The safest road and mountain bike helmets as rated by Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech rates 86 cycling helmets for safety, with MIPS helmets dominating top rankings

Virginia Tech’s Helmet Lab has released its safety assessments of 86 helmets it has tested in 2019. The designs span mountain bike, road and urban models, and include MIPS and non-MIPS helmets, as well as a number of Bontrager’s latest WaveCel models.

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Virginia Tech’s tests are carried out in collaboration with the US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and are more comprehensive than the standard test that all helmets must pass before they are put on sale. 

As well as straight-on impacts, they include assessment of oblique impacts, as well as points of impact on the side of the helmet.

Ten safest mountain bike helmets as rated by Virginia Tech

Bontrager Rally MIPS helmet
Virginia Tech rated the Bontrager Rally MIPS as the safest MTB helmet out there.
Bontrager
  1. Bontrager Rally MIPS
  2. Troy Lee Designs A2 MIPS Decoy
  3. Lazer Cyclone MIPS
  4. Giro Tyrant MIPS SP
  5. Troy Lee Designs A1 Classic MIPS
  6. POC Tectal Race SPIN
  7. Louis Garneau Raid MIPS
  8. Bontrager Blaze WaveCel
  9. Giro Chronicle MIPS
  10. Lazer Impala MIPS

Ten safest road cycling helmets as rated by Virginia Tech

Lazer Century MIPS helmet
Virginina Tech reckons the Lazer Century MIPS is the best performing road helmet.
Lazer
  1. Lazer Century MIPS
  2. Bontrager Specter WaveCel
  3. Bontrager Ballista MIPS
  4. Bell Z20 MIPS
  5. Bontrager XXX WaveCel
  6. Lazer Z1 MIPS
  7. Specialized Echelon II MIPS
  8. Rudy Project Racemaster MIPS
  9. Lazer Blade+ MIPS
  10. Giro Aether MIPS SP

Also in the top-rated helmets were the Bern Union MIPS and Bontrager Charge WaveCel urban helmets.

They’re all rated five stars by Virginia Tech (along with the Specialized Ambush MIPS and Smith Route MIPS), with the testers recommending that you should use a helmet rated either four or five stars in their tests.

The full list of the 86 helmets tested is here. It can also be filtered by the style of helmet, budget options costing under $100 and whether helmets are certified for use in snow sports or skateboarding, as well as for cycling. 

MIPS rules the roost

Helmet with yellow MIPS liner
Helmets with a MIPS liner rule the roost.
Ben Delaney / Immediate Media

MIPS-equipped helmets dominate the ratings, both for mountain and road helmets. 80 per cent of the top-rated helmets incorporated the sliding liner tech. 

It’s designed to help dissipate energy in oblique impacts so that less of the impact force is transferred to the rider. 

Many bike crashes involve oblique impacts to the head (when an impact occurs at an angle rather than a central impact) and Virginia Tech’s testing suggests that extra protection from this type of crash is an important feature.

Bontrager XXX WaveCel
Helmets equipped with Bontrager’s proprietary WaveCel technology scored well.
Immediate Media

Another tech that comes up frequently is WaveCel. It’s Bontrager’s new tech, released earlier this year. 

Rather than the usual expanded polystyrene layer, WaveCel uses a crinkly honeycomb plastic layer that collapses in an impact. Unlike MIPS, it’s proprietary to Bontrager, which is licensed to a large number of brands. So to see the tech in four out of 22 top-rated helmets suggest that it’s a good alternative to MIPS.

Also in the mountain bike list is POC’s Tectal Race helmet with its SPIN technology. It’s POC’s take on the absorption of energy from oblique impacts and uses silicone pads inside the helmet to allow it to move against the head in an oblique impact.

It was the subject of a patent dispute with MIPS when it was launched, which ended up being settled by the two Swedish brands, with POC agreeing to adopt MIPS tech in its future helmets.

How does Virginia Tech test its helmets?

Virginia Tech tests helmets vigorously so, hopefully, you'll come out unscathed in crashes like this.
Virginia Tech tests helmets vigorously so, hopefully, you’ll come out unscathed in crashes like this.
Peter Smith

Virginia Tech’s testing uses a standard drop tower, which is the standard tool used to test bike helmets. 

It drops the helmet down a slider and lands it on a steel anvil. Virginia Tech covers this with coarse sandpaper, which it says helps to better simulate real-life road conditions. 

Tests are carried out at two different impact speeds and in six different positions on the helmet, including on the rim. 

The method tests oblique impacts as well as those taken head-on. Each test is repeated twice, for a total of 24 tests on each helmet.

Accelerometers are positioned inside the headform on which the helmet is mounted to measure the linear and rotational forces acting on impact. 

A formula is then used to convert this data into an overall score and a star rating, with a lower score being better.

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Virginia Tech says that its testing is more complete than standard tests, which do not include impacts on the rim, although this is often where contact will occur in a crash. You can read Virginia Tech’s full description of its methodology here.