JRA with the Angry Asian: Should we be considering full-face road helmets?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about facial injuries lately — partially due to my mishap last July in Belgium just prior to the Tour de France (on an electric scooter, of all things) — but also because of the traumatic crashes that seem to happen with frightening regularity in professional road racing.

Take just this small snapshot, for example:

There was the crash in the sprint finish of the opening day of the Tour of Poland that sent Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick Step) to the emergency room with a serious concussion, multiple facial fractures, and missing all of his teeth.

Barely a week later, Swiss racer Simon Pellaud (Androni Giocattoli–Sidermec) crashed during a descent of the Giro dell’Emilia where he broken a couple of teeth of his own.

In 2018, Ineos-Grenadiers star Egan Bernal crashed at the Clasica San Sebastian and hit his face, knocking out several teeth, irreparably damaging several more, breaking his nose, and causing a brain bleed.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Annemiek van Vleuten crashed very awkwardly on her face during the final descent of the women’s road race, and was relatively lucky to only walk away with a concussion, three spinal fractures, and some gnarly facial bruising.

And in stage 2 of the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Team Type 1 rider Daniele Callegarin had a freak crash while riding across a cattle grate that left him with a nearly completely severed lower lip and several missing teeth.

Needless to say, there are undoubtedly more such crashes (and injuries) that we don’t know about. Naturally, there are questions about whether any of these crashes could have been prevented. But there are also then questions about whether some of the injuries could have been avoided. All of these riders were wearing helmets, but yet they all also suffered serious injuries to their unprotected faces.

Without question, there would be an awful lot of resistance among most road cyclists – and especially professional road racers – to using something like this.

Full-face helmets first hit the scene in motorcycling in 1963 with the advent of the Bell Star, and with almost 60 years of steady improvement since then, they’re now the norm. Granted, the average speeds involved in motorcycling are pretty different, but the motivation behind the transition from half- or three-quarter shell helmets to full-face ones was easy enough to understand nevertheless. Simply put, more coverage equals more protection, especially when the current alternative is no coverage at all.

I’ve always used DH-certified full-faced helmets in the mountain bike park, and recently started using one — the Kali Invader — occasionally for more demanding trail riding, too. After all, at this point, I’ve already managed to knock two teeth out of my head, and have zero interest in going through any of this ever again.

The thought of using a full-face helmet for road riding had never really occurred to me until a VeloClub member posted on our members-only Slack channel a concept rendering from French design firm Studio Accent dubbed the Ventoux Hybrid. To my eye, it sort of looks like a POC Ventral helmet with an additional chin bar stuck on to the bottom. It’s a bit ungainly compared to the modern and sleek helmets commonly used in road racing and riding these days, but nevertheless, the concept is interesting.

Studio Accent has designed its Ventoux concept to have a removable chin bar, but integrating it fully into the structure seems like it’d save some weight.

That extra loop provides additional protection around the mouth and jaw, while coverage is also extended around the lower rear of the head, too. The design’s ventilation layout looks like it could be better, but given that the upper portion of the helmet isn’t really all that different from what’s on the market currently, presumably it could be just as good as (or at least close to) current top-end models. And since the chin bar is quite pared-down, there shouldn’t be a lot of negative effect down there, either.

Keeping in mind again that this is just a concept, Studio Accent is claiming that the Ventoux Hybrid could weigh around 367 grams. If true, that’d put it about 70 grams heavier than a Bell Z20 MIPS, 100 grams heavier than a Giro Aether, and 170 grams heavier than a Specialized S-Works Prevail II. In other words, it’d clearly be heavier than current top-tier half-shell offerings, although perhaps not by as much as I expected.

Studio Accent’s weight target seems more than a little ambitious given how the concept is laid out as shown here.

I am by no means an expert on helmets and head protection, so while the concept of a chin bar on a road helmet seemed at least promising to my eye, I’m admittedly not the best judge of whether such a thing makes sense. As such, I asked the opinion of someone far more qualified.

“When I talk about motorcycle helmets, we talk about dirt riders expecting to crash every time they go out, while road riders do not ever expect to crash but when they do it’s a really bad day,” said Kali Protectives founder and engineer, Brad Waldron. “I look at cycling similarly.

“What we have learned about full-face trail helmets with ventilation, comfort, and weight demands will help us design a road helmet that could meet the demands of a road rider. There is not a standard that would specifically cover a road helmet with a chin bar, [but] if I was to work on a road full-face design, I would not wait for standards committees or the UCI to define what that means. There will be a long discussion about what a full-face road helmet standard should say.

“I would start with the ASTM chin bar test as a baseline and see how that performs. Even that test is not perfect in every crash scenario. If the chin bar is too weak, it can fold into the face. If it is too stiff, the energy will transfer to the head and brain. Our goal has to be to balance the needs of the rider while designing the safest helmet for the rider we can.”

I recently began using this lightweight full-face helmet from Kali Protectives for more demanding trail riding. It obviously provides more protection than a traditional half-shell, but at 640 grams, the additional weight will invariably still turn some people off. Photo: James Huang.

Again, since this is just a concept, there are lots of questions left unanswered. But let’s assume for a moment that this Ventoux Hybrid was a real thing, and that it really did offer more face protection than the sorts of helmets we’re all wearing now (which, let me remind you, is currently none).

The question then, obviously, is whether people would use it — and especially pro road racers that would potentially benefit from the idea the most.

Road racing has long had an uncomfortable relationship with helmet use. In fact, when the UCI tried to institute a rule that required their use in 1991, the riders went on strike. It wasn’t until 2003 — just 17 years ago, and 18 years after the introduction of the Giro Prolight — that the entire peloton finally gave in. Needless to say, the likelihood of full-face helmets gaining traction seems decidedly low.

Specialized S-Works Prevail II
Given how hard it was to get road racers to use lightweight half-shell helmets, how realistic would it be to get them to wear something heavier, but more protective? Photo: James Huang.

Earlier, I made a point of saying that average speeds for motorcycles are higher than they are for road riding, and when combined with the fact that motorcycles are generally ridden on public roads littered with cars weighing two or three tons, it’s easy to see why full-face helmets have become so widely accepted. There’s also the fact that weight isn’t as big a concern, nor is the ventilation.

However, remember that peak speeds in road riding — road racing, in particular — can be shockingly high. Jakobsen’s crash came in a downhill sprint finish where the speeds were estimated to be about 80 km/h (50 mph). Van Vleuten was moving at about the same speed in Rio, and neither situation was especially unusual in terms of how fast they were moving, either. Even amateurs can top 100 km/h on alpine descents.

Given that, maybe we should be thinking about something like this?

Waldron’s viewpoint as to the reality of this sort of thing gaining acceptance comes across as a bit skeptical at best, but from a safety standpoint, he doesn’t put up much resistance.

“I will leave the acceptance discussion to you, but I am glad that people are talking about it,” he said. “Anything that makes riding safer is in my opinion a good conversation.”

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