Head Case: Choosing a Bike Helmet

An easy guide to buying a lid that keeps you safe while serving your needs

You’re white-knuckling your way down a dizzying dirt hill, practically shaving your knees on hairpin switchbacks along a mountain road or, for that matter, leisurely pedaling down the street, when it happens. You crash.

Regardless what kind of cycling you prefer, one hard fact looms over the sport: You’re going to crash someday. When that happens, you've got to have your head protected.

Given the huge helmet market, it can be a bit daunting choosing the right helmet. And with all of the too-bright colors, overly bulbous shapes and other flamboyant engineering details, you may risk looking like some kind of failed superhero. But settle with the fact that nobody really looks all that cool in a helmet and, yes, it's going to muss up your do. But not wearing one is a major DON'T. Consider that as many as 90-plus percent of all cyclists killed in the U.S. aren't wearing helmets. Convinced? Good, here’s the skinny on picking the perfect braincase.

First things first, measure your head. Simply wrap a tape measure around your head about an inch above your eyebrows. If you don't have a sewing tape measure or other flexible option, use a string to take your measurement, then lay it flat on a ruler or yardstick. If you come up between sizes, opt for the smaller of the two.

Bike helmets come in three basic flavors: sport, road and mountain.

The most economical ($30 to $65) helmet is sport or multi-use, popular among recreational riders and commuters. These tend to have comparatively fewer vents, are a little bulkier and wrap farther down the back of the skull. These are great for beginners, relaxed urban riders or budget-minded cyclists.

The next style is road, preferred for their lightweight, aerodynamic design and plentiful ventilation. Serious cyclists logging many miles a day should consider doling out the extra cash—anywhere from $60 to $250—for the added breathability and ounce-shaving qualities that will keep you cool on long rides.

Mountain biking helmets come equipped with a sun-blocking visor, extended back-of-head coverage, great ventilation—though they're heavier than their road-riding counterparts—and a firm, extra-secure fit for handling bumpier trails. These typically range in cost from $35 to $200.

Within each category, price is generally a factor of materials and, therefore, weight. More money buys a lighter, more ventilated and aerodynamic lid.

Fitting Your Helmet
As for the fit, a couple of straightforward rules may help:
1. Always look for the snuggest fit possible without causing discomfort.
2. Before tightening up, be sure the lip of the helmet sits at 90 degrees from the forehead, no more than two fingers’ length above the eyebrow.
Check? Time to strap up.

Many many helmets come with a sizing dial—twist to the right to tighten, and loosen to the left—in back, which allows for an individualized circumference fit. Loosen it before clipping and adjusting the chinstraps. After you’ve buckled up, tighten the rear dial until the helmet fits snugly around your head.

Next, check your reflection to ensure the chinstraps frame the ear in a taught v-pattern. If the helmet is too far back or forward on your head, or if the buckles on the chinstrap haven’t been properly adjusted, it’ll look more like an out-of-whack U.

The final, high-science check: Rattle your strapped up candidate with a few gentle knocks from all angles. If it moves around enough to disengage from the contour of your skull, it’s too lose; if any sharp pain occurs, it’s too tight.

Important: Bicycle helmets are designed as single-use products. Once you've whacked one in a crash, it's time to replace it. If the inner foam is dented or in anyway damaged, it’s a no go. Any structural weaknesses can be major problems should you suffer a(nother) serious collision. Lastly, crash-free helmets come with a recommended shelf life of five years—sun exposure and general wear and tear weaken helmets over time—after which time we’ve heard they make phenomenal planters. 

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