Over the last five years, maybe more, Bell’s excellence among manufacturers of road helmets has, to put it lightly, slipped. While last year’s Star Pro has proven to be an excellent aero road helmet for time trialists and triathletes, it has a look that is perhaps a bit more Billy Blastoff than most of us want to strike when we show up for a group ride. So, the Star Pro notwithstanding, Bell’s efforts on the road front have been progressively more and more Cadillac tail fin and less and less sleek. When you consider the efforts we see from Giro, Specialized, Lazer and others, helmets have become more rounded at their back end as a way to manage airflow. Bell’s last few efforts looked like something H.R. Giger might have formed had he been a cyclist.
Well, all that changed yesterday when I was introduced to Bell’s newest offering, the Zephyr.
The Zephyr isn’t the most anything. It’s not the most aero, not the best ventilated, not the lightest. But what it does, is manage those three needs while also adding a fresh wrinkle to design. I’m telling you right now, this is a helmet the whole of the industry is going to pay attention.
It offers the sleekest MIPS liner I’ve encountered. It also boasts a new retention system called Float Fit Race that is integrated into the MIPS and wraps around the head, keeping the whole of the helmet virtually aloft. Even the tension dial is elevated above the system itself for maximal airflow. The two occipital pads are adjustable side-to-side so that you can optimize the fit relative to the bumps you have in back. Why this is a new idea defies comprehension, but there’s no denying Bell has a fresh approach here.
The biggest news on the helmet, in my mind is that the Zephyr took a page from the Star Pro in that it is constructed in two piece that are then joined together in a two-bond system, one mechanical and the other chemical. So why is this news? Well the inner layer is composed of lower density EPS foam than the outer layer.
Bell’s product manager, Sean Coffey, emphasized that at root Bell is an energy management company. Perhaps not the same as your local utility, but their job is to dissipate impact energy away from your cranium in the event you crash. That’s job one, as they say.
The construction is referred to as “progressive layering.” And it’s an idea that is likely to resonate with the brainiacs over at Kali. They’ve been using a combination of low density and high density EPS for a couple of years now. I observed previously that the biggest liability to gaining acceptance to their ideas was that they were the only helmet manufacturer in cycling to use two different foam densities in their construction. Well that’s not the case anymore.
The inner layer receives its own polycarbonate shell, which allowed Bell to remove the roll cage; they no longer needed it as a means to anchor straps and keep the helmet together under severe impacts.
In electing to go with two different densities of foam, the idea is that the helmet can possibly provide greater protection in low-speed impacts as well as slow the head further in a high-speed impact. That said, Bell’s liability attorneys won’t permit Bell employees to make the sorts of claims you expect anyone in product marketing to make. They won’t call the helmet safer. It meets CPSC and CE requirements. You’re simply not permitted to make claims that it exceeds them or anything else in case someone chooses that helmet and is subsequently injured and tries to argue that their marketing copy persuaded them that they wouldn’t be injured.
We, the assembled journalists, asked the question four or five different ways: “Was the Zephyr safer-ish?” “Did it exceed benchmarks?” Yadda, and yadda.
What we eventually got was:
“In our experience of energy management, this is the best helmet we can make. This is the best helmet we’ve ever made.”
So how aero is this helmet and just how well does it ventilate? The de facto industry standard at this point is the Giro Synthe. While the Synthe not as aero as the Specialized Evade, it allows superior airflow, making it a better choice for hot weather. It’s considered a more optimal blend of aero and ventilation. The Zephyr’s product brief defined a goal of matching both the aerodynamics and ventilation of the Synthe. In their testing, the helmet has proven to be on par.
The Zephyr goes for $230 and weighs in at 280 grams for the CPSC version; they made a separate version for the CE test and that edition actually weighs just a bit less, at 263g. I’ll mention that it has 18 vents, but the number of vents is less important than how much air passes through them. The Zephyr comes in three sizes and six colors—black/pink, red/black/white, black, neon yellow/black, blue/white and white.
The helmet includes four small pads—two at the front and two in the rear—that present a degree of grip. These are meant to help secure your eyewear regardless of whether you push the earpieces in the front or back. Coffey noted that the best place for your eyewear is in back because that way they don’t interrupt airflow over your head. Great point, eh?
The pieces that bring the straps together (Bell calls them Triglides) below the ear are a new design intended to do a better job of lying flat against your jaw; it turns out that a bulky one can be the difference in drag between an aero helmet and a non-aero one.
I’ve got two days of riding in the Zephyr. The rides were long enough and difficult enough that you forget about what you’re wearing and concentrate on the riding, punctuated by difficult descents, steep climbs, sudden turns and vehicles piloted by Swiss drivers of such requisite skill they don’t mind passing you like two passengers squeezing through a corridor on a train. Yikes!
There came a moment yesterday where I had the odd sensation of feeling an unusual amount of air move through my hair. For a brief moment I wondered if I had taken my helmet off. There is, perhaps, no greater assessment I can offer for the helmet’s ventilation than that.
Final thought: Less an open window than a patio.