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Pro Cycling and Helmets

With the tragic death of Belgian professional cyclist Wouter Weylandt (Left.) in this year’s Giro d’Italia.

Then just last week Columbian rider Juan Maurcio Soler was left with serious head injuries after a crash in the Tour of Switzerland.

I am wondering just how much protection does a cycling helmet really give?

The helmet rule for professional cyclists was brought by the UCI in 2003 following the death of Andrei Kivlev during the Paris-Nice race.

Since then deaths of professional cyclists while racing have doubled, so where is the protection that helmets are supposed to give a rider?

According to these figures, in the decade that was the 1950s, 8 pro riders were killed while racing. In the ten years that followed, the 1960s, 4 lost their lives; another 4 during the 1970s, and 5 in the 1980s. 3 died in pro races in the 1990s.

However, in the first decade of the New Millennium, the 2000s, 10 professional cyclists died during completion. Two have died already in this decade when we are only half way through the second year. What happened? Helmets were made mandatory in 2003 to protect riders.

Two of the riders, Brett Malin (2003) and Bob Breedlove (2005) died while riding in the Race Across America (RAAM) and were struck by motor vehicles, not by a fall usually associated with racing. But eliminating these two from the list still leaves 8, double the number that died each decade in the preceding 40 years.  

I never really considered Professional Cycle Racing to be a particularly dangerous sport, but close to one death a year is not acceptable. Isn’t it about time the UCI and the professional cyclists themselves started to look into the effectiveness of helmets?

The UCI is quick to enact regulation for every other aspect of the sport, why not do something really useful and set some safety standards for bicycle helmets that would benefit us all.

It seems to me that there is too much emphasis on the part of manufacturers in designing something that looks cool rather than do what it is supposed to do, and that is protect a rider in the event he or she should hit their head.

I see two main problems; the outer shell is weak so it splits open on impact, and the polystyrene foam is too dense, it doesn’t absorb the impact. After all it is the helmet that is supposed to get crushed in a crash, not the rider’s skull.

Maybe this is part way to finding the answer.  



Reader Comments (35)


I can't find the article, but you'd be amazed (or maybe not, you've been around bikes so long it's probably old news) how little "testing" is required to have bike helmets certified. If memory serves, they drop the helmet from a height of about 10 feet (I can't remember if the helmet is weighted) and check that structural damage is within a certain tolerance... it's really quite laughable... especially considering some people believe it will actually save a significant amout of lives in case of automobile-driver / bicyclist accidents. Yeah, there are some anecdotal instances, but in the long run, statisically it doesn't do a whole lot.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjdmitch

Good issue. Owing to statistics and probabilities, I wonder whether it's worthwhile to consider in addition to helmet design and efficacy:
(1) Number of participants
Are there simply more riders, resulting in the same rate of incidence?
(2) Higher speeds
Are average speeds faster over time, resulting in more high-speed crashes?
(3) Course risks
Recently, pro riders cite danger course selection by organizers. Are the courses themselves causing more high-speed crashes?

Of course, I don't have answers, but issues like this often do not have one root cause.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian (Seattle)

It would also be nice to know the number of serious head injuries that were avoided that didn't result in death. I know that over the course of my racing career, I have broken 3 helmets that all would have resulted in significant head injuries if not for the helmet.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertzilinski

I've broken two in heavy crashes that put me in hospital, the last of which involved a minute of unconsciousness. That's isn't nearly proof that a helmet saved my life and livelihood, but it's doubtful that anyone could claim that a helmet is what put them in jeopardy.

A broken helmet has done its job. It can't be so soft as to be unprotective or ridiculously large, or so strong that you're just as well slamming right onto the ground.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChamps

By researching other variables the answer may not necessarily be just about helmet design as the reason for the deaths. Have the numbers and other things simply increased over time, such as number of riders, number of races, average speed, riskier riding, more difficult and longer stages, more types of terrain involved, etc. ??

