Cross-country racing is intense, to finish victorious riders must be able to give full gas on the climbs before descending confidently down the other side. To meet these demands helmets have to strike a careful balance between weight, protection and ventilation. Racers often opt for road style helmets that sacrifice a little extra coverage but offer superior levels of ventilation and even aerodynamic advantages over beefier trail helmet options.
What to look for in XC and marathon helmets?
EPS (expanded polystyrene) is a foam material that is highly effective at reducing the energy of impacts. It does this through deformation which as a result brings your head to a slower stop lessening damage to the brain.
The foams density can be modified allowing manufacturers to create dual-density layers or tune specific areas of the helmet for specific or common impacts. Helmets commonly use in-moulding, this method of manufacture bonds the EPS to a protective outer shell to produce lightweight and slim-lined helmets.
Some brands will use other materials combined with the EPS to improve structural integrity and resist shattering during an impact.
2. Retention system
To achieve a close fit, helmets will use an adjustable retention system so that the helmet can be tightened for a snug fit ton a riders head. This is usually in the form of a ratchet dial or BOA located on the rear of the helmet which allows easy operation with one hand. Some systems also offer additional adjustment, by moving the retention system vertically within the helmet to further tune the fit.
The most important consideration of any helmet is fit, a helmet that fits securely and comfortably on your head will offer the best protection and riding experience. When shopping for a helmet it is worth trying some on before you make your purchase.
Ventilation is very important during cross-country or marathon races, racers are often riding at threshold but have low airflow as speeds are slower compared to other cycling disciplines. Effective vents and channels are key to promoting airflow across the head as well as allowing heat to radiate out when tackling steep slow climbs.
4. Rotational safety
Rotational safety systems such as MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) and POC’s SPIN are designed to combat rolling and twisting forces during a crash. These motions are a significant cause of concussion and other serious brain injuries. Rotational systems allow the head to move within the helmet up to 15mm to reduce the forces on the brain.
Scroll down to see BikePerfect’s roundup of the best cross-country and marathon helmets available to buy this year.
The 10 best XC and marathon helmets you can buy today
Giro has been making helmets for a long time and has packed everything they have learned into the Aether MIPS to create their most advanced head protection yet.
Giro has used a dual-density EPS foam liner and progressive layering to protect against a wide range of impact types. Constructed from a six-piece shell the helmet utilises an “AURA reinforcement arch” to improve shatter resistance upon impact.
Giro uses a proprietary MIPS system for the Aether. The standard MIPS system is an additional layer inside the helmet but for the Aether Giro has incorporated it between two different foam layers. This has helped maximise comfort and ventilation. A Roc Loc 5 + Air fit system allows 3-way adjustment for optimal fit.
The Octal X Spin is a development of POC’s Octal road helmet and shares the same EPS liner, supportive Aramid bridge and airy ventilation technology. By extending the helmets shell to offer better head coverage and enhancing strength POC has improved the Octal X Spin to suit the rigours of off-road riding.
POC was one of the first brands to adopt MIPS but for the Octal X have opted for their self-developed SPIN technology. SPIN uses the shearing properties of the helmets gel pads to handle rotational forces in a crash. POC claims that in their tests SPIN has outperformed equivalent MIPS systems.
The Scott Centric Plus might be an aero enhanced road design but Nino Schurter has shown it has the performance to excel as an XC helmet.
Many aero helmets suffer restricted ventilation however Scott’s strategically placed vents allow airflow to channel over the head. A Scott Air Technology MIPS system protects against rotational forces and features a unique perforated construction enhancing cooling.
An impact-absorbing foam liner is fused to the polycarbonate outer shell to reduce weight and bulk around the head. The helmet is secured using Scott’s Halo Fit System that offers micro-adjustment fitting.
Abus is best known for its excellent locks and bike security but the German company also offers protection for your head.
