Nuts About Bikes

Head Games in New York

One of the most compelling arguments to attending motorcycle shows and conventions is getting the opportunity to meet experts whose primary motivation is not necessarily making a sale.

Case in point: Robert Lefever of Arai’s racing technical and racing services. Nuts About Bikes caught up with Robert at the Cycle World International Motorcycle Show in New York. He is one of the bucket techs who goes out to motorcycle shows to demonstrate product lines and educate riders. Of course, he wants to see more riders in Arai headgear, but that’s more of a long-term goal. He does not sell helmets at the shows so his primary concern is safety through fit and education.

Assuming you subscribe to the idea that wearing a helmet reduces the chance of serious head injury in a crash (there’s more than one school of thought on this point) it’s in your best interest to get a helmet that fits.

According to Arai, up to half of all motorcyclists are riding under a bucket that’s the wrong size. Left to our own devices when shopping for the full-face style, we tend to choose helmets that are larger than we need because they feel better right off the shelf. Helmet makers say this is mainly because a helmet that’s right for your head will often feel tight in the face, which drives us crazy. Without the right guidance, we tend to buy helmets that fit our face – not necessarily the more important bits above.

Over the years, I’ve come to accept the idea that  I have a ginormous noggin. The major dome. Capo da capo. When shopping for fitted hats, I always go to the XL rack first.

Boy was I wrong. Turns out it’s an optical illusion. My nut is almost as wide as it is long – like a volleyball. The untrained looking at a guy with a head shaped like a ball thinks he’s got a big head. Robert put that myth to rest with his tailor’s tape measure. The circumference of my dome at its widest point is 58.2 mm. That’s not only not XL in hat size – it’s on the upper fringe of medium! I was amazed.

Joe gets caliperedBut Robert has other tools in his bag of tricks. Throughout 2009, he and his Arai colleagues are hitting the road to measure the heads of volunteers – precisely recording circumference, side-to-side, front-to-back and shape. The Arai team uses the tape measure to gauge circumference, a large caliper for diameter – and for shape, a nifty flexible ruler holds its shape when bent around a curve. “We’re plotting each volunteer – with the goal of using the data to create helmets that better fit the amazing variety of head shapes and sizes out there,” he explained.

Most helmet makers build models that fit a few basic head shapes: round, earth, oval or egg. Robert says he was expecting the volunteers to land in a few broad subsets but the fieldwork has been enlightening. Turns out head sizes are more like fingerprints. “I am simply amazed at the level of individuality – no two heads are alike in terms of the ratios. It’s quite a learning experience and I am excited to see what the engineers end up doing with the information we bring back,” he says.

When you see all that stuff plotted in simple pencil lines on graph paper, you get an immediate understanding of how your head measures up. Robert put me into a Quantum II, large. The Quantum is one of Arai’s braincases designed for honeydew-round heads like yours truly.

I told him it was squeezing the heck out of my face. No problem – we’d swap out the facepads to rectify that situation. In fact, Arai trains its dealers to completely remove the facepads when fitting somebody like me with a lot of cheek meat. This helps the customer concentrate on the more critical fit in the head, before moving to face fit, which is mostly about comfort.

As you might expect, Arai is not keen on buying helmets by mail order. Our experience at the show bears out this philosophy. I’ve been reading about helmets and helmet sizing for years – but I learned more about helmet fit (and my own head) in 10 minutes with the experts than I had in years of reading about it.

That’s another advantage to investing the time and admission fee for the show. There are very few stupid motorcyclists out there. We know if we buy a helmet in person, at the dealer, we’re going to pay full retail (unless you catch a sale or clearance of last year’s models.) Why spend over $500 for a helmet you can get for $400 online? This is the dilemma of helmet shopping. We know we should get the unit fit in person, but we don’t want to part with a hundred bucks for the privilege. And there’s always the chance that your local dealer does not really know how to fit helmets – can they be trusted to get it right for your head? Maybe, maybe not. It all depends on their level of expertise and resistance to selling based on inventory instead of the customer’s needs.

At the show, you get the best of both worlds. You can stroll over to the HJC booth and try their models. Or Nolan, Fullman, SpeedX, Shoei – whoever’s around with helmets on display. There’s no pressure to buy and you can pick the brains of experts like Robert about fit and features. It’s the best way to shop for a helmet in my estimation. Then you can pick your buying method.

Often the helmet sellers are positioned just a few feet from the manufacturer’s booths – and there’s competition on the convention center floor so you might save a buck or two. Or choose another source once you get home. In any case, look for reasonable pricing (arm yourself with some online research); reputation; and a fair return policy. One of the best we’ve found is over at New Enough. Assuming you return the item in new condition with all the original packaging, they'll refund 110 percent of the selling price, if you choose a gift certificate for your refund.

I’m due for a new helmet in 2010. Will I spring for a $500 model? That remains to be seen – I have more homework to do. But one thing is certain; I am going to approach the decision knowing a lot more about the process than ever before, thanks to spending some time with the Arai crew in New York.

Learn more

Here's a video clip from Jay Leno's Garage.

On the Arai website, check out this video. It’s aimed at helping dealers improve their fitting skills, but it’s a terrific overview of the basic challenges of helmet fitting for the buyer.

There's a ton of excellent helmet info and reviews over at Web Bike World.

-Sal Emma, Editor
January 2009