The story of the future of bike helmets traces back to skiing. And headaches. And ibuprofen.
When you skip ahead to the present, riders in this year’s Tour de France look to have as much in common with ski racers as apples do with fish. But looks deceive. And when the American squad Team BMC begins the 2018 Tour wearing Giro’s newest helmet, the Aether, it will be with technology whose origins include a seemingly innocuous complaint four years ago by one American skier and the revolution that followed.
At a cursory glance, the Aether doesn’t seem particularly next-gen. It looks like, well, a helmet. Swoopier than most, sure. Not as mushroom-y, OK. With bigger vents, definitely. Generally, though, it appears to an untrained eye to be on the safe side of fairly traditional.
When you grab the top of the Aether in one hand and the bottom in the other and apply even the smallest amount of force or rotation, the helmet moves. Not like a MIPS® helmet, with its interior roll cage, which in and of itself was a breakthrough in safety design. In this case the whole helmet moves, a two-piece symphony aptly called “MIPS Spherical” that is meant to be to rotational energy – how much your head moves inside the helmet on impact – what Neil Armstrong was to the moon.
“This helmet, with the addition of MIPS Spherical, is the biggest breakthrough in decades,” said Dain Zaffke, Giro’s senior director of marketing. “Rotational energy is the biggest frontier, and MIPS Spherical is an evolution of it that is so elegant, it’s the future.”
To say that future is merely MIPS Spherical, though, would be to cheat the Aether out of its other firsts in helmet design. And there are myriad, from breakthroughs in foam to reinforcement to venting to retention – even to the sixth-month development cycle just for the logo. (We are not making that up.)
Still, every future has a past. And unraveling Aether’s history changes sports – to the repetitive thwap-thwap-thwap of ski gates, American World Cup winner Daron Rahlves, and his throbbing head.
Skiers like Rahlves, a Giro wearer whose specialties were downhill and Super-G, hit gates at upwards of 70 mph. They lean in and, naturally, their head follows. Even though skiers wear helmets, the impact of head-on-gate is roughly equivalent to the punch of a heavyweight boxer.
“Daron Rahlves said he had headaches every afternoon after training, clipping the gates,” Zaffke said. “He said, ‘Well, that’s just part of the deal. I just take some Advil.’
“That was a lightbulb moment for us. No one had ever looked at the impact energy associated with clipping those gates.”
At the time, Giro and its helmet partner, Bell, were under one corporate umbrella with football helmet maker Riddell and had formed what was known as the Advanced Concepts Group. It was charged with looking at head protection in impact sports like football, hockey, baseball and lacrosse, and in racing sports like motorcycle grand prix, skiing and snowboarding.
Riddell had developed measurable accelerometers inside its football helmets to track hits. Using some of the same technology, Giro built a machine (aptly named “the Whacker”) to mimic those gate hits and tested “every ski helmet we could get our hands on,” Zaffke said. Giro learned that in addition to the head trauma, the helmets themselves were compromised by the repetitive impacts.
“We found that with those ski racer helmets, the foam liners were compressed by the gates before those skiers even had a crash,” Zaffke said.
Giro had been using MIPS, the multidirectional impact protection system and its moveable plastic inner “slip liner,” in its bike helmets since 2014 and in its ski helmets since 2015. Those helmets, while minimizing rotational impact, didn’t solve the gate-hit problem. The advanced group’s ingenious solution, developed from scratch at Giro’s Scotts Valley, Calif., headquarters, was Spherical, which in simplistic terms is two helmets in one, one on top of the other, attached by a system of elastomers and that rotate like the internal MIPS to dissipate rotational forces. Even if the outer liner is hit, the inner liner is intact. Spherical debuted in a new ski helmet, the Avance, in 2016.
“Our sense was that a true sphere would move easier. Nothing gets in its way,” said Dave Debus, Giro’s product creation director. “The inner liner, the spherical part, isn’t a piece of plastic but a robust piece of foam. There are two structural elements instead of one piece of polycarbonate.”
The next iteration of Spherical was Bell’s Super DH mountain bike helmet, introduced late last year. The full-face Super DH’s removable chin bar and numerous other MTB bells and whistles somewhat overshadowed Spherical, and like Avance it was a comparatively specialized bit of headgear that flew relatively under the radar.
With Aether, nothing is shadowed over or underflown. Three years in development, it is meant to be loud, proud and the world’s best road bike helmet. It does not disappoint.
