In the last few days, Giro, the Californian manufacturer whom now produce everything from helmets through to shoes, unveilved their new ‘Air Attack’ helmet, claimed to be the ‘lowest wind-averaged aerodynamic drag of any road helmet design.’ In doing so, they’ve created quite a furore. The apparently novel helmet is being branded ugly, pointless, a fashion accessory and a host of of other insults. But is it as original as it claims? Are the insults over its appearance overridden by the science behind it?
The New Air Attack, with ‘Shield’.
The Old Air Attack, which didn’t have a shield.
Well, it’s certainly not a new idea – more the most well marketed version of it. Aero helmets themselves have been around since the 1984 Olympics, where some impressively pointy aero helmets could be spied, and during the late Eighties, when Greg Lemond got his buddies at Giro, more specifically founder Jim Gentes, to come up with an aero helmet in a time where the proffesionals generally couldnt be bothered to wear one, if the photographic evidence is anything to go by (Helmets only became compulsory in the proffesional peloton after Andrei Kivilev’s death in the 2003 Paris-Nice, sadly 13 years after they had attempted to introduce the same rule at the very same race only for protests to prevent it. The rule was relaxed on the final climb of mountain stages until 2005, where the rule was enforced through the entirety of a race no matter what or where it finished upon.) Aero helmets have even featured in road stages before – David Millar of Garmin-Cervelo used a aero helmet on the final stage of the 2010 Tour de France into Paris as part of the teams attempt to win with Tyler Farrar.
The precusor to the Air Attack? David Millar wears a prototype aero road helmet (note the lack of ear coverage) on the Champs-Elysees in 2011.
But a ha, you may say, they were but mere time trial helmets, and the new Air Attack is a road helmet! Indeed, this is true (Well…Millar’s helmet was actually a prototype helmet from Giro, and whilst it shares the ‘Shield’, ie Visor, of the Air Attack, it’s venting is minimal and it appears have been consigned to the history books), but the Air Attack isn’t the first one of these either. For Lazer, the Belgian brand founded in 1919, began producing snap on helmet covers in 2010 for the Tour of Flanders, although this did look rather odd given they sponsored Katusha, whose glorious Moscow skyline jersey didn’t exactly contrast well with the bright yellow and black of the lion of Flanders the cover was adorned with. Whilst the aero benefits of blocking up the helmet vents are evident, Lazer didn’t advertise their solution as being ‘aero’, rather choosing to market it as an effective cyclo-cross product to protect heads from the cold and rain by stopping the elements from entering. Giro, on the other hand, are keen to point out the Air Attack still keeps their signature ventilation, and thus manages to both keep your head cool as well as saving you 17 seconds per 25 miles. So perhaps then, it is the original aero road helmet?
Lazer‘s clip on cover wasn’t orginally adveritsed as ‘aero’, though Andre Greipel appears to be using it for such an effect, and with better aesthetics then this Russia/Flanders clash!
It’s certainly debatable – it seems undoubtably to be the first mass marketed, publically avaliable contraption, but as for the first used, it would appear that Kask beat them too it, closely followed by Specialised. Bradley Wiggins, probably driven by Sky’s sometime tedious and sterile campaign for the much publisised ‘marginal gains’, began wearing a black Kask with the vents filled in in his ill-fated 2011 Tour de France, which no doubt helped ‘the numbers be right’. It was notable that Wiggins didn’t use the helmet at the sweltering Vuelta, which he lost after forgetting to check which gears to use on the ferociously pitched Angrilu, although if you’d listened to Ned Boulting and Matt Rendell’s commentary, you’d have thought the race organisers would have just given his the jersey after the first time trial, such was the giddy over enthusiastic screaching whenever the stick thin Brit simply appeared in shot.
The Wiggster uses his filled in helmet at the Tour.
However, Britain’s luck with aero helmets was to peak in Copehagen, where a team featuring Wiggins’ now Union Flag adorned Kask and Mark Cavendish’s shelled in Specialised were raced to glory in the road race, albeit illegally, the Belgian team had tried to use its Lazer provided covers and been prevented from doing so by the officious UCI, but Cavendish had escaped their notice. From there, it seemed, aero helmets were the way to go, and it’s no suprise to suddenly see Giro come up with one for the public.
But the public reaction is poor – cycling is an essentially conservative sport, an odd fusion of romantic nostalgia and attempted scientific advancement, and changes are oft mocked. Dave Zabriske turned a few heads when he came to a road race in a skin suit, yet all riders now ride in what are essentially skin tight road wear: Castelli, the Italian pioneers of the garments, even created the SpeedSuit, a skinsuit in everyway except for the traditional three pockets and a full zipper to allow riders to relieve themselves. Similarly, the Cervelo S series, (Soloist beforehand), especially the S5, would have appeared to have induced much vomiting and loss of composure on their unveilings as aero road bikes, and yet now the majority of bike brands have their own ‘aero’ model, with BMC recently producing one, presumably for Gilbert, whom it’s theorised may be doing worse due to moving away from his watt saving Canyon of last year.
Mark Cavendish’s naughty helmet (quiet at the back) broke the rules but still helped him win the Worlds.
Clearly, everything is going aero: it just happens that helmets are perhaps the most prominent part of a rider’s kit and identity away from the jersey, and so attract a greater deal of attention. History suggests that after the squeals and moans of the romantics, the aero helmet will slowly seep into our lives and we’ll all start wearing the abominable things.
Well, unless you’re Italian.