Brain bucket, skid lid, crash hat, helmet. Whatever you call it, as of May 5, 2003, a rider competing in UCI races was required to wear one. And while in the past, riders have always sought lighter and better-ventilated helmets, at this year’s Tour de France we’re seeing a lot of new trends in headwear — nothing to do with haute couture or feathers, mind you, but rather identification and aerodynamics.
A perfect example is Mark Cavendish (Sky). As the Manxman won stage 2 on Monday, his ensemble was distinctly uncoordinated. Rather than a black-and-blue Sky helmet, or even a brash, custom rainbow job, the world champion wore a bright-yellow aero road helmet that clashed terribly with even the yellow stripe around his smaller-than-ever chest.
But in Cav’s defense, the helmet color wasn’t his choice. He and his Sky teammates all wore them. And no, it wasn’t a cocky display of the team’s aspirations for the race. It was to let the world know that they are leading the team general classification.
But even then the helmets aren’t borne of Sky’s initiative. Rather the owner of the Tour de France, the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO), now honors the team leading the team GC with yellow helmets. Of course, no one took the time to tell the world about the yellow helmets (well, actually, we did in the Velo Official Tour de France Guide, see page 24).
The significance of the yellow helmet has a historical origin, though. It isn’t an ASO innovation, just an updated interpretation of an older prize. While the way the teams classification has been scored has changed several times over the years, until 1990 the leading team wore yellow cycling caps.
While no one races in a cycling cap these days (unless under a helmet in cooler temps), riders are required to wear helmets. So the ASO approached the teams and asked if they would mind bringing yellow helmets to the Tour. The idea was met with favor, “Voila! Les casques jaunes!” And in my eyes, the ASO has done a wonderful job of updating a prize with a nod to the Tour’s tradition.
What makes Cav’s helmet look especially like a construction worker’s hard hat is the fact that it has no vents on the front (or maybe it’s that Sky helmet sponsor Kask actually makes hard hats).
And he’s not alone. Many teams now have aero road helmets at their disposal. Giro launched its new Air Attack helmet just before the Tour and riders on Garmin-Sharp and Rabobank have quickly adopted it.
Lazer has made a cover for its Helium and Genesis models for years. For the teams, the cover has to be permanent to be within UCI rules, so Lotto-Belisol riders are wearing Lazer’s with the cover glued on at the factory.
As of this spring, Kask didn’t plan to offer its ventless helmets for sale to the public. But according to UCI rules, that’ll have to change or Sky will have to stop using the Italian helmet maker’s products. I’d bet on seeing them for sale.
(As a side note regarding Cavendish in particular, the UCI has said that the helmet he wore to win his world title would now be considered illegal on two fronts: the cover wasn’t permanent and it isn’t available to the public.)
But the reason you’ll continue to see these aero road helmets is because they are faster. They may not give an edge on a particular day, but they’ll save energy over the course of a three-week race even if used for only one of those weeks. Remember, stage racing is all about energy conservation.
Giro claims that its Air Attack is 12 percent faster than its own heavily vented Aeon helmet and only 12 percent slower than its Selector time trial lid. And it does it while keeping a rider cool, at least as cool as a bare head.
So, while Cavendish may look a bit like Bob the Builder as he streaks across the finish line, arm in the air, the last laugh is on us. He might have a bold yellow helmet on his head, but he’s also wearing a rainbow jersey and goes home to Peta Todd after each race.
And of course, he’s also just won his bazillionth Tour stage.