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjeff simmons

A helmet isn't a magic shield. They don't come with a guarantee of protection from head injuries, and you should expect one. The absolute best you can hope for is a reduction of the risk of head injury. You can, and will, suffer a head injury under the right circumstances, just like you can still die in a car crash even if you were wearing a seatbelt and have all the airbags in the world.

Something else you might be overlooking is the sheer number of professional cyclists and competition events now compared with the 50's - 80's and maybe even 90's Dave. Rather than saying 8 pro's were killed while racing in the 50's, you need to know what that is as a percentage of the total number of pro's to get a useful comparison. Technically you should also throw in the number of races and total distance covered but you'd be wanting a statistician for that I think!

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlemmiwinks

Helmet testing is a drop test. Fixed weight and distance. What it doesn't tell you is concussive response of a helmet. The best shapes are round with slightly softer foam. This reduces decelleration forces which can reduce concussion. The more ventilation holes the harder the foam needs to be. Which can raise the risk of concussion. Depending on age and previous events. The aero shapes may increase neck strain when you hit the ground also.
I've snapped off two pedals resulting in having the back of my helmet hit the ground hard enough to damage the helmet and leave me with no other injury excet loss of memory of the event. Oh a lttle road rash also. Your mileage may vary.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

Helmets are like body armor for the military or police. Don't bet your life on them. Sometimes you get a sense of false invincibility or protection.

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarge

In response to the criticisms of helmet testing protocol:

According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI), helmets are subjected to G-force impact testing. It is a bit more advanced than just smashing a helmet and looking at it.


SNELL stickers are a good sign of a safe helmet. SNELL not only tests helmets to a very high standard, but they go to retail outlets and retest helmets from stores, to keep the manufacturer honest.


I recommend researching the testing standards for a bicycle helmet model before purchasing a helmet. According to the BHSI website, using the ASTM standard is common among manufacturers due to the low cost and ability to self-certify. Even still, helmet testing requires G-force testing in order to pass.

Another interesting fact is that ATSM uses the same test standards for adult and child helmets. SNELL has a different test protocol for helmets designed for children under 4. Children have softer heads, less mass, and usually travel at lower speeds.

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBo

Helmets or CRASH HATS as Dave and I called them in our days of racing! What bloody difference does it make how safe they are? WIN.WIN at any costs, Helmets, DRUGS what ever puts you on the podium and makes the sponsors LOTS of $$$ How about making all the bikes limited to a 16 tooth small cog to cut down the speeds! Like tace cars have limited horse power! These chaps KNOW the dangers they face. Do you think they EVER think abut how safe the helmets are! Same with rec riders, How many times on a ride do you SLOW down because you MAY have a crash and dent your noggin! Next they will bring out suits of armour to wear next? Its you thats riding the bike THINK ABOUT IT next time

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjohn crump

Actually, I frequently scrub speed on downhills as a safety precaution, though I doubt there would be much difference between a header at say 48mph than at 35 or 40. I've also found that my eyes begin to water unremittingly at speeds approaching 50mph.

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskylab

Its not just helmet use for racing that should be questioned; helmets used for recreational rides should be questioned. Comparing head injuries and fatalities with helmet use shows, depending on the time frame compared, either that as helmet use increased fatalities increased or that there was no impact.

My own experience is that using a helmet would have caused an injury where no injury did occur. Because helmets are bigger than your head, you no longer have the same protection that your shoulders and back provide in slow speed crashes. I guessing that most crashes, even at the pro level, occur at less than 20 mph. I was not wearing a helmet. I went over my handlebars, did a tuck and roll and came up on my feet. No injury except for muscle soreness the next day. If I had been wearing a helmet, the front or top of the helmet would have hit the ground causing neck injuries or a concussion.

In over 40 years of skiing, I had never hit my head in a fall. This past winter, I bought my first helmet and within a day fell and hit my head. The problem was the helmet, being larger and heavier than my head, caused my head to snap back and the back of my helmet, and my head, hit the now hard. Without the helmet, my head would not have snapped back. I can find no statistical evidence that helmet use has reduced injuries while skiing.

