Bontrager Specter WaveCel helmet review: Next-gen tech, curious ventilation

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Bontrager’s mega-hyped WaveCel helmet liner technology certainly generated a lot of discussion when it was unveiled to world in March, if for no other reason than the wild claims the company made in terms of how much protection it offered. Safety should always be the primary metric by which a helmet is judged, but if that helmet isn’t also comfortable and well-ventilated, few riders will bother to wear the thing.

So in light of all of that, how does the new Bontrager Specter WaveCel helmet stack up to real world use? Better than expected, at least for me, but the results will still be highly dependent on — of all things — your hair.

WaveCel recap

I won’t bother to go too deep into the WaveCel thing here, but if you’d like to get yourself up to speed on the technology — it’s genuinely interesting stuff — feel to check out the feature we published when Bontrager debuted the technology a few months ago.

In short, though, WaveCel replaces the usual expanded polystyrene foam helmet liner with one made of a network of plastic cells. It looks similar to the Koroyd liner used by Smith and Endura, but according to Bontrager, WaveCel not only provides better energy absorption than EPS foam, but the unique geometry of those cells provides a measure of slip-plane protection as well — basically energy absorption and MIPS, all in one.

In total, Bontrager claims that WaveCel will reduce the incidence of concussion in typical cycling crashes to less than 1-in-50.

The WaveCel liner seems like a straight copy of Koroyd, and in some ways, the stuff behaves very similarly. WaveCel’s unique cell geometry supposedly allows the structure to flatten out and slide across your head, though, which is said to mimic the brain-saving protection of a MIPS low-friction liner, too.

One-in-50 is obviously an eye-opening number, but independent tests conducted by Virginia Tech throw a bit of shade on that claim. Granted, Bontrager’s Specter WaveCel is still the second-best helmet the organization has ever tested in terms of overall protection, but it’s straddled on either side by two helmets made with more conventional EPS foam and MIPS low-friction liners. Moreover, Bontrager’s Ballista MIPS scored better than the Bontrager XXX WaveCel, so it seems things aren’t quite so cut and dried.

Nevertheless, Virginia Tech’s testing does seem to confirm that Bontrager’s WaveCel helmets are really good in terms of safety, but those heady claims seem to have come with a decently sized grain of salt, too.

The upside to the full-coverage WaveCel liner is that it provides that protection all around, not just in select spots. But doing so also prevents air from flowing cleanly into and out of the vents like you’d see in a more conventional helmet.

Ok, so the Specter WaveCel appears to be a very safe helmet, and the fact that it’s relatively well-priced at US$150 / AU$200 / £130 / €150 is a big plus.

Safety aside, though, would you actually want to wear one?

Weight and comfort

The WaveCel liner adds a few grams relative to EPS foam, as does the nifty Fidlock magnetic buckle and full-coverage polycarbonate micro shell that wraps all the way around the lower edge of the helmet for everyday durability. Not surprisingly, then, the Specter WaveCel isn’t so impressive on the scales, with an actual weight of 335g for my small-sized, CPSC-approved sample. It’s certainly a noticeable difference as compared to something like a Specialized S-Works Prevail II (with an actual weight of just 196g), but that said, I can’t say I found it particularly bothersome, either.

The design is pleasantly low-profile and offers decent coverage out back, at least compared to many other road helmets.

Fit-wise, it’s a close analogue to Bontrager’s mid-range Circuit. It’s not as round on the inside as a Limar or Kask, but not as ovoid as what Specialized tends to use, either. Overall, it’s more middle-of-the-road in terms of headform shape, and it worked well for my average-shaped noggin.

Despite appearances, the WaveCel liner isn’t at all sharp on your scalp, either. The edges are dipped in a rubbery substance that keeps them from digging in, and Bontrager fits the interior of the Specter WaveCel with a fairly generous amount of foam padding.

Out back, the retention system offers a decent range of height adjustment, and the cradle itself is pleasantly flexible. The Boa dial-and-cable mechanism helps further minimize the amount of hard plastic resting against your head, and there are no bits protruding on the side to interfere with eyewear, either.

The slim retention system plays well with every sunglass model I tried.

The straps are made of thin webbing that stays flexible even when caked with sweat, and the sliders lock firmly in place with sturdy cams. As for that Fidlock magnetic buckle, it’s neat in the way the ends “find” each other, but I could honestly do just fine without it, too.

Either way, I ultimately found the Specter WaveCel very comfortable to wear.

Curious ventilation characteristics

Ventilation performance was interesting, to say the least. I’ve spent plenty of time in Smith helmets with full-Koroyd liners over the years, and have always found them to be akin to sticking your head in a woodburning stove (newer Koroyd-equipped Smith helmets are thankfully much improved in that sense). Given WaveCel’s similarities to Koroyd, I expected similar levels of airiness.

Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised.

Truth be told, I rarely felt air flowing across my head, even though I keep my hair very closely clipped. Air can pass freely across the top of the WaveCel liner, however, which seems to help hot air radiate well off the top of your scalp – that is, assuming you don’t have a lot of hair on your head.

