CT Recommends: Our favourite road cycling helmets
Looking for a new lid? In this installment of CT Recommends, tech writer Dave Rome shares what road helmets members of our team choose to use and why.
Helmets are no doubt a subjective item, and what works for one head may not work for another, but the suggestions in this article may help to reduce the number of helmets you should try on.
Elements to consider
The strangest part about road helmets – or cycling helmets in general – is that the amount of safety they provide is relatively unknown. Brands are required to meet relevant European, American, or Australian standards, but no brands publish the actual test numbers. As a result, a helmet that just barely meets the minimum standard can be marketed on equal footing to one that far surpasses it, and the merits of additional safety-focused features like MIPS and alternative liner materials are largely a mystery.
Thankfully, third-party cycling helmet testing has begun, and as that continues to expand in scope, objective safety data hopefully become a key element of product design and marketing in the future. It’s long overdue, and there certainly can’t be many other products out there where the quality of the core function is unknown by the consumer.
After safety, the fit of the helmet is next in line. Simply put, a helmet that doesn’t fit well can be uncomfortable at best, or inadequately protective at worst. Helmet shapes can differ substantially between brands and even model lines, so it’s always best to try on a helmet before buying. Ideally, a helmet should closely approximate the shape of your head before resorting to built-in adjustments and fit systems, and without any signs of pressure points or discomfort. Likewise, avoid helmets that are too large and leave the helmet free to rock on your head. The retention systems provided on helmets should be used to refine the fit, not make it.
Retention systems are designed to refine the feel of a helmet that is already a decent fit to begin with, but a good (or bad) retention system can still make or break your decision. Higher-end models typically have a broader range and wider selection of adjustability, so check to make sure the helmet can be adjusted to your liking. Also be sure to take your preferred eyewear in with you when trying on a helmet to ensure they fit; it’s not uncommon for glasses and retention systems to not get along well together. And if it’s important to you, make sure the helmet provides space for you to store your eyewear when not in use, too.
Not to be ignored are the straps, which obviously serve an important safety function, but are commonly a point of nuisance. Look for straps that sit flat to your face, and can be adjusted to flow around your ears and not over them. Likewise, the buckle should feel comfortable underneath your chin, without pressing on your neck.
It’s only once you’ve identified a secure and comfortable fit that you should consider additional features. Airflow, ventilation, low weights, aerodynamics, and aesthetics are all elements to consider (and things we commonly cover in our helmet reviews).
Our favourite road cycling helmets
Kask’s association with Team Sky has no doubt helped with the Italian company’s visibility and business success in recent years. Many members of the CyclingTips team have used Kask helmets, and while different models were mentioned by various staffers, it’s this brand that gets the most suggestions.
CyclingTips founder Wade Wallace is one such Kask proponent. Although he loves both his Specialized S-Works and Giro Synthe lids, he admits that the Kask Mojito would be his pick if he could only have one helmet.
“I have so many helmets and the only one that stands out as being my favourite is the Kask Mojito,” he said. “The only reason for that is because of the nice finishing touches it has on the [leather] strap, the interior padding, the dial, and the styling.”
While it’s no longer his first choice (I’ll get to that), Neal Rogers also rates the Kask Mojito highly.
“[It’s] light, small, well-fitting, and well ventilated.”
I personally bought a Mojito thinking I’d found the perfect fitting helmet for my fussy oval head (I often sit between a small and medium in most brands, but a small Kask fits me perfectly), but soon realised the leather chin strap gave me a choking sensation. The ear stems of my Oakley Radars also overlapped with the helmet’s retention system. It’s something Wade has found, too, but it isn’t an issue with the shorter-arm Oakley Jawbreaker he prefers to wear. However, Wade did remark that the Mojito is, “terrible for eyewear storage”.
New to the Kask range, and sitting above the Mojito, is the Valegro. It’s the most comfortable helmet I’ve used. It’s silly light, extremely breathable, and I like the look of it, too. More importantly, unlike my experience with the Mojito, this one works well with sunglasses and the leather chin strip doesn’t choke me. However, since finishing my review (which I’ll update shortly), the retention system has only become sloppier and a slipping ratchet system just doesn’t belong in a helmet this price. That’s obviously disappointing, but not quite a deal breaker in my book (although it’s close).
A final nod for Kask comes from Michael Jeffs, a member of the CyclingTips Emporium team and a privateer NRS racer. He chooses the Kask Protone, the lightweight aero lid that sits above the Mojito and alongside the Valegro.
“It’s a great fit, relatively small overall, super light, and offers plenty of ventilation for an aerodynamic helmet. It has lots of colour choice, too.”
CyclingTips global tech editor James Huang is a loud proponent for the Bell Z20/Zephyr. “It’s not particularly light, but I find it super comfortable, extremely well ventilated, and the sweat management system is, far and away, the best I’ve seen. You never get sweat in your eyes ever, which I can say about no other helmet I’ve ever used. I also like that it has an integrated MIPS liner and a two-layer, dual-density foam liner, all of which bodes well for safety.”
“I should perhaps also mention that I might place a higher priority on sweat management than some other people because I shave my head; the sweat has nowhere to go but down. But the fact that only Bell has managed to figure out how to keep sweat out of my eyes is astounding given how common the issue is. Every other helmet I’ve used is only marginally ok in this at best, and often outright terrible.”
Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom also has a shaved head, and while he backs James’s choice, he also likes a new mid-range model in the Bell range that shares many of the Zephyr/Z20’s features.
