By Tom Demerly with Sarah Lieneke and Jaclyn Applegate
At a recent, local Olympic distance triathlon the difference between 2nd and 3rd place in the Women’s 45-49 age category was 2 seconds. 2 seconds. In another race the gap between 1st place and 5th place in the Men’s 30-34 was 19 seconds: 5 finishers within 19 seconds after 2 hours of racing.
Don’t tell me seconds don’t matter.
The first time you miss an age category award at a local triathlon by 9 seconds you’ll understand how precious every second is. Ask Greg LeMond.
In 1989 American Greg LeMond came back from a shooting accident to win the Tour de France by a scant 9 seconds in the final time trial in Paris. He beat French hero Laurent Fignon. Fignon did not use an aero helmet or aerodynamic handlebars in the pivotal final time trial. LeMond did. The rest is history.
Sooner or later you will lose an important placing by a few seconds. If you are competitive enough to care you’ll look for ways to shave every second from your next race. An aerodynamic helmet is one of the first places to look.
In an industry where wind tunnel “testing” is more like wind tunnel marketing it is difficult to quantify how much time an aerodynamic helmet saves relative to a $2500 wheelset or $10,000 superbike. The wheel and bike companies would have us believe the aero helmet is well down the list of time savings from four figure purchases. The problem is they’re wrong. Independent wind tunnel tests have verified that less costly changes like a snug, one piece tri suit and an aerodynamic helmet can save as much time as an aero frame and race wheels. In a June 2007 thesis written by Stephanie Sidelko at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology supervised by Dr. Kim Blair, Sidelko proved that:
“…aerodynamic helmets offer drag reduction over a standard road helmet. The best and worst performing (aero) helmets are more aerodynamic than a (standard, non-aero) road helmet”
Previous tests quantify time savings similar to using aerodynamic wheels- at a fraction of the cost.
The one variable that remains for the aero helmet skeptic is ventilation. Are aero helmets hotter than traditional cycling helmets? The answer for some models is “yes”. The operative question is; does it slow you down? Having used an aero helmet on the ultra-steep “Tiger’s Back” climb at the Laguna Phuket Triathlon in Thailand I’m not convinced an aero helmet is any hotter, or any less comfortable, than a traditional cycling helmet. Phuket’s lush jungles are humid furnaces seething with humidity. I’ve done Hawaii (with an aero helmet); I’ve raced in the Middle East and the Sahara Desert. Phuket, Thailand is hotter.
“Are aero helmets hotter? The question is, if so, would that slow you down?”
Aero helmet pundits point to top Ironman champs Chrissie Wellington and Craig Alexander- neither of whom wore aero helmets in Hawaii. Alexander and Wellington didn’t need aero helmets since their racing doctrine didn’t include winning by scant seconds saved on the bike. Both athletes preferred a traditional helmet and were willing to sacrifice the time savings. Both athletes won by substantial margins. In 2010, when the race came down to a close battle on the run late in the race, Chris McCormack prevailed as champion. In his new book, I’m Here to Win, Ironman winner Chris McCormack talks about his strategy to punish his competitors on the toughest part of the bike course. He wore an aero helmet in Kona. He went on to win one of the closest races in history, on one of the hotter days.
“Ironman winner Chris McCormack wore an aero helmet to win in Kona in 2010”
The latest and most advanced aero helmet design comes from lightweight and aero helmet pioneer Giro. Giro introduced the new Giro Selector aerodynamic helmet at the 2011 Giro d’ Italia where Cyclingnews.com Technical Editor James Huang provided the first look. Huang’s review showed an integrated visor and an interchangeable “pan” or underside that varied the amount of fairing- and its proximity to the rider’s back- to maximize aero benefit. This system makes the Giro Selector custom fit-able to the rider’s posture and tunable to the conditions.
The new Giro Selector includes two separate lower sections; a tall one and a low one. The helmet can also be used without any lower section at an aerodynamic penalty, but ventilation and donning speed benefit. Effectively, the Giro Selector is four aero helmets: High fairing with visor, low fairing with visor, either fairing with no visor, no fairing and no visor. The Giro Selector is the first truly “tunable” aero helmet. You can adapt the helmet to the temperature and your bike position by removing or installing components.
The “skirts” on the helmet snap on and off using a series of tongue and grove couplings. These are tough to use and require a firm but careful hand. I had a difficult time interchanging skirts on my first attempt, but it improved with practice. The fitting of the lower aero pan section takes some work. The instructions included from Giro with the helmet are multi-lingual, but basic. You simply pull the helmet from the fairing – alarmingly hard. I actually thought I broke the fairing on my first attempt at removal, but a close examination proved everything was intact following a series of ominous noises. The process of changing the skirts requires a judicious use of force and care. It isn’t an elegant fit.
Once in place the skirts make donning and doffing the helmet tricky. This is not a quick transition helmet. Remember- it was developed for bicycle time trials, not fast transitions. With practice the helmet can be donned efficiently, but it will be longer process by a few seconds than donning some other aero helmets without the lower fairing. An alternative is to simply race without the fairing.
The Giro Selector does include a tinted visor though, and that subverts the need for donning sunglasses with your helmet on. Skipping the sunglasses may save the extra time it takes to don the Giro Selector with the skirt in place. If you practice, the time differential could become a wash. You simply grab your sunglasses running out of T2 and don them while running full speed. The helmet takes longer to put on with the fairing, but the time is saved by not having to put on sunglasses in the swim to bike transition.
Once donned, our testers characterized the helmet as very comfortable. I’ll agree it is the best fitting aero helmet I’ve tried on. The helmet is also oddly quiet since the visor and ear covering insulates you from the sound of wind around your helmet.
As with most aero improvements the helmet with visor is heavier than a more conventional high end helmet with a pair of Oakley sunglasses. The heaviest configuration of the Giro Selector, with deep fairing and visor in place, weighted 432 grams. A Giro road helmet with a pair of Oakleys weighs 343 grams. The lesson is an aero helmet may not be the best alternative on super mountainous courses with long climbs like Ironman France. It still provides a tangible time savings on course like Ironman Arizona, Lake Placid, Canada and Wisconsin.
I’ve raced with an aero helmet since the very earliest imported versions in 1986. I’ve also squeaked out minor age category wins by a hand full of seconds. The Giro Selector is the most advanced and versatile aero helmet system I’ve seen since it can be configured for many different rider positions, weather conditions and course profiles. On a very hilly course with long climbs I would simply use the helmet without visor or lower fairing to provide better ventilation. In a flat and fast Olympic distance race I would use the lower fairing and visor and practice donning the helmet quickly, grabbing my Oakleys on the run out of T2.
Giro has broken new ground with Selector as the most advanced aero helmet available. It can be a tricky product to use due to the fit of the fairing and visor, and their somewhat difficult mounting, but the time savings are worth the attention to detail on the athlete’s part. It’s easier to deal with the snap-on fairing than to do more intervals on the bike. While some athletes may not see the value of saving 10-40 seconds on an Olympic distance bike course, once they see they missed their last age category medal by only 10 seconds, the value of this helmet will become apparent