The helmet is an essential piece of equipment for everything from cycling to stock car racing. Its first function: protect the wearer from impact-related head injury. Over the last few decades, the technology behind that mission hasn’t changed much. The basic material is a foam polymer liner made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), which is light, easy to work with, and absorbs impacts omnidirectionally. At the same time, helmet design has shifted drastically based on sport-specific secondary and tertiary needs such as aerodynamics and venting. In cycling, a case study for these changes is the Giro Air Attack helmet, launched with pros in 2012 and released to the public in March 2013.
The Air Attack is the first aero road helmet, which means that it combines the wearability and venting of a road helmet (e.g., Aeon, ) with the drag reduction of an aero helmet (e.g., Selector) worn by triathletes and time trialists. It’s a helmet for pros and enthusiasts alike -- and at $200, it’s not cost prohibitive for an average rider.
To look at the Air Attack is to see a logical extension of what’s been happening in bike design for years: more aerodynamic frames, wheels and clothing. For Rob Wesson, Director of Helmet Product Creation at Giro, this was the first priority. Giro went to the wind tunnel with a few dozen helmet shapes to see how they performed. Once shape was determined, the next step was to make it vent as well as a road helmet -- because at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, in scorching heat on a bike course through lava fields, nobody wants to slow-cook their vital organs. They accomplished this by experimenting with vent position and by changing the interior of the helmet.
"If we just did venting, if it were just a matter of putting holes in the helmet, we wouldn’t have achieved our goal", Wesson said. The minimalist-looking vent system works because of the Roc Loc Air fit system, which backs the forehead away from the foam in the front to let air flow over the forehead and out the back. According to Wesson, after a half hour of riding the Air Attack, your head will only be 1 degree hotter than the highly-vented Aeon.
Then there are the details that matter to the elite: the impact of drag reduction on performance. In a 250km Olympic road race, the Air Attack saved two minutes against the Aeon. That may not sound like much, but in the the men’s road race in the 2012 Olympics, the difference between 1st place and 100th place was less than a minute.
For the average rider, the helmet's benefits are what you might call trickle-down aerodynamics. Aero is aero, so there will be some savings for an age-grouper in a half-Ironman looking for a personal best, particularly because the shape of the Air Attack doesn’t require the rider to be in a perfect tuck the entire time, as he would have to be to reap the benefits of a traditional long-tail aero helmet. But those savings aren’t as significant as cutting down on time in T1 and T2 or stopping fewer times to pee -- or just training harder. On the other hand, even a couple seconds in a sprint against your riding buddy counts if the loser is buying beers.
The beauty of the Air Attack is that it’s a great all-around helmet, one that’s paved the way for competitors like the Specialized Evade and the Kask Infinity. The Air Attack is an ironic choice for innovation because the helmet actually occupies a middle ground between two existing options. It’s a compromise, but a handy one: all parties agree to go faster.
Note: Also available as the Air Attack Shield, which furnishes the rider with a lens that attaches via magnet ports with very little sacrifice in aero advantage, for an extra $40.
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