Not so long ago, you were faced with two choices when considering a new helmet: either a full-bore, full-face storm trooper option or the kind of wispy, head thong you might expect to see in the peloton at Le Tour. There was a huge gap there in the middle, which was strange since most riders don’t pray exclusively at either the altar of DH or the temple of XC.
Fortunately, fuller-bodied helmets came along and offered a more sensible combination of deep coverage, light weight, and decent ventilation. That’s a good thing. Bikes have improved over the years, allowing us to tackle terrain at higher speeds… and with greater consequence. Most of us can use a bit more bucket covering our brains. Here are six helmets worth checking out.A Quick Word About MIPS and Your Brain
If you want to dive straight into the helmet match up, scroll down. However, since MIPS and other slip-plane technologies crop up constantly in this review, I'm going to parse an entire article down into a couple of paragraphs. Do you need this stuff in your next helmet? Here goes...
Right now your brain is happy. It's just sitting there - a 3.5-pound lump of water, protein, fats and carbohydrates with the consistency of soft tofu - in a soup of blood and cerebrospinal fluid. It's at peace. It's content. What would be bad, right about now, is if your soft and squishy brain - laced as it is with a 100 billion neurons and a vast array of nerve fibers - suddenly slammed into the hard and unforgiving walls of your skull. Your helmet is designed to reduce the chance of that happening.
Helmets “cushion” the blow of an impact to your head by spreading the impact over a wide area of the helmet and reducing the energy that’s actually transferred to your head during the impact. Your helmet, to be less geeky about this, acts as a barrier that absorbs the energy of a sudden blow. How do they absorb energy? Most bike helmets feature a crushable foam (EPS) liner. It's basically a high-grade version of the stuff that disposable coolers are made from, and it's covered in a thin plastic shell. That plastic shell reduces friction in a crash, helps disperse impact energy and also helps keep the EPS liner together during an impact. But when it comes to absorbing energy it's mainly a foam thing. Or at least that's historically been the case. Helmet manufacturers wanted to stop skulls from breaking, so they created testing protocols that ensured that all certified helmets (that little EN or CPSC sticker in your helmet) reduce energy (measured in Gs) to a level deemed acceptable (generally, either 250 or 300 Gs depending on the standard in question).
These days, however, more attention is being placed on the question of how to reduce concussions. That's because more evidence has surfaced showing that concussions are a far greater problem than most of us once thought (think early dementia, etc.). You can get a concussion from a direct blow to the head. Growing evidence, however, suggests that rotational accelerations are very likely to cause concussions.
Rotational accelerations? Think of it this way. Linear accelerations (what we've been trying to slow down with our EPS foam liners) generally involve situations in which the head is moving in a straight line and comes to a sudden stop (or is struck by an object moving in a linear fashion). That's why the bulk of impact testing protocols involve dropping a helmet with a weighted head form in it directly onto an anvil at a specific height and speed.
accelerations the head is generally twisting or receives an angled impact that causes the head and its squishy contents to rotate, twist and, in some cases, shear. Bad news.
This is why more and more helmet manufacturers are adopting new technologies to reduce the rotational energy. At this point, MIPS (Multidirectional Impact Protection System) is the most popular. MIPS is a slip plane - a thin layer of plastic nestled against the foam liner that is said to reduce rotational accelerations by allowing the helmet’s liner to rotate independently around the slip plane during an angled impact. 6D has created its own concussion risk-reducing system called ODS (Omni-Directional Suspension), which features a series of plastic/rubber bumpers sandwiched between inner and outer EPS liners. When an angled impact occurs, the two layers compress and slide against one another, which (like MIPS) should reduce the amount of rotational forces transferred to the brain.
Do you need MIPS or ODS? Here's where it gets murky. I can't tell you that one technology is better than the other because currently there are no agreed upon testing protocols or standards for testing and measuring the effectiveness of these technologies. The helmet industry and safety associations are working on it. In the meantime, the manufacturer's are testing in-house and claiming reductions in rotational acceleration. Again, we don't have an apples-to-apples comparison here or even, to be blunt, complete agreement on how the apple should taste.
If you are a skeptic, you might dismiss all this as so much snake oil - just another means of selling a product. You might argue that your helmet already slips (to a certain degree) on your head during a crash - that your sweaty scalp is your own personal MIPS device. While we can't debate precisely how effective MIPS or ODS is at reducing the risk of concussion, the odds are good that these technologies help to some degree. Is it worth paying a bit more money? I'm not going to tell you what to believe. I, however, have been knocked unconscious several times and have a family tendency towards early dementia. I'll take every extra bit of protection I can get. That's my bias, if you will. Okay, on to the damn review already.
