The Best Bike Helmet for Commuters

After performing more than 20 hours of research, and testing 13 finalists with a 10-person panel, we have determined that the $70 Specialized Echelon, available for men and women (under the Aspire moniker), is the best commuter helmet. It looks good, fits comfortably, breathes well, and won’t break the bank. While fit is subjective and varies from person to person (we suggest that whenever possible you should try helmets on before you buy), no fewer than nine testers picked it as one of their three favorites based on comfort, adjustability, breathability, looks, and value. That’s six more votes than the runner-up.

Specialized Echelon
With a universally appealing fit and aesthetic, affordable price, and additional safety certification beyond what’s legally required, this helmet is a great buy for any commuter.

The Echelon’s universally comfortable fit owes a lot to its simple adjustment system. On most road helmets, the fit of the straps can be fixed using two finicky sliders that sit just below the ears. With the Echelon, all you do is adjust the overall length of the strap under your chin, which means less fiddling and less chance for error. The Echelon is the most thoroughly certified helmet among our test group, earning both a Snell B-90A certification and a shining recommendation from Consumer Reports (based on its evaluation of the older Echelon II model) on top of the mandatory Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) approval for safety. The Echelon shares many design elements with Specialized’s more expensive models, so it has the look, feel, and performance of a much more expensive helmet. It’s available in multiple color combos (with reflective detailing) for men and women. Both male and female testers liked the fit of both the “men’s” and “women’s” helmets, so just go with the colors you prefer.

Also Great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $81.

Giro Savant
This is a handsome helmet with a slim profile that looks and performs above its price, but an unwieldy strap yoke kept it from our top slot.

The runner-up was the Giro Savant ($80 or $110 with MIPS), which fits well on most heads and looks great. It’s also a good choice if you want MIPS, the anti-concussion Multi-directional Impact Protection System (though we don’t think you need it). Its form-fitting profile makes it noticeably slimmer on the head compared with other helmets in this price range, and the seasoned bike industry veterans on our testing panels felt that it could pass as a helmet that costs $100 more than it does. However, multiple testers reported that the strap yoke adjusters dug into their faces when it was properly tightened. It’s also more expensive than our pick. But if you can deal with fiddling with the straps from time to time, it’s a great helmet and a great value for how good it looks. It’s also available on Amazon and from other online retailers if you prefer to go that route.

Also Great
Schwinn Thrasher
This helmet costs less than dinner at a sit-down restaurant, yet was still comfortable for most testers. It’s nothing special, but it is very cheap and offers enough protection.

The $20 Schwinn Thrasher was the least expensive helmet we reviewed, but it was far from the worst. While it’s an obvious step down in material quality, adjustability, and aesthetics, the simple fact that it held its own against helmets costing three to six times as much (no tester ranked it among the bottom three) is reason enough to give it a nod if all you need is a helmet that meets industry standards for not much money. Spending more won’t get you a “safer” helmet, it will only get you better looks, ventilation, and possibly comfort—depending on your head shape. In addition to being on Amazon, the Thrasher is widely available at many of the big-box stores.

Also Great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $80.

Giro Sutton
A combination of surprisingly good ventilation, subtle styling, the ability to lock through the vent, and a rear light mount make this a great choice for urban riders.

If you want something that doesn’t scream “I’m a cyclist!” in the way a traditionally styled road or commuter helmet does, you can get a skate-influenced “urban commuter” helmet like the Giro Sutton ($80). It has great ventilation compared with similarly styled helmets because the built-in visor scoops air into channels running through the helmet’s shell and out the back, thus cooling your entire head. Other unique touches, like a reinforced locking loop (so you can leave your helmet locked up with your bike) and a rear light mount, make it a safe and secure pick for city dwellers. The biggest downside to the helmet was its circumference adjustment, which uses a drawstring-style system (think sweatpants) that felt seriously cheap given the helmet’s $80 price tag. However, it was quite comfortable compared with the hard plastic retention systems on most helmets. You can also get it with MIPS for a $20 upcharge.

Table of contents

Why should you trust me?

I’ve been in the bike industry for four years as a cyclocross racer, sales representative, and mechanic, but you don’t have to take just my word for it. For this guide, I talked with multiple longtime veterans of the cycling industry, including Saul Leiken, general manager of City Bikes in Washington, DC; Scott Baker, 17-year veteran of the cycling industry; and multiple bike shop employees and riders around Portland, OR, to get their takes on what makes a great bicycle helmet.

Scott Baker testing the Giro Savant MIPS.

Scott Baker testing the Giro Savant MIPS.

What’s a helmet anyway?

A bike helmet isn’t complicated—it’s just a sculpted piece of plastic-coated foam that you strap to your head to protect it from trauma in the event of a crash. Here are some of the basic terms we’ll use in this guide.

bike-helmet-anatomy-630

Shell: This hard plastic coating forms the exterior of the helmet and allows the helmet to slide in the event of a crash to help diffuse force imparted on your head and neck. It also protects the helmet’s foam from the elements.

