When it comes to choosing the most protective, safest helmet for cycling, Virginia Tech’s rating system is the gold standard for objective helmet testing. Done in collaboration with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the team at Virginia Tech tested 123 of the most popular helmets on the market and gave them both a star ranking and a safety score.

In fact, this rating has become more of a benchmark among brands than the standard CE (European) and CPSC (U.S) safety testing that a helmet must pass before it’s allowed to be sold in the respective regions. More on that down below, first let’s see what makes VA Tech’s test so important…

How does Virginia Tech test & rate bicycle helmets?

Photo c. Virginia Tech

The STAR methodology developed by Virginia Tech uses an oblique impact drop tower to test the helmet’s efficacy, dropping it onto an anvil set at a 45-degree angle that best replicates the angle that most cyclists will hit their heads in crashes.

Like a medieval torture device, the anvil is coated with sandpaper to simulate road surface (ouch). Helmets—strapped onto a mannequin head—are dropped 12 different ways, varying the main point of contact as well as the speed that they’re dropped. Multiple helmets are used in each test in order to prevent impacts near each other, since theoretically, a cyclist is replacing a helmet after any crash where it sustains a hit.

bicycle helmet safety ranking formula from virginia tech university

Virginia Tech’s “Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk” (aka STAR) rating formula.

After the testing, helmets are given a Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk—STAR—Rating. The STAR equation was originally developed for testing with football helmets and concussion incidence rate, but has been modified for cyclists. The equation calculates concussion risk from impact based on the drop tests. (You can read the full testing protocol here.)

Those “Stars” are awarded in two ways – a numerical STAR Rating, and an actual ⭐️ rating  from 1 to 5 stars. Unfortunately, they have inverse meanings…a lower number is better, but a higher ⭐️ rating is better.

top ten safest road bike helmets shown on a rider and in this list

The Lazer G1 is the top-rated road bike helmet for 2021. Fortunately, it’s also a very comfortable, lightweight helmet we really like, too!

Think of the lower STAR number as a reduced likelihood of concussion. Or, as the amount of impact force transmitted to your brain. Lower is better.

But visually, a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ rating very clearly indicates something is better than a ⭐️⭐️⭐️ helmet – it’s easier to understand, and easier for a brand to slap on their marketing materials.

So, lower numbers -under 14- get five stars. If a helmet has five stars, a concussion is more than 70 percent less likely to occur. The higher the STAR rating number, the lower the number of ⭐️s it receives.  Four stars means your concussion risk is reduced between 60 and 70 percent, while a one-star ranking means less than 40 percent reduction in your risk. (It should be noted that wearing no helmet reduces your risk 0 percent—no stars.)

This year’s rated helmets run from 8.7 down to 25.3 on the scale.

See the full list of Bicycle Helmet Ratings here.

You can watch how the test process works here:

Virginia Tech also notes that these scores are only valid if the helmet is worn properly, sitting 1-2 inches above the browline and appropriately tightened. A loose helmet won’t provide the same level of protection.

Before we get into this list of the Safest Road Helmets, it is important to note that this list is based strictly on the results from Virginia Tech, and that not every helmet on the market was tested.

“A small percentage of the models on the market have been rated, all chosen by the manufacturers and sent to Virginia Tech,” the researchers note. They also emphasize that these rankings are just one decision-making factor in a helmet-buying decision. But it’s an important factor, so let’s dig into the top options:

Safest Road Bike Helmets of 2021

Lazer G1 MIPS helmet

Available in three sizes and four colorways, the Lazer G1 MIPS helmet tops the charts as the safest helmet on the market according to Virginia Tech. This ultra-light breathable helmet is the lightest helmet Lazer makes, at only 235 grams. You can opt to add a bit of weight with thicker helmet pads or stick to the included weight weenie-friendly set. Twenty two gaping air vents make it great for climbing on hot days. (Check our G1 review here)

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 9.2
  • Cost: $240

Specialized Align II (MIPS) helmet

The second helmet on Virginia Tech’s rankings only drops 0.4 in the STAR score but a whopping $190 in price point. At 355 grams, it’s heavier than the Lazer. It also doesn’t have the same ventilation, but it is quite breathable. We like that it comes in seven colors—some basic, and some a bit more funky, like the light lavender option—and three sizes.

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 9.6
  • Cost: $50

Lazer Tonic MIPS helmet

The Lazer Tonic MIPS helmet is the more budget-friendly option for those who like the G1 but don’t have the cash. Weighing in at only 280 grams, it’s available in two colors (black and white, nice and simple!) and three sizes.

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 9.8
  • Cost: $80

Lazer Century MIPS helmet

The Lazer Century MIPS comes in three sizes and four colorways and offers a funky trick: With a flip of its magnetic cover, it goes from being well-ventilated to ultra-aero as the central vents close over. It also has an integrated rear light.

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 10
  • Cost: $180

SCOTT Centric Plus (MIPS) helmet

The SCOTT Centric Plus (MIPS) helmet is only 220 grams, making it the lightest on our road helmet list. It comes in seven colors, including a unique reddish-brown, and three sizes.