SIX HELMETS WORTH CONSIDERING
Bontrager Lithos MIPSBontrager’s Lithos MIPS sports the same core features as the rest of the trail-slash-enduro helmets in this review - extended rear coverage, a tilting visor (to accommodate goggles), and a well-designed fit system. It also sports a few noteworthy perks, including Blendr - the cleanest POV camera/headlight mount that I’ve seen on a helmet to date. You can snap a GoPro or Bontrager Ion light into the thing in nanoseconds flat. The helmet also sports a MIPS slip-plane. What’s not so awesome? At 450 grams this helmet is a bit porky. Also, unlike the other helmets in this review, the chinstraps are not routed through the EPS foam liner itself, which means that on hot days, you have more of the soggy, sweat-soaked straps snuggling up against the sides of your face. It’s not a deal breaker, but at this price, it’s a surprisingly unsophisticated touch. One big perk? If you crash and destroy the helmet within a year of purchasing it, Bontrager will replace it for free.
Bontrager Lithos MIPS Full Review
• ‘Blendr’ video camera/light mount is brilliant
• Pairs well with goggles--plenty of visor adjustment
• Crash replacement offers some peace of mind
• A bit heavy
• Chin strap routing could be improved
6D ATB-1TOne thing that’s immediately noticeable about the 6D helmet is that it’s big. The upside? This thing is the king of half-shell coverage. It sits low on your head. The ATB-1T is also big - as in thick. 6D’s unique design pairs two EPS layers, between which are sandwiched 27 rubber dampers that allow the foam layers to slide around during an angled impact. You can easily push the inner liner with your fingers and see that, yup, ODS truly allows the two shells to move independently of one another. Cool. As in neat. Because, no, this is not the coolest helmet in terms of ventilation. 6D claims otherwise, but ventilation is better on most of the other helmets in this review. The general fit is good- the helmet features a nice, large dial on its retention system and an effective four-position height adjustment. Kudos, as well, on the Fidlock magnetic buckle on the chinstraps, which snaps quickly and easily into place. This is a well thought out helmet. However, it is also noticeably heavy at 500 grams.
6D ATB-1T Full Review
• Innovative & unique slip-plane technology
• Magnetic buckle is very easy to operate with numb fingers
• The price tag
Giro Chronicle MIPSThe Chronicle MIPS is a new helmet from Giro. While it looks a whole lot like the Montaro, the fit is a bit different - the Chronicle sits a bit lower on your head than the Montaro. It also forgoes the Montaro’s integrated camera mount and goggle grippers. Why, then, did I include it here? Because it costs a hundred friggin’ bucks! Damn. And, yes, it also includes a MIPS layer. Double damn. Moreover, the fit is excellent and ventilation is very good. The Giro Feature used to be one of the go-to options for more affordable helmets, but the Chronicle is better on every front. While the harness adjustments are nice and indexed, my sole complaint with the Chronicle is that the adjuster dial on its Roc Loc 5 harness is tiny and consequently harder to adjust with cold, gloved fingers than the larger dials on the Troy Lee, 6D, Specialized, etc. Otherwise? Outstanding.
Chronicle MIPS Details
• Weight: 360 grams
• MSRP: $100 USD
• Great balance of weight, features and price
• Smaller dial on fit system is harder to adjust while wearing gloves
Specialized AmbushA bit of extra weight is generally what you have to accept if you are going to run one of these trail or “enduro” helmets. The Specialized Ambush essentially flips the bird at that notion. At 310 grams it is noticeably lighter than just about any helmet in this genre. The ventilation is also without equal. This is my absolute favorite helmet for warm weather riding. Specialized tucks the fit adjust dial into the back of the foam liner - it’s easy to operate and helps make their Mindset 360 retention system incredibly comfortable. There’s no dial digging into the back of your head with this lid (when you’re bald, you feel these things). Moreover, the fit is rock solid- no slipping about when the trail gets rowdy. If you’re a fan of running goggles, the Ambush is an excellent choice, as it offers the greatest range of visor adjustability (tilt) of any helmet here. The ambush is a lean, mean thing, which also means that there are no camera mounts and no slip plane-type devices. Whether or not that matters is up to you. Again, at this price, I’d prefer it if Specialized added some kind of extra concussion-reducing doohickey to this lid.
