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km : Equipped

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5 January 2011

So you finally took the plunge and got yourself a shiny new motorcycle. If you’re like us at kilometer, “shiny and new” probably means a second-hand bike with a patina that can only be had with plenty of use. Still, just because your bike has some miles on it (or even if it is truly brand-spankin’-new), that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider a fresh helmet to go with your newest conquest. After all, a well-fitted, DOT-approved helmet is probably the single most important piece of safety equipment a rider will buy.



For a little professional advice on picking the right piece, we went to Chris Favro, who knows a thing or two about protecting your skull as regional sales director for AGV Helmets. According to him, there are three major factors that determine how well protected you’ll be: price, shape and size. Here’s the breakdown on choosing a skid lid.



First, know your minimum budget.



Though it may seem like a backwards approach, Favro says that “you’re better off determining what you can spend and then finding the best helmet within your budget, rather than compromising on a cheaper helmet than what you really want.” For reference, a decent helmet (one that we would actually wear ourselves) will probably run you in the range of $200, so consider that your starting point. Two bills is essentially the basement on a helmet with a DOT safety rating, a reasonable assurance that it has been tested to meet ever-increasing standards for crashworthiness. Anything cheaper than that and you’re not only sacrificing safety, but also comfort and convenience features that will quickly leave you questioning why you scrimped.



Of course, the options are limitless above that entry point, but from there you’ll be able to start prioritizing individual features. Do you prefer the safety of a full-face helmet to the freedom of an open-face? Maybe a modular design with a full tilting visor and chin bar suits you better. Do you need one with wild graphics, or will a solid colored piece serve you better for now? Once you set your bottom threshold, don’t step below it. Ask yourself, “How much is my head really worth?” Probably more than that $89 special.





Second, know your shape.



Obviously your melon is round-ish, but we all know they’re far from being the same. Exactly how round — or ovoid, or elliptical — is almost as important as the next factor, size. Since not all heads are created equal, neither are all helmets. In fact, each helmet manufacturer typically makes its helmets to a consistently unique shape. Within a given size, a Shoei will fit differently than an Arai, an AGV, or a Bell.



To figure out your shape, an aerial view is what you want. A quick look in the mirror should give you a good idea, but if you’re still not entirely sure, ask a friend. Another good indicator might be your existing helmet; if you find that you have a big red spot on your forehead after wearing it, you’ve probably got a helmet that’s too round for your more oval-shaped noggin. Talking to an experienced equipment shop (and one that carries multiple brands of helmets) is probably your best bet to match you with the right helmet for your head shape.



Next, get an accurate measurement.



A helmet needs to fit snugly — and probably a lot tighter than you might think. In fact, Favro tells us that if left to trying on helmets unaided, the average motorcyclist will end up with a brain bucket that’s at least one size too big.



If you wear a ball cap the normal way (unless you’re name is Ken Block, it shouldn’t cover your ears) then a fitted cap will give you a fairly true measurement. Otherwise, get someone to go around the crown of your head with a measuring tape.



“All the helmets will give you a range, not an actual size,” says Favro. “If you’re at the end of the range, you might be in between sizes.” It’s important to remember that the number doesn’t dictate your size. Like shoes and suits, sizing will vary by manufacturer. Let the measurement serve as your starting point.



Finally, try them out.



So now that you have all those figures written down, it’s time to try some helmets on. With the right size and shape, you should feel even pressure all around the top and sides of your head. The compressibility of the foam lining in the helmet doesn’t help you if it’s too loose — much in the same way a crumple zone in a car doesn’t do you any good if you don’t wear a seatbelt and you ricochet around inside the cabin. “Leave the helmet on for more than just a few seconds to make sure it’s not putting pressure in any one particular area,” advises Favro, stressing that “the helmet cannot be loose at the time of impact.” Otherwise, your head will accelerate into the inside of the helmet in a crash instead of allowing the EPS lining to absorb the force.





A high-quality helmet should have removable cheek pads. It seems like a luxury, but adjustable cheek pads are a major part of ensuring a proper fit. Our experience tells us that if this isn’t an available feature, you may want to look elsewhere. First, take the cheek pads out and put the helmet on your head. Is there firm, even pressure from every part of the foam lining, with loose areas or hard spots?



Once you’ve determined the general fit, reinstall the cheek pads. These pads serve one very important function: to make sure the helmet is pulled forward enough to keep the back of it pressed against the base of your skull. For this reason, they tend to be tight. If you’re not used to wearing a helmet, this will be awkward and your face will feel like it’s being smashed pretty well. According to Favro, “This is also the reason you should leave the helmet on for awhile, to get used to the tightness of the padding.”



So buy one already.



For years, the question has been asked, “what does a $300 helmet get me that a $100 helmet doesn’t?” While the two may carry the same safety rating, safety is but one factor (albeit, a very important one) that determines their costs. Consider the difference between a Mercedes-Benz E350 and a Kia Optima; both have the same 5-star crash rating, but which one would you rather live with on a daily basis? Price is largely dictated by quality, comfort, and features. When you figure out what’s most important to you — lots of ventilation versus supreme quietness, lightweight versus cool graphics, and so on — you’re ready to make the purchase.



Now get out and ride.


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