I also ride and race motorcycles. There I use a full face helmet and leathers.
In high speed crashes, there is no doubt safety equipment save lives. In slow speed crashes, such as bicycles and skiing, the evidence is lacking.

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTexasYankee

I generally consider my helmet to be of minimal use - and have considered moving to a different helmet - particularly looking at the ones the skaterboys wear. Outside of moving up to a hockey helmet, are there any helmets that are better, safer. Is there a consumer reports report on the safest most effective helmets? When I bought one recently, all I found was "m'eh there are all about the same."

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFred

I've broken 3 helmets bicycling, one on a bike/ped path. and two while mountain biking. Each crash involved a single person (me) and each was at relatively low speed. In those three cases, I believe the helmet saved me from severe head injury as I walked away, conscious, from each one though the helmet was severely dented and fractured. This is, of course, anecdotal, and has no value for evaluating the efficacy of bicycle helmets in all types of crashes.
I also ride a motorcycle and dress for the crash: Aerostitch hi-viz riding suit, full face helmet, gloves, boots. I also moderate my speed on a bicycle while going downhill since I am never dressed for a ground-sky-ground-sky event on a bicycle. I don't want to hit the ground at any speed, and even my moderated top speed of 35 mph is much faster than reasonable for someone wearing shorts and a light shirt.
I don't think bicycle helmets provide any guarantees and I get a bit pissed when every newspaper article mentions whether a bicyclist was wearing a helmet when run down by some errant, inattentive motorist. Usually the injuries from that sort of collision are so severe that a helmet would do little to increase survivability.
Still, I choose to wear one on EVERY ride. They don't bother me and, for the most part, can't hurt.

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

I see several common themes in the helmet "debate".

The first is "I've broken XX number of helmets and I'm sure they saved my life." Well, maybe. My first thought when confronted with such reasoning is "Why are we taking safety advice from someone who can't stop falling off his bicycle and hitting his head?" I mean, those of us who rode and raced "back in the day" managed to survive without helmets, and saw very few serious head injuries and deaths. Beyond that, though, it seems like almost every modern cyclist has a story about how his helmet saved his life. Considering how few deaths there were prior to helmets, the numbers just don't add up. People today are either overestimating the safety provided by helmets, underestimating their own abilities to survive a fall, or simply landing on their heads a lot more than we used to.

Another common theme is that "Racing is so much faster now, and courses are longer/tougher than they used to be." Well, look it up. Average speeds have been rising by about the same amount right from the start. Modern bicycles/training methods/drugs have merely continued the trend, and average speeds today are something like one MPH faster than they were in the period right before helmets. At the same time, road conditions have gotten generally better (when was the last time you saw pro road racers descending on dirt or gravel?), courses have gotten generally shorter, and race organizers cancel races if the weather gets too bad, so we don't see "epic" days like the Hampsten/Gavia/Giro deal any more.

Finally, there is the belief that breakage is evidence of a helmet having done its job. This isn't necessarily the case. Bicycle helmets are designed to absorb energy through compression. If you look at your helmet and see a big flattened area, it absorbed energy as it was supposed to. Same goes for a flattened and cracked/broken helmet. But I've seen a number of helmets that simply cracked without any significant crushing, (I'm a retired paramedic), which signifies failure and little energy absorption. Invariably, owners of such examples believe that the failed helmet saved their lives - as do owners of any helmet that has touched the ground, in my experience...

June 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNoel


At any rate, it seems to me that cyclists overall are simply crashing a lot more than they used to. From the local club rides to the Tour de France, I'm often surprised by the amount of falling - and the degree of "Ho-Hum" with which the phenomenon is met. I NEVER used to hear things like "If you don't crash every XX hours you're not going hard enough" from road riders of the 80s and prior. Now falling off and hurting yourself is just considered par for the course, even by purely recreational riders.

I've heard a couple of explanations that make some sense to me. The first is that helmets make people feel safe, so they take additional risks. (The "risk compensation" theory is gaining in popularity in "mainstream" sports like hockey and football).

