After years of chasing the lightest, most minimal shapes for cross-country riders, helmet companies have started building lids with more rear coverage and added safety features.
Bell wasn’t the first into this space, but it made a splash with the launch of its Super two years ago. This year, BRG Sports, owner of Bell and Giro, has pushed to equip many of its helmets with MIPS—a thin plastic sheath in the helmet that allows the shell to move independently of the head, thus absorbing up to 50 percent of the rotational forces in a crash— after the company purchased a stake in the technology.
But are these helmets really safer or is it all just marketing hoopla?
There’s no clear-cut answer to that question, because the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) testing used since 1998 in the U.S. is a pass-fail standard. Consumers have no way of appraising claims about increased coverage, oblique strikes, or the forces that a helmet absorbs and transfers to riders.
“The standards are not doing as much as they could to protect cyclists,” says Brad Waldron, owner of Kali Protectives, a company that is constantly experimenting with softer foams, creative foam shapes and layups, and a myriad of other variables that can't be measured or quantified by current tests. “I personally believe the standards mandate too hard of foam, which causes too many concussions. And there’s a whole conversation going on about rotational forces, which is also an important factor that has pretty much been ignored. The current testing has no way of addressing any of that.”
Testing standards aside, it’s clear that manufacturers believe they're making consumers safer with MIPS, even if they can’t say so.
“We can’t say that it’s safer or that it makes an X-percent improvement because every impact is different. But I can tell you that everyone here believes that this is a step forward in helmet technology, and I’ve gone out of my way to make sure that my friends and family are riding MIPS,” says Dain Zaffke, Giro’s director of marketing. "The way I see it, you’re not losing anything with MIPS—fit, comfort, ventilation, aesthetics are unaffected—and it’s only a $20 upcharge, so for the potential upside, it’s an easy decision.”
Companies are in the same predicament about the additional coverage provided by the lower backs and sides of all-mountain helmets. It makes sense that more material on the backs and sides should improve safety, but there’s no way to quantify that based on existing tests. “We know that covering more of the head is better. It's just common sense. And the shell on the Ambush extends well beyond the required test area,” says Sean Estes, Specialized’s global mountain biking PR manager. “But we can’t really make specific claims about additional safety because every potential impact scenario is different.”
Our take? Trail helmets, with additional coverage, are worth considering. We don’t believe that helmet companies are just changing forms and adding features to sell more helmets: these brands have a huge stake in keeping cyclists safe, and we believe they're really trying to protect consumers.
To echo Giro’s Zaffke, there’s very little downside to buying a full-coverage helmet with added features like MIPS. Sure, it weighs a bit more and costs a bit extra. But that's a small price to pay for the potential safety upsides.
Ready to upgrade? Try one of these four all-mountain lids:
Bell Super 2 MIPS ($155)
This helmet looks much like the one Bell launched in 2013, except that it's now equipped with MIPS. The Super 2 is also ICEDot-equipped, which lets first responders access your medical data by way of a pin number printed on the shell.
The spin-dial retention system tightens from the rear and works well enough, though a few testers found that, because the chin straps are attached to the exterior sides of the shell, the fit is wide and the helmet can slip backwards. The Super 2 has lots of bells and whistles, including an adjustable visor that accommodates goggles and a removable GoPro mount. All the extras come at a cost, however, as this is the heaviest lid in this group at 433 grams (15.3 ounces).
Bottom Line: A great, fully featured helmet, though it feels a bit unwieldy compared to the Giro or Specialized options. Given that Bell also has the Super 2R, which pairs the Super 2 to a removable chin guard, we’d either shell out for that upgrade or opt for something lighter.
Bern Morrison ($100)
Bern moves into the off-road market this year with the Morrison. The styling is sharp, taking design cues from the company’s urban line, and the weight, at 397 grams (14 ounces), is reasonable. With only 14 vents, the Morrison isn't as airy as the Bell or the Specialized, but several testers commented that it was cooler than expected. The oversize visor is a nice touch, but it’s not adjustable, so goggles aren’t an option with this lid.
The retention system uses a rear spin dial that cinches the fit down well enough, but it’s built into an ungainly fabric-pad system that snaps into the shell. One of the two rear snaps occasionally came unsnapped while we were riding, and though it easily snapped back in, it made us wonder about the system’s durability. Fit system aside, the helmet is an extremely tight cut, with several testers who wear size small and medium in other brands commenting that they would have preferred a L-XL.
Bottom Line: The price is right on this smart-looking helmet, but it’s no high-performance unit. Testers loved the look and feel of the Morrison, but most agreed that Bern needs to make a few refinements to the fit.
Giro Feature MIPS ($95)
Giro updates the Feature for 2015 with MIPS. This is the trimmest, least noticeable application of the technology we’ve seen, so small and tucked away that it’s tough to tell this is the MIPS model except for the yellow sticker on the back. Even with the technology, the Feature’s sleek retention system and slender profile keep the helmet impressively light at 348 grams (12.3 ounces).
The outer shell of the Feature is narrow and the styling sleek. There are only 12 vents, but they're deeply channeled and so well placed that the Feature felt like the coolest lid of the bunch. The oversized visor adjusts up and down, though it doesn’t leave quite enough room for goggles without them hanging into your field of view. As such, the Feature is best suited to riding with sunglasses, while the Super 2 and the Ambush are better choices if you regularly ride in googles.
Bottom Line: In spite of its mid-level pricing, the Feature keeps up with high-end lids that cost double or more. Of the all-mountain helmets we’ve tried, there’s no better value out there.
Specialized Ambush ($180)
This new helmet is an impressive entry, with the most rear and side coverage of any of the all-mountain lids we tried, as well as the trimmest profile. It’s exceptionally light at 299 grams (10.5 ounces), which is competitive with many XC-oriented helmets. We like the look, too, and the adjustable visor works great with googles and moves on an indexing system that, unlike the more common screw adjustments, won’t loosen up and flap around over time.
The heart of the helmet is a new retention system, dubbed Mindset 360, which wraps all the way around the skull like a headband and adjusts from a spin dial built into the shell. It provides the best micro-adjustment of any of these four helmets and also has five height settings, so you can fine tune the fit. While the Ambush is cool, with 18 large vents, we found that the brow pad on the retention system tends to collect sweat, which can stream down into your eyes when the pad gets saturated.
Bottom Line: Given how light and fully featured the Ambush is, you almost can’t justify wearing a XC lid anymore. It fits great and doesn’t bounce or bump around, vents exceptionally well, and feels like it disappears when you’re wearing it. But the Feature works almost as well and costs 50 percent less, so you have to decide whether the weight savings (49 grams) is worth the steep price.