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Tour de tech: Hustling for helmets

Those of you who watched the prologue time trial may have been wondering why some teams were using standard road helmets and others using aero’ helmets. In October 2003 the UCI passed a requirement that all time-trial helmets meet certain safety standards as of January 1, 2004. This threw out the old time-trial helmets, which were little more than thin plastic fairings with straps. Helmet companies were caught largely unprepared by the ruling, so in the spring, most pro teams were racing time trials with standard road helmets. By the Giro d’Italia, many teams were using clear plastic covers

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By Lennard Zinn

Hincapie models the Giro Rev 6

Hincapie models the Giro Rev 6

Photo: Lennard Zinn

Those of you who watched the prologue time trial may have been wondering why some teams were using standard road helmets and others using aero’ helmets.

In October 2003 the UCI passed a requirement that all time-trial helmets meet certain safety standards as of January 1, 2004. This threw out the old time-trial helmets, which were little more than thin plastic fairings with straps.

Helmet companies were caught largely unprepared by the ruling, so in the spring, most pro teams were racing time trials with standard road helmets. By the Giro d’Italia, many teams were using clear plastic covers over their road helmets in time trials to keep air from entering the vents.

For the biggest event on the calendar, however, using covers over standard helmets simply would not do, either for riders or for helmet companies wanting a jump in sales out of the Tour. Thus, the Tour prologue was the deadline for getting new helmets accepted by the UCI.

It was a bit of a sprint, according to Giro’s chief helmet designer, Toshi Corbet.

“There is a two-year product cycle from initial design to certification and readiness for market of a bicycle helmet,” he said. “We (helmet manufacturers) had all been expecting the UCI to require TT helmets to be safe, but we also expected them to understand and respect our time limitations. So everybody has been jamming to complete the whole product cycle in eight months.”

Giro and Bell
Corbet and his team had been working since last winter on a new design that would pass UCI muster and meet Lance Armstrong’s demand for the fastest equipment in the peloton. The helmet he has used in Tour time trials for the past few years, which has an extra bump on its rear ridge that Giro’s other time-trial model lacks, was called the Rev 5. This year, he’s using the new Rev 6, which closely resembles its predecessor — but is actually faster, according to Corbet.

“We knew that the fastest helmet last year was Lance’s Rev 5,” says Corbet. “So we tried to make the new helmet — which would have to be bulkier — to the same standard. We tested all of the other helmets on the market in the wind tunnel, and the Rev 6 is actually faster than the Rev 5. We were preparing for the long time trial in this year’s Tour, and our testing shows that the Rev 6 is over 17 seconds faster over 60km at 30mph than any other helmet except the Rev 5.”

What Corbet and his group were not prepared for was a last-minute hurdle set up by the UCI. According to Trek’s Scott Daubert, on June 25, just eight days before the Tour start, the UCI said a CE European certification standard sticker would not suffice for the new helmets. Rather, helmet companies would have to provide full certification documentation from an independent test lab.

What's inside Postal's new lid

What’s inside Postal’s new lid

Photo: Lennard Zinn

“We thought that it would be enough that the helmets pass the certification tests in our in-house lab,” said Corbet. “But they are requiring it to be completely ready for market, which is a totally different standard than any other equipment in the Tour. Half the stuff these guys are racing on is prototype. But they make us have a product completely ready for market.”

The British test lab that helmet manufacturers use for certification testing couldn’t suddenly drop everything and test the new Giro and Bell time trial helmets. Corbet found another company in Manchester that could deliver the test and the proper certification in time, but it demanded a high price — too high, said the Giro-Bell money men. It was beginning to look like there would be no TT helmet for this year’s Tour.

But when Corbet discussed the difficulty of clearing the latest UCI hurdle with Lance Armstrong, the five-time champion replied that no matter what, he wanted to have a fast helmet by the Tour.

“We thought about it and decided we just had to do it anyway,” said Corbet. “Our honor and reputation depends on the time trial.” Giro wasn’t selling many helmets until 1989, when Greg LeMond won the race in the final stage time trial wearing a Giro helmet — setting an average-speed record for the TT that still stands today. After that Tour, Corbet noted, “our sales shot up.”

The day before the prologue, Corbet had new helmets in hand with the prized documentation behind the CE sticker in them, but he had been up until the wee hours for many nights and had been flying back and forth to Britain. U.S. Postal directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel delivered them to the UCI at the managers’ meeting and the helmets were approved.

Corbet was relieved that all of his efforts had paid off, in part because he “didn’t want to have to deal with an angry Lance.” In four days, Corbet had spent $100,000 to meet the certification standard for two Giro models (the Rev 6 for U.S. Postal, a smoother-shaped model for Rabobank, Cofidis and Fassa Bortolo) and one Bell (for Team CSC, Credit Agricole and Phonak). On Phonak, only Tyler Hamilton’s helmet sports the Bell logo, since the rest of the team is sponsored by Catlike helmets. All of the new Giro and Bell TT models have complete ear coverage, small front slit vents and an open underside to the long tail.

