Please note that this is NOT going to be a pro-/anti-helmet screed. I'd like to keep this blog as the last sanctuary from that particular religious war. If you wear one, great. If you don't, great. As long as you're riding a bike and don't try to force your decision on me, we're cool.
I did, however, replace my lid last weekend, and it made me realize that helmets are the one place where the promise of trickle-down technology really has paid off in the cycling world. I don't need an eleven-speed cassette or a carbon frame that weighs less than a full water bottle. A cool, comfortable and protected head? Yep, I'll take that.
I don't usually put a lot of cash into my helmets -- the daily commute grind is hard on them, and they all protect the same, so it seems silly to wear Lance's latest zillion-dollar R&D project that promises to be lighter and more ventilated than a Coolmax yarmulke. Luckily, a lot of that R&D does make it down to the bottom rung. For instance, I dropped the princely sum of $40 on the entry-level Specialized Align. It looks dorky, yes (they all do), but on comfort and air-sucking, it beats out the helmet I paid $55 for five years ago, which beat out the $70 helmet I bought four years before that, which beat out the $90 helmet I bought three years before that. To be fair, both Bell and Giro (the two-headed beast that seems to supply 99.99% of all helmets everywhere) also offer lids at the same price/performance point -- the Specialized just fit my bizarrely shaped cranium best.
I did a bit of research to determine if "bike shop versus big-box store" snobbery is justified in melon-protection, dropping by the store with the bullseye logo just to see what their styrofoam noggin-toppers looked like. I can say without hesitation that the trickle-down stops at the big-box door. Sure, you can get a helmet for half the admission price of the bike shop, and sure, they all have to pass the same safety tests, but that $20 at the big box buys a decidedly inferior lid. The one I checked out had these unfortunate "features":
- TAPED-ON SHELL: Even the cheapest helmet from the Bell/Giro/Specialized cerberus now bonds the entire plastic outer shell to the styrofoam innards. The big-box lid just tapes the shell around the lower perimeter -- a cheaper, less-durable way to go. It works, but it won't last as long (says the guy who's retaped a few shells in his day to try to eke more life out of a lid).
- NON-ADJUSTABLE CROSS STRAPS: This blew my mind, as I hadn't seen it on a non-BMX helmet since maybe the 80s. Sure, the buckle under the chin is adjustable, but the place where the straps meet under your ears is just sewn together. That's great if the sewn-together spot happens to meet under your ear the way it's supposed to. It's not so hot if the crossing spot is on top of your ear.
- TINY, TINY VENTS: A good test for a helmet is to get the straps out of the way and hold it up against a light background. The more of that background you can see through the helmet, the more air is probably going to make it to your head. The big-box lid was like looking at a wall with a few errant nail holes. Even if you don't care all that much about ventilation, all that foam means more weight on your neck, and it's an indication the manufacturer probably just met the safety requirements by slapping on more material.
So, if you choose to wear a lid, caveat emptor -- but know that the good ones keep getting better and cheaper. The dork factor remains embarrassingly constant, however.