An ActiCage Lite system uses a plastic frame to provide integrated reinforcement to the helmet's in-moulded structure and support the large vents. These vents form what Abus call a 'Forced Air Cooling' system which Abus claims offers multi-speed cooling through ventilation and heat radiation.
Abus' Zoom Ace head retention is adjustable using a dial on the back for a secure fit. The chin straps have been designed to sit flat against the head to avoid fluttering in the wind.
The Spectrum uses three in-mould EPS liners which are integrated to increase rigidity and is claimed to improve energy dissipation away from the head. 15 vents across the helmet work in conjunction to ventilate air through the helmet keeping you cool.
The RS10 retention system allows 360-degree closure around the head so that fit is secure and comfortable. The retention system has multiple vertically and horizontally positions for fine-tuning size adjustment.
Other features include an Integrated Air Frame Band designed to channel air to your brow and a bug stopping mesh for the vents to stop insects and dirt getting into the helmet will riding.
The Layer Z1 has been stripped back to create a super lightweight helmet without sacrificing safety or comfort and has now been updated with MIPS.
The Z1 is in-moulded with a supportive nylon layer. The edges of the helmet have been dropped to add additional side impact protection for the temple area. Lazer's Advanced Rollsys System secures the helmet effectively applying pressure around the whole head. This uses a unique top-mounted dial that is easy to operate with one hand.
Oakley’s ARO3 is one of the first helmets released by the eyewear giant and the bar has been set high. An EPS construction is combined with MIPS for great protection. Oakley designed the ARO3 to maximise airflow and features five large vents across the front to cool the head.
A slim-lined BOA system is used to adjust the fit of the helmet by tensioning a TX1 lace rather than a cradle to avoid interference when wearing sunglasses. This isn’t the only sunglasses-specific feature, Oakley has included an integrated sunglasses dock to securely hold your shades when you aren’t wearing them.
Bontrager has joined the aero helmet trend but they say this has not affected the Velocis’ all-day comfort.
Ventilation on the helmet may look minimal but the front vents feed into internal channelling that distributes airflow across the head. The Velocis features MIPS and uses a BOA dial retention system for easy adjustments.
And don’t worry, if you have a crash within the one year of purchase Bontrager will replace your damaged helmet for free.
Specialized has been thinking about how helmets can be made safer and has introduced an automatic crash sensor called ANGi. The concept is that in the event of a crash ANGi will send a text message to your emergency contacts along with your coordinates so that in the case of a serious accident help will be on its way.
Specialized has reduced the profile of the Prevail as much as possible while maintaining airflow and providing more coverage around the head to improve protection. A multi-density patented EPS construction is reinforced with a robotically woman skeleton for strength.
By working with MIPS, Specialized has developed its own exclusive MIPS SL, still offering the same levels of protection as the standard system but reducing weight while improving comfort and ventilation.
Kask is confident in the performance of their Protone helmet claiming that it has the lowest drag and fastest heat distribution of any vented helmet. This is the result of extensive wind tunnel testing which allowed Kask to not just analyse aerodynamics but optimise ventilation.
Multi in-moulding techniques are used to construct the helmet. This combines the top, base ring and back to an inner cap to improve shock absorption and crash integratory. An Octo retention system offers plenty of adjustment to get the best fit.
Another helmet from POC and the thriftier Omni Air Resistance SPIN aims to take on a range of off-road disciplines. Designed for everything from gravel adventures to trail riding means the Omni Air Resistance is well suited for cross country riding.
This helmet may be POC’s budget model but it certainly doesn’t lack any safety features. A single-density EPS liner is optimised for impact absorption and offers an improved slimmer profile than previous POC models. The Omni Air features the same SPIN technology from POC’s higher-end helmets which reduces rotational forces in crashes.
Ventilation channels are smaller than on helmets like the Octal X but the Omne Air still creates good airflow to manage heat effectively. A small peak provides some protection from the sun and mud but can be detached if preferred.