Protect Your Head With These Top Bike Helmets
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Cycling can be an outstanding workout to help bolster cardio training for runners. It gets not only your heart pumping, but your glutes and legs too. The low-impact motion will also help save your knees in the long run.
If you’re going to pedal over the pavement (or anywhere, really), safety is key. According to a study in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, nearly 25-percent of cyclists have experienced a traumatic brain injury. Trust us—you don’t want to join that particular club.
Riding responsibly means wearing a helmet, and buying the best may make a difference if you fall hard. The best bike helmets that will not only protect your dome, but will do so comfortably and—in some cases—give you a competitive aerodynamic edge.
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Best Bike Helmets
The Expert (Adam Schram): As a former non-helmet-wearing bike commuter, my life was significantly harder for years after I inevitably hit my head one icy winter day. Later, as a salesperson at The Bicycle Shop in State College, Pennsylvania, I made it a personal mission to educate as many people as possible about the benefits of wearing a helmet. Simultaneously, I’ve spent enough time in the saddle for big races to know the ins and outs of what makes a helmet feel good, look better, and work best.
The Expert (Nick Hilden): I’ve been cycling in all its forms for my entire life, and over the course of four decades, I’ve taken more than my share of hits to the old brain box and have learned to appreciate the importance of proper protection. Accordingly, I have tested countless helmets, and have written about them and other bicycling gear for publications like Runner’s World, Bicycling, the Manual, and more.
What to Consider When Buying a Bike Helmet
A properly fitting helmet functions dramatically better than one that’s the wrong size. Most entry-level helmets come in one-size-fits-all packages, but fancier helmets tend to come in multiple sizes for added comfort and to ensure a better fit.
All helmet manufacturers use the same sizing system, based on the circumference of the head above the ears. The sizes themselves vary from brand to brand, though, so it’s important to measure your own head and keep that number handy if you can’t try on a helmet before buying it.
Weight, Ventilation, and Aerodynamics
One of the luxuries of running, which I will always envy as a cyclist, is the ability to feel the wind on your head mile after mile. That said, some helmets are lighter and better ventilated than others; these designs, while more expensive, can help alleviate the “brain bucket” feeling that many riders succumb to on hot days.
Even though they have less material, these helmets must still meet the same safety standards as all others, and the increased cost is mostly the result of deeper structural engineering to make every gram of foam count.
In the past decade, the proliferation of aerodynamic, or “aero,” helmets has taken the road cycling and triathlon worlds by storm. This style, while lacking the many vents that keep other lids cool, is designed to improve the aerodynamics of a rider’s head, and some people argue this upgrade can make an even bigger difference in a race than buying an aero bike or fancy carbon wheels.
What’s MIPS, and Do I Need It?
The Multidirectional Impact Protection System (MIPS) is a helmet liner technology that allows a helmet to slide around on your head if you hit the deck. Although this sounds counterproductive, it’s incredibly helpful for preventing your head from twisting sharply—along with a helmet—on side impacts, which is what would happen if you were wearing a helmet without MIPS. In other words, MIPS also protects you from whiplash, not just concussions, and I generally recommend buying helmets with this additional protection.
To Visor or Not to Visor?
What’s nice about visors is that they can block intermittent spots of sunlight that peek through trees, and they can also shield you from branches, dirt, or rocks that might fly up from your wheels on densely forested trails. Larger visors start to become a hindrance in a more bent-over road riding position, where they can get in the way of seeing down the road.
Ultimately, you’re going to see helmet visors much more often in off-road applications like mountain biking than on the tarmac, where cyclists tend to opt for sunglasses.
How We Selected The Best Bike Helmets
We picked the helmets for this list based on a combination of first-hand testing, input from the test editors at Bicycling, and user reviews from customers at retailers like Amazon. These helmets were selected based on their outstanding performance, ventilation, protection technology, aerodynamics, and aesthetics.
Although I've never worn this helmet, I know several collegiate triathletes who swear by it. The Echelon is just two steps down from Specialized’s highest-end helmets, and it’s a third of the price of the new, top-spec Prevail 3.
A whopping 27 thin vents keep your head cool as can be, the helmet’s Tri-fix web splitters keep the straps away from your ears, and it even has a mount for Specialized’s ANGi crash sensor, which notifies an emergency contact when you’ve hit your head.