In-mold construction: Helmet construction method in which the foam is injected into the shell while it’s still in the mold; this allows for a lighter and better ventilated helmet. Cheaper models have the shell glued or taped to a finished foam form.

Retention system: This mechanism adjusts the fit of the helmet to the circumference of your head. It’s typically controlled by a dial located in the back, though many fit systems exist.

Occipital adjustment: This lets you adjust the height of the retention system with respect to how far down the helmet comes on the back of the head. Those with longer or larger heads can get a better fit by utilizing this adjustment.

Yoke: The Y-shaped section of strap that goes around your ears to better secure the helmet. Typically you can lengthen or shorten this section with a buckle placed where the strap separates to fit around your ears and keep the helmet from shifting, but some manufacturers don’t use this this adjustment (including our pick).

Vents, foam, buckles, and pads are self-explanatory.

Who’s this for?

Wearing a helmet while biking is like wearing your seat belt when driving: Not only should you, but doing so could also save your life.

Wearing a helmet while biking is like wearing your seat belt when driving: Not only should you, but doing so could also save your life.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says, simply, “A helmet is the single most effective way to prevent head injury resulting from a bike crash.” The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, a nonprofit helmet advocacy organization, quotes the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s numbers, which show that 63 percent of bicycle fatalities happened to people who weren’t wearing helmets (with 17 percent wearing helmets and 20 percent unknown). All the experienced cyclists we spoke to wear helmets themselves. 1

The good news is that bicycle helmets have come a long way since the first iterations made of a combination of leather straps, hopes, and dreams. These days, helmets are better-ventilated, more comfortable, and more stylish than ever before. It no longer costs an arm and a leg to get a quality piece.

You may ask yourself, “Do I really need to wear one?” Well, according to federal, state, and local governments, no. It’s your choice if you’re 18 years or older. In the same vein, if you’re an adult you can eat pizza and beer for every meal and shower biannually. Should you? Absolutely not–but you can, that’s your right. This isn’t true if you’re younger than 18. Most states and some municipalities have some sort of mandatory helmet regulation for minors (you can check your state’s regulations here), but it goes without saying that it’s a good idea to wear one no matter your age.

Even if you have a helmet already, you might need a new one if it’s more than a few years old. Saul Leiken, general manager at City Bikes Adams Morgan in Washington, DC, stressed to me that people need to remember that a helmet is a “consumable product.” Most major manufacturers (Bell, Giro, Specialized, Bontrager, to name a few) recommend replacing a helmet every three to five years, while the CPSC recommends replacement within “5-10 years of purchase” due to degradation caused by sweat, UV light, and air pollution. I would err on the side of caution and replace about every three years or after any serious impact. That means if you drop your helmet off your handlebars—assuming it isn’t dented—you’re probably okay, but if you fell off your bike and hit your head you need to get your helmet replaced immediately.

 If you drop your helmet off your handlebars—assuming it isn’t dented—you’re probably okay, but if you fell off your bike and hit your head you need to get your helmet replaced immediately.
Remember, this is your brain we’re talking about here; treat it like you actually do your thinking with it.

Finally, never buy a used helmet. You have no idea of the history behind it, and even with proper inspection there isn’t always a good way to tell if it’s been damaged. Plus it’s probably old and dated. New helmets are typically better looking, less expensive, better ventilated, and safer than an old possibly-used-by-your-cousin-for-a-single-month-bike-stint-in-1995 model. Get a new one and you’ll be happier and safer.

What’s the difference between men’s and women’s helmets?

The women’s Propero has the same shape, fit, and design as the men’s but has more space in the back for a ponytail and comes in different colors

The women’s Propero has the same shape, fit, and design as the men’s but has more space in the back for a ponytail and comes in different colors.

We tested both the men’s and women’s versions of each helmet line we could (though most were unisex). The only differences we found were in the sizing (a women’s small would be a men’s extra-small, and so forth) and that women’s helmets typically have a larger gap between the protective foam and retention system in the rear to allow for a ponytail. Men tried the women’s models, and women tried the men’s models, and we came to the conclusion that you should just get whatever fits and has nice colors that appeal to you.

How we picked

I started by reading everything I could get my hands on about helmets. The nonprofit Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI) has an incredible and simple buyer’s guide to check out if you’re at square one in the helmet search, as does REI. Some more specialized reviews and ratings for helmets can be found at websites like Roadbikereview.com, which covers many of the popular models with reviews by actual users. Websites like Bikeradar.com, mtbr.com, and Cyclocross Magazine tend to skew toward the more “enthusiast”-level road and mountain crowds, so if you have no idea what you’re looking for you’re better off starting with the guides from REI or the BHSI or even just looking at reviews on Amazon.com. While comparative helmet reviews exist—Consumer Reports’s recent roundup is particularly of note since its editors did their own lab testing—most reviews are one-offs.

