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Red bicycle helmet hanging strapped around the crank and pedals on a bike

Helmet Safety Tips for Cyclists

Cyclists invest a lot of money into their equipment. From jerseys and cleats to saddles and chamois, every piece of gear has its distinct purpose. But none of them, arguably, is as important as your helmet. This head armor protects your life and your mental health in a way no other piece of cycling equipment does.

But, although every cyclist should have a safety helmet, simply wearing one isn’t enough. The kind of helmet you get matters, as does the way you wear one and how often you replace it.

To gain better insight into this critical topic, we talked with our friend and longtime cycling coach, Darryl MacKenzie. Here’s what he had to say about helmet safety for cyclists.

What To Look for When Buying a Helmet

Proper helmet safety for cyclists starts with knowing how to shop for the right helmet.

“Because the helmet is so important, you want to give some thought to it — and you don’t want to be cheap,” says Coach Darryl. “You just don’t want to have yourself in a situation where you buy something that is not going to protect your head, which is the center of your life, your independence, your earning capabilities — everything.”

There are three things you want to do when you’re buying a new bicycle helmet. 

Prioritize Protection

Nowadays, thanks to technological advancements in helmet manufacturing, there’s one non-negotiable feature: the inner protective shell that’s designed to protect your head from multidirectional impact. This was a groundbreaking addition to helmets in recent years, and its contribution to the bicycle protection industry has prevented countless serious head injuries.

You have two options when deciding on this inner shell offering helmet safety. You can go with the original, known as MIPS — short for multidirectional impact protection system — or you can go with the Trek-exclusive WaveCel. There is some evidence that the WaveCel is slightly more effective at protecting your head, but what’s most important is that your helmet has one of them. Research the differences between the two to decide which one you want to go with.

Try On Everything

Once you decide on which inner shell you want, then the process of buying a helmet comes down to comfort. As Darryl notes, a comfortable helmet is crucial to ensure you have no problem wearing it for long rides. And this isn’t something where you can simply rely on what a friend said. Different helmet manufacturers tend to fit different head shapes better, so it's a good idea to try on every model you’re interested in.

When Darryl is helmet shopping, he tries on every helmet he’s considering purchasing, in a few different sizes, before he even looks at the price tag. Price, he points out, is a factor that comes after safety and comfort.

Eliminate Old Models

Finally, once you’ve narrowed the selection down, look at the manufacturing tag on the helmet, which should have the date of manufacture stamped on it. Because helmets deteriorate over time (read more on that below), you never want to buy one that’s already more than a year old. Darryl has even asked stores to ship a newer version of the same helmet before, just to ensure he’s getting one that’s not already wearing out.

When To Replace Your Bike Helmet

As one of the most important helmet safety tips, remember the following: The fact that helmets deteriorate should also dictate how often you replace them.

“Helmets start deteriorating the day they’re manufactured,” Darryl explains. “You can’t expect a helmet to afford the same protection seven or eight years into its life that it was affording you when you first bought it.” 

The black molding that makes up the main body of the helmet is almost a denser, firmer styrofoam. And this foam disintegrates over time as it’s exposed to sun and air. That’s why it starts deteriorating even on the shelf before you’ve ever had a chance to wear it. 

Because of this, Darryl recommends that you replace your helmet every two or three years, no matter what. 

“The helmet may look good in three years’ time, but it’s not giving you the protection that you need,” he says. Incidentally, this deterioration is also why you should never give someone a used helmet—and should always cut the straps off when throwing out your old ones.

The only exception to this rule? If you have a crash that involves direct contact with your helmet. In that case, you need to replace it immediately.

2 Helmet Adjustments You Should Make Regularly

In between purchasing and replacing your helmet, you should, of course, wear it on every ride — regardless of what the law is in your area. But, once again, simply wearing it isn’t sufficient; you need to wear it properly.

To make sure you have your helmet on right, there are two adjustments you’ll need to make regularly. 

First, the two straps that form a “Y” around your ear should connect right below your ear. Over time, the connector at the base of these two straps tends to slide toward your chin, which allows the helmet too much freedom to move from the front to back on your head. Once a month or so, be sure that this connector is positioned close enough to your ear lobe that you can touch the connector and your ear simultaneously with the tip of your finger.

Second, your chin strap should be tight enough that it can’t slide over your chin. If it’s too loose, the helmet can come off your head. Coach Darryl checks this before every ride and adjusts as needed (usually about every seven to 10 days). If you do need to adjust it, the process takes no more than 10 seconds to tighten the strap and clip it back together.

Helmet safety is one of the most important things you can learn as a cyclist. Before you ever set out on a ride, be certain your helmet is safe and secure. It could save your life.


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Photo by Kaffeebart on Unsplash