Looking Forward: the Bell Stratus Helmet

Looking Forward: the Bell Stratus Helmet

I can’t help but look back on the history of cycling as I check out new gear. There’s something inherent to my world view to consider history as I review gear. I consider history in other settings as well, but as a reviewer it’s integral to how I do my job.

So when the Bell Stratus arrived, I did a double-take. Six months before I’d reviewed the Bell Zephyr, a helmet that redefined Bell’s presence in the road market. With aerodynamics on par with many of the other top helmets and two-piece construction that used both low- and high-density foam along with the inclusion of MIPS, the Zephyr was arguably the most advanced road helmet on the market. Did I mention it was comfortable as a recliner?

The Stratus confused me. Without holding the two helmets side by side, I couldn’t tell the Stratus from the Zephyr. Let’s be honest: Second tier helmets, util recently, never looked all that impressive. This was true for two reasons. The obvious one is that helmet manufacturers don’t want their less expensive helmets to look as sharp as their top models. The other reason is something only one company has mentioned to me and it may not still be standard practice, but it was true for a time that junior designers were unleashed on more budget-oriented designs.

The design principles that informed the design of the Zephyr (now called the Z20) are at play with Stratus. Gone are the Cadillac tail fins, which proved not to be very aero. A new retention system called Float Fit and a simplified helmet strap guide plus lightweight webbing combined with a MIPS liner make it the most comfortable sub-$200 helmet I’ve ever worn.

The helmet uses an internal polycarbonate roll cage to help keep the it structurally intact in the event of an impact. An in-mold polycarbonate shell gives it improved durability and makes the helmet more likely to slide on the ground, rather than grip it, which has been shown to cause injuries.

Bell touts the Overbrow Ventilation, which is meant to channel more air across your forehead to keep you cool on hot days. Is it superior in that regard? Possibly. While I have never been one to overheat due to my helmet, I can say the way the 18 vents channel air across your head make it a great helmet for August days. Speaking of vents, they are well-positioned for eyewear stowing, at least in my size, which is small.

Years ago when I worked in a shop, back when most helmets cost $50 or less. Customers would often ask why they should spring for the $50 helmet rather than the $35 one. My answer? Buy the $35 helmet, if you have a $35 head. No one can suggest that buying a $150 helmet is the cheapskate route. The Stratus is clearly superior to every helmet I ever wore prior to about 2010, and it’s still less expensive than the top-shelf models being sold then.

The Stratus comes in three sizes, S-L and a whopping eight finishes.

Final thought: More affordable doesn’t mean cheaper.

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  1. VeloFred

    > Customers would often ask why they should spring for the $50 helmet rather than the $35 one.
    > My answer? Buy the $35 helmet, if you have a $35 head.

    Do you have any evidence that more expensive helmets are safer? They are all tested to the same standards.

    1. Ron Reed

      As I recall, during that time period the $35 helmet would be made of styrofoam with a thin fabric net over it.

    2. Author

      Helmets have changed substantially in 30 years. The foam has improved; they have roll cages now; they fit better; occipital devices keep them from rolling back on your head; some use two densities of foam; some include MIPS. What I wore in 1987 isn’t something I’d ever trust my life to again.

    1. Author

      The Z20 uses two different densities of foam, both a higher density foam to help with higher-speed impacts and a lower-density foam to provide greater cushioning in the first moments of a crash as well as in low-energy impacts. There are a number of helmet experts who believe that using two different densities of foam will increase your odds of survival in a crash, not to mention lowering the odds of a brain injury. The challenge is that the moment a helmet company says, “This helmet is safer,” because laywers, liability becomes a huge issue. So they are beyond reticent to make such pronouncements.

      I’m not a helmet expert, but I talk to them all the time. I like the Stratus a lot. However, given a choice between the Z20 and the Stratus, I’ll take the Z20.

  2. David Feldman

    Also a bike retailing vet here–different helmets, brands and even different models in the same brand, will fit somewhat differently; maybe less so now that many have an adjustable band, but this condition still exists. One helmet will fit you better than others if you try a few. Another thing–cyclists like my wife and my doctor who both have neck nerve and muscle issues should be weight weenies and buy the lightest helmet they can possibly find.

    1. Scott M

      David, You nailed it on both the fit and weight considerations. For some reason, Bell fits my bean.
      Until I bought a super lite helmet, I didn’t realize the importance of weight. Helmet weight directly relates to neck fatigue, which, in turn, can cause headaches. Weight becomes even more important on longer rides. When you’re on the bike for 2 or 3 hours it may not matter. But when you ride for 6, 8 or 15 hours, every ounce counts.

  3. dave

    So to reiterate an earlier question……..are less expensive helmets less safe than more expensive helmets…..assuming the same safety standard is met by all?

    1. Kayce

      On a pass fail test, like the CPSC tests, there is only two options: pass or fail. A helmet that gets a C- and a helmet that gets an A+ both get the same grade.

      There are also laws in the US that say you cannot advertise or say anything about a helmet being more safe, beyond the fact that it passes the basic tests. So it is illegal to prove Mips, temple coverage, etc. are more safe than a standard helmet.

    2. Author

      Safety standards are relatively blunt instruments. When I talk to helmet engineers they complain about all the things those testing standards don’t measure and how some of what they measure falls well outside of the events that most frequently take place in a crash. One of the tests helmets are put through involves driving a spike through the helmet. Ask yourself if you’ve ever met anyone who crashed and had a spear pierce their helmet. There are a great many events that can take place in a crash that current standards simply don’t account for. It’s why when a helmet manufacturer tells me, “This is the best helmet we know how to make,” or “This is the best helmet we can make at this price,” I pay attention.

  4. Winky

    Is there value in expensive helmets? Well, I just tried a few new top-end helmets at the LBS. I was extremely impressed with advances in fit and finish, as well as features, just in the few years since my last purchase. Tried a few brands and they do fit differently. 2 were my “shape” and 2 were not. It’s time to upgrade. This article has prompted me to move forward on one.

  5. David

    I get the value “added-ness” of improved fit and finish……but what about safety? Is there a price point where safety becomes….”better?” Like, I saw a Bell model online today equipped with MIPS for <$60.00. I wouldn't call this an "expensive" helmet, and it's certainly not top-of-the-line….nor the bottom either.

    1. Winky

      You’re likely right that the safety reaches diminishing returns as price increases. My comment was more about how helmets seem to have improved over time.

    2. David Feldman

      If a helmet has good ventilation and is reasonably light you have less of a chance of passing out on your bike on a hot day–that for sure makes it safer!

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