Choosing the right helmet is as important as choosing the right bike. You want something that fits the way you ride, your style, and your budget. There are three main types, and you can find excellent examples of each: Road helmets are sleek and prioritize venting and low weight. Mountain bike helmets provide more coverage because crashes are more likely and usually have a visor. Commuter and everyday helmets offer a bit more casual style and less venting since you’ll typically be sweating less in them.
All helmets sold in the US meet the same basic safety standards. Beyond that you’re paying for features: Better ventilation, lower weight, enhanced fit systems, and nicer designs. Some helmets do offer added safety features to protect against brain injuries but know that any helmet you buy will protect your skull the same way against an impact. So you don’t necessarily need to spend a lot to get a good helmet.
Helmet Safety Standards
The growing concern over concussions and head injuries has led to better research, new helmet technologies, and improved testing protocols. However, the only mandatory certification standard in the USA is the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), required for all helmets sold here. This certification should be found on a label applied on the inside of the helmet.
Some companies test helmets to additional standards, whether through their in-house lab or third parties. Virginia Tech’s Helmet Institute also does independent testing that takes into account impact angles, friction, and rotational forces. Those tests better predict whether a helmet can help prevent concussions. It is important to note, that an expensive helmet is not necessarily safer than a less expensive model. While many of the helmets that receive Virginia Tech’s highest safety rating contain MIPS and other technologies to make helmets safety, several budget helmets also rank highly.
MIPS and WaveCel
Some companies have been developing technologies to reduce the risk of concussions. MIPS, which stands for Multi-Directional Impact Protection System, is basically a low-friction layer built into the helmet that allows the helmet to rotate on your head, diminishing rotational forces. MIPS can be found in helmets from several manufacturers. Bontrager uses an exclusive technology in some of its newest helmets, called WaveCel, which is a thick layer comprised of polyester that crumples and flexes on impact. Smith has a similar construction it calls Koroyd, and several other brands offer slip planes similar to MIPS.
Yes, helmets are connected now, too. Specialized has a new tech called ANGi that pairs with a smartphone app to monitor your activity. Sensors in the helmet can detect abrupt decelerations in the event of a crash and alert your emergency contacts that you may be injured and send them your location. It can also let them follow your ride it real-time if you wish.
How We Evaluated These Helmets
The helmets on this list have been thoroughly evaluated and vetted by our team of test editors. We research the market, survey user reviews, speak with product managers and engineers, and use our own experience riding in these helmets—and even crashing in some of them—to determine the best options. Our team of experienced testers spent many hours and miles wearing these helmets on the road, on the trail, on commutes, and at the bike park. We evaluated them on performance, value, fit, comfort, ventilation, aerodynamics, adjustability, and aesthetics to come up with the models that best serve every budget and every kind of rider.
Here are some tips when buying a road bike helmet.
Fit and retention systems
First and foremost, in the event of a crash, a helmet has to stay on your head to be effective. Just like shoes, helmets from different brands are all made to fit subtly different shaped lasts, so it’s important to try before you buy.
Most helmets use a dial-based retention system (e.g. Giro’s Roc Loc 5 or Kask’s Octo Fit systems) to adjust the fit, but the vertical adjustment range (i.e. how high or low the rear adjustment supports sit on your head) will also vary between helmets, so again this is something to look out for.
Adjustable and comfortable straps are also incredibly important – you need to be able to wear them with a fairly snug fit against your chin for maximum effectiveness.
Most cycle helmets are primarily from expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. This skeleton is then covered, to varying degrees, in a hard polycarbonate shell (and sometimes a dash of carbon fibre) to add strength and protect the EPS foam from accidental bumps and scratches.
This basic design has been in place for decades now, but other manufacturing techniques and materials are beginning to filter through, such as 3D-printed Polyamide 11 or other ‘proprietary polymer materials’.
Naturally, manufacturers claim these designs offer benefits over traditional cycle helmets, but whether those benefits are realized in real life remains to be seen.
While we won’t comment on the overall efficacy of helmets in general, it’s worth noting that all helmets sold in the EU should conform to the EN 1078 European Standard (and therefore have a CE mark), or be CPSC-certified in the US.
Every helmet on this list does just that, if not more, and should at least offer your head some protection against bumps and scratches if you fall off your bike while out riding.
Recently, we’ve seen a substantial increase in additional safety technologies such as rotational liners (e.g. MIPS) and Bontrager’s proprietary WaveCel material. These innovations claim to offer increased protection from head and brain injuries by reducing rotational forces or simply by using materials that are better able to absorb certain shocks.
There is some independent safety testing of cycle helmets, but these things are obviously harder to test outside of the lab, where there are so many variables at play. On balance, these extra safety features are almost certainly worth having, but they tend to come on helmets with a higher price tag.
For fast road riding, especially in hot weather, ventilation is key. A well-designed system of vents and channels in the internal structure of a helmet can help to draw air over your head and dissipate heat.
As might be obvious, putting holes in a helmet to increase ventilation is likely to lead to reduced weight and, potentially, robustness. So to make up for that, airy helmets often need more external reinforcement or are constructed with pricier materials, to ensure they still meet safety and durability standards.
The aero brush touches everything these days, increasing costs and making all your current kit feel outdated, but with helmets it probably does make sense. The potential watt savings to be made with aero helmets shouldn’t be overlooked if you’re concerned with riding fast.
There are compromises of course: increasing aerodynamic efficiency usually means closing off ventilation holes or putting up with funky shaped lids that, frankly, have looks that sometimes border on the ridiculous. But then again, if your main concern is simply to ride faster, perhaps looks aren’t actually that important.
Only a few brands actively promote their helmet’s ability to hold your sunglasses in the front vents, but this feature can be a real bonus.
Obviously, helmet brands that also make sunglasses tend to do better in this regard, but make sure to take your sunglasses with you when you’re shopping for a new helmet so you can check the hold.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it is worth considering what kind of riding the helmets you like the look of are designed for.
Let’s say you like classic-looking helmets with lots of vent holes; if you live somewhere cold, maybe you’d be better off with a more aero-focused helmet with less ventilation and holes for water to seep through.
Likewise, the opposite could be true if you live somewhere hot; there’s no use having a helmet that’s super-fast in the wind tunnel if you don’t want to wear it because it makes your head boil.
Do you have other tips? Please leave a comment and tell us so that we can add it to the blog.