Please don’t call the new Bell XR Spherical a gravel helmet

Pigeonholing the XR Spherical as a gravel helmet sells it short; it’s just a great helmet, period.

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Bell describes its new XR Spherical as a “gravel” helmet, which is apparently meant to draw more attention to the thing given how hot everything gravel is at the moment. What exactly makes the XR Spherical a gravel-specific helmet is a mystery to me. What’s more obvious, however, is that it’s an excellent helmet, period, and tagging it as being primarily aimed for gravel riding just sells it short. 

What it is

Bell raised the bar for helmet design when it introduced the Z20 MIPS (originally known as the Zephyr) back in 2016. Its dual-density helmet-within-a-helmet construction supposedly offered more protection against closed-head injuries than more conventional designs, it was comfortable, it was well ventilated, it offered truly superb sweat management, it looked good, and — comparatively speaking, of course — it was even quite reasonably priced for a flagship model. 

The new XR Spherical is a further development of everything the Z20 offered, only more of it.

The XR Spherical once again uses a helmet-within-a-helmet design, only now it’s been modified with the ball-and-socket MIPS Spherical concept where the inner layer is free to rotate within the outer layer for built-in rotational protection (just like Giro’s latest Aether, Helios, and Eclipse models). And instead of using two densities of the same expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam in the liner, the XR Spherical now uses two different types of foam — EPS and expanded polypropylene (EPP) — to better manage low-speed and high-speed impacts.

The MIPS Spherical design essentially comprises two helmets nested one inside the other.

Other features include 18 vents with lots of internal channeling, a bit of additional coverage around the sides and rear of the helmet relative to a more traditional road helmet (perhaps why the XR Spherical is a “gravel” helmet), Bell’s excellent tabbed browpad design for sweat management, a height-adjustable Float Fit retention system, and a Fidlock magnetic buckle.

Bell is offering the XR Spherical in seven colors and three sizes, with a retail price of US$225 / AU$380 / £210 / €230. Actual weight for my medium-sized CPSC-approved sample is 283 g.

How it performs

That old Bell Zephyr was one of my all-time favorites, and this new XR Spherical may just end up taking over that crown.

I have a rather ovoid head that’s typically happiest in a similarly ovoid-shaped helmet (such as the Specialized Prevail II Vent). This XR Spherical is a little more rounded, but the Float Fit retention system nevertheless does an excellent job of bridging the gap, holding fast and tight, but without any unnecessary pressure points. It’s also easy to adjust, and although I miss the laterally adjustable occipital pads on that old Zephyr/Z20, the fixed ones on the XR Spherical work just fine (and they no longer have sticky-backed foam to eventually fall off, either). 

The Float Fit retention system is easily adjusted with the handy rubberized dial.

Further kudos go to the strap arrangement, which sits close to my head to eliminate flapping at speed and holds its adjustment well despite not having proper locking sliders. The low-profile Fidlock buckle is a favorite, too: just get the two sides close to each other and let the magnets do the work for you. 

Ventilation-wise, the XR Spherical isn’t the absolute airiest I’ve ever used. There’s a lot of open vent area for sure, but still not quite as much as something like the Giro Aether, Specialized Prevail II Vent, or even that old Zephyr. That said, overall airflow is still excellent, and the relatively generous amount of open area throughout the exterior keeps the XR Spherical from feeling too hot on slow climbs, even in baking sun. Best of all, though, is the XR Spherical’s superb sweat management.

As with the Zephyr (and several Giro models that have since co-opted the idea), the XR Spherical sports a short extension on the browpad that wraps around the lower forward edge of the helmet. Normally when a browpad gets saturated with sweat, it starts to to drip that liquid down the front of your face — straight into your sunglasses. But on the XR Spherical, sweat pools at that tabbed extension (it’s now the lowest point on the pad), and then once it’s saturated, the liquid tends to drip down out in front of your glasses so your vision stays clear.

The tabbed browpad is fantastic.

It’s not a foolproof system, and it doesn’t seem to work for everyone. But it works great for me, and particularly since I keep my hair very closely buzzed and don’t usually wear hats, any helmet that keeps sweat from fouling up my sunglasses is worthy of praise. 

Speaking of sunglasses, while the Zephyr/Z20 didn’t have any specific features for docking unwanted eyewear, Bell has taken that into account with the XR. The vents are well shaped for sunglass temples, and a pair of rubber pads add a little more security, too. 

In terms of aerodynamics, Bell doesn’t make any claims in this department whatsoever. For what it’s worth, though, I’ve often found more aerodynamic helmets to also be quieter ones, and the XR Spherical was fairly loud at higher speeds. But on the plus side, I think it’s also a good-looking helmet with a traditional aesthetic that should find wide appeal.

Eyewear can be easily (and securely) stashed up front.

Riders concerned about everyday durability should find a lot to like here, too. There’s no exposed foam on the lower edge of the XR Spherical, and not a whole lot up top, either. Previous experience with Bell’s Float Fit retention system has shown it to be impressively tolerant of being carefully packed in luggage, too.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s the question of safety. I didn’t test the XR Spherical’s effectiveness in this sense firsthand, and the helmet hasn’t yet been evaluated by the independent lab at Virginia Tech. That said, the old Zephyr/Z20 scored quite well in the top half of helmets that earned a five-star rating, and it seems safe to assume the XR would be at least as good in that respect. 

A solid choice

Riders looking for the lightest, most aerodynamic, or best ventilated helmet won’t find it in the new Bell XR Spherical. However, it’s still decently light and very well ventilated overall, it’s very comfortable, the sweat management is excellent, and if you’re after a road-style helmet with a bit of additional coverage out back, this ticks a lot of boxes. As always with helmets, see about trying one on before making a final decision, but overall, this strikes me as a very solid choice.

More information can be found at www.bellhelmets.com.

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