I'll be the first to admit, with more experience than I care to admit, mountain biking can be dangerous. As such,many forms of protection have come about for when the need arises. One of the widely agreed upon 'must have' protection elements is the helmet. Not only has the helmet been proven time and time again throughout history, but the cycling industry has invested countless hours and currencies into developing better and more efficient and effective ways of protecting us against head and brain injuries.
There are a few different things to consider when purchasing a new helmet, and crashing in helmet after helmet over the years has taught us that the main considerations should be comfort and protection and style.
How do helmets work?
The main job of a helmet is to prevent a head injury. To do this, a helmet must be able to absorb impact energy, and it does so by distributing the load.
To be able to absorb and distribute the load, helmets are made from a polystyrene foam that compresses under force, which cushions the blow and distributes the force through all of the material. Since the foam can split easily, a harder outer shell is used to keep the foam together and enable the helmet to slide on the ground to avoid any damage to the neck. This outer shell also adds a layer of protection to punctures, in which the foam would be compromised very quickly. A majority of outer shells are made from plastic compounds, but some of the more expensive models use carbon fibre composite or fibreglass for greater strength and less weight.
A helmet should be able to stay on under normal conditions without needing the strap to be secured, but this system is required to prevent the helmet coming off in an accident or during fast changes of direction.
Before heading out to purchase a new helmet, it's a good idea to measure your head and compare against sizing charts to determine the best fit for you. This will cut down on time spent trying on helmets, or if buying online, returning items in exchange for different sizes. To find your size, wrap a flexible tape measure around the largest portion of your head about 2-3 finger widths above your eyebrows. Or, wrap a string or ribbon around your head, then measure the length of string with a straight-edge ruler.
Once you've determined your size, the next thing to do is to find one that is comfortable. The style is a good portion of the decision-making process, but keep in mind that you'll have this helmet on your head for many hours. If it's not comfortable, it's not going to be a pleasant and enjoyable ride for you. Since full-face helmets require more padding than open-face helmets, you'll need to make sure that things like the padding for the cheeks don't press in too much. It's an unpleasant feeling after some time and can be quite distracting when you're trying to focus on the trails ahead.
Australian law dictates that you must wear an approved helmet while out riding. It stipulates that the head protection must consist of a protective shell, liner, and retention strap underneath the jaw. Approved helmets meeting the requirements of construction, design, performance, markings, and safe use instructions are assigned to the AS/NZS 2063:2008 standard, so you can be sure any helmet with this rating sticker has passed a stringent series of tests in order to attain that rating. Furthermore, there are specific requirements regarding permanent attachments and internal projections which may lead to injury. All of our helmets comply with this standard as a bare minimum.
Examples of the special requirements are:
- Guaranteed durability when exposed to sunlight
- Extreme temperatures and rain
- Stability under the influence of ageing.
- Helmets also need to not obscure vision
- Be able to significantly reduce the force to a cyclist's head upon impact
- Distribute the force of an impact
- Provide secure enough hold to remain on a cyclist's head in the event of an accident.
Another good suggestion to follow is to not baulk at the idea of how much helmets can cost. While all helmets sold in Australia must conform to the AS/NZS 2063:2008 standard, the higher cost helmets will typically be a step above their lower price alternatives. The higher the cost, the more time and money has been put into the development and manufacture of the helmet. Price is typically a good indicator of the quality of the helmet.
Various types of materials are used in the manufacture of helmets, ranging from a thin and flimsy plastic cover over an EPL foam for the cheapest of helmets, to a rigid carbon cover over several layers of different foam technologies to help dissipate the impact forces. Most of the mountain bike helmet offerings these days run with a hard plastic outer shell with a smooth surface, and a mix of different foam compounds and other technologies to help combat rotational forces.
Type of helmet
You'll also need to consider is what type of helmet will you need? For example, you won't need an ultralight carbon full-face helmet for a short ride to the shop to pick up more milk, just like you wouldn't wear an open-face helmet to a Downhill race.
The typical styles of Mountain Biking helmets are:
- XC helmet - An XC helmet is similar to the one you would find on a road rider, albeit with a beefier foam layer to help absorb the unpredictable terrain. They are a bit more aerodynamically inclined and feature great airflow.
- Trail helmet - A Trail helmet features a much stronger foam inner, and tends to have a longer rear portion to help protect the back of the skull. They also tend to have more absorbent padding to allow for longer rides and sweat removal.
- Full Face helmet - The sturdiest in the list, the Full Face helmet has been built specifically with Downhill, Freeride and Gravity Enduro riders in mind due to their higher speeds, and more challenging terrain.
- Convertible helmet - The convertible helmet was built with Gravity Enduro riders in mind, where they can have the breathability and comfort of a Trail helmet when climbing to the trailhead, but also have the safety and peace of mind when navigating the highly technical courses at high speed.
The only thing you'll have to remember now is to take your helmet with you when you go riding! Only potatoes ride without helmets, and you don't want to be a vegetable!
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