I asked all of my experts the same starting question: What is the best helmet? Each time the question was met with a “You-know-better-than-to-be-asking-this-question” groan. Every one of them gave me a different answer for specific models, but one aspect rang true through all their responses: Buy the helmet that fits your head best. This means you should try on helmets before you buy them.

Buy the helmet that fits your head best. This means you should try on helmets before you buy them.
That doesn’t mean you can’t buy online, but I would implore you to try some on in your local bike shop. I’m sorry, it’s just how it is. The upside is that your local bike shop is a great place to get some good information on different helmet designs. Almost every bike shop worth its weight in spoke nipples will have at least 10 or so styles to look at; better ones will have 20, 30, or more.

I looked into the different types of helmets to see what was best for most riders. Most helmets designed for cycling fall into four categories: commuter, road, mountain, and skate-style/multisport helmets.

A commuter helmet is vaguely defined as a mid-priced helmet with a more subtle, less sporty design. The Giro Reverb on Jack’s head is a good example.

A commuter helmet is vaguely defined as a mid-priced helmet with a more subtle, less sporty design. The Giro Reverb on Jack’s head is a good example.

Commuter helmets tend to be the most utilitarian. Since this guide is aimed at commuters, I focused primarily on commuter-specific and low-end helmets for road cycling because they’re plenty comfortable and ventilated for getting around town, and they won’t hold you back on a recreational ride. Most commuter helmets tend to cost $20 to $60, with nicer ones clocking in at $100 or more. These helmets can come equipped with a visor to manage the rain and sun, come in a multitude of color combinations (including the newly in vogue “hi-viz yellow”), and sometimes have the ability to attach a blinky light on the rear.

A road helmet, like the Bell Array on my head here, will have great ventilation, be lightweight, and have a sleek appearance.

A road helmet, like the Bell Array on my head here, will have great ventilation, be lightweight, and have a sleek appearance.

Road helmets tend to be the lightest and best ventilated and consequently cost the most. You’ll find them on the heads of the Lycra-clad people who ride the Ferrari-like carbon fiber bikes you see sitting outside your favorite coffee shop on the weekend. These helmets are very well ventilated, aerodynamic, have great retention systems, and weigh less (typically less than 300 grams, which is about the weight of two apples) than any other style of helmet you will encounter. They also demand a premium price, with some models ringing up at nearly $300 (though more modest designs start at $50 or so). For most people, spending more for a significantly lighter helmet is not worth it. I’d wager that 99 percent of people wouldn’t notice the weight difference between a high-end road helmet and a commuter model while actually riding. To put it in perspective, the range of helmets I looked at, from heaviest to lightest, only differed in weight by about 200 grams, or 7 ounces. That means you end up paying a huge premium for a small weight savings.

Mountain biking helmets have the best back-of-head protection and retention systems.

Skate-style helmets also have great protection for the back of the head and may be the best option for someone who doesn’t want to look like a “bike dork,” though it’s not clear that being a skate dork is much better. Both also offer good protection, but they’re for more for specialized uses (or style purposes). 2

Bicycle-specific helmets can range in price from about $20 to over $300. The models priced in the $20 range tend to be marketed by house brands of big-box stores like K-Mart and Walmart. The ones at the expensive end of the spectrum fill the needs of niche markets: competitive road cyclists, triathletes, downhill mountain bikers. Models in the $40 to $100 range, on the other hand, offer many of the fit options and features of high-end helmets, and don’t sacrifice much in the way of looks or performance either (though they may be a bit heavier). These mid-priced helmets are versatile enough to satisfy most cyclists.

Buying a more expensive model doesn’t mean you get a “safer” helmet. That’s because all bicycle helmets sold in the US must pass the same set of certification tests established by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Since 1999, every helmet sold in the US must meet the CPSC’s standards, which mean those helmets must be tested for impact resistance according to the commission’s protocols. While the CPSC defines the testing protocols, the helmet manufacturers can choose their own labs for testing (the labs themselves are accredited by the CPSC). Before 1999, helmets were certified by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), which had pretty much the same testing processes as the newer CPSC-dictated ones that replaced it. That being said, if your current or prospective helmet only has a sticker that reads “ASTM F1447,” it’s too old and should be replaced with a newer one. And keep in mind that more expensive helmets tend to have more adjustable strap and head retention systems and better ventilation than their cheaper counterparts. The good news is you won’t lose out on safety even if you decide to stick within a lower price point.

The good news is you won’t lose out on safety even if you decide to stick within a lower price point.