“Pretty much from our first sample we knew we were going to be able to accomplish everything we set out to do,” said Greg Marting, the company’s senior manager of industrial design. But “we were surprised initially it was testing out as well as it did.”
Aether essentially takes the top-of-the line spot from Synthe, itself a breakthrough when introduced as a replacement for the then-top-model Aeon four years ago. (Synthe, though, will remain a Giro staple.) At 20 grams lighter (250g, compared to 270g) than the Synthe, the Aether excels at moving air over your head, only more so.
“We really went for it in terms of ventilation,” said Paul Kele, Giro’s senior mechanical engineer.
Using a thermal-detector (also aptly named, “the Therminator” … Giro excels at testing-device monikers, too), the company found the Aether to be 2 degrees cooler than the Synthe MIPS, a difference easy to feel whether you’re climbing the Alps or your local lung-buster. Whereas Synthe went somewhat minimalist with 19 larger vents vs. Aeon’s 24, Aether has just 11. But they’re huge, as in massively so. Holding them together is another Aether first, called AURA – Aerodynamic Ultimate Reinforcing Arch – a reinforcing ring running through the helmet. Underneath the vents is an intricate network of internal channeling, again – and unencumbered by the previous MIPS liner – improving airflow.
“In the initial concept phase, based on what we had done with Avance, we could really take advantage of new structure without having to design around a piece of plastic,” Marting said. “We could ignore that and maximize ventilation externally and internally by using these two components. Then we took advantage of AURA and that structure to help scoop the air intakes.”
At first glance AURA looks unnatural, a clear plastic piece running the width of the helmet under the massive, nearly full-length vents. And yet this plastic is the figurative glue that holds Aether together.
“We started out with some concepts that were really new to us, and we were really trying to stretch ourselves,” Kele said. “We needed something to hold the front-to-back ribs, something that disappears into the helmet. The AURA ring was developed to tick all those boxes. It’s the main structural element, tied to the internal reinforcement components in the foam that you don’t see. It’s a small window to what’s going on inside the foam.”
The foam itself is new, too. To de-mushroom the profile enough to fit the bottom piece under the top, Giro developed a smaller, more compressible micro-bead expanded polystyrene. Other seemingly small touches break ground, too: the RocLoc 5+ retention system that adjusts the helmet’s vertical tension; the two rubber bumpers under the front vents to securely hold sunglasses; the six pieces of polycarbonate that are molded into one external shell.
And then there’s the logo.
Kele: “There’s a saying we have around here …”
Marting: “… making simple things difficult since 1985.”
It would have been easy to replicate the glued-on, raised logo of the Synthe, itself a departure from the applique logos past. And it would have taken less time. But no. Giro went complicated, the result of which is a raised logo that seems to be part of the helmet mold itself but is actually pushed through a laser-cut outline in the polycarbonate shell.
“I think as a group we wanted to improve on the logo treatment we had started with Synthe,” Marting said. “The logical step was to try to create the look we had of a raised logo but have it be actually coming through the helmet.”
Logic is relative, apparently.
“I think the logo is one of those things that looks simple, and that’s the deception in it,” Kele said. “The work that goes into making something look that clean and integrated is monumental. That’s why it took six months to get a G, I, R and O on there. There were so many corresponding components, tooling, laser cutting, injection molding … and it all had to be aligned to not destroy itself.”
The debut of Aether gives Giro three premier helmets for road riding’s three segments at this year’s Tour de France: Its Aerohead Ultimate is a specified time trial helmet and the Vanquish, released earlier this year, is an aero road helmet favored by sprinters. Aether is the helmet for the all-arounders in the Tour or your local paceline, the top of the line (at $325 MSRP) for the top of your head, and thus far the only one of the three with MIPS Spherical. At least for now. Expect to see the technology trickle down to other offerings in the Giro line.
And although Giro created MIPS Spherical, it did not patent the technology, instead allowing MIPS Protection, a Swedish company and a Giro development partner, to license it. (As is the case with the original MIPS, now licensed to 42 helmet makers, including Performance.) Other manufacturers, after a one- to two-year development lead time, likely will follow with game-changers of their own.
Giro’s game isn’t over, though.
“We left a little on the table with regard to impacts and material and weight and everything we do normally,” Debus said, a broad hint that the company isn’t standing pat. “We could riff on this helmet design for a while.”
Giro’s Aether MIPS is now available for preorder from Performance Bicycle, with delivery scheduled for August. Order your Aether here today.