Jul 082012
Bike Helmets: Pro-Cute, Anti-Ugly

Riding my road bike on the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Spokane when it opened in 2012. The mayor's office hadn't planned bike participation so I fixed that.

Barb Chamberlain on a road bike with a Donkey Boxx and a helmet cover by Hub and Bespoke.
The Hub and Bespoke helmet cover lends an equestrian flair, don’t you think?

The bike helmet debate seemingly engenders more pro/con comments in online postings than an increase in the debt ceiling, gun control, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, and the death penalty combined–and sometimes more vitriol, too. I’m not trying to go there, although I’ll admit to getting into a Twitter quasi-debate on this just the other day with anti-helmet-guy Mikael, the guy who trademarked the term Cycle Chic.

I’m talking about the helmet in terms of what fashion options you have.

Before the debate starts in the comments, understand that I am quite familiar with all the statistics about how few bike injuries actually involve the head and I know those stylish folks in Amsterdam typically don’t wear them. They live in a far different context than what I encounter on the streets of Spokane.

I will avoid clever comments about how Dutch street surfaces must be a lot softer than ours when you take a tumble (oh, whoops, maybe I won’t). I’ll also refer you to a piece on Bike Portland that suggests the helmet debate diverts energy from other ways of improving bike safety and rider behavior. And I’ll suggest that live-and-let-live would be far more constructive within the bike community than divide-and-conquer.

Bern Berkeley women's bike helmet
Bern Berkeley helmet in Cyan.

Since the vast majority of bike-related injuries actually happen when you’re all by yourself (because you fall down or run into something) this isn’t about driver behavior. Personally, I’m simply not interested in testing the tail end of the bell curve when it’s my brain we’re talking about. They only issued me one.

Bottom line: I wear gloves to protect my hands in case I fall because falling would hurt if I didn’t wear them. When I drive I wear a seatbelt to help prevent a painful impact in the event of a sudden stop. I wear a helmet for these same reasons.

The real problem? Bike helmets are kinda ugly, most of ’em. By “ugly” I mean “really dedicated to sport but not very pretty and certainly not a fashion accessory.”

Yakkay Bike Helmet Cover in Tokyo Blue Stripe
Yakkay Bike Helmet Cover in Tokyo Blue Stripe

It was only very recently that some folks with fashion sense got involved in helmet design, resulting in some that don’t look totally geeked out, but some have a price tag that reflects the additional design value.

I’ve heard from people who have worn both the traditional vented helmet and the rounder “urban” style with fewer and smaller vent holes that the latter does make your head feel a bit hotter. Sounds great for winter, possibly a tad warm for summer, but I haven’t tested this personally.

What I’ve found so far, in descending price order:

  • Yakkay: A helmet plus changeable hat covering, which is a cute idea; around US$175 usual retail price for a helmet plus cover
  • Sawako Furuno: Rounded style (like Bern or Nutcase) with a lot of really pretty graphics options; around US$110-$130 or so depending on currency exchange rates
Nutcase women's bike helmet in Sunburst
Nutcase women’s bike helmet in Sunburst
  • Bern: Has some of those urban rounded helmets in bright colors; around US$60-$80
  • Nutcase: This has the biggest line-up of graphic options, all in the rounded urban style, for around $60.
  • Giro: Usually all about the vented aero look, but now has some “urban” helmets with a more businesslike finish (beige and black houndstooth, for example) and some pretty designs like a white-on-white floral and a wine paisley; around US$50
  • Helmet cover over whatever helmet you have now! I wear a black velvet number whipped up by Hub and Bespoke in Seattle. Like Yakkay but for only $28.
Giro Women's "Surface" Bike Helmet in Beige-Black Houndstooth Check
For a more businesslike look, the Giro women’s “Surface” bike helmet in beige-black houndstooth check.

Single most common mistake with helmets: Wearing them wrong!

You carry your personality in the frontal lobe–your forehead. If you tip the helmet back on your head, which many do, you expose that to impact. You should be able to put two fingers between your eyebrows and your helmet, not more.

The chin strap needs to be tightened enough that it will actually hold the helmet on your head. Many helmets have a back adjustment that tightens down the interior fittings. If I crank that down uber-tight the interior foam pads make my hair look as if it’s been marceled like a 20s flapper; I can feel it firmly seated on my head without overdoing.

My friend Deb of Roast House Coffee has a far different problem: A fantastic head of wildly curly hair that’s so thick she can barely stuff it under the helmet.

Which brings us to the other real problem: Helmet hair! A post with tips and a Blogspedition to follow one of these days.

Sharing is karma--pass it along!

Reader Comments

  1. you look funny with a helmet on, but you look stupid falling from the bike without using one.

  2. I have 3 helmets with 1 of them a funkier design with sketchlike drawings of figurines. It’s actually a round Giro. It’s bright neon green and abit heavier. Nice for cooler weather.

    Totally agree the helmet debate drains North American efforts and attention from safe cycling infrastructure. I no longer listen to Anderson and yes, I’ve debated with directly. How can I care?: My partner, a well-known cycling advocate in Vancouver was knocked down unconscious by another cyclist (!) on a quiet street. His helmet was broken and was replaced.

    I’ve fallen 3 times –all in quiet areas, twice on a bike path and 3rd time going up a quiet residential street in Vancouver….and all on black ice. I was by myself at each time. No one else around and cycling slowly!! I’m an experienced cyclist for past 22 yrs.

  3. I’ve got a fun helmet from Nutcase that’s polka dotted. Goes well with my bumcicles™ bike seat covers, too. Makes riding more joyful.

  4. That is a good idea for a summer version! I will run it by Juliette since she is the product designer.

  5. Thanks to Sandra, Melanie, and Aldan for following up on the question the post asked. As I said right up front, I expected comments on the debate that I think has been sufficiently thrashed around that I don’t have anything to add. That’s why I went in the direction I did.

    I must say I miss my helmet cover now that it’s finally warm enough that I don’t want its extra heat-trapping layer! Maybe a nice cool white mesh version for summer style, Aldan?

  6. Great post! Nicely written and I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. Thanks for the mention of the Hub and Bespoke helmet cover–glad it’s treating you well, and yes, it does look very cute!

    Since you mentioned the need for helmet hair guidance, here’s a post with an excellent slideshow on that very topic from Cyclelicious, recently forwarded to us by a friend. Hope it inspires.


  7. Gah. Apparently some people didn’t understand the point of your post.

    Anyway, I agree with Sandra in the desire for the rounded helmets to have a little bit more ventilation. I love my Bern something fierce, but I can wear it only half of the year. Your helmet cover is adorable, but doesn’t it trap the heat as well?

  8. Lovely. Now stop trying to make the foam hat manditory. That’s all Mikael has ever asked.

  9. Wearing a helmet is a personal choice. We all know that we must not be smart enough to make personal choices about our body…oh, wait, that is just women…never mind.

    But, that wasn’t the point of this post. Helmet ARE ugly. Why can’t the round ones be more vented? why do the bikey ones have to be pointed front and back? Can’t they make something in between, that would take a helmet cover nicely? Hat cuteness could be had.

  10. “The real problem? Bike helmets are kinda ugly, most of ‘em.”

    No, the real problem is that the myth of helmet effectiveness is endlessly repeated until it has become accepted as fact. As Goebels said “A lie often repeated becomes the truth.”

    Nowhere with a helmet law or massive rise in helmet wearing after propaganda campaigns can show any reduction in risk to cyclists, and some research shows an increase in risk with helmet wearing.

    Check out cyclehelmets.org for the facts rather than the endlessly repeated myths.

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