What are you looking at here? Well, a bike helmet, obviously. I’m still confined to riding inside, which for a cyclist bears the same relationship to real cycling as watching C-SPAN does to having sex. So in a gesture that was, I admit, motivated almost completely out of self-pity, I decided to go out and buy myself a new helmet as a gesture of optimism that I might, you know, one day, actually be able to stop watching C-SPAN. Apart from its consolation value it was also practical. Several times over the past few days, when I’ve been dreaming of riding outside, I’ve remembered that I in fact no longer have a helmet (or rather I have a souvenir piece of foam and plastic with scuff marks and a big crack in the side).
So why did I buy this particular helmet, a Scott Lin? Because it is a helmet that might be the harbinger of a fundamental change in helmet design.
Oh the Humanity
Very occasionally in life you have a moment where you realize that something you’ve been doing for quite some time, something that you thought seemed to be simple common sense, is in fact complete lunacy. For me (and apparently for a lot of other cyclists) it was the recent publication in Bicycling of Bruce Barcott’s “Senseless that drove this home. Based on extensive investigative reporting, Barcott’s piece should be required reading for everyone who counts themselves a bike enthusiast. Barcott’s article is driven by a simple question: how good are our bike helmets, really? After extensive reviews of technical and medical literature, interviews with helmet design teams, and visits to government testing facilities, Barcott comes up with some pretty disturbing answers. His article has already been widely circulated, and so popular has it been that Bicycling announced they have made a special podcast version of the article available for download at their website.
Helmets have been doing a great job in stopping our heads coming apart when we hit the road. But unlike helmets for many other sports (snowboarding, for example) they are doing a terrible job at preventing concussions. In fact, the rate of concussions suffered by cyclists has been rising faster than the increase in the number of cyclists. A complicating factor here is that the current state of medical research indicates that most concussions are not in fact caused by what everyone used to think caused them (your brain banging against your head when you fall). Rather, many concussions are in fact caused by whiplash damage to nerves; in other words, concussion is not simply a contact injury but is created by rotational forces on the brain. This also helps to explain why the effects of some concussions can be so prolonged. There is, I think, a misperception out there that a concussion is a temporary inconvenience, and some concussions do certainly have very short-term effects. But if you don’t recover quickly from a concussion, the effects, sometimes severe, can linger for months. Furthermore, having experienced one concussion means that your odds of subsequent concussions being more severe goes up dramatically.
As far as US and international testing standards are concerned, however, concussions do not exist. Current helmet safety certification focuses solely on impact resistance (based mainly on a drop test). Furthermore, even this standard is compromised because it focuses only on the impact protection afforded by a helmet dropped vertically onto its top. In the real world, unless you endo, and then often not even then, you never replicate this situation. In fact, the odds are that if you crash you will hit your head just about anywhere except on the top (remember above when I said that my helmet has a big crack in the side?). The really, really bad news that Barcott found is that product safety agencies and the government have absolutely zero interest in redefining their helmet standards (which in fact haven’t changed since Moses was a glint in the milkmaid’s eye). Most helmet designers also have zero interest in designing new, safer helmets.
Why? Because of us.
Oh the Insanity
I’m passionate about cycling but I’m forced to admit also that parts of cycling culture are completely insane. It is a very big tent, covering people who ride on the weekend for pleasure, who commute, who race professionally, who race semi-professionally, bike tourists, randonneurs, mountain bikers, hipsters. . .you get the idea. But design and development are fueled mainly by the needs of professional racers, on the one hand, and mid-life crisis males (although not exclusively males) on the other. The latter group, in fact, exerts an influence entirely disproportionate to its numbers because it it this combination of testosterone and anxiety (not to mention substantial disposable income) that many retailers perceive as fueling the industry. These are the guys who will drop 10K on a bike as a symbol of their not-yet-declined manhood. These are the people who will pay extraordinary amounts of money for components that are 0.0024 grams lighter than a similar component, or confer a 0.056 mph advantage in that local crit that they are always intending to enter but never do. These are the people that keep LBSs up and running.
This is the culture that overwhelmingly is serviced by many of our LBSs and produces the people who work in them. This means that there are whole worlds of cycling that such places just do not get. For example, one of the pieces of advice I see a lot on randonneur sites is to be very careful about taking advice from LBSs because their wisdom is often based on criteria–lighter, faster–that don’t have much relevance to the world of randonneuring.