As the CPSC says, bicycle helmets are designed to “protect[ ] against skull fractures and severe brain injuries when … used properly.” They do this by cracking or splitting upon impact—transferring all the force of your crash into splitting instead of into your brain. The hard plastic shell that covers the EPS foam is designed to help the helmet skid across the ground in the event of a crash, lowering the risk of neck injury. I would highly recommend purchasing a bicycle-specific helmet; these are tested to withstand crashes at speeds that may be faster and produce different impacts from those crashes involving a skateboard, scooter, or other recreational vehicle. Helmets optimized for other activities are designed to do different things upon impact so it’s generally a good idea to stick to a helmet designed—and certified—for the activity you’re going to use it for. Helmets sold for lower-speed activities aren’t in many cases even required to meet CPSC—or in some cases any—standard. But, if you choose to get a multisport helmet, make sure to get one that is both ASTM (skate, ASTM F1492 is the current skateboard and roller-skating helmet standard) and CPSC (bicycle) certified to ensure you’re protected in whatever activity you choose.

Here’s one example of a CPSC certification sticker on a Giro helmet

Here’s one example of a CPSC certification sticker on a Giro helmet.

Check for a sticker from the CPSC affixed to the inside (here’s a good video demonstrating why you want a certified helmet). Finding a counterfeit or uncertified helmet is still pretty rare, especially when purchasing from a trusted local shop, but with the proliferation of websites like Alibaba.com selling cheap knockoffs you can never be too careful, so always check to be sure.

Some helmets, like our pick in this picture, also have Snell certification, which is a stricter standard than the CPSC’s.

Some helmets, like our pick in this picture, also have Snell certification, which is a stricter standard than the CPSC’s.

There are other testing organizations that hold to a stricter standard than the CPSC’s, however, and the most rigorous third-party certification program among them is undertaken by the Snell Foundation (a list of Snell-certified helmets can be found here). Founded in 1957, the Snell Foundation—which also tests motorcycle helmets—assesses helmets independently of any manufacturer’s influence, which is awesome! Basically, if you can find one, a Snell-certified helmet is always a good idea.

The Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS), which was launched in 2008 by a Swedish company and designed to prevent concussions at lower speeds, is often offered as an upgrade. MIPS shows promise, but the jury is still out on whether purchasing a helmet with it is worth it to the everyday user. For now, if you can afford it and/or find it in a model you like, more power to you. If you can’t, don’t lose too much sleep over it.

The MIPS system puts an extra layer between your head and the helmet that supposedly reduces the chance of head injury resulting from torsional forces.

The MIPS system puts an extra layer between your head and the helmet that supposedly reduces the chance of head injury resulting from torsional forces.

One thing to look for is molded in the shell or “in-mold” construction, which means the foam is expanded within the plastic cover in a single process, bonding the layers permanently. Cheaper helmets have their covers glued on. While both designs use the same type of EPS foam as a base, the glued-on covers can detach over time when the glue loses its stickiness. If this happens, your helmet will not protect you properly and will be more susceptible to contamination, leading to quicker breakdown of the foam. If your helmet is dented, cracked, or falling apart, it will not protect you very well in the event of a crash. No one wants that, so if you notice that your glued-on shell is peeling off, it’s time for a new helmet.

A good fit is crucial to ensuring that you’re well-protected in a crash. Your helmet should be sized correctly for your head’s circumference and shape. Labels like “Universal Adult” can be misleading—often these helmets are equal to medium models from other manufacturers, so they may only fit average heads. Choosing between S/M/L/XL will get you a better, safer fit. Just trying on a helmet or two is the quickest way to find your size. (Sizing—and fit—does vary between manufacturers.) If you want to measure the circumference of your head, small is roughly 50 to 54 centimeters, medium is 54 to 60 cm, and above that is large or extra large.

Once you have found what size range you’ll be in, start thinking about how the helmet fits and secures itself to your head. Follow Bicycling.com’s article “Make That Helmet Fit” and repeat these three words when fitting your new skid lid on your head: low, level, snug. Your helmet should be situated in the middle of your forehead, a little bit above your eyebrows so it doesn’t get in the way of your vision. Make sure your adjustable retention system (if your helmet has one) is snug enough that if you do your best head-banging Slayer fan impression, it won’t budge more than a centimeter or so. Once you’ve done that, tighten your chin strap so it is snug but not choking you. Two fingers width between your chin and strap is typically the rule of thumb. Finally, adjust the strap yokes (if they’re adjustable) so that the straps go on either side of your ear and don’t lay on top of your ears.

All our finalists from Left to Right: Top Row: Bontrager Circuit, Specialized Women’s Propero, Specialized Duet, Giro Revel, Bell Segment, Schwinn Thrasher. Bottom Row: Bell Array, Giro Savant, Lazer O2, Specialized Echelon, Giro Sutton, Specialized Propero II, Giro Reverb.

All our finalists. Top row from left: Bontrager Circuit, Specialized Women’s Propero, Specialized Duet, Giro Revel, Bell Segment, Schwinn Thrasher. Bottom row from left: Bell Array, Giro Savant, Lazer O2, Specialized Echelon, Giro Sutton, Specialized Propero II, Giro Reverb.

