Steel heads, chickens, and plenty of history: Behind the scenes at Met Helmets
You could almost compare Met Helmets HQ, in Talamona, Italy, to the mullet haircut. It’s very much a case of business out front, party out the back. Or if I’m a little more precise, business out front, unexpectedly relaxed atmosphere out back.
Small allotments, hens clucking, horses neighing and donkeys doing what donkeys do, plus a well-used picnic bench all nestled under a steep, grassy mountain — it’s not what I’ve come to expect from a factory tour. But this is Met, or more accurately the back end of Met’s headquarters. Their backyard of sorts, their lunch room, and the ideal location to learn all about Met’s long, 30-year history in the head-protection industry.
In the sunshine, with animals roaming free, I’m sat with a selection of the 25 staff that work for Met here in Talamona, including founders Massimiliano Gaiatto and Lucianna Sala. Lunch is a very Italian affair: pizza, sparkling water and to get everyone firing on all cylinders for the afternoon’s work, copious amounts of coffee from the biggest mocha pot I’ve ever laid eyes on. It truly is huge.
As I’ll find out, the lunchtime atmosphere pretty much sums up the company atmosphere: relaxed, friendly, and with an almost family-like feel.
I’m sure you already know of Met — the brand recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Met helmets have protected some of the biggest teams and riders in the sport since the early ’90s, including Richard Virenque, Luc Leblanc, Chris Horner, David Millar, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish. Met helmets can currently be found on the heads of the UAE-Team Emirates men and the women of Trek-Drops (their Trenta is particularly pretty).
Bar the small holding out the back of Met HQ, the rest of the premises is clean, minimal and spacious. It’s also possibly the cleanest-looking building on the industrial estate it’s situated on. There’s no real plaque above the door, just a simple flag blowing in the breeze at the entrance. It’s easy to miss, what with the stunning surrounding landscape vying for your attention — small roads disappear up mountainsides and deep green woods litter the nearby hills. It’s here where lunchtime rides are spent — road and mountain bike routes are all accessible within minutes from the front gates.
How it all started
Massimiliano Gaiatto and Lucianna Sala are the couple behind Met, but this isn’t where their venture into the cycling industry started. Massimiliano came from the other end of cycling anatomy: the feet. Before jumping headlong into Met (pun intended) he worked in his family business, Brancale, an old cycling shoe manufacturer some of you I’m sure will remember. These days it’s no longer Italian; instead it’s owned and operated out of the US. But back in the ’80s the likes of Greg Lemond were seen winning Tour stages and World champs with the Italian leather on their feet.
Massimiliano and Lucianna made the decision to leave the family business, move to a new part of Italy, and start a new life. Cycling shoe manufacturing was too stressful according to Massimiliano. He tells me it took over two years to develop shoes for LeMond. With very little interest in venturing back into the cycling industry, it was the pestering and pleading from friends that became the catalyst for Met’s creation. Helmets, as we know them today, were just a fledgling business back in the ’80s. But both Massimiliano and Lucianna saw a possible future in the market, and in 1987 Met was born.
Entering Mets offices I’m greeted by Ulysse, the company’s media and PR manager. His office, like those of the bosses and other admin staff, is situated along a glass hallway. You’d never guess who’s who as there are no signs on doors saying who’s in charge of what; it’s all very relaxed. This area of Met is what you’d class as the ‘quiet zone’. Just around the corner is where all the destruction happens and beyond that sits the design department.
Sat on the workstation in the crash test area are two gleaming Trenta 3K lids, and fancy ones at that: the limited edition Italian champion’s version. It’s a helmet many out there would be happy to don but in minutes they’ll be nothing but extra data.
Sure, I know it’s necessary, but seeing €600 worth of gear destroyed in a matter of seconds makes you wish they’d just chosen a cheaper lid. The junior racer in me would have killed for a helmet like that and winces as the huge steel anvils crack the helmets.
The shelving here holds anvils of all shapes, weights and sizes, all ready to be bolted into place, and dropped at a variety of angles and speeds. Each anvil is designed to replicate a crash scenario. Today’s testing is a rear head shock at 60 km/h. Lifting the steel heads I’m amazed to discover that the average human head weighs a small ton. (I can now understand why my newborn baby girl’s head sometimes bobs about like a Funko Pop on a car dashboard).
Sitting on the floor in the corner of the room are several boxes full of helmets. All look like they should be in a dumpster – they’re broken, scratched and some are even cut into multiple pieces. These are test lids, or, to be more precise, what remains of test lids. All have letters, numbers and lines drawn on them, in dry marker, relating to the impact they sustained and how they reacted. Millisecond spikes in shock absorption, rebound rates and transfer shock numbers are all recorded and referred to in future and current designs. All the data from these helmets plus thousands of others are readily available in a huge database.
Then there are a few destroyed helmets that, for want of a better phrase, are Met’s ‘pride and joy’. These are just as damaged as the crash test lids but these select few were unfortunately (or fortunately?) put through their paces in real-world conditions. A couple in bright red come from UAE riders while several sit alongside the pro smash-ups from general everyday users — customers who’ve sent them back for examination after their offs.
One staff member who spends his time testing helmets, Cesare Della Marianna, tells me that, somewhat surprisingly, it’s the upper rear of the skull that’s the most common place where heads meets tarmac.