Another, promoted by "Dog in a Hat" author Joe Parkin, is that the Eastern Bloc countries produced exceptionally strong bike racers with poor bike handling skills and lousy pack manners. As those riders became more common, crashes increased, and fewer professional emphasized bike handling as a skill. This, in turn, was taken as "normal" by recreational riders and racers.

My own pet theory is that the "Lance Boom" simply attracted more new riders than the "old guard" could effectively train. So now we have the blind leading the blind, with frequent crashing reinforced by what is shown in pro racing, and the helmet manufacturers on the sidelines promoting the idea that riding a bicycle is an act of daredevilry made safe by their products.

June 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNoel

Noel, why ARE you taking advice from people who keep crashing, particularly when no advice was offered? I read that several people described their experiences but made no suggestions. or offered any advice, about how others should behave.

Also, in the good old days before helmets when there were "very few serious head injuries and deaths", I'd sure like to see a reference to some source backing that up. Unlike those of us opining that a helmet prevented injury in our individual cases, you are making an assertion that requires backing up. Your comment reminds me of other things I've read on the internet that look back to those wonderful days before seat belts, safety glass, life jackets, when life was simple and no one got seriously hurt. Could it be that we simply don't know what the head injury and death rate for bicyclists was for many years.

I rode for years without wearing a helmet and never crashed. In 45 years of riding, I've had, as I said, 3 helmet cracking crashes, two off-road on mountain bikes, all at low speed. Perhaps that makes me "...someone who can't stop falling off his bicycle and hitting his head?" I don't know if my helmet prevented serious head injury. I am not williing to recreate the crashes without a helmet to see what would happen. Perhaps I underrate the strength of my skull. But, in two cases, the subjective experience was that the impact was significant, and I was surprised and pleased to find myself conscious and unhurt. I draw no conclusions from this and offer no advice. I simply ride with a helmet.

June 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

I don't know if this is relevant or not, but I have heard a theory that if cars had a large sharp spike in the center of the steering wheel and no seat belts, people would drive with a lot more care.

June 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

Sorry, Kurt. I didn't mean to imply that I was responding to you or anyone else in particular. Just general observations.

June 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNoel

The following gives some idea why the results are not as expected.

The Case against bicycle helmets and legislation, VeloCity cycling conference, Munich 2007. A detailed report presented at the world’s leading cycling conference providing details showing how helmet use and legislation has reduced both health and safety in general terms. http://www.nationaler-radverkehrsplan.de/eu-bund-laender/eu/velocity/schedule.phtml

Assessment of Australia's Bicycle Helmet Laws, refer 'Mandatory' can have unanticipated consequences – Civil Liberties Australia web site, 25 Nov. 2008. Providing details of the effects of the legal requirement to wear cycle helmets. http://www.cla.asn.au/Article/081125BikesHelmetPolicy.pdf

Evaluating bicycle helmet use and legislation in Canada, 2009. http://www.cycle-helmets.com/canada-hel ... ssment.doc This paper evaluates helmet law effects on children for provinces with helmet legislation and compares to provinces without legislation for the period 1994 to 1998. It shows a relative net benefit for those without legislation.

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterColin Clarke

Helmet rules, helmet laws just let politicians off the hook. Race promoters need to be held accountable by professional riders when the routes are unsafe. That would do more to improve the safety of racers than any other possibility. Unless and until helmet manufacturers can provide measurable, quantifiable figures for how much force/energy their products actually absorb/disperse in a typical collision, riders should not be required to wear these things. What's next? Every rider must carry a lucky rabbit's foot or wear a cornicelli?

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGL

1. The "Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute" is just some guy with no medial or engineering qualifcations who gets money from some mystery source to run a website saying helmets are wonderful

2. To all the "My helmet broke, my life was saved!" people - no. If you use a piece of safety equipment, then at least learn how it works! A broken helment - ie one with a cracked shell - did NOT work! Shells break at very low energies, after which liner compression doesn't occur, so there is no benefit from the helmet. A helmet that worked looks intact rather than broken but has a compressed liner (something you rarely see.)

