A $75 MIPS helmet beats WaveCel in Virginia Tech rankings

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Last week, Virginia Tech released the latest update to its list of independently tested helmets, adding a dozen or so models.

That’s not the biggest news.

This is: a US$75 MIPS-equipped Lazer is now the safest helmet Virginia Tech has tested, knocking Bontrager’s WaveCel-equipped Specter helmet off the top spot.

Helmet test standards are a strange and bureaucratic thing, in that they provide a minimum benchmark by which a helmet’s safety can be judged but no measure of how much better it might be than that baseline. The implication is that helmet manufacturer claims around the safety of their products have to be accepted at face value.

Until last year, that is, when researchers at Virginia Tech commenced their own independent testing of cycling helmets, in partnership with the US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – the same organization responsible for independent crash testing of passenger cars and trucks. The Virginia Tech test table has since been hailed as the sole source of objective rankings of helmet safety, with the results highlighting the benefits of energy-absorbing materials like Koroyd and slip-plane technology like MIPS. Indeed, on Virginia Tech’s chart, there is no five-star-rated helmet without something similar.

When Bontrager announced WaveCel in March – an innovation the brand breathlessly hyped as “cycling’s most important change in 30 years” – it seemed possible that helmet safety had taken a quantum leap forward.

And indeed, when the first Virginia Tech test results for WaveCel came back, it looked for a while like Bontrager had a minor edge. Bontrager’s mid-range Specter WaveCel helmet sprang to the top of Virginia Tech’s table, 0.1 of a point ahead of a MIPS-equipped Bontrager Ballista. The Bontrager XXX WaveCel landed in third spot.

The Specter WaveCel: the top-ranked helmet in Virginia Tech’s testing… for a while. Photo: Bontrager.

Now, in the latest update to Virginia Tech’s rankings, a cheap and conspicuously non-WaveCel equipped helmet has swooped in and trumped what was supposedly a game-changer.

So what’s going on here?

MIPS vs. WaveCel

WaveCel, a honeycomb of plastic cells that lines the helmet, is designed to reduce the impact of rotational forces in the event of a crash. In that sense, it has similar design goals to MIPS, a company whose slip-plane technology has become a common feature on many helmets since its introduction to the market in the 2000s.

The release of WaveCel was accompanied by a number of bold claims, including that it would dramatically reduce the likelihood of concussion by 48 times compared to a standard EPS helmet, along with reductions in other major traumatic brain injuries. The white paper Bontrager cited in the launch of WaveCel also claimed up to a 49% improvement for brain injury risk prevention in certain conditions when compared to MIPS.

A flat WaveCel sheet, waiting to be shaped and inserted into a helmet. Photo: Bontrager.

Bontrager’s bullish claims around the added safety of WaveCel raised some eyebrows, most notably from within MIPS. In the wake of WaveCel’s release, the Swedish company issued a statement disputing Bontrager’s claims. “Preliminary test results of WaveCel helmets by MIPS cannot substantiate these claims. While further testing is warranted, MIPS cannot see that the helmets perform in a way that the claims Bontrager/WaveCel makes in the comparison between WaveCel and other helmets/technologies,” they said, while also highlighting the “lack of an industry-wide standard from third party testing organizations to ensure accurate information for consumers”.

The results

In Virginia Tech’s previous batch of testing, released soon after the release of WaveCel, it seemed like Bontrager was onto something – albeit, not quite the landslide in its favour that may have been anticipated from the marketing hype.

The most recent update of the rankings puts the cheap and cheerful Lazer Cyclone MIPS as the safest helmet, sharing a five-star ranking with 16 other helmets but with the best STAR score (an equation that produces a figure to represent the likelihood of receiving a concussion).

MIPS has seen rapid market growth over the past couple of years, with the technology implemented in increasingly uncompromised ways. Unlike WaveCel, MIPS is a separate component to the energy-absorbing helmet liner, instead of being integrated directly into it.

Outside of a lab, however, things are rarely as clearcut.

Virginia Tech’s testing is exclusively focused on the safety aspects of a helmet, and doesn’t consider any of the other features valued by consumers, such as comfort, ventilation, weight, aesthetics, or aerodynamics. The Lazer Cyclone MIPS may be the safest helmet yet tested by Virginia Tech, but if it falls flat in these other areas, it may not be a particularly good helmet in the real world – or indeed, entice anyone to buy it.

And even if we do prioritise the numbers in a safety test above all else, how do we reconcile these results with Bontrager and WaveCel’s claims around the superiority of their product?

Bontrager, for its part, now seems to be hedging its bets.

In an interview with Canadian Cycling Magazine, responding to MIPS’ questioning of WaveCel’s performance and defending their product, Bontrager marketing manager Sam Foos said, “Trek offers helmets with WaveCel, MIPS, and standard technology. Consumers can decide for themselves which products fit their particular needs based on the data and information available to them.”

MIPS, meanwhile, appears to be approaching WaveCel’s arrival on the scene in a “spirit of collaboration”, saying, “if together, we can make cycling safer for riders, then we will have honoured our mission to make the safest helmets possible.”

What next?

As MIPS points out, the disparity between the results and claims being made around the effectiveness of WaveCel and MIPS highlights the lack of a unified testing protocol within the industry. Given the absence of a unified helmet standard or testing protocols globally, however, that’s a harder task than it sounds. Realistically, it’s all but impossible to arrive at a point where every helmet manufacturer is measuring to the same yardstick. Nor is there any incentive for them to do so – especially when they can construct their own marketing narrative with their own test results.

More optimistically, though, the latest update of Virginia Tech’s rankings does reveal a couple of heartening facts that are worth celebrating.

There are now 17 helmets offering a five-star safety ranking, in a wide array of styles and price-points, from US$75 to US$350. And while it’s unclear whether MIPS or WaveCel has the edge, you have to scroll down to the 23rd helmet on Virginia Tech’s list until you find a helmet that doesn’t have one or the other.

These two technologies are relatively recent innovations, and in a short time it’s fair to say that they have had a dramatic impact on helmet safety. Sure, there are still some questions lingering about exactly how much better those technologies may be compared to each other, but if there’s one take-home message to be found amongst the maze of white papers and data and marketing spin, it’s surely this: bike helmets are the safest they have ever been, and as consumers, we’re the beneficiaries.

Footnote, May 30 2019:We have since received word that the Cyclone MIPS is an older model that has been discontinued by Lazer – and suspect, given the likely spike in interest as a result of the Virginia Tech update, that the brand may be regretting that decision.

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