The day before the Tour began, Corbet was predicting that few, if any, of the other companies would have a helmet ready in time. “We have 10 times the resources of anybody else,” he said, referring to the combined Giro and Bell companies, which command the lion’s share of the bicycle-helmet market. Given that they almost did not make the final effort for financial reasons, Corbet was betting against any other companies making it.

Clearly, though, several did manage to get their aero’ helmets into the Tour prologue. And on the eve of the team time trial, Corbet suspected that not all of these helmets had undergone the same level of scrutiny that his had.

“Some of those helmets are just road helmets with a different cover,” he said. “That’s it. We designed ours from the ground up and feel we are setting a new standard of performance, comfort, and safety, and made five different helmet tools for them at a cost of $70,000 each.

“Oh well, we’re the Americans and expect a double standard,” he said with a shrug. “I am sure that Uvex helmet of Ullrich’s would not pass. Its foam is 7mm thinner than ours. But it is cool. I don’t think I agree with enclosing the underside of the tail, though. I can’t wait to test it in the tunnel when we start design work for our 2005 time-trial helmet with a full 12 months to do it.”

Lazer
Lazer Helmet PR manager Mike Van Cleven said he knew nothing of a sudden requirement from the UCI for extra documentation, and that the governing body approved his helmet with a minimum of fuss.

Lazer’s helmet was initially turned down because it covered the ears, a rule that Van Cleven said “came from an existing bicycle helmet certification standard.”

“If a helmet has padding around the ears, rescue workers have a harder time removing it after an accident without causing further injury,” he explained. “We pointed out to the UCI that our helmet has no restriction around the ears, and they accepted our explanation and passed our helmet.”

And what's inside

And what’s inside

Photo: Lennard Zinn

The Lazer helmet, used by Quick Step-Davitamon and Lotto-Domo, is probably the widest, tallest and bulkiest of the new TT helmets. Unlike the Bell and Giro models, which have small front vents, it has no vents whatsoever “because that makes it too slow,” said Van Cleven. “But we made the tail very big and open on the bottom, so it can get air in there, and the rider can remove the built-in clear face shield and use normal sunglasses if it is too hot.” The foam protective liner also has large vents, and there is space between it and the outer shell. It has an easily adjustable rear strap retention system as well.

The Uvex

The Uvex

Photo: Lennard Zinn

Uvex
T-Mobile’s team liaison, Luc Brenga, said his riders are very happy with their new aero’ helmets from Uvex. The shape is certainly very nice. Indeed, if you watched the early part of Jan Ullrich’s prologue, when the camera was focused very closely on his head and shoulders as he rode, you may have noticed how seamlessly his helmet fit down onto his back. There was almost no gap between his jersey and the helmet tail, and with his smooth style, the two were visually almost one as he rode.

Brenga says the team is particularly happy with the airflow into the helmet (which decreases aerodynamic efficiency), combined with its aero’ shape and safety. The Uvex helmet’s tail is enclosed underneath, the ears are fully covered, and there are six rear vent slits.

Specialized
Specialized’s new aero’ helmet, worn by Mario Cipollini and his Domina Vacanze formation, appears to have the largest air vents, front and rear, of any of the new aero’ designs. It is still relatively slim in design, compared with the high bulk of some of the new helmets. Its long ear coverings do not extend back far enough to cover the back of the ear, and the tail is open underneath. It features the same redesigned flip-lever strap adjusters under the ears and “Pro-Fit” rear sliding plastic band adjusters as the new Specialized Decibel helmet.

The rest of the helmets
As for the time trial helmets of other teams, it is a mixed bag. Here is a summary. Limar’s helmet for AG2R has small front and rear top slits, long, notched tail open underneath and partial ear covering. LAS makes a time trial model with a tinted face shield, partial ear covering, long tail open on the bottom and no vent. It provides this helmet to Alessio, Brioches La Boulangére and Illes Balears. MET, the sponsor of Liberty Seguros and Gerolsteiner, has a new time trial helmet has no front vents, big air scoops in back and an upswept short tail. It looks like a standard road helmet with a closed cover and a rear extension continuing the swoop of the tail above the large rear air vents. The tail sticks up even when the rider’s head is up, and it is practically vertical across the wind when the rider drops his head. This could explain why some of the Gerolsteiner rides rode a standard MET with full vents in the prologue. Catlike sponsors Euskaltel-Euskadi and Phonak, with the exception of Tyler Hamilton. The orange-clad riders from the Basque team rode the prologue with a standard Catlike road helmet with closed front vents, while the Phonak riders rode unmarked Bell TT helmets. R.A.G.T. Semences-MG Rover used Cratoni TT helmets with small rear top vents, a long, truncated tail that is open underneath and no ear covering. Rudy Project’s TT helmet has small front and rear top vents, no ear covering, and a medium-long, notched tail that is open underneath. Saeco is using this helmet. Selev is providing a TT helmet with a short tail covered top and bottom by a plastic skin, partial ear covering and no vents to Fdjeux.com.

Look for all of these helmets in Wednesday’s 65km team time trial — unless the UCI changes its mind on some of the ones already premiered in the prologue.

Ciao,
Lennard

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