September 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjonathan coupe

Helmets protect mostly from the vertical impact of falling. Of course they help in faster accidents, but as speeds increase, the survivability of accidents decreases.

Is it possible that modern racers go faster?

September 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP


I am not sure that professional cyclists should be forced to wear helmets.

In 1998 the ECF ( European Cycling Federation ) stated "the evidence from Australia and New Zealand suggests that the wearing of helmets might even make cycling more dangerous", indicating safety was actually reduced.
Ref. European Cycling Federation; Improving bicycle safety without making helmet use compulsory; Brussels, Belgium. 1998.

In 2012 for New Zealand it was reported;
‘This evaluation finds the helmet law has failed in aspects of promoting cycling, safety, health, accident compensation, environmental issues and
civil liberties.’
Ref. Clarke, CF, Evaluation of New Zealand’s bicycle law, NZMJ 10 February 2012, Vol 125 No 1349 http://www.cycle-helmets.com/nz-clarke-2012.pdf

For Canada a BMJ editorial in 2013 by Goldacre and Spiegelhalter reported, “Canadian legislation had minimal effect on serious head injuries”.
Ref. Bicycle helmets and the law, BMJ 2013;346:f3817 http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.f3817

For Australia it was reported;
“The helmet laws have not delivered a net societal health benefit, with a calculated cost benefit ratio of 109 to 1 against.”
Ref. Evaluation of Australia's bicycle helmet laws, The Sports Science Summit, O2 venue London UK http://www.cycle-helmets.com/au-assessment-2015.pdf Presented 14 January 2015.

May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterColin Clarke

I'm all for personal choice, and personally, I usually choose to wear a helmet.

We should be careful of both the origin of studies and what they actually show. The Australian studies, for example, purport to show that cycling activity decreased when helmet laws were instituted. This drop in cycling activity was thought to then result in lower activity in general, and henceforth negative health impacts for the population overall.

I submit there is a difference between dying three months earlier (than you would have) because you chose to sit on the couch and watch TV while eating tacos and possibly dying 30 years early because you came off your bike and hit your head on the curb.

But I support your right to choose.


May 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP

Thanx for the info!
I recommend purchasing the foldable helmet Fuga by http://www.closca.co

July 19, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Cleen

One problem with recommending a particular type of helmet or any type of cycle helmet is that the issue of rotational acceleration on impact has not been tested for in most makes of cheaper helmets, so it is generally questionable if one helmet is better than others at reducing the risk of rotational acceleration, that is associated with brain injury. Helmets are larger than the bare head and have the higher risk of making contact in a fall. Some costly designs may help reduce rotational accelerations but may have limited capacity. In some tests for rotational acceleration the results varied considerably, depending on the location of impact and other factors.

Another point to consider is that when cyclists hit potholes they can incur up to 10 g forces. If the pothole has not been seen previously.the time to cover a hole, say 300 mm wide may be about 0.06 seconds, shorter than the reaction time, perhaps 0.1 seconds. In effect the forces from the helmet can be 10 times its normal weight and in possibly a downward or side wards direction. These will be extra forces to counter in trying to maintain balance.

Apart from riders thinking they are better protection that may lead to higher risk taking, there are also issues that can contribute to increasing the accident rate.
So there are a mix of problems, safety issues, testing issues, discouraging cycling issues, bike share issues, costs and focusing on helmets or head injury instead of accident avoidance.

Cyclists have died from falls without motor vehicle involvement, some helmeted and others not helmeted, but they are relatively few in number, pedestrians also die due to simple falls and are much higher in number.

July 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterColin Clarke

Cycling Helmets are an ideal solution to keep you safe & secure while riding the bicycle. The main purpose behind crafting cycling helmets is to endure the hardest impact.

August 4, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercycling helmets


Australian Senate Inquiry in their nanny state issues.

Worth a read to appreciate a range of views. Avoiding accidents and not hitting your head if you do fall off, is more ideal.

