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At first glance, Bontrager’s WaveCel material looks a lot like Koroyd, the honeycomb plastic you’ll find in Smith helmets. It’s even the same identifiable green color, or close to it. And to be fair, both materials do have similar goals: to protect you from impacts better than EPS foam can do the job.
WaveCel, however, has a few other tricks up its sleeves. As the name implies, the cells are wave-shaped, and that allows the material to flex. That makes it easier to mold to the shape of your helmet and head, but it also works to dissipate certain types of impact forces. The waves are collapsible and crumple to absorb impact forces.
The material’s structure changes in three stages, according to Bontrager: flex, crumple, and glide. These three stages address both linear and angular impacts, while other similar materials largely only address linear impacts. This is an important distinction because most impacts cyclists will encounter involve some sort of angular motion. Step one — flex — allows the material to absorb frictional forces, like sliding motions. Step two — crumple — absorbs direct forces. And step three — glide — directs all that impact energy away from your head.
Addressing rotational forces is a concept that largely came to the bike industry via MIPS, a liner system that allows the helmet to rotate slightly in the first milliseconds of an impact. That’s because your head rarely, if ever, faces just a direct impact in a crash. Instead, rotational forces can essentially “shake” your brain, causing significant damage.
WaveCel was developed by a team of doctors who had been studying head injury prevention for over 15 years. The result is a material that, according to Bontrager, is up to 48 times more effective at preventing concussions than EPS foam. And you’ll only find WaveCel in Bontrager helmets; the company currently has exclusive rights to it based on Bontrager’s partnership with WaveCel that has been built over the course of four years.
Bontrager helmets that employ WaveCel still have some EPS foam, largely to give it shape. The WaveCel is then incorporated into the helmet shell. This adds a little bit of weight — just over 50 grams — but the sheet of WaveCel also conforms easily to the shape of the helmet and your head, so you shouldn’t get any hotspots. And it shouldn’t increase the overall size of the helmet.
Bontrager calls this a massive leap forward in bicycle helmet technology. So is it? Hard to say. It certainly promises a lot over a standard EPS helmet. The question is, does WaveCel add an advantage over other cellular technologies like Koroyd, or slip systems like MIPS? According to a study by Elsevier Information and Analytics company, cellular structures like WaveCel and Slip systems like MIPS are both shown to reduce rotational forces in impacts, far outperforming standard EPS. But the same study concludes that more testing is necessary to determine the differences between the effectiveness of each system.
Translation: WaveCel appears to add an additional layer of safety and impact protection over standard EPS, according to Elsevier’s study.
Bontrager is releasing the WaveCel technology in four different helmets. The XXX WaveCel Road is, you guessed it, a high-end road helmet that costs $300. The Specter WaveCel Road lowers the price to $150. Mountain bikers can try out the technology on the Blaze WaveCel MTB for $300. And commuters have the option of the Charge WaveCel commuter for $150.
If you’ve been following Virginia Tech’s helmet testing, you’ll be happy to hear that all of Bontrager’s WaveCel helmets have achieved a five-star rating in the tests. So there’s certainly a lot of promise here. VeloNews is receiving WaveCel products for testing, but bear in mind that conclusive testing is only possible in two scenarios: lab testing, and real-world crashes. We’re not quite ready to sacrifice our domes to science, so we’ll primarily be focusing on comfort, venting, style, weight, and durability.