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Ahead of the game

24 Apr 2019

Helmets were made compulsory in bike racing by the UCI in 2003, and ever since then the quest for better performance has seen helmets become endlessly lighter, better ventilated and more aerodynamic. In comparison, a helmet’s primary function - safety - has often been overlooked.

While performance attributes have limits that are constantly being pushed, safety has standards that brands seek only to meet. US brand Bontrager decided it was time to change that - not just for road cycling, but for city and MTB riding too.

‘We see safety as a metric to be developed no differently to any other in helmet design,’ says Tony White, Bontrager’s lead engineer on the WaveCel project. ‘I learned about WaveCel through its published academic papers and National Institute of Health grants. We realised how much potential there was in this technology, and we’ve been working with it ever since.’

Safe hands

The WaveCel technology was developed by orthopaedic surgeon Dr Steve Madey and biomechanical engineer Dr Michael Bottlang, whose long standing collaboration has pioneered advances in fracture care, thoracic and pelvic trauma, and head injury prevention. WaveCel’s application in Bontrager helmets is the result of a four-year partnership between the pair and Bontrager’s research and design team.

Where standard EPS foam protects against direct impacts, WaveCel’s design allows it to absorb energy in several ways, reflecting the twists, turns and angled impacts a rider is likely to experience in a real-world crash.

The cellular polymer structure moves independently within the helmet on impact, flexing until the cell walls crumple, then gliding against each other to absorb the direct and rotational energy that would otherwise be transferred to the rider’s head.

In a recent study conducted to test the efficacy of the design, the researchers found WaveCel’s method of dealing with impact made it 48 times more effective than standard EPS at preventing concussion.

Genuine innovation

On the face of it this is an incredible step forward in safety – and these aren’t just the bold claims of a brand trying to market its product. The research that generated the figures was peer-reviewed and published in a recent scientific journal. Furthermore Virginia Tech University, which houses a third-party helmet review institution, awarded every one of Bontrager’s WaveCel helmets its highest rating for safety.

‘The three phases of deformation within WaveCel under impact really are the key to these findings,’ says White. ‘By designing one technology that absorbs impact energy both linearly and rotationally, we’ve been able to break new ground in helmet safety, which is what made it possible to produce such dramatic improvements.’

The incorporation of WaveCel, White says, has created advantages beyond protection too. ‘The complicated shapes on the interior of most EPS helmets can cause pressure points as the helmet rests on the rider’s head. As WaveCel forms a dome shape within the helmet, it naturally fits your head. EPS is also a fantastic insulator, which is not ideal for cooling in hot weather.

'By recessing WaveCel into the shell and removing a lot of EPS, we’ve effectively given the rider’s head space from that insulation, replacing it with a porous structure that allows heat to escape from your head.’

Considering the benefits shown in tests, the 50g weight premium WaveCel adds to a helmet on average seems like a small and worthwhile trade-off. The technology represents a major innovation in an area of helmet performance that has remained unchanged for a long while. Bontrager deserves huge credit for bringing safety to the fore once again.

WaveCel is available exclusively in Bontrager helmets sold online and through authorised Trek and Bontrager retailers. For more information, visit