Specialized Prevail. Not that the Prevail is loud by any stretch, just that the extra vents must create more wind noise.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I don’t know if that’s it, either though – the vents… I traded to a Spec. Propero 3 – it’s got more vents than the Starvos and is much quieter. I wonder if it’s a number of different issues. It’s a pickle for sure.

      • Probably the design shape around the ears too – along with the shape of the vents – all creating extra turbulence. The aero helmets are definitely quieter though. A Spesh aero lid I tried once was pretty silent too.

      • bgddyjim says:

        I think the shape around the ears has a lot to do with it, like you said. I’ll have to get into one of those sooner or later….

  5. For road, I don’t care what the helmet looks like as long as it protects my melon. Offroad, however, is a different story. On a mountain bike, I don’t want to wear a dorky helmet. I have spent more on one mountain bike helmet than my last three road helmets. For road, whatever is on sale at Performance works for me.

  6. MJ Ray says:

    I suspect “helmet deafness” may be part of the reason helmets don’t work in the real world – by that, I mean they offer undeniable impact protection, but overall, they don’t reduce casualty rates significantly. Maybe helmets should have to meet some noise-causing standards too?

    You’re the first I remember reading to so solidly deny the straps were involved, though.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I made sure to articulate that it wasn’t the straps because they’re an easy culprit. I was, in my post, entirely honest and open, though. The straps were the best I’d ever experienced in a helmet.

      As to regulation, it’s not a surprise that’s where you went with it. It boggles the mind… You’re Don Quixote on the “helmets make cycling less safe”, so you would favor deregulation there. On the other hand, you’d go for over-regulation when it comes to wind noise… it’s interesting.

      Anyway, I prefer a less troublesome method. I returned the helmet, wrote a post and will contact Bontrager to let them know about my experience. Now, I know Trek… Unlike Specialized, they REALLY go the extra mile to make sure their customers have a fair experience with their company and products. I truly believe they’ll look into it and change fix the problem. No silly politicians wasting their time when they could balancing the checkbook required.

      Or in other words, as it should be.

      And helmet deafness is too over the top. I wasn’t deaf. I couldn’t hear as well with that particular helmet. Finally, helmets work great in the real world. Ask anyone tasked with scraping the brains of cyclists who weren’t wearing one off the pavement. They’re more than happy to tell people how well they work. Meanwhile, try a neurologist or ten. While you’re at it.

    • bgddyjim says:

      You know what, I apologize. I went off on you a bit because I read more into your comment than was actually there. My bad, man. I’m impressed that you’re at least willing to accept the impact protection.

      What I responded with stands, I should have taken some of the edge off. I’ll slow down in the future.

      • MJ Ray says:

        Don’t sweat it. I’ve had worse, especially around helmets. I’ve not had the death threats that some other local cycling advocates have, but some people have gotten pretty nasty.

        I accept the impact protection because I’m a scientist at heart. If you’re going to hit the top of your head on the pavement or a kerb, then a helmet will help. Personally, I think that’s unlikely and prefer to focus on what I can do to reduce the probability of a crash more than merely mitigate the effects.

        It’s also because I’m a scientist that I look at the population-level data of helmet use and casualty rates in various countries to conclude that current helmets aren’t working as intended. I don’t simply trust the views of the people who mostly get to pick up the pieces when it’s all gone wrong and so probably get a skewed view of what’s best. There are good reasons why we don’t let paramedics set public health policy alone.

        As for regulation, it seems like part of a possible solution and helmets already have to meet regulated thresholds, so it doesn’t seem like a noise maximum would be a big step. If there was some way to objectively measure and quantify the noise produced by a helmet and require that to be put on the label, thereby allowing buyers to make an informed choice, that’s another possibility. At the moment, even expert buyers like you can’t tell that a helmet is noisy before you try it – that’s a classic “market for lemons”, isn’t it?

        But as you probably guess, my preferred regulation would be to ban them outside of closed-road racing events, same as (at least in Europe) you ain’t allowed to wear an F1 helmet when driving a regular car on the highway.

      • bgddyjim says:

        Yep, and we’re just going to disagree on that last point (banning helmets). I do see your point, that if we all rode like my 96 year-old great aunt did, we would all be a lot safer, but I’m not my 96 year-old great aunt and I sure as shit won’t be riding like she did…

        What you’re advocating is being the fun police. Nobody can ride a bike in a manner deemed unsafe by you so they won’t put themselves into a position where they might get hurt.

        Let’s do a little though experiment, though; ban helmets, just like you say, and I’m not going to change how I ride (nor would most). What happens to injuries then? They skyrocket in severity and cost to the overall society.

      • MJ Ray says:

        I’m not so worried about people hurting themselves as much as them hurting other people by crashing into them – maybe because they can’t hear normally and haven’t gotten used to dealing with that like someone who has damaged hearing all the time does.

        To some extent, there’s already the fun police on the public roads because we have various laws about how you can ride. Like I think it’s fun to ride on the right sometimes, but we have an 180-year-old law prohibiting that if there’s any other traffic (yes, some of the English laws applied to cycling are basically the old horse and cart ones). If you want to ride differently (or drive differently, for that matter), that’s fine by me – it’s your neck – but it’s not for the public roads.

        Who needs to do a thought experiment? Visit or at least look at the places where almost no-one uses helmets and they generally have the lowest injury rates (careful to look at rates per cyclist, not per population) and lowest average injury severities, as well as the highest cycling levels, which brings the best public health and thereby lowest cost to society – but contrary to what you said, I suspect it probably does change how some people ride, as there seems to be a risk compensation effect with helmet use for some people (people who comment that they’d be scared to ride without one are a tell-tale sign). Maybe it wouldn’t/doesn’t change how you ride, but it does seem to influence some, and how far can you regulate everyone to be like bgddyjim before they give up?

      • bgddyjim says:

        As I’ve said numerous times, nobody has to be like me. I’m not that important or special. The way I ride, a helmet is smart. Period.

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