The Best Bike Helmet Keeps You Safe Wherever You’re Cycling

With the pandemic fostering a bicycle boom, more people are gearing up to discover—or re-discover—what cycling’s all about. And ‘gearing up’ is the right phrase, because, besides the bike itself, cycling also involves a few accessories. For example, if you plan on riding through the winter, you need some solid cold-weather gear. However, regardless of location, there’s a critical bit of kit that every cyclist needs: a bicycle helmet.

The best bicycle helmet is the one designed for where and how you’re cycling

An adult helps a child adjust their bicycle helmet
An adult helps a child adjust their bicycle helmet | Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

While it’s true that cyclist safety depends on driver behavior, and not just safety gear, that doesn’t mean bicycle helmets are useless. Studies have estimated that wearing a helmet reduces the odds of head injuries by about 50%, and face and neck injuries by 33%, Consumer Reports says. So, while a bike helmet isn’t an impenetrable shield, it’s far better than wearing nothing on your head. Take it from someone who has smacked their head into the pavement while cycling—wear a helmet.

The first step in picking out a bicycle helmet is figuring out the conditions it will likely face. Cycling down a tree-lined off-road gravel trail is different than pedaling down a city road, after all. That’s not to say that a helmet designed for off-road cycling won’t also work in an urban environment. However, like motorcycle and auto-racing helmets, bike helmets are shaped by the physics and demands of their environments. So, you’ll have a safer and more pleasant experience if you wear the gear designed for your specific cycling activity.

Broadly speaking, Bicycling explains, bicycle helmets fall into the following categories:

  • Road helmets
    • Lightweight
    • Well-ventilated and designed for cooling airflow
    • May accommodate goggles/glasses
    • Aero helmets sacrifice some ventilation for better aerodynamics
  • Commuter/recreational helmets
    • More rugged
    • Not as well ventilated
    • Sometimes have light clips or built-in lighting
  • Mountain bike helmets
    • Cross-country (XC) helmets are similar to road bike helmets
    • Downhill helmets have more padding, fewer vents, and often visors
    • May come with chin bars
    • Typically have more rear protection than road bike helmets

Not all bicycle helmet safety ratings are created equal

An individual in a white lab coat holds a gray bike helmet with a black-and-yellow MIPS liner
The interior of a bike helmet with MIPS | MIPS Protection

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Since bike helmets are supposed to keep you safe, there are regulations in place to keep manufacturers honest through testing. Unfortunately, cyclists have their own version of the Snell vs. DOT vs. ECE safety rating conundrum.

Legally, all bicycle helmets sold in the US have to meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s standards, CR explains. However, these standards haven’t been updated to keep pace with discoveries about rotational forces and brain damage. As a result, third-party organizations have stepped in with more vigorous testing requirements.

Among the most rigorous is Virginia Tech’s STAR tests, Bicycling says. The university evaluates helmets on a zero-to-five-star scale. And it only recommends models that earn four or five stars.

There are also two key features to look for when selecting a bicycle helmet: MIPS and WaveCel. The former is a low-friction liner that slides before letting your head rotate to reduce twisting force and thus lower the risk of brain damage. WaveCel is designed for the same purpose as MIPS, but rather than a sliding liner, it’s a woven internal mesh. These features are mutually exclusive—a bike helmet has either one or the other—but they provide beneficial additional protection. And they’ve inspired a few manufacturers to develop brand-specific versions for similar reasons.

Even the best bike helmet won’t work well if it doesn’t fit right

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However, it doesn’t matter if your bicycle helmet has MIPS and five stars from VT if it doesn’t fit properly on your head. Just like with motorcycle helmets, bike ones need to be sized appropriately to be truly effective.

Admittedly, many modern helmets have some degree of adjustability. Some use foam pads, while others use a twisting wheel. Yet even the most adjustable helmet only accommodates a given range of head sizes. So, before you make your final pick, make sure that it will fit.

First, measure your head’s circumference roughly one inch above your eyebrows, REI says. That lets you figure out which helmet size to get. Once you’ve picked out a bike helmet, adjust it as needed so it feels snug but not overly tight. Next, tighten the chin strap, making sure it forms a comfortable V-shape under each ear. It’s tight enough if you can open your mouth and feel the helmet push down on your head.

Ideally, the front edge of your bicycle helmet should be no more than one inch above your eyebrows. If it moves when you push down on the front, it’s too loose, CR explains. And the same goes for side-to-side and front-to-back movement.

How much should you pay for a helmet when you have to replace it?

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CR recommends replacing your bicycle helmet every five years. Over time the fabric frays, the plastic degrades, and the foam wears down, even if you don’t get into an accident. But if you do, and your helmet is damaged, replace it immediately.

Bike helmet prices vary based on type, material, and additional features. VT gave one $20 helmet four stars, Bicycling notes, and these days, even sub-$100 models carry MIPS liners. Racing-spec helmets, though, especially aero ones, can easily go for over $300. But spending more on a helmet doesn’t necessarily mean it will fit you more comfortably. So, try before you buy.

No matter which bicycle helmet you end up buying, though, it will keep you safer than a bare head.

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