Ever since I first discovered the joys of cycling, I’ve been addicted. The sense of independence and adventure you experience from propelling yourself from point A to point B using only the power of your own two legs is unlike any other, and it has become one of my favorite activities. But just as with any physical activity, in order to enjoy cycling to the fullest it’s important to be prepared with the proper gear and equipment. When it comes to cycling safely, nothing is as important as your helmet, and there are several things to consider when deciding which helmet to trust to protect you or your family on a ride.
Condition: As with most things, the materials in bike helmets deteriorate with age and use. If your child will be riding with us this summer, please think twice before grabbing the old helmet in your garage and sending them on their way.
We regularly get calls from parents asking when a bicycle helmet should be replaced. Surprisingly, there’s no standard for this. Inside the helmet, you should see a sticker with a manufacture date. As a general rule of thumb, and due to the fact that materials degrade over time, a helmet should DEFINITELY be replaced if it’s more than eight years old. Some manufacturers recommend replacing a helmet every five years, while others recommend replacing it every other year, especially if it’s been heavily used and exposed to a lot of perspiration and sun (which can break down plastics and foam more quickly). Another good indicator that it is time to replace a bike helmet is if the manufacturer’s labels inside the helmet has faded to a point where they are no longer legible.
Take a moment to inspect your helmet. In a nutshell (which, come to think of it, is a bit like a helmet…), there are four main components of a helmet: the outer shell, the inner hard foam liner, the buckle and strap, and the rear stabilizer.
- If the plastic outer shell is cracked, falling off, or discolored from too much exposure to the sun, it needs to be replaced.
- If the inner hard foam liner is showing signs of cracking or is noticeably compressed in spots, replace it.
- The helmet’s buckle and straps should be in good working order. If one of the plastic blades that snaps into the female end of the buckle is missing, you should definitely replace the helmet. While one blade will hold the helmet in place while riding, the helmet would almost certainly come off in the event of a crash.
- The rear stabilizer (more about this below) is an adjustment mechanism on the back of the helmet. It’s important that it works correctly and can be adjusted to snug the helmet to your head. If your helmet doesn’t have a rear stabilizer (some older helmets or cheaper models don’t have them), you should strongly consider upgrading.
Fit: Ensuring that your helmet fits properly not only facilitates safety, but also provides a much more comfortable ride. Start by making sure the helmet itself is snug against the head independent of the straps (we’ll get to those shortly!). Most helmets have padding to provide cushioning between the head and the inner hard foam of the helmet as well as a rear stabilizer. The rear stabilizer allows the rider to tighten or loosen the framework of the helmet so that it is comfortable, but snug enough so that you can bend forward without the helmet falling off. Before snapping your straps, be sure that the helmet is far enough forward that it adequately covers the forehead and would be the first point of contact upon any impact (in general, you want about an inch – no more than two finger-widths – from your eyebrows to the helmet).
Once the helmet itself is properly fitted, it’s time for the straps! The straps provide an additional line of defense in case the helmet is jolted out of place. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine has developed a helpful “Eye-Ear-Mouth” test to provide checkpoints when making strap adjustments:
- When you look upward, the front rim should be barely visible to your eye
- The Y of the side straps should meet just below your ear
- The chin strap should be snug against the chin so that when you open your mouth very wide you feel the helmet pull down a little bit
The final test is to give the helmet a good shake in all directions once it’s buckled and on your head. Did it move a lot? Is more than an inch of forehead exposed? Is it tilted to one side? If so, make any corrective adjustments before jumping on your bike.
Technology: Bicycle helmet manufacturers are continually making improvements to helmet design to make them safer and more comfortable. One of the developments of the last decade in the world of bike helmets focuses on reducing rotational forces on the brain that are caused by an angled impact to the head during a crash. That’s a mouthful, but basically it means that there’s technology out there that is designed to respond/move in the event of a crash so that more of the impact is absorbed by the helmet and that the rider is more protected.
The Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) integrates a slip plane into the traditional bike helmet. This additional layer sits snugly on the head while anchored to the foam liner at four points on the crown. Although anchored, the MIPS layer should slide in the event of an accident to help absorb a portion of the impact during a crash and allow the head to slide slightly within the helmet, moving with the force of the impact rather than against it. To better understand how the technology works, you can watch a short video here.
WaveCel is a technology that is similar to MIPS in that it seeks to reduce the force of impact upon the brain in the event of a crash. But WaveCel technology absorbs shock rather than acting as a slip plane. WaveCel consists of an additional layer of interconnected cells inside a traditional helmet that disperses energy uniformly and acts similarly to the crumple zone of a car. For more information about WaveCel technology, you can check out this video.
The MIPS and WaveCel technologies have been tested in labs and are currently showing promise in the market. Many helmets today carry one of these technologies and we recommend them for Apogee students, though it should be noted that their effectiveness in real field cases is still being evaluated.
In short, the time and money spent ensuring you have an effective, well-fit bicycle helmet is truly worthwhile. Bike helmets may be relatively small in size but they’re absolutely crucial to the well-being of our students riding the roads this summer from the Pacific Coast to the Adriatic Sea – and everywhere in between!