Given that the CPSC handles tests, we looked for popular road/commuter models that received high ratings from customers and editorial. Most of the models that emerged as top contenders came from one of the three major helmet brands: Bell, Giro, and Specialized. Other models worth considering were made by Bern, Nutcase, Schwinn, Lazer, Uvex, Bontrager, and Fox. These smaller companies aren’t producing inherently inferior products, they’re just not as well distributed and represented in stores as the major players. This makes them harder to get, but I included a few of the more well-reviewed options. I ended up calling in 13 contenders from six brands ranging from $19 to $120: Specialized Duet, Bell Array, Giro Sutton, Bontrager Circuit, Schwinn Thrasher, Specialized Echelon, Giro Revel, Lazer O2, Bell Segment, Specialized Propero II and Women’s Propero, Giro Reverb, and Giro Savant.

How we tested

Based on the research above, I came up with five criteria for judging each helmet: retention system, overall fit, ventilation, features, and price. These five categories, I believe, give a good representation of how a helmet will perform for a variety of people in the most common cycling environments.

Helmet testing party!

Helmet testing party!

In order to test for these, I first rode with all of them myself to see how they felt. I then lent them out to friends and colleagues around Portland to get their opinions—each person got one to three helmets to use for a couple of weeks. Tester’s bike commutes ranged from around 1 mile up to 10 miles round trip in all sorts of weather (Portland had a weird May in 2015 with lots of rain, lots of sun, and temperature swings between 40°F and 80°F at times).

Afterwards, I took all of our finalists up to Mt. Tabor, one of the larger hills in Portland, where nine other testers and I took turns trying each helmet. We chose the hill because it provided a great worst-case scenario for testing breathability—with any hard effort, the poorly ventilated helmets got hot immediately—and cruising down really let us feel how well air flowed through the vents.

A tester zooming down Mt Tabor.

A tester zooming down Mt Tabor.

After evaluating how easy it was to get a good fit, each tester wore a helmet and rode up and down at least two times wearing each model. Most testers wore all models, but testers who arrived later tested only models that were already getting more praise than others. Testers were then asked to fill out a survey detailing their feelings about the five criteria. Each tester tried both men’s and women’s versions when possible. After a few hours, all the testers voted on their favorites and least favorites.

Our pick

Specialized Echelon
With a universally appealing fit and aesthetic, affordable price, and additional safety certification beyond what’s legally required, this helmet is a great buy for any commuter.

The Specialized Echelon is our pick for best commuter helmet because during testing it was the near-unanimous favorite. Out of 10 testers, eight put it in their top three out of 13 total helmets tested. And at $70, it costs about $20 less than the next best contenders. At that price, the Echelon’s combination of forgot-it’s-on-my-head comfort, easily adjustable retention system, and extra safety certification make the helmet an easy winner.

The Aspire is the women’s version and has a pass-through for a ponytail. Otherwise, it’s the same helmet.

The Aspire is the women’s version and has a pass-through for a ponytail. Otherwise, it’s the same helmet.

The Echelon was comfortable for almost every tester directly out of the box.
The Echelon was comfortable for almost every tester directly out of the box with no major adjustments needed. Every other helmet we tested for fit was polarizing, with some liking the Bell Array, Giro Reverb, and Lazer O2, and some absolutely hating them. This remained true even for the smaller and larger sizes, where a good fit is more difficult. Most testers were surprised at how well the helmet fit before fiddling or messing around with the straps or adjuster dial.

The Echelon’s rear view.

The Echelon’s rear view.

The Echelon’s great fit stems in large part from its simplicity. Most helmets let you adjust width, height, strap length, and the position of the junction of the straps at the base of your ears. Instead of having annoying plastic buckles that can dig uncomfortably into your jawbone, the Echelon features Specialized’s “Tri-Fix” straps, which are shaped to fit everyone out of the box with no fiddling.

Specialized’s “Tri-Fix” straps are shaped to fit everyone out of the box with no fiddling.
We were initially skeptical of this claim, but almost all of our testers found that they got a secure and comfortable fit around their ears without any adjustments. It’s the same system featured on the $110 Specialized Propero II (and on some of the company’s high-end helmets). The Giro Reverb also offers a self-adjusting strap system, and it seemed promising until many of the testers complained that the elastic head retention felt too constricting.

The “Tri-Fix” yoke straps are not adjustable, but they fit every tester and make it simpler to find a good fit.

The “Tri-Fix” yoke straps are not adjustable, but they fit every tester and make it simpler to find a good fit.

It was annoying to go back to helmets that had traditional adjustable strap yokes after trying the Echelon. For example, Scott, a 17-year veteran of the bike industry, said that the otherwise excellent Giro Savant was actually held back by its adjustable straps, which he was constantly fiddling with in an effort to get just right, all for naught because either the helmet would get too loose over time, or the adjustment buckles would dig into his jawbone, as our testers experienced with the Giro Savant, the Giro Revel, and the Bell Array. We feel that getting rid of the buckles entirely, as Specialized has, is a real advance—while it may not work for everyone, it proved remarkable in its ability to fit a wide range of people with very little fuss. The Propero II we tested also uses the system, but costs $40 more than the Echelon. No tester said they would pay the extra money for the Propero II if they were just riding around town.