The Isode MIPS was my primary recommendation for customers who came into the bike shop and told me they were just starting to ride. It has everything a beginner on the road needs, and nothing they don’t. The helmet is at least as safe as even the most expensive models I recommend here, and the competitively lightweight design still has an impressive number of vents.
As a daily rider, you need a helmet that delivers reliable protection, and you want a helmet that looks good around town. The Escape MIPS from Giro delivers on both thanks to its outstanding MIPS coverage, bright front and rear strip-lights, and stylish design.
It has a one-handed fit adjuster that makes it literally a snap to achieve the perfect fit. While it is somewhat pricey, it’s a worthwhile investment for a top quality helmet that you’ll be wearing to and from work every day.
For competitive triathletes, quality protection cannot come at the expense of aerodynamics. The Giro Vanquish MIPS helps you zip through the course faster thanks to its highly aerodynamic TransformAir design, which streamlines airflow around the helmet, similar to how the prow of a boat cuts through the water.
Its robust coverage, quality MIPS system, and magnetic eye shield keep you safe. We particularly like the eye shield, which boasts the company’s “Vivid” lenses that boost contrast and definition without distorting colors.
It also offers a comfortable fit and cool ventilation, so you can compete at your best and most comfortable.
Omne Air Spin
For a helmet that can go miles in any condition, consider the Omne Air Spin. It’s ventilated enough to pull its weight on a long, hot day, but not so much that it can’t be an effective, good-looking helmet for year-round commuters.
Instead of MIPS, POC uses a similar proprietary technology called SPIN. Whether you’re rocking a skinsuit or business casual, you won’t look out of place with this POC piece on your noggin.
When it comes to aero helmets, it can get pretty tricky to find a model that is less than $300. While this is in some ways a limitation to such a highly engineered design, Abus knew it could shave something off that price tag while still producing a professional-grade race helmet.
The GameChanger cuts through the wind in all directions thanks to its rounder shape (as opposed to long-tailed time trial helmets), and it still vents well enough to keep you from steaming up as the mercury rises.
Kortal Race MIPS
When you’re crashing downhill on a mountain trail, you need more protection than most would ask from a standard bike helmet. The POC Kortal Race MIPS offers superior coverage and MIPS, so you can ride with peace of mind.
An integrated NFC Medical ID chip and RECCO Reflector, which sends out a transponder ping with your exact location, makes it easier for rescuers to find and save you in the event of an emergency.
And if you don’t crash? Well, it’s comfortable, too.
At a mere 230 grams, the Kask Protone is about as light as a helmet can possibly get. Its many well-designed vents keep it that way, while delivering excellent ventilation. And on top of all that, its multi-layer 3D Dry padding wicks moisture very well.
All of these features cost a pretty penny, but you’ll get the most featherlight, cool, comfortable helmets ever made. You’ll barely know you’re wearing it.
The Giro Scamp MIPS doesn’t feel like a compromising “kids” product, which is very important since it’s protecting your child’s head.
It has a bunch of design flourishes that make it practical for young riders: A pinch-guard buckle makes it comfortable, a fully adjustable harness ensures that it won’t slip out of place, and ponytail compatibility is a situational plus. Plus, there are lots of fun patterns and colors for kids to choose from.
Tips And Answers From Our Experts
RW: How should you care for a bike helmet?
NH: Helmets are pretty tough, but you should give yours some care if you want it to last. Extreme heat can deteriorate certain materials, like the plastic shell or MIPS protection, so store helmets someplace cool and out of the sun.
The interior pads are typically machine-washable, so wash them occasionally to prevent odor from building up. Don’t put them in the dryer, though, since that will break them down fast. Let them air dry instead.
Lastly, Wash the exterior and straps every now and then, too, with mild soap and water.
RW: When does a bike helmet need to be replaced?
AS: There are two reasons to replace a helmet, first and foremost being because you crashed with it. Helmets are designed to crumple (much like the front end of your car), and they’re effectively useless afterward—better the helmet than your head, though.
The other instance that most people don’t know is when the helmet “expires.” It usually takes about five to 10 years, but the foam will eventually harden and lose its ability to absorb shock. Look inside your helmet to see if it has an expiration date on the label.
RW: We all like a deal, but when does it make sense to spend more than $150 on a bike helmet?
AS: In truth, I only think that helmets beyond this price point will make a difference if you’re racing at a high level. Spending more can make sense if you’re really looking at shaving seconds off during your toughest efforts.
Good full-face mountain bike helmets are a bit of an exception, but that’s the only one I can think to make.
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