But the mid-life crisis culture gradually filters out into the rest of the cycling world, and nothing illustrates this more than our reaction to bike helmets. When you are buying a helmet, what do you think most people focus on. How well it protects your head? Pshaw. Barcott demolishes that myth in short order and any cyclist who is honest with themselves knows this not to be true. They focus on (in a variable order) how cool it looks, how light it is, and how many vents. In other words we treat our bike helmets as if it were a performance component on our bikes. But unless you are buying a specialist helmet (for time-trialing, for example) this is just crazy talk. Your helmet is only secondarily a performance component. It is, rather, the only piece of dedicated (supposedly) safety equipment that most road cyclists use (obviously if you are a downhill mountain biker you end up with an entire set of body armor that makes you like like Master Chief). Our first question should be, how well does this helmet protect my head?
Barcott’s research shows that the answer to that question with almost every helmet on the market is: not as well as they should. Moreover, the answer now is also: not as well as they could. For there are a few manufacturers, as Barcott shows, that are aware of this problem and have been working, sometimes for years, to perfect designs that won’t be insupportably heavy and which consumers will still buy. The attempt to eliminate or at least mitigate the effect of a concussion has focused on two kinds of approaches. One has been to construct a different kind of helmet insert that will deform in a way that takes account of the off-center hits that most of us experience. The second standard tries to mimic and enhance the brain’s natural protection by creating, in effect, a second shell that rotates inside the normal helmet lining. By allowing s small amount of rotation when the rider hits the road the helmets are designed to reduce to non-injury levels the rotational forces on the brain. Many of these latter efforts have coalesced around an unofficial approach called the Multiple Impact Protection System (MIPS), and it it these helmets that have made it to the market first. The Scott Lin is one of those helmets.
(For more information on MIPS and a list of manufacturers who make bike helmets to conform to this standard you can go to the MIPS website. They have a great video of assorted cycling crashes which shows you just how ridiculous the vertical drop standard really is).
Now there are obviously a lot of problems here. The MIPS people have had to do a lot of their own research and testing and the standard is relatively new (although Barcott shows that it has been in development for quite a few years). So we need some independent studies looking at the claims so that we can help refine the technology further.
The other problem is that most of the designs by manufacturers focus on the mountain bike market. Crashes are such a common part of that cycling market that riders are unlikely to be as resistant to the idea of a new protection standard as those in the road world. This does mean, however, that some of the designs would be distinctly out of place on your average weekend group road ride. But certainly not all. While there were at one point several major differences between road and MTB helmets (chiefly related to weight and venting) that difference has largely evaporated; sometimes the same helmet under a different name is sold to both groups. Some wags on cycling lists have suggested that now the only meaningful distinction is whether the helmet is sold with a visor or not! As you can see from the images above and below, the Scott Lin certainly passes the appearance test for a road helmet. Laser also makes a very roadie-acceptable helmet.
Those manufacturers who have taken a chance on this kind of design, a design change remember, that is completely invisible and which therefore confers no bragging rights in the way that having 64 vents or vent holes sculpted like the human vulva does. But these manufacturers are going to be voices in the wilderness unless we support them and unless, more importantly, we as riders start leaping up and down and demanding better helmets. Which means that we need to stop obsessing over weights and vents. Your modern bike helmet is more than adequately vented. I’m also willing to bet that your average rider could not determine a 12g difference between two helmets if they weren’t told that there was one in the marketing materials.
It is a tough thing to realize that you’ve been riding like an idiot all these years. I can only plead that I didn’t know any better. Now, I do. And having experienced what was a relatively mild concussion, let me tell you that it is something I want to avoid happening again if at all possible. Moreover, the information is now out there. Don’t take my word for it; read Barcott’s article for yourself, read the responses (almost universally approving) and act. If you don’t like the helmet designs that are out there, buy one temporarily (surprisingly–or perhaps not–my new helmet is about half the cost of some of the helmets I see my team mates wearing) and then start lobbying the juggernauts like Rudy, Specialized, Bell and Gyro to get with the fucking program.
I think the upshot of all this is, however, that if you continue to obsess about weight, vents, and the visibility of the manufacturers logo when selecting a helmet, and especially if you’ve had a concussion before and continue to do these things, there is only one conclusion.
You are an idiot.