The crash-test room houses a further array of rigs and boxes that put new helmets through their paces. There’s what Cesare Della Marianna describes as a “thermo-ventilated oven” which is used to test whether the helmets stand up to the savage heat some people may choose to ride in. Admittedly it’s excessive — temperatures up to 50 degrees Celcius are tested.
“We then have a fridge that has humidity extraction,” Della Marianna says. “For the CEN standard we have it set at -20 degrees Celsius. And for CPSC (US) standard it’s -15 for any length of time between 4-24 hours”.
This room also houses a large box with a window in it. Inside, three helmets slowly rotate, like a chicken on an upright rotisserie. This, Della Marianna explains, is a UV machine, used not just for the CEN standard test but also for Met’s own research into helmet ageing.
Until only a few years ago, Met produced every helmet in-house,. Where once stood a production line now sits all the paraphernalia Met needs when attending the numerous shows and exhibitions around the world each year.
Nowadays, Met’s production is done in Asia. There they have a quality control team, plus a head of project development. Project manager Matteo Tenni and Cesare Della Marianna visit several times a year to oversee production. It’s a shame: no longer can Met stamp its lids with “made in Italy”, but as they say, business is business, and many factors played a part in the tough decision to move production, not simply the fact that production was cheaper in Asia.
Even with the helmets being built thousands of miles away, and with a quality-control team there, Met randomly tests multiple helmets from every size, model and batch. This keeps the production tight and the quality up to the standard that’s expected not just in-house but by the market.
Though the factory floor no longer hums with the sound of machines making helmets, the offices where design, research and development take place still do. Arguably even more so now with Met’s growing portfolio of helmets and MTB protection (sold under the name Bluegrass).
The offices where the design and development team sit have grown since production moved, taking over some of the space of the old production room. The first room is a fresh and surprisingly quiet environment the day I show up. Bare brickwork and white walls make for a modern clean environment, more reminiscent of a Swedish architecture office than a long-running Italian helmet factory.
Staff members are all welcoming as I wander around the space. All are keen to talk about their latest products, the business, and cycling in general — it’s clear the staff are passionate about what they do. The walls are scattered with designs of their own creations, upcoming projects and a smattering of images help spark inspiration. Head of the team, Matteo Tenni, talks me through the process.
These days the design is mostly done using CAD — commonplace in most design industries. But oddly enough, Matteo Tenni’s first helmet designed using CAD was the hugely popular Stradivarius. It was a helmet that looked wildly different to anything else that was on the market back in the early 2000s, and a shared project with the designer from the Italian car company Lamborghini.
A 3D-printed mock-up of Met’s latest and as-yet-unreleased short-tail aero helmet is on the table, showing the less tech-intensive tools of design and development. It has thread tapped over the surface in places, to help track airflow in the wind tunnel. A second version of the helmet has small tubes spilling from its insides to track internal airflow. It looks like an aero dreadlock lid.
But it’s the room next door where all the computer wizardry and design goes on and where any self-respecting tech head would want to spend their time. It’s here that ideas come to life.
“We have three different 3D printers working with different materials in relation to the area that we want to create by the printing process itself,” Matteo says. “One [a small, counter-top-based printer] is for smaller technical parts, like clips or mechanical parts such as size adjusters. The second makes the bigger mechanical and technical parts, such as internal shells, and the third [a huge floor-based machine] is dedicated to producing the helmets.”
Matto had the printer up and running all night so there’d be a fresh helmet printed when I arrived. In this case it’s a near-production-ready Trenta. It’s an oddly exciting experience watching a mass of plastic emerge from the printer dust, as the dense powder is hoovered away and a dusty white and black Trenta appears. On picking up the helmet you’re quickly reminded that it’s far from a usable model. The dense plastic weighs a ton, but bar the small ridges from each layer that it’s made from it’s a carbon copy of the production-ready helmets.
The rest of the room has tools, spray booths and other workstations for the team to tinker away at, even a space for the old fashioned way of 3D-prototyping a helmet: clay modelling.
Scattered here, like in several of the other rooms, is a gaggle of old and new prototype models. Some I can snap photos of, others are a tightly guarded secret.
Ingrained love for the sport
Along with the general offices for running the company, Met HQ is also home to a significant amount of warehousing. It’s a big space, but with the doors slung open the summer light streams in. Just like the design offices, a clear love of the sport is on show — sweaty kit is hanging up to dry and bikes are sat against the wall, ready for the commute home or a lunchtime spin.
My work for CyclingTips has taken me to many factories and, for the most part, staff tend to live and breathe the sport. It always pleases me, and at the same time gives me a twinge of jealously — I wish I didn’t work from home most days. It’s hard to think of another industry where staff — be it designers, customer service reps or those in the warehouse — have such a passion and involvement, not just in the product that they make but the culture they’re contributing to.
As I state in the video above, Met is a brand I have a soft spot for. For me, I guess it boils down to a few memories of moments throughout my cycling life, the most striking being the time my forks snapped while racing. I still believe that the Met Fireball I had on that day saved me from further damage than what I actually endured.
On leaving Met HQ behind, I’m pleased that my appreciation for the brand has only been reinforced by my visit. Sure manufacturing has moved away from its original location, but it’s very likely Met wouldn’t be around today if they hadn’t made that decision. It was a pleasure to meet the people behind the brand, and to see that there’s a family-like charm to the way they do things.
I can only wish them a further 30 years of protecting riders heads and collecting chicken eggs of a lunchtime.