August 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterColin Clarke

But now you can find the protective helmet on the market. Companies like Kask Mojito, Lazer Helium are now creating most innovative helmets. Even women helmet is now being made in the structured wat.
By the Way, thanks for the post

June 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSophie Elise

Two pieces of data which need to be added to keep this up to date.
Firstly, a 2011 survey by the Australian Heart Foundation & the Cycling Promotion Fund which suggests that MHLs are responsible for a million less transport cycle trips each month in Australia. That's the final nail in the coffin for the old saw that "MHLs don't affect participation rates".

Secondly, Theo Zeegers appropriately named Overestimation of the effectiveness of the bicycle helmets kicks the stool out from under all the all-cyclists-are-the-same existing research.

If you can't be bothered reading the paper, there's a good summary by the European Cyclists' Federation

In essence those who might benefit from helmets mostly use them anyway. And those who don't simply stop riding when MHLs are introduced.

Given the postitives associated with bike riding, MHLs make no sense from a public policy perspective.

Back to the professional peleton, your other correspondents have raised a number of possible factors beyond risk compensation: increased professionalism; cultural changes; riskier courses & overall participation rates. All of which are potentially mutually confounding.

I.E. There's a PhD in there for some ambitious student.

July 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Seville

An obviously contentious subject. If I assume "MHL" is a TLA for "helmet" then my quick read of the 2011 study seems to indicate that "a common theme for not cycling is due to road and safety issues." And it was a survey, not a measurement.

I have little doubt that proponents of cycle helmets overstate their value and that opponents understate their value. No news there. It is undoubtedly the same for seatbelts, airbags and all those other unnecessary safety features that Grandpa never needed.

I'm not a fan of helmet laws - not even for children. I agree the risk is overblown. But there is an odd cynicism in some of the arguments. One popular one goes "Helmets reduce cycling participation, which would have improved population health and extended lifespan by X. Therefore helmets killed X people." (I condense for space.)

While that is true to a statistician, it is another Statistical Dead Duck. You know - first shot 50 metres in front of the duck. Second shot 50 metres behind. On average, the duck is dead.

As I mentioned above, suggesting that the potentially shortened life of a person who decides to sit home on the couch eating Twinkies and watching TV (who, when surveyed replies "I'd cycle but the helmet law put me off") is somehow equivalent to a cyclist injured or killed when their head hits a curb? Breathtakingly cynical. But, it's your head.

July 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteveP

SteveP wrote;
"An obviously contentious subject."

Lets think about this. The number of cyclists is not that difficult to estimate, 64 surveys site in Melbourne pre and post law. The site locations were known from the pre law reports. The major criticism of the law was it had discouraged cycling. A cycle rally was organised for almost mid winter and included passing through one survey site. There were considerable vested interests in trying to show the law in the best possible light. Some of the survey reports were not made public – Melbourne University survey, Vic Road regional surveys. Surveys of rural Victoria were not followed up. It seems that the Government and procedures were arranged to cover up the full information on the discouraging effects.

The science of evaluating the effects of helmet legislation was corrupted by not providing accurate details of the changing in cycling levels. The Government did not want to admit that their legislation had discouraged by 30% to 40%. If you look up Victoria Parliamentary questions from 1991 to 1995 very few questions were asked about the effects the law had on cycling levels. MLAs were lacking in their duty of care to press for details.

Four years later NZ also introduced helmet legislation. Australia and New Zealand both site on a joint road safety committee, they work hand in glove. In NZ case they provided regular survey information. Part of the reasons for it being "An obviously contentious subject." is to do with corruption, that stems from Victoria. After 25 years they have no intention of exposing or addressing the issue. They simple say helmets save life and injuries, acceptable to most people and media The cycling groups have also proved they are not really up to investigating the issues involved. More information can be obtained from;

July 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterColin Clarke

I Think Pro rider choose too little helmet for the side of their head. I think is because they look good inside a little helmet. Little helmet give not good enough protection for forehead exemple.

June 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPatrice

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