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by James Huang
November 18, 2016
Photography by James Huang
Sweat management is one of the least-discussed aspects of helmet performance, and yet one of the most annoying when it isn’t done well. With the new Zephyr, Bell has not only managed to create a fantastic all-around road helmet packed with the latest safety features, but also one that utterly squashes the perennial issue of perspiration dripping into your eyes and glasses, with just one ingeniously placed bit of fabric.
I don’t generally expect road helmets to offer much in the way of innovation, but Bell has developed something legitimately novel with its Zephyr. With few exceptions, most helmets use single-density expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam liners wrapped with a thin polycarbonate shell —and sometimes an internal reinforcement structure — to help hold everything together in the event of a crash.
In contrast, the Zephyr is more like two helmets nested one inside the other in a setup Bell calls “bifurcated body construction,” which Bell claims is a first in bicycle helmets. The inner one uses a lower-density EPS foam to help reduce transmitted forces at lower impact speeds, while the outer one uses a more conventional EPS density to protect your head in more severe crashes.
The Zephyr uses a novel helmet-within-a-helmet design, with each half featuring its own polycarbonate outer shell.
The relative thicknesses of those foam liners also vary throughout the helmet depending how likely that area is to hit the ground, and both are wrapped with their own individual polycarbonate shells. The two assemblies are then mechanically interlocked and bonded together.
Whether or not that double-layer construction actually provides better protection than a helmet built with a more conventional layout unfortunately isn’t easy to determine; U.S. federal law prohibits companies from making any safety claims other than that their helmets “meet or exceed” certification testing. Nevertheless, Bell seems to be stacking the deck with the Zephyr, which also comes standard with a low-friction MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) liner that is said to reduce the incidence of closed head injuries by reducing the amount of rotational force transmitted to your brain in certain types of crashes.
The respective liner thicknesses are adjusted throughout the helmet depending on how likely you are to impact that particular location.
MIPS liners are usually thin plastic skins added on to what are otherwise fully featured helmets and separate from other components. In the Zephyr, though, that low-friction liner is molded as a single unit together with Bell’s new Float Fit Race retention system, for a more uniform fit.
Other features include lightweight webbing with low-profile sliders, adjustable rear pads, and generous height adjustment range on the retention system, strategically placed reflective highlights, and a rainbow of color options.
Whereas MIPS liners are usually added as separate components to otherwise complete helmets, the Zephyr molds the low-friction element together as one piece with the retention system. According to Bell, this produces a more “cap-like” feel.
The Zephyr’s doubled-up design does come at a price. At 267g for a CPSC-certified size small sample, it’s about 50-70g heavier than true ultralight models from Specialized, Giro, and Bontrager, just to name a few. Bell also makes no claims whatsoever in terms of the Zephyr’s aerodynamic performance.
Nevertheless, in the metrics that most everyday riders care about — namely ventilation and comfort — the Zephyr easily goes toe-to-toe with its competition. Provided the somewhat rounded headform works for your noggin, the Zephyr’s full-coverage retention system lends a pleasantly snug and hat-like fit with no pressure points or hot spots that would irritate your scalp after a long day in the saddle.
There are few obstructions to block wind from passing directly across the top of your head.
The flow-through design lets a tremendous amount of cooling air stream across the top of your head, too, with heaps of open venting throughout the Zephyr’s exterior and deep internal channeling to give that air room to move. The shell is so riddled with giant openings, in fact, that sunscreen should be considered a must for anyone with closely cut hair.
Even the best-ventilated helmets can’t completely keep you from sweating on ultra-hot days, however, and it’s here where the Zephyr reveals its ace in the hole: a clever little extension on the brow pad that does an incredibly good job of keeping sweat out of your eyes and glasses.
Bell’s aptly named “Sweat Management System” brow-pad design couldn’t be simpler, made from a common X-Static antimicrobial material, but with a small tab-like extension that wraps around the lower front edge of the helmet. When you’re in the riding position, this tab sits lower than any other section of the pad, so sweat naturally flows there — and when the pad is saturated, it drips harmlessly in front of your glasses instead of down your face and onto your lenses.
That little tab-shaped extension on the front of the Zephyr is the key to its outstanding sweat management. When in the riding position, sweat naturally flows there from other areas of the brow pad, eventually dripping in front of your nose, instead of down into your sunglasses lenses or into your eyes. It’s incredibly simple, yet incredibly effective.
Colorado’s unusually prolonged summer has provided me with plenty of opportunities to sample the Zephyr’s sweat-management capabilities since receiving my sample in late August, and I continue to be astounded by how well it works. Getting sweat in my sunglasses is a huge personal pet peeve, and I can count the number of times a drop of sweat has fallen down into my lenses during that time on two hands — and most of those came on a particularly windy day when falling drops were pushed back into my face.
As much as I have come to like the Zephyr, I’ve also noticed a couple of faults. Bell equips two of the Zephyr’s forward vents with small rubber pads, which are meant to provide a secure place to stash your sunglasses when you don’t feel like wearing them. Simply put, they didn’t work with any make or model of sunglasses I tried.
Secondly, the high-vis yellow color I’ve been testing has already started to show signs of fading in the intense Colorado high-altitude sunlight. This is typical of most fluorescent helmets I’ve used in the past, but it’s disappointing nevertheless for something that should otherwise last for a few years.
The competition has grown increasingly fierce in the high-end road helmet market, and a helmet as heavy as the Zephyr that offers no claimed aerodynamic benefits would normally fall to mid-pack at best. Ask anyone who has persistent issues with sweat in their eyes what they’d be willing to give up for reliably clear vision, however, and chances are a few grams of weight and drag would be high on the list. Couple that unique feature with the Zephyr’s presumably better-than-average protection, and it definitely makes for a helmet that I can wholeheartedly recommend.
RRP: US$230; AU$TBC; £200; €250
Bell’s new Zephyr helmet looks normal enough, but hidden underneath is a construction method unlike any other bicycle helmet on the market.
The open architecture allows ample air to flow through for highly effective cooling in mid-summer conditions.
The Bell Zephyr doesn’t just feel cool; it looks pretty cool, too.
The nested construction lends the Bell Zephyr a somewhat unique appearance, too, with the inner shell also acting as a prominent design feature.
Bell is prioritizing safety with the Zephyr, with MIPS added as standard equipment.
The spacing on the rear pads on the retention system can be adjusted for width. They’re also lightly padded with a softer co-molded rubber to enhance their grip on your head.
The rubber-covered dial is easy to grab and turn on the fly.
Relatively generous padding helps keep any hard points off of the top of your head.
There’s ample height adjustment range on the Float Fit Race retention system.
Bell’s previous top-end road helmet was getting long in the tooth, so the Zephyr couldn’t have come soon enough. Thankfully, it was worth the wait.