The design of the Specter WaveCel is hardly conducive to flow-through ventilation. There are absolutely no internal channels at all, and the orientation of the cells further inhibits traditional airflow. In fact, unless I dipped my head down while riding so that I was looking straight down at the ground, I can’t say I felt any air moving around my head.

But yet I never felt uncomfortably hot in this thing, either, nor did I ever have a torrent of sweat dripping down my face, even on one particular ride in midday summer heat with temperatures approaching 32°C (90°F), under the blazing Colorado sunshine, without a lick of shade to be found. That ride had lots of steep and slow climbing as well.

Smith always made a big deal about the way its Koroyd helmets allowed heat to passively escape from a rider’s head. I never found that to be the case there, but that’s what seems to be happening here. One key is perhaps the fact that each cell in the WaveCel liner is bigger than what Koroyd uses. And although there are no internal channels or big open vents on the Specter WaveCel, there’s a fair bit of airspace in between the honeycomb liner and the conventional EPS outer layer that help air pass over and pull heat out from below. Whatever the physical explanation, it seems to work.

I often have issues with sweat pouring down the front of my face, which I can usually attribute to browpads that soak up perspiration faster than it can evaporate. I’ve found that having airspace in between the pad and the helmet liner is key. Further helping matters for the Bontrager Specter WaveCel is the fact that there isn’t a plastic backing on the pad here so incoming air can readily dry out the sweat.

There’s a big “but”, though.

As far as I can tell, how well the Specter WaveCel keeps your head cool is highly dependent on — of all things — how much hair is on your head. I keep my hair pretty close-shaven at all times (I use the 1mm setting on my clippers, and shave my head every 4-5 days on average). As such, my scalp is directly exposed to the air. Other Specter WaveCel users I’ve spoken to with similarly sparse heads of hair have also found the helmet to perform quite well in hot weather. But in contrast, Specter WaveCel riders with more generous mops of hair have almost universally reported that the helmet feels stiflingly hot.

“On slow climbs, the helmet was sweltering,” wrote VeloNews technical editor Dan Cavallari in his review (and yes, Dan has a lot of hair). “It’s a similar problem Koroyd helmets suffer. WaveCel doesn’t seem any better in this regard.”

Other stuff

The Specter WaveCel scores a win in my book on the aesthetic front. It’s somewhat high-cut, but not dramatically so, and the snug-fitting shape is pleasantly low-profile. I tend to wear my helmets fairly low on my forehead, so I was also happy to see that Bontrager didn’t build the Specter WaveCel with a super-thick brow area that can obstruct my vision when I’m in the drops.

And say what you will about the day-glo color, but I actually quite like it, and the WaveCel liner lends a high-tech look to the thing, too. If fluorescent colors aren’t your style, though, rest assured that there are four other options from which to choose — and only this yellow option includes the alien-green WaveCel liner. Other helmets have more subdued smoke-grey liners.

Despite the lack of open vents, sunglasses still stash easily and securely up top, provided you take the time to flip them over first.

That WaveCel liner lends some distinctiveness to the helmet’s looks, but there are some quirks, too. Riders who regularly have to deal with flying bugs getting stuck in their helmets will be happy to hear that it’s just not an issue here. The cells aren’t big enough for bees or wasps to get in, and since there isn’t active flow-through ventilation here, even small bugs don’t tend to make their way in, either.

But on the downside, good luck if you’ve got an itch to scratch. With no finger-sized vents, you have no option but to pull the helmet off if something is really bugging you up there.

One might assume that those closed-off vents would make it tough to stash eyewear, too, but that thankfully isn’t the case. Whether by design or by accident, I found it easy to tuck sunglasses on the front of the helmet, at least provided you take the time to flip them upside-down first.

So is the Specter WaveCel helmet any good? It depends

I love that the cycling industry is paying far more attention to safety these days when it comes to helmets. Between WaveCel, MIPS, Koroyd, and other technologies, it seems the latest front for helmets in the war for consumer dollars is protection — and it’s about time. While some riders may be concerned with how many seconds a helmet might save in a 40km-long time trial, most of us just want some reassurance that a helmet isn’t going to leave us having to relearn how to walk and talk after smacking our head against the ground.

To that end, Bontrager’s Specter WaveCel hits the mark — and we can thank the folks at Virginia Tech for cutting through some of the marketing hype here. The Specter WaveCel is also comfortable to wear, it looks good, and is decently priced for the protection you get.

The Bontrager Specter WaveCel helmet ticks a lot of boxes.

However, I can’t recall an instance where the ventilation performance of one helmet seems so tightly tied to how the user keeps their hair. For me, and other riders with more closely-shaven heads, the Specter WaveCel feels surprisingly cool, given appearances to the contrary. But riders with more hair should probably steer clear; open access to your scalp seems to be a key requirement for the Specter WaveCel’s convective cooling to do its job.

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