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by James Huang
August 25, 2017
Photography by James Huang
Bontrager recently released a redesign of its all-around premium Velocis road helmet, which abandoned its predecessor’s traditional styling in favor of a more aero-focused theme borrowed from the company’s Ballista model. Admirably sleek and compact, the new Velocis MIPS promises to combine TT helmet-like aerodynamic efficiency with scalp-cooling ventilation performance. But does it? Yes and no, says CyclingTips U.S. technical editor James Huang.
The fact that Bontrager has adopted an aero-focused design at all for its flagship road helmet is a strong testament to how much aerodynamic efficiency has come to dominate that segment of the market. Countless studies in recent years have proven time and again that when it comes to going faster on a road bike, aerodynamic efficiency is the key — more so than weight. To that end, Bontrager’s revamped Velocis shares nothing in common with its forebear, apart from the name.
By most accounts, the old Velocis was a pretty good helmet: comfortable, well-ventilated, reasonably lightweight, and with an on-trend style that was seemingly modeled after the hair of a Japanese anime movie character. But in place of that old vent-riddled exterior, the new Velocis MIPS sports a closer-fitting shell mostly devoid of sharp angles and creases. The idea here is that a smoother shell is more conducive to smoother airflow, and while all those angular styling elements look neat on a designer’s sketchpad, they effectively act as airbrakes in a wind tunnel.
Some may consider the Velocis MIPS’ styling to be derivative. That may be, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a good-looking helmet.
To that end — and just like it did on the Ballista a few years ago — Bontrager has traded quantity for quality on the Velocis MIPS. While there are fewer ventilation holes, the ones that remain are more finely tuned for airflow. Each of the Velocis’s five forward-facing ports has a clearly defined internal channel behind it: air comes in the front, passes through that channel across the rider’s head, and then out through a dedicated exhaust.
The vents on the Velocis are still bigger than those on the Ballista in an effort to keep the helmet feeling cool not just when moving quickly, but also when trudging slowly up a climb. At those lower speeds, there isn’t as much air moving over a rider’s head, so it’s more important that heat is able to radiate out in all directions.
According to Bontrager’s in-house wind tunnel testing, what you get when you add all of that up is a helmet that’s slightly more aerodynamic than the benchmark Giro Synthe MIPS (by 10.8g of drag, says Bontrager) as well as better ventilated with almost 20% more air volume moving through the interior.
An increased awareness of the risks of traumatic brain injuries has prompted Bontrager to focus more keenly on safety with the new Velocis MIPS as well. There’s a bit more coverage over the rear of the head relative to many other high-performance road helmets, for example, and as the helmet’s name suggests, a MIPS liner is included as standard equipment. According to MIPS proponents, that low-friction plastic layer allows the helmet to slide slightly on a rider’s head to help lessen rotational forces on the brain upon impact.
Bontrager only offers the new Velocis with a MIPS low-friction liner, which proponents claim reduces the incidence of traumatic brain injuries.
Whether MIPS actually works seems up for debate (Bontrager has internal data it isn’t willing to release) but it’s rapidly become a must-have feature in the eyes of safety-minded consumers, so it’s no surprise to see it incorporated here.
“Most helmets get certified with a certain test line,” says Bontrager brand manager Sam Foos in the company’s promotional video for the Velocis MIPS. “We went past that line to offer more coverage.”
Perhaps more impressive is Bontrager’s replacement guarantee, which provides owners with a new helmet if you damage one in a crash within the first year of ownership. Other companies offer similar policies, but usually in the form of a discount. In Bontrager’s this case, the new helmet comes at no cost whatsoever.
“We don’t want riders who just spend $200 on a lid to crash and feel like they need to keep riding an unsafe helmet because it is an expensive purchase,” said Foos. “We want to urge them to replace a damaged helmet free of charge so they are always wearing equipment they can trust to help keep them safe.”
Whereas some helmet companies choose a very high cut to decrease weight, Bontrager has opted for more coverage around the rear of the head for better protection.
Other features include a new height-adjustable retention system that uses a Boa cable reel to tune the tightness on your head, lightweight webbing, gripper pads to help secure stow sunglasses in the forward vents, and a new browpad material developed by 37.5 Technologies that is claimed to evaporate sweat faster than conventional pad fabrics. Also included with the Velocis MIPS is Bontrager’s handy NeoVisor, which adds the protective brim of a traditional cycling cap without having to wear an actual cycling cap.
Actual weight for my small-sized, CPSC-approved sample is 251g. Retail price is US$200 / AU$269 / £150 / €200.
In creating the Velocis MIPS, Bontrager sought to meld the aerodynamic performance of the Ballista with the ventilation performance of a more conventional-looking helmet — and to that end, I’d say the company receives a somewhat mixed grade.
