Bell Gage Helmet

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Bell and Giro are two of the biggest names in bicycle helmets, and have been for the better part of 20 years. But in 1996 when Bell—which was #1 in sales—purchased Giro—which was #2 in sales—there were concerns that Bell would swallow Giro, that the two lines would become indistinguishable. Some 16 years’ worth of helmets by the two companies has shown that didn’t happen and isn’t going to happen. That the two manufacturers didn’t get homogenized into one behemoth that put out one helmet with two names is less a miracle than a demonstration that the two companies have remained not just distinct, but consistent in their differences over the years.

For as far back as I can remember, Bell bicycle helmets have been designed around heads that are more round than oval, circumferentially. As far back as my days as a shop wrench, I’ve known that to be true. Further, I also knew Giro helmets to be better suited to those with more oval heads. Despite that he was often called a blockhead, I’m a lot like Charlie Brown in that I’ve got a pretty round head. As a result, in the late ’80s and early- to mid-’90s, I wore Bell helmets. Somewhere around ’97 or ’98 Bell released the Evo Pro and it marked what was a departure from the old Bell fit. As compared to Giro, Specialized and most other manufacturers, the Evo Pro had a deeper fit. By that I mean that the helmet covered more of my head. I might not have noticed had it not been for two colliding facts. First, there was no way to stash sunglasses in the helmet. Second, the helmet came down so far over my head that it came in contact with my glasses. With every bump I encountered on the road there was a corresponding “thunk” of the helmet against my glasses.

No creak was every half this annoying.

So it went with each Bell helmet I tried for more than 10 years. Some even pressed against my eyewear; to mention this was uncomfortable is to commit a crime against the obvious.

Enter the Gage. I’m pleased to report that the Gage improves upon Bell’s too-deep-for-me fit. I respect that some folks never had the problem I did, but my head is not anomalous. I can’t have been the only person to experience this phenomenon. The fit does still feel deep-ish, but I’ve been able to wear this helmet with eyewear from Spy, Smith and Shimano without the helmet banging against the frames. However, the helmet still clunks against Oakley’s Racing Jackets and Assos’ too-cool-for-Beverly-Hills Zeghos are utterly incompatible with this helmet. And forget about trying to stash glasses in the vents. The temple vents are simply too far apart to accommodate any eyewear meant for the human head.

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This $190 bucket continues with the design cues for which Bell has become known, in particular the symmetrically flared points at the back of the helmet that recall space-age looking tail fins of cars from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

This is the helmet Billy Blastoff’s grandson would wear.

Fortunately, somewhere around the time helmets’ vents numbered in the range of two dozen we marketing teams came to their senses and stopped counting them. I’ve stopped entertaining discussions of which helmet is best-ventilated. The last time a helmet left my head too hot, too sweaty on a summer day, hair was still big. To the degree that I still think about how well a helmet is ventilated, what I consider is that the helmets I’m wearing require a cycling cap beneath them once the temperature drops below 60 degrees (F).

Bell remains differentiated against its competitors in another significant way: Their sizing runs smaller. A small from Bell is not the same thing as a small from Specialized, Giro or Lazer. When my boy hits his teenage years, his first leap into adult helmets will almost certainly be to a small Bell. I wear a small in the aforementioned brands, but with Bell I have to wear a medium, and I think this gets to the root of the deep fit for me. My head is just a bit too large for their small. While this is an issue for me, it means that a small Bell is a great option for others—particularly for women, who frequently have smaller heads than men.

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There’s much to like about the Gage. Like its competitors, the Aeon and Prevail, the Gage uses lightweight webbing for the straps. Sure, the thinner straps help the helmet lose some weight, but that’s not the reason to like the material; less material means less sweat absorption. The thinner material is also more supple, making it more comfortable against your skin. It tends to get less funky, post-ride, as well. Which brings us to the X-Static pads; X-Static is a material that incorporates silver fibers to inhibit the growth of bacteria that make your helmet smell like skunk roadkill. This stuff works so well and has been so widely adopted in helmet spec it’s becoming industry standard. Cam-lock levers make strap adjustment both Cavendish-quick and magic-marker permanent.

Another practice that has become industry standard are the fusion-molded microshells that simultaneously increase a helmet’s durability and good looks. Speaking of which, even at this price, you get a choice of eight different finishes.