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 10.2
  • Cost: $200

Safest MTB Helmets

Sweet Protection Trailblazer MIPS helmet

It’s not surprising that the Sweet Protection Trailblazer MIPS helmet has the lowest (best) STAR score of the bunch, outranking the top road helmet in terms of safety. That’s likely because mountain bike helmets are designed to provide more coverage, and are (slightly) less concerned with weight or ventilation. Available in five colors and three sizes, the Trailblazer has the best rating score that Virginia Tech has ever published for a bike helmet. (This is definitely an enduro-style helmet, so cross-country riders might find that it’s a bit of overkill and not as breathable as other models.)

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 8.7
  • Cost: $180

Fox Dropframe Pro (MIPS) helmet

The Fox Dropframe Pro MIPS helmet comes in four sizes and it’s definitely a trail/enduro helmet, with much more side coverage than an average helmet. It’s heavy as well -750 gram- but it still provides plenty of ventilation. It comes with extra pads so you can fully customize the fit to your face and head.

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 8.9
  • Cost: $200

Bontrager Rally MIPS helmet

The Bontrager Rally MIPS helmet comes in five sizes, and is one of the lightest helmets in the mountain bike rankings. At 330 grams, it weighs only a bit more than most of the road helmets. It has a clip-on visor and a bit more side coverage than a road helmet, but retains the aerodynamic advantages. Bontrager also provides a one-year crash replacement guarantee.

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 9.3
  • Cost: $150

Troy Lee Designs A2 MIPS Decoy

The Troy Lee Designs A2 MIPS Decoy helmet comes in five colors and three sizes, and is an “all mountain” helmet. That means it’s ideal for both pedaling uphill -thanks to its breathability and relatively light weight- but it’s burly enough for an enduro-style descent.

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 10
  • Cost: $179

Scott ARX Plus (MIPS)

Available in three sizes and eight colors—including this cool surf blue and a funky komodo green—the Scott ARX Plus helmet is designed to go from the mountain bike trails to the road, making it the most “XC” of the top helmets. And it weighs just 270g (claimed). It features MIPS protection inside, a removable visor, and enough ventilation that it makes a solid all-around helmet for someone who loves to mountain bike, but also rides road or gravel bikes. Bonus points for being very affordable! (Note: This one is actually 6th on the list this year, but 5th place is no longer available, so we moved Scott up a notch.)

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 10.7
  • Cost: $99

Safest Budget Helmet

Specialized Align II (MIPS)

That’s right, the second helmet in the Road Helmet category is also the top Budget helmet at only $50. Available in seven colorways and three sizes, the Specialized Align II with MIPS is a perfect helmet for any rider who wants good looks and top safety ratings in a really affordable bicycle helmet.

  • STAR ranking: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • STAR Score: 9.6
  • Cost: $50

Frequently asked questions about helmet safety

lazer g1 genesis road bike helmet review

What makes a helmet safe?
In the US, helmets are required to be CPSC-certified, which shows that a helmet can provide protection against “catastrophic injuries in extremely severe impacts.”

While that’s a great starting point, a helmet that offers protection in less catastrophic situations (like a slow-speed crash) is important. In fact, many brands say the CPSC testing requires a helmet that’s too hard, and that softer foams and materials would actually be safer in the vast majority of real-world accidents because they’d be better able to absorb the more common low speed impacts.

But there are other factors, like MIPS or other anti-rotational technologies, and proper helmet fit that can make a helmet more or less safe.

What’s the safest gravel bike helmet?
Just pick any of the road bike helmets from this list, they all work great for gravel riding, too.

the lazer century mips road bike helmet is one of the top rated safest bicycle helmets on the market

What is MIPS?
MIPS -Multi-directional Impact Protection System- is a secondary layer between your scalp and the helmet, installed such that the outer shell of the helmet can slip, tilt, and rotate several degrees before that rotation reaches your head. So, as the helmet hits the ground in a crash, it’s theoretically absorbing more rotational forces than a helmet without MIPS,  thus reducing concussion risk.

Some brands have competing designs rather than license MIPS’ technology and branding, but the concept is the same – reduce rotational forces.

Are MIPS helmets better than non-MIPS bicycle helmets?
You’ll notice that every helmet that tops the Virginia Tech rankings has MIPS technology—but that does NOT automatically mean they are better. Here’s why:

  1. The testing Virginia Tech does is similar to how MIPS tests their helmet standards, so it makes sense that MIPS helmets would do well in this specific situation.”Many of [the helmets tested] are MIPS models. They were tested using the methodology that MIPS uses: sticky headform, tight strap, severe anvil angle, rough grippy anvil, no neck,” researchers cautioned. “That methodology couples the headform more tightly to the helmet than it would be in the real world. It would be expected to favor the MIPS models, unlike the Snell Foundation’s research that showed no benefit from MIPS.”In other words, MIPS adds a layer to the helmet that reduces space, so it’s inherently going to fit more closely than non-MIPS models. And, these tests do not account for hair and skin movement (which will also reduce rotational impact forces and speed), and there’s no neck movement to twist or bend, which would further mitigate direct rotational forces on the head.
  2. There is likely some selection bias in the testing. Meaning, most brands want to sell you their MIPS versions because they are more expensive and have a perceived benefit, so these are the models they send in for testing. Remember, the brands send the helmets in to be included in this ranking, so it’s not a random selection of all helmets on the market, with or without MIPS and MIPS-like features.

The takeaway? MIPS