Aerodynamically, the Velocis MIPS is a bit tricky to judge. I didn’t evaluate my sample in a wind tunnel, nor did I spend any time in a velodrome with a power meter to help verify Bontrager’s data (although having taken other Bontrager helmets into a wind tunnel myself in the past, I have little reason to suspect those claims deviate wildly from reality). That said, the 10.8g of claimed drag savings over the Synthe MIPS equates to barely 1W of energy savings at 40km/h — not nothing, but not exactly groundbreaking, and certainly within the wide margin of error that results when you account for different riders, different rider positions, different test protocols, etc.
Bontrager’s designers have carefully crafted how much air goes in and out of the new Velocis MIPS helmet. Otherwise, the smooth exterior is meant to slice cleanly through the wind with few ridges or hard edges to disrupt the flow.
Is the Velocis MIPS “fast”? Likely yes, although if absolute aero efficiency is your primary goal in a road helmet, there are better choices. Bontrager stated right from the get-go that the Velocis MIPS was a compromise between aerodynamics and ventilation — two factors in perpetual opposition to each other — and that’s what you get here.
Speaking of ventilation, that aspect is far easier to qualify on the Velocis MIPS. As I’ve found on several occasions when testing new-school aero road helmets in the past, the Velocis MIPS does a very good job of keeping your head cool — at least when you’re moving at a reasonably healthy speed. As promised, the forward vents suck in plenty of air, and the deep internal channeling behind them give that air plenty of room to run.
Things get more heated as speeds drop and efforts increase, however — quite literally, in this case — and on steeper climbs, there just isn’t enough air coming into the front of the helmet to pull heat away from your head. I didn’t hesitate to grab the Velocis MIPS on extremely hot and sunny days when I knew I’d be cruising along on flatter roads, but I certainly thought twice when the planned ride called for a healthy dose of elevation gain.
The padding has been designed using high-tech fabric from 37.5 Technologies. Embedded microparticles are said to speed sweat evaporation, but given that the pad is sandwiched between your forehead on one side and a solid plastic liner on the other, there’s no airflow to facilitate the process.
Making matters worse is the browpad design. Developed by Boulder-based company 37.5 Technology, the material incorporates tiny particles that “capture and release moisture vapor to prevent liquid sweat from forming and help cool you down when you’re hot.” That may very well be in a laboratory setting, but Bontrager sandwiches that fancy textile in between your forehead on one side, and the solid plastic MIPS liner on the other. Without any air passing across the fabric to help evaporate sweat, perspiration builds up and eventually dumps down into your face as usual.
In contrast, Specialized uses the browpad itself as part of the retention system on its S-Works helmets — as does Bontrager on the Ballista, ironically — leaving the front completely open to incoming air to help evaporate built-up fluid. Meanwhile, Bell’s incredibly clever pad design incorporates a small extension that redirects sweat build-up further ahead of your face; when perspiration eventually saturates the pad, it drips harmlessly in front of your glasses, not on to them. Both methods are more effective than what Bontrager has utilized on the Velocis MIPS.
If I really want to nitpick, the little plastic pads that Bontrager uses to hold on to your sunglasses when you stuff them into the vents work only marginally well — but then again, so has every other interpretation of this that I’ve seen on other brands. I ended up just flipping unwanted glasses around on to the back of my head instead.
The Boa-equipped retention system is exceptionally easy to use, and holds as tightly as you want it to.
That said, I did find the Velocis MIPS to be very comfortable to wear overall. The moderately ovoid shape should work for a wide range of wearers, there’s a reasonable amount of padding, and the Boa-equipped retention system is easy to adjust and highly adaptable for a variety of sunglass makes and models. The thin webbing lays nicely against the skin, too, and doesn’t get overly stiff when saturated with dried-up sweat.
Personally, I find Bontrager’s strategy here a bit odd. Instead of updating the Ballista with an improved ventilation design (which presumably could be done) and keeping that as the company’s dedicated aero road lid, Bontrager now offers two options for riders interested in minimizing drag: one that is very aerodynamic and ventilates reasonably well; and another that is still pretty aerodynamic and ventilates a bit better.
Left in the wake of that newfound focus on aerodynamics is a notable gap — what do you choose if you don’t really care about drag, but do care about low weight and ventilation? As much as I find the new Velocis MIPS helmet quite agreeable, the unfortunate answer to that question is somewhere other than Bontrager.
Bontrager has taken an aero-focused approach to the new Velocis MIPS road helmet.
As with other modern helmets, the Bontrager Velocis MIPS has a more rounded shape that is more aerodynamic than the visually swoopy tails favored just a couple of years ago.
Coverage isn’t something many road riders think about, but given that crashes on asphalt are almost universally ugly, perhaps they should.
The clipped tail incorporates generous exhaust venting to help pull hot air out from inside the helmet.
Deep internal channeling helps air pass through the inside of the helmet. It’s not a new strategy, but it’s executed very well here.
The retention system can be adjusted in five different height positions.
The lightweight webbing feels soft against your skin even when caked with dried sweat.
The covered lower edge bodes very well for long-term durability.
Small gripper pads are meant to hold tight to sunglasses that are stuffed into the vents.
In practice, those gripper pads work only marginally well, and their effectiveness depends strongly on what sunglasses are used.