Are you as fascinated as I am by the helmets that the cyclists are wearing, particularly in the Olympic velodrome events?
Do you like their futuristic design?
Are you wondering why they are designed to look that way?
Well, the number one factor is safety. The helmets are there first and foremost as a safety device.
If a cyclist is unfortunate enough to fall off their bike, the helmet would prevent severe head injury. Because the cyclists are going so fast, the speeds at which they crash or fall all contribute to making large energy transfer forces during any impact their head would make with the ground. This is compounded by the fact that their head would essentially fall from their seating position to the ground, a distance of about 1.5-2 metres. These factors lead to increased acceleration of the head resulting in larger impact forces being imparted to the head should it hit the ground.
Helmets are essentially designed to provide a physical barrier between the head and the ground, If designed properly, they can dissipate the forces across the helmet so that they are not transferred to the head and injury is prevented or reduced. This barrier consists of both an outer shell and an impact absorbing inner liner.
But, as Newton told us in his second law of motion, force=mass x acceleration. So the mass, or size of the head/helmet unit, is also important. Sports technologists and impact biomechanists are constantly searching for lighter materials for helmet manufacturers to use, that still perform as well in terms of energy absorption. It is mainly the impact absorbing liner which does most of the work in reducing the impact forces transmitted to the head.
Of course, other important design features like the restraint systems/chin straps, ensure that helmets stay placed on heads where they should be, even during a fall from a bike and a subsequent head impact.
In addition to the important safety design aspects, there are performance and aesthetic reasons for why a helmet should not be too large or uncomfortable to wear. In elite or competitive sports, the helmet should not impede performance either. In a sport like velodrome, aerodynamics is important for allowing cyclists to reach desired speeds and drag needs to be minimised. The specific shape and contour features of the helmets worn by the Olympians have been designed specifically to help the performance aspects of the sport, whilst maximising safety.
But don’t just believe an injury prevention researcher.
Some more information about the design of the helmets for the Great Britain cycling team, as an example of leading edge technology, can be found here.
Even though it may be tempting, do not rush to buy your own Olympic-style cycling helmet just yet. The specific requirements of cycling at that elite level are very different to those of less competitive and more recreational cyclists. Whilst we can expect to see continued development of helmets for all cyclists, the experts agree that different helmets are needed for different cycling purposes.
For those who want to learn more about sports helmets, there is a great paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine about the future design of helmets for safety for several sports.
Caroline Finch can be followed @CarolineFinch