Bell’s occipital retention device is called the TAG, for Twin-Axis Gear, which is to say as the user tightens the device, it not only decreases the effective circumference of the helmet, it also moves upward to better cradle the occipital bump on smaller heads. It yields a fit that is eight-character-password secure.

The reality for me is that as much as I like this helmet, the fit issues will prevent it from being in my regular rotation of helmets. The good news is that it means there are a great many people out there who will find this helmet to be an ideal fit. Thank heaven for diversity in manufacturing.

It’s nice that Bell’s top-of-the-line helmet is a good $60 less than Giro’s. When the cost of so many things just continues to escalate, Bell deserves some praise for making a pro-worthy product without engaging in the price arms race.

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5 comments

  1. djconnel

    Good stuff. One thing I wonder about with helmets is the mass issue. I think it’s intuitive that attaching mass to your head, for example lead weights on a headstrap, would be bad for avoiding stress during a violent crash: the mass would add inertia which could increase torque loads. Additionally adding radius without any other safety advantage would be bad: radius increases the collision cross-section of the head and increases the opportunity for torque loads during a crash. A helmet adds both mass and radius, which thus intuitively decrease safety on their own, but you hope there’s a net improvement in safety due to the padding. But given two helmets, each providing the same net padding, I’d pick the lighter, smaller one over the heavier, fatter one. The Prevail, for example, is lighter in the European version than in the US version due to stricter requirements on the buckle in the US version. The implicit assertion is the marginal hazard of the added mass of a beefier buckle is offset by the advantage of a beefier buckle. But I’m not convinced.

    Sure, we’re talking 10’s of grams of difference, risk mitigation is about attention to detail.

    The helmet tests, as far as I know, test only impact resistance. The potential deleterious effects of radius and mass are not adequately addressed. I would like to see more attention given to the complex dynamics of an actual crash, and to the effect of torques and not just normal forces.

  2. Echowonder

    Best I’ve owned. Bell fits me like a glove. Never notice it’s there.

    Also, my glasses fit perfectly in the vents and stay there for as long as I leave them no matter how bumpy the ride! (I wouldn’t buy a helmet that this was not true about)

  3. jorgensen

    Bell’s have fit my noggin as much as Giro’s do not, it is good to read that this continues. It is time for a new one. Hopefully one comes in a white or pearl white microshell.

  4. Robert Borchert

    I have to agree on all points! Back in the day, the Bell had a hard shell, and the Giro featured its unique stretch covering (remember those?) in the early 1980s. Having raced motorcycles back then, I wanted the familiar Bell, but their shape simply didn’t go with my head like the moto helms did.

    I’ve been a Giro rider ever since. When Bell Motorsports merged everything together, I feared that I’d have to break out the hot knife to reshape the inner foam, but we’ve had a happy dual family of helmet styles for many years.

    I really like seeing the Giro-style adjuster at the back, this one works great. And just as you’ve found, donning the traditional casquette underneath is great in the cold and rain. That adjuster makes the change simple and secure when wearing a cap under the helmet.

    It’s funny that you find the same problems with glasses, both underneath, and when stashing them at sunset, into the vents. Perhaps, someday, helmet makers will standardize those practical temple vents, at least for stowing eyewear.

  5. Eric L

    djconnel,

    Interesting things to think about. I have used helmets (Bell helmets in particular) in both cycling and motorsports. I personnaly believe that the weight differentials that we are talking about in cycling helmets are minimal compared to the impact that weight can have in motorsports.

    In motorsports where a driver is belted in, the weight of the head and helmet can cause a basilar skull fracture. This lead to the HANS device and other mechanisms to prevent the head from moving forward excessively in an impact. On a bike, the helmets are significantly lighter than motorsport helmets to begin with and we are not strapped in so the mass on the head is less significant.

    On a bike, well with any helmet actually, we are concerned with absorbing impact over a longer period of time. Our helmets do this by crushing. The energy is therefore dissipated reducing the energy that enters the body. It is my understanding that the extra lenght at the back of the cycling helmet is there for just this reason. I can attest that it works. My Bell (Sweep R) helmet saved my life (no exageration). I went from 20 to stop using the back of my head as brakes. The back of the helmet was compressed by about half and while I suffered numerous life threatening brain injuries, I am still here to write about it.

    I am all for less weight and making the shape such that impacts do not result in abnormal movement of the head. But in the end, slowing the impact and reducing the G-force on the head will rule the day. In the end, get a good helmet that fits you correctly, wear it properly affixed to your head and ride safely hopefully never testing its capability.

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