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Cheap Helmets Buying Guide

Regardless which category you fall into, the seal of approval from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) should be your top requirement. After that, you'll probably want to consider the price.

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Right away you'll notice that the range is extremely wide. At the low end, you can find cheap helmets for $20, while at the top end a helmet might sell for $200. Cheaper helmets are found in big-box department; larger and more expensive selections are usually available in sporting goods stores. The priciest helmets of all, unsurprisingly, are sold in cycling or outdoor shops.

What makes one helmet cost more than another? Experienced cyclists know the answer: Cycling is an image-conscious sport. Some cyclists shave their legs for no reason other than to show fellow cyclists how committed they are to shaving tenths of a second off their times. So it should come as no surprise that a rider's choice of gear would have the same effect. Cyclists tend to be brand loyal, whether to Giro, Trek, SixSixOne, Bell, or any of the other producers.

Bicycle Helmet Construction.

All bicycle helmets are composed of a durable plastic shell and expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) that is meant to protect the cyclist in the event of a crash. New technology molds together these two components, making helmets lighter than they had been in the past; the most expensive and the cheap helmets are identical in this regard. (A note on the EPS foam: it, rather than your head, absorbs the impact in a crash. But once you've been through a crash, the foam loses its protective properties and it's time to buy a new one.) The CPSC has approved this construction and manufacturers have adopted it in all lines. Youth helmets have a little more foam than adult models but they still should be replaced in the event of a crash.

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Bike Helmet Weight.

There are plenty of cheap helmets that weigh between 255 and 310 grams (including all those referenced in this review), which is only about 10 ounces. Youth helmets usually weigh slightly more because they have extra padding; a good example of this is the Bell Faction (starting at $25), which weights 426 grams. While it might seem obvious that helmets with more vents are lighter, this, too, is not necessarily true. Some of the better-ventilated helmets, like the Trek Vapor (starting at $50), retain their density by distributing weight in the perimeter.

When shopping for children, parents should ask the child how the helmet feels on his or her head. It may take some trial and error to find the right blend of protection, comfort, and cheap price. Among youth helmets, the Razor V-17 (starting at $17) strikes this balance better than the rest.

Bicycle Helmet Design.

A casual cyclist would have difficulty distinguishing a commuter bike helmet from a road bike helmet, or a Bell helmet from a Giro helmet. Maybe that's because Bell actually owns Giro, but in reality a lot of helmets look the same, especially at first glance. Some models are distinctive, however. Razor models tend to be rounder and are price competitive with Bell and Giro. SixSixOne models tend to have more elaborate artwork, such as flames or detailed graphics, but users pay a higher price for these aesthetic flourishes. Cheap helmets for youth come in a wider array of colors and markings than cheap adult helmets, which tend to be aesthetically spare.

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Artwork is how manufacturers try to separate their helmets from the crowd. Many helmets, particularly those intended for the youth market, come with the logo of a favorite college or pro sports team, or showcase pop culture characters like Hanna Montana. Such touches come at a price: a plain black youth helmet from Bell might cost $25, but the same helmet with an Oakland Raiders logo might cost $29. A parent posting on Walmart.com likes the Bell Aero (starting at $17) but her daughter prefers a few more flowers on the side. Another parent commenting on Amazon was thrilled to find the Razor V-17 because her son thinks it's cool enough to wear.

The number and placement of the vents also affect the overall look of a cheap helmet. Note, however, that all air vents are not created equal. Some are little more than round holes that should let air circulate. Others are teardrop-shaped, oblong, oval, or egg-shaped, and some have a shape for which no name exists. Some vents are less than an inch wide; others are larger than two inches. The best cheap helmets, like the Bell Venture (starting at $29), sport an array of different vents that give a sleeker, more aerodynamic look.

Vent shapes on youth helmets are less varied. They're either round or oblong, as in the case of the Bell Faction.

Locking Size Adjuster.

Many pricier helmets come in fitted sizes,which increases the comfort level. Cheap helmets, on the other hand, come in small, medium, large, and extra large. You can then tweak the fit by adjusting the band. The most common adjusting mechanism is a dial; the two leading brands, Bell and Giro, use their own patented system, the ErgoDial for Bell and the AcuDial for Giro. User reviews of these helmets express no preference for one system over the other. Any good cheap helmet, including the best and good models on our list, let the cyclist adjust the strap while wearing the helmet.

Parents should teach their children how to adjust a helmet by themselves. Given the importance of wearing a helmet, let children practice adjusting their cheap bike helmet in the driveway or on the sidewalk before taking off. Note that the Bell Aero does not have the ErgoDial system, which means the child will have to stop riding and remove the helmet to make any needed adjustments.

Bicycle Helmet Extras.

Among the most popular (and useful) accessories are a visor and an adjustable rear view mirror that clicks on to the front of the helmet. The Giro Transfer (starting at $26), for example, doesn't come with a visor, but the slightly more expensive Giro Indicator (starting at $29) does. (That's the only difference between the two, so if you can find a visor for less than three dollars consider yourself ahead of the game.) Cheap helmets (including those mentioned in this buying guide) are open-faced, meaning they have a chin strap but do not protect your face in a crash. Alternatively, you can buy a helmet with a chin bar, but there's a commensurate uptick in price. Competitive cyclists don't protect their faces with a chin bar, so it's not a necessity, although it does sometimes appeal to mountain bikers. The SixSixOne brand offers a chin bar in many models, but the cheapest, the 06 Launch, starts at about $70.

by Maralyn Edid (Google+ Profile)

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Bike Helmets
  2. Bike Helmet Reviews
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