As far as other adjustments go, the Echelon gives you the rest of the reliable and easy-to-use mechanisms found in the company’s higher-end Propero II at a budget-friendly price. Circumference is handled by a micro-adjustable dial that you turn until you get the perfect width. In the back, four occipital (as in the bump on the back of your head) height adjustments let you choose how much tilt you need to get the right fit. Although most riders don’t even bother to use this adjustment (but should!), it’s worth noting that most helmets less than $90 have only three heights to choose from, so it is nice that Specialized gives you a bit more range if you need it.

Most helmets less than $90 have only three heights to choose from, so it is nice that Specialized gives you a bit more range if you need it.
Testers remarked that all adjustments made to the fit stayed put during their test rides and the helmet remained in place on their heads even when jostled around. One tester with a narrower head shape remarked that it was the only helmet that didn’t slide backwards on his head when he tried to dislodge it.

The Echelon has 4 occipital (vertical) adjustment settings as opposed to the typical 3.

The Echelon has 4 occipital (vertical) adjustment settings as opposed to the typical 3.

With 30 vents, the Echelon is well ventilated for a commuter helmet, and our testers noted that it was significantly more breathable than helmets at all price points, from the cheap Schwinn Thrasher all the way up to the more expensive Bell Array and Giro Savant with MIPS. Specialized’s 4th Dimension Cooling System uses a large front vent running the width of the helmet, in combination with shaping and channeling of the internal foam, to shoot air over the top of the wearer’s head and provide highly effective cooling.

While it’s hard to claim that any helmet sold in the US is safer than another, the Echelon was one of two helmets we tested (the other being Specialized’s Propero II), that received extra B90-A safety certification from the nonprofit Snell Foundation in addition to the legally required CPSC certification.

The Echelon was one of two helmets we tested … that received extra B90-A safety certification from the nonprofit Snell Foundation.
As you might recall from earlier in this guide, Snell certification is opt-in and rare to find these days, but it’s more rigorous than the CPSC’s standards. In addition to testing and certifying helmets before hitting store shelves, Snell randomly buys helmets off the shelf (so long as they’re being sold) and re-tests them to ensure continued adherence to the standard. Think of it as an extra layer of quality control. No other (non-Specialized) helmet we tested could claim that. Of course, this costs money (having already hired a lab for CPSC testing, the manufacturer needs to pay for the Snell lab’s time, and then for each decal—it adds up, and isn’t insignificant in a mass-produced product), we don’t hold it against the other manufacturers for not submitting helmets for testing, but it is a nice bonus.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

Even with the remarkable flexibility of the Echelon’s simple fit system, it didn’t fit everyone. One tester found that neither Specialized model we tested would stay seated on his forehead, despite making use of all the adjustments possible. This seemed like the shape of Specialized helmets just didn’t agree with his head shape, and though he was the only tester out of 10 that felt this way, it’s a reminder that you should always try before you buy.

This brings up another potential downside to the Echelon: availability. Specialized prohibits online sales of its products to protect its relationships with independent bicycle dealers. However, you can order it directly through the company’s own site if you’re okay with buying it sight unseen, or you don’t live near a retailer. That said, I’d highly recommend going to a retailer to pick this up just to double-check that it’ll work for your head shape. Even if you have to drive, it’ll be worth it to have a helmet that fits properly and comfortably.

Ari has a narrower head and felt that the Echelon it looked a little wide on his noggin. It was still comfortable and snug though.

Ari has a narrower head and felt that the Echelon it looked a little wide on his noggin. It was still comfortable and snug though.

Some testers with narrower heads were not fans of the aesthetics of the Specialized helmets, claiming they appeared too wide on their heads. One tester even said that the helmet made it look like he was “wearing a mushroom.” Also, there’s no visor. If you’re interested in a model that mimics the Echelon in almost every specification but is visor-compatible, I’d recommend the Specialized Tactic ($75).

We have one final gripe about strap material. If Specialized would use the same lightweight and quick-drying webbing material from the Propero II on the Echelon, the Echelon would be nearly perfect. A few testers remarked at how smooth and lightweight the straps on the Propero II felt compared with the Echelon’s chunkier ones. But the Propero II needs some advantages to justify its $40 premium over the Echelon.

Runner-up (and best MIPS option)

Also Great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $81.

Giro Savant
This is a handsome helmet with a slim profile that looks and performs above its price, but an unwieldy strap yoke kept it from our top slot.

The runner-up was the Giro Savant ($110 with MIPS, $80 without). It has a noticeably slim and form-fitting profile on the head and could easily pass as a helmet that costs $100 more than it does. One tester even said it was the “sleekest of all” the helmets we looked at. A few testers said the padding in the helmet was great and “super comfortable.” Overall, if you want a slimmer-styled helmet, or if you want the option of the MIPS, the Savant is a great choice.