“Plus one for sweat management from another baldy; Bell’s sweat guide is a big improvement. I was waiting to see if Bell would move the sweat channel feature down from the Zephyr, and the Falcon might be the first in the range to get it. That Falcon also has MIPS, so it almost punches above its price point.
“The Bell Falcon satisfies my sweet spot for function and affordability. I can’t spend more than $150 on a helmet; the bells and whistles aren’t worth it when a helmet is just a split second away from being rendered worthless. I’d rather take advantage of the trickle-down in features, which is quite impressive.”
For James, a close second to the Bell Z20 is the lightweight Specialized S-Works Prevail II.
“It’s wickedly light, exceptionally well vented, and extremely comfortable. But it’s a bit fragile, and although there’s a dual-density liner, there isn’t a MIPS-equipped option. Fit-wise, Specialized is the best for me. A size small feels like it was molded around my head. Anything super round can be problematic for my head, such as Limar. Oval headforms tend to fit me better.”
And oval the Prevail II is. Where James has found perfection in the small, it’s just a couple of millimeters on the narrow side from being perfect for me. Alas, as usual, I’m awkwardly between sizes in this well-loved lid.
Our Ella editor, Simone Giuliani, also rates the S-Works Prevail II.
“It’s my helmet of choice. So light and airy I almost forget I’m wearing it. It’s good for my oval (pointy) head, too, as so many others look ridiculous and bulky. Plus, it is a simple, stylish design (not flashy) so I feel like I’m wearing the helmet; it’s not wearing me.”
And Wade shares James’ sentiments, putting the Prevail II as his second favourite helmet.
“It’s my longtime favorite for looks, but it doesn’t have the nice finishing touches that the Kask helmets have.”
For new CyclingTips editor-in-chief Caley Fretz, his pick is Giro’s staple aero road lid, the Synthe (sans MIPS).
“[It’s] Low-profile, looks good. And the retention system doesn’t try to get all fancy.”
Caley openly admits that his decision isn’t based on Giro’s claimed aero benefit; his preference for the Synthe is based on how it fits.
“My head is pretty narrow. It doesn’t give me the ’shroom look’, and fits nicely.”
Wade and I agree with Caley on the Synthe, and find the helmet to be a comfortable all-rounder.
Neal Rogers also puts Giro as his top pick, but chooses the all-new Aether, which use the latest incarnation of MIPS technology. Instead of adding a separate liner inside the foam, the new MIPS Spherical is integrated directly in between two floating shells, like two helmets nested one inside the other with a low-friction layer in between them.
“I rate the new Giro Aether higher than any road helmet I’ve ever used. I love everything about it but the price.” [The] fit is perfect. It’s light and svelte, and apparently very aero, according to Giro. It’s always been a bit difficult to know how much credence to give to the MIPS system in terms of brain protection, but it’s clear to the eye (and hands) how the proprietary MIPS Spherical system would be effective. I love the rubber eyewear grippers on the outer vents. I think the shape is about as elegant as a road helmet can be, and the piece of thermoplastic resin that runs across the top looks really cool. Also, the matte black/blue pearl color is a showstopper.”
No other helmet creates so much of a love-hate debate as a POC. But for our production editor, Iain Treloar, it’s a winner.
“I’m a POC Octal man through and through. I like the aesthetic, the coverage, the light weight, and the ventilation. [That coverage] feels like it’s properly covering my head rather than sitting on top of it – almost like a Fox Flux or similar mountain bike helmet, but for road.
Iain is such a POC devotee that he has not one Octal helmet that he uses regularly, but two.
“I have both the MIPS and non-MIPS versions. I slightly prefer the fit of the latter and it gets less stinky, but I wear the MIPS more because of safety, plus it’s orange. There’s better sunglass retention in it, too, especially for Oakleys, but they’re useless for POC sunnies, which is weird. The main downside is that they’re offensively overpriced.
“I’ve used the Kask Protone, Mojito, Dieci, and Rapido. Also, the Specialized Evade, Lazer Genesis and Lifebeam, and something by Louis Garneau. They’re all much worse-fitting for me than the POC, probably because I seem to be stuck precisely between medium and large in all those examples.”
Our roving reporter, Dave Everett, rates Bontrager’s aero-influenced Velocis.
“I’ve been using the Bontrager Velocis MIPS a bunch lately. It fits great, is well-ventilated, and for traveling, it’s ideal. The shell wraps the EPS foam all over, and stops it from getting bashed up in the backpack. Plus it’s pink; always a winner.”
“It’s not as well-fitting on my head as the POC Ventral, which I was liking a bunch, but found out at a recent event that it’s far from a well-ventilated helmet in the heat on long rides. The SPIN technology [in the POC] and MIPS in both helmets make me pick them over other helmets I have that lack such safety tech. I think becoming a dad has made me way more aware of self-preservation than before, so I think this plays a factor in helmet choice now. That recent independent study rated the Bontrager highly, too, for safety.”
And finally, our Australian editor, Matt de Neef, has his preference for a lesser known lid.
“I’ve got along best with the SH+ Shabli Evo. It’s light, comfortable, well-vented, and I just like the way it looks versus any other helmet I’ve used.”
Unfortunately for Matt, that helmet recently got misplaced under the wheels of a Subaru Forester and so he’s currently without his beloved.
What helmet do you use? Have you found any trends in what fits and what doesn’t? Let us know in the comments below.