Sipping eggnog is good, but protecting your noggin is better: Finding the right bike helmet

Sipping eggnog is good, but protecting your noggin is better: Finding the right bike helmet

by Karen Miltner

Keep your head looking safe and bright in a bicycle helmet.

Here at WomanTours World Headquarters in Rochester, New York, it’s snowing, our fat tire bikes are ready to roll, the date for the holiday party is on the calendar, and visions of sugar plums and eggnog toddies are dancing in our heads.

What other images of delight are prancing about our noggins? To be perfectly candid, we’re dreaming about all the cool bikey things that might be under the tree when we wake up on Christmas morning.

At a recent staff meeting, we thought about making a top 10 gift list for our two-wheeling kindred spirits. But when we thought about what every WomanTours guest is required to bring on a bike tour, we whittled that list down to one item. 

A good bike helmet. Because nothing is more of a bicycle buzzkill than a head injury.

Why are good bike helmets so important?

Most of us understand the importance of wearing a bike helmet whenever we ride. It’s kind of a no-brainer, like wearing your seatbelt every time you’re in the car. But what a lot of people don’t know is that helmets’ protective properties can diminish over time through normal wear and tear, and are destroyed completely after a single serious collision.

If your helmet has already borne the brunt of a bad accident, it should be replaced pronto, even if you can’t see any visible signs of damage. That’s because the foam material that absorbs the energy of the crash has been compressed, and won’t compress a second time if there is a second collision. That’s simply how helmets are designed.

If you and your helmet have avoided such calamity (and we hope all of you are in this category), you still should consider parting ways with your helmet after five years, according to the Snell Memorial Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that tests and sets safety standards for all types of helmets (auto racing, motorcycle, equestrian and cycling). I can’t say it better than Snell:

“Wear and tear, the simple act of putting on and taking off helmets, damage the comfort pads and energy-absorbing foam liner over time. Helmets with worn-out pads are at least one to two sizes larger than helmets in new condition. A poorly fitted helmet makes it more likely that the helmet will shift too much or even come off the head during a crash impact.”

Some manufacturers suggest replacing helmets even more frequently, every two or three years.

By the way, not knowing the accident history, age or care of used or borrowed helmets is one of the reasons why WomanTours requires guests to bring their own helmets on tour. The other is fit. We can’t guarantee that a borrowed or rented helmet will fit properly.

We also say it’s bad juju to buy or sell a used helmet. That’s nastier than regifting your grandmother’s brick-like fruitcake in the white elephant gift exchange.

What kind of bike helmet should you buy?

All bike helmets sold in the United States are supposed to meet minimum safety criteria set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and should be labeled as certified by CPSC. There are also other voluntary safety certifications, such as Snell, that give added insurance that a bike helmet has been tested. Check the inside of the helmet for these certification labels.

A well-fitted bicycle helmet is more important than a fancy, expensive one, so it’s better to go to a store and try on the helmets rather than purchasing one online. The helmet should be snug but not smothering, and should sit no more than an inch above your eyebrows. If it wiggles front to back or side to side, adjust the straps and/or the sizing wheel located at the back of the helmet. Wear the helmet for a good 10-15 minutes to see if it’s comfortable. If not, try another. You’re going to be wearing this lid for hours at a time, so you want it to feel as if it’s not there.

It’s also a good idea to pick a style of bike helmet that matches your style of riding. Commuter bike helmets tend to be rounder. Road bike helmets tend to be lighter and have more ventilation. Mountain bike helmets cover more of the back of the head, since mountain bikers are more likely to fall backwards. You get the idea.

There are some new technologies in bike helmet construction that address the risk of rotational or angular motion impact, meaning your head is hit at an angle or while in rotation, rather than getting hit in a direct, linear fashion. To be more specific, if you were hanging upside and fell to the ground and hit the top of your head, that would be linear impact. But if you were flying through the air and then crashed to the ground hitting the side of your head and as you continued to skid your head twisted before you come to a stop, that would be rotational motion impact.

Historically, helmets have been designed and tested for linear impacts. Studies have found that rotational force accidents are more common and potentially more dangerous (because the brain is more likely to suffer a tear). Engineers have in turn come up with ways to mitigate that danger.

Helmets that use MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) have an additional low-friction liner that allows movement within the helmet, so the helmet, instead of your brain, absorbs those rotational force blows. Helmets with the more recently introduced WaveCel liners have a plastic wavy mesh that collapses on impact to channel the blow’s energy away from your brain. 

In a September 2019 website article about bike helmets that best prevent head injuries, Consumer Reports strongly recommends selecting a helmet with WaveCel or MIPS (or similar technology) that reduces rotational force impact. The only negative to these helmets is the price tag, which tends to be higher.

We recommend MIPS and WaveCel too. I bought this Bontrager helmet with WaveCel liner this spring (let’s call it a really early holiday gift to myself), and am very happy with it. It’s comfortable, has good ventilation and gives me peace of mind. My colleagues at the WomenTours office are also now sporting MIPS or WaveCel helmets.

What to do with your old bike helmet?

That’s a tough question for those of us who hate adding to landfills.

Some parts of the helmet have potential for recycling, but would require that you take them apart. According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute’s website, some outer plastic shells may be recyclable, but it depends on the type of plastic used. Some helmets have a fiberglass or ABS hard shell, which is not recyclable. EPS foam also can be recycled, if you are willing and able to find a place to ship it. 

BHSI indicates that some forward-thinking manufacturers are working on designing a helmet that is both safe and recyclable, but it may take a while before these Earth-friendly lids are widely available.

Before you toss that old brain bucket in the trash, consider a second career option: flower planter. There is already good drainage, and the straps make for easy suspension.

While I have not yet repurposed my old helmets with flora, I have accessorized them for Halloween costumes. Helmets make great baby bumps, pumpkin heads and or hard hats/skulls for monsters, construction workers and other make-believe characters. Let your creativity shine!

Keeping your new bike helmet in tip-top condition

Just like your bike, your helmet is happiest if it’s taken care of properly.

  1. Store your helmet away from direct sunlight and extreme heat, and avoid contact with harsh chemicals.
  2. Avoid dropping or throwing your helmet. While an accidental drop probably won’t ruin the helmet like a serious crash, why take chances?  
  3. Don’t loan your helmet to others. You forfeit being 100% certain of its care and history.
  4. Clean your helmet on a regular basis. Hand-washing with mild soap or shampoo and rinsing with cool or warm (not hot) water and a sponge or soft cloth is all that’s needed, then pat it dry with a towel and let it air-dry. Some cyclists bring their helmet in the shower with them after a ride, and wash them, along with jerseys and tights, right away. Do not even think about using the dishwasher, washing machine, hair dryer or microwave in this cleaning endeavor, unless, of course, you want a stupid excuse to buy a new helmet.
  5. Inspect your helmet inside and out on a regular basis. If there’s a crack or dent, or if parts are broken or missing, then you have a very smart reason to buy a new one (or put it on your wish list).

Happy Holidays to all, and may your noggin stay safe and bright.

bicycling Bike Equipment bike touring womantours   bicycle helmets bike helmets MIPS WaveCel