The Giro’s shape and style was universally praised.

The Giro’s shape and style was universally praised.

Despite its more attractive looks, the Savant did not fit as many people’s heads as the Echelon. While one tester said the rear Roc Loc 5 adjustment system was “the most sensitive and easily adjusted” he’s ever used, multiple testers said the straps dug into their faces when properly tightened.

Along with these fit issues, the MIPS seriously detracts from breathability—despite the helmet’s ample 25 air vents. We speculate that this is because it adds an extra layer of plastic between your head and the helmet that acts as insulation, kinda like a plastic bag covering your head. There have also been reports in the past of the MIPS squeaking when rubbing inside the helmet, but no tester experienced that with the Savant.

Urban commuter style

Also Great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $80.

Giro Sutton
A combination of surprisingly good ventilation, subtle styling, the ability to lock through the vent, and a rear light mount make this a great choice for urban riders.

The Giro Sutton has promise for bike commuters who like the aesthetic of a multisport helmet but want some modern upgrades, like the MIPS option (a $20 up-charge) or a reinforced lock loop (a nice touch for those in areas of high bike theft). The visor, while seemingly flimsy, did an astounding job of funneling air up through the helmet’s limited vents, unlike the similarly styled Bell Segment, whose lack of venting was painfully obvious when riding. An integrated light loop on the back of the helmet had us super excited until we discovered it had limited compatibility with different lights. The only light we discovered to be fully compatible without any modification was the Blackburn Flea.

The Sutton’s locking loop makes it virtually theft-proof.

The Sutton’s locking loop makes it virtually theft-proof.

The biggest downside to the helmet was its drawstring-style retention system; it felt seriously cheap given the helmet’s $80 price tag. It did, however, do better than the Giro Reverb, whose elastic retention system gave testers a headache and felt constricting at the temples. Overall, the Sutton is a good option for those commuters looking for a stylish helmet with some nifty features.

Step down

Also Great
Schwinn Thrasher
This helmet costs less than dinner at a sit-down restaurant, yet was still comfortable for most testers. It’s nothing special, but it is very cheap and offers enough protection.

The sub-$20 Schwinn Thrasher was the least expensive helmet we reviewed and is widely available at many big-box stores. While most testers were very skeptical of the helmet, many were pleasantly surprised at the helmet’s comfort out of the box. The step down in quality, adjustment, and aesthetics was evident compared with some of the nicer models, but the Thrasher is a great option for someone who wants to spend very little just to get a safe helmet on his or her head. It’s not that heavy compared with more expensive helmets, and its 20 vents provide adequate breathability when going up hills. In other words, it’s perfectly serviceable, despite its low price. In fact, most of the testers struggled to pick a favorite when asked to choose between it and other slightly more expensive helmets like the $40 Giro Revel. A couple of testers complained that the retention system’s adjustment dial dug into the backs of their heads when properly tightened, but most had no complaints.

As far as downsides go, its looks are the most obvious issue. There’s no getting around the fact that it looks and feels like a $20 helmet. On a similar note, its universal sizing means that it could look comically large or small on people who have smaller or larger than average heads. It also has a glued-on shell as opposed to a molded one—which isn’t as durable over time. However, you can do a lot worse for $20—or even $40.

The competition

We looked at tons of different helmets before we narrowed our list down to the 13 we actually tested. The good news here is that every helmet we reviewed, whether we liked it or not, is a good option safety-wise, so if you like some of these other models don’t fret! They’re great and will keep your head protected.

The $110 Specialized Propero II is the more expensive older brother of the Echelon. It has the same great looks and adjustments of the Echelon with a slightly heftier price tag due to its lighter overall weight and thinner, more comfortable DryLite straps that won’t stretch over time. It was universally well regarded by road cyclists and sites like Bikeradar and Roadbikereview. We can’t say it’s worth the extra money over the Echelon, but if you’re someone who values the road racer styling, is concerned about weight, and doesn’t mind shelling out $40 more, the Propero II is a good choice.

The Bontrager Circuit was promising, receiving a decent 3.5/5 on BikeRadar and earning second place overall in Consumer Reports’s rankings, but for $100 it should fit better than it does and have a longer chin strap. The non-adjustable strap yoke was nice and laid flat against the head but more than one tester complained that the chin strap wasn’t long enough to give them breathing room.

The $40 Giro Revel got shining marks from most users on Amazon, REI, and Singletracks. It comes equipped with a removable visor and (for those who could make it work) the decent fit that Giro is known for. Its downside is its “Universal Adult” sizing, which proved to be anything but. Multiple testers complained that they couldn’t get a comfortable fit even no matter how much time they spent with the adjustments.

The Specialized Duet was one of two women-specific helmets we tested. It seemed like a good buy at $50. The Duet has some of the sporty looks Specialized helmets are known for, but this universal women’s fit size helmet was too small even for one female tester with a tiny head. We couldn’t imagine this helmet would be a good fit for anyone, regardless of gender, who would ordinarily take a medium or larger size. On top of that, the ponytail-compatible “Hairport SX” seemed like a good idea on paper but turned out to be a bit gimmicky. Our tester with a ponytail said she could make a helmet work with or without this design, so I’d say it’s a bit of a stretch to claim you need this feature if you have longer hair.