Ambush Full Review
• Lightest of the bunch
• Pairs well with goggles - plenty of visor adjustment
• Best fit adjustment system out there
• Excellent ventilation
• At this price it should feature MIPS or some other slip-plane technology
Troy Lee Designs A1 DroneTroy Lee’s A1 offers one of the most comfortable fits of any trail-riding helmet. It sounds silly to say it, but the padding on the helmet has a lot do to with it. It’s just the right type of dense and plush. It’s also removable, so you can wash and de-funk it. The fit system works well - again, there’s a nice big dial to snug things up here. Downsides? The visor doesn’t offer a huge range of adjustment, and while it's anchored by nicely finished aluminum knobs, those little buggers have a tendency to back out. Ventilation is not great despite a whole lot of big vents. I’ve run the original A1 and another A1 Drone for a couple of years now and sweat dripping down in my eyes is more of a problem with this helmet than with others in warm conditions. On the upside, the A1 is a great choice for cooler weather. Weight is reasonable on the A1 and the price is good for such a nicely finished helmet. If you want MIPS, TLD now offers the A1 Vertigo MIPS for $215.
TLD A1 full review
• Most comfortable padding of the bunch
• Good cool-weather helmet
• Despite plenty of vents, ventilation suffers. Not a great choice in summer heat
• Small range of visor adjustment
POC Tectal HelmetI found the POC Tectal one of the more comfortable fits on the market - a step up from the game-changing Trabec, to be sure. Ventilation is good. There are some breezier lids out there, such as the Specialized Ambush, but the Tectal is upper tier here as well. I’d have absolutely no reservations running it on very hot days. The Tectal's retention system offers nice indexed tweaks via a dial at the back, which is easy to adjust - even when you’re wearing full-finger gloves.
POC reinforces the EPS foam liner at key points in the Tectal with aramid fibers (the stuff in folding tire beads). If you’re willing to spend a few more bucks, POC’s upper-tier Tectal Race gets the aramid reinforcement spread throughout the entire EPS liner. POC also embedded a Recco reflector in the helmet (something you generally find on snowsports helmets). The reflector can help search and rescue workers in a helicopter find you if you are unlucky enough to ever have search and rescue workers looking for you.
What is missing here? There’s no MIPS or alternative slip-plane device that might help reduce rotational accelerations and, therein, reduce the likelihood of concussions. Admittedly, you might not care, but at this price, it feels like an oversight.
Tectal Full Review
• Weight: 360 grams
• MSRP: $190 USD
• Recco reflector helps search and rescue operators (in helicopters) pinpoint your location, should you get lost in the wilds.
• Good ventilation
• Nice build quality
• At this price it should feature MIPS or other slip-plane technology
Which Helmet Would I Buy?
There’s no shortage of good helmets out there. Consequently, you may find yourself wondering, “Why didn’t you include the ________?” [go ahead and fill in the blank here]. Well, the log in the picture above is only so long - I couldn’t fit them all on top of it. Or, to be less facetious, you have to draw the line somewhere. The six lids in this review are ones that I’ve used and found deserving of more attention. Each has its own merits.
If you’re aiming for maximum protection, the 6D is a compelling option. At this point, it’s impossible to say that 6D’s ODS system is more effective than MIPS at reducing the risk of concussion (see that brain bit, in this story's lead), but their unique system shows promise. If I didn’t give a damn about MIPS or slip planes, I’d go with the Specialized Ambush, wish feels like an XC helmet, but offers much more coverage.
The Bontrager Lithos isn’t cheap, but offers both cool features and MIPS at a reasonable price. The POC has the best overall fit and finish, but is a bit pricey given the lack of a slip plane device. The TLD is a solid and attractive choice for the money, but I’d like to see better airflow through the center of the helmet.... All of which leaves me staring at the Giro Chronicle.
Here’s the thing - every lightweight, half-shell bike helmet on the market is a one-time use product. In other words, you smack your helmet once and you toss it in the trash. Remember, the EPS liner is meant to crush - it doesn’t spring back into working shape again. It does not feature a resilient multi-impact liner (what you'd find, for instance, in a football helmet and some snowsports lids). Kali's upcoming MacDuff dirt-jump/street helmet is a multi-impact model, but as it stands, we mountain bikers live in a largely one-crash-and-it's-in-the-trash
helmet reality. Well, I have a hard time paying more than a hundred bucks for any helmet that has to be binned after one wreck. The Chronicle is the right choice for me given my budget, but it also kicks ass in terms of fit, ventilation, and overall comfort. Oh, and it has MIPS. Given all that, the Chronicle is nigh unbeatable.