The Bell Segment, with its intriguing segmented EPS foam interior, came well regarded from Amazon and TransWorld BMX. On top of that it comes in a ton of colors and was the only multisport helmet that made it to our testing phase. Like many skate helmets, it has no adjustment mechanism; you manipulate the fit by swapping between the included thicker or thinner foam pads. Unfortunately, it breathes poorly, making it an option for very short trips or climates where the weather is cool but not a helmet you’ll want to don in hot weather.

The Bell Array came well regarded from Competitivecyclist.com and Road.cc but performed poorly in testing due to uncomfortable foam sculpting and pad positioning (this was also mentioned by Outdoor Gear Lab). Many of our riders found the foam structure of the helmet poked their heads and complained about the super thick chin and yoke straps. The Array could be a much better helmet with a bit of a redesign.

The Giro Savant received good marks from BikeRadar and Outdoor Gear Lab and had decent venting and a very sporty look. Despite its promise coming into testing, it was weighed down by clumsy straps that don’t belong on a helmet of this caliber and price. You can get this helmet with MIPS (for a $20 upcharge), which will be a welcome upgrade for those interested in the system, but that’s only true if you can get the helmet’s shape and fit to work for you.

The Lazer O2 was one of our wild cards; while there were fewer reviews than we found for the market leaders, they were positive and came from bicycle blogs like twentynineinches.com and cxmagazine.com. It looks undeniably fast and comes with a unique retention system called “Rollsys” that tightens with a roller on the top of the helmet rather than a dial on the back. Some users couldn’t get over how much the helmet rocked laterally on their heads. On top of that, the helmet’s occipital retention system placed the Lazer down very low on many testers’ heads, even at its highest setting, making proper fit difficult. Another tester complained the Rollsys made it too easy to overtighten the helmet. The O2 only comes in three sizes (S, M/L, and XL) rather than the four sizes (S/M/L/XL) offered in the company’s more expensive models, which may explain these issues, but doesn’t make up for the lateral motion.

The Giro Reverb is well regarded by its owners, many of whom have posted on Competivecyclist, Amazon, and REI’s website. It has an awesome retro look but lacked some of the fit refinements many testers were looking for. The included velcro-attached visor was a nice touch but the elastic head retention put too much pressure on some people’s heads, leading some of our testers to say that they thought they’d get headaches from prolonged usage.

While the Scott Arx Plus earned the top score in tests by Consumer Reports tests, at $150 it costs way too much to justify for most commuters.

Footnotes:

1. Editor’s note: Helmets work, but people like to debate their necessity. There are numerous studies, including meta analyses. Here’s a re-analysis of that last meta analysis, and a challenge to that re-analysis. A small University of Bath study that claims cars get closer to people wearing helmets often gets quoted by helmet detractors, but it, too, has been re-analyzed and challenged. There are questions about how well helmets prevent brain injury, so we’ll be keeping an eye on Virginia Tech’s work rating bicycle helmets for concussion prevention over the next few years, but those questions don’t negate the need for helmets. Another argument is that helmet laws don’t prevent head injuries and may change cyclist behavior. But even this case against helmet laws says it’s inarguable that in the event of an accident, it’s better to have a helmet on your head. Jump back.

2. Mountain biking helmets tend to have the most coverage and consequently, are the most bulky, with a much more extended rear section to help prevent injuries to the back of the head. The Multiple Impact Protection System (MIPS) technology is also most often found in this style of helmets (though it’s still pretty sparsely represented). Most MTB helmets have a visor attached to the front, and some have a clip on the rear to hold goggle straps in place for downhill racing. Along with that, many MTB helmets have very secure retention systems to compensate for the jostling of a mountain bike trail’s rigorous terrain.

If you can’t stand the look of any typical bicycle helmet, a skate-style helmet might be the right choice. A skate style helmet was probably the first helmet you ever got as a kid. Made famous by brands like Pro-Tec, these helmets typically have very little ventilation but lots of coverage. Their pads are usually very squishy and detach easily for laundering. They are readily available at almost every sporting goods store and typically are rated for multiple sports like cycling, scootering, and inline skating. As a category, these helmets are the least expensive: typically retailing from $20 to $60, and can be found at most bike shops as well as places like Walmart, Toys-R-Us, etc. Skate-style helmets certified for bicycle use usually have an EPS core with a glued-on plastic shell, but some models use a softer foam interior (made of EPP or butyl nitrate foam) with a hard plastic outer layer: avoid these; most are meant for multiple low-impact hits. When in doubt, look for the CPSC sticker! Jump back.

Specialized Echelon

Best Bike Helmet for Commuters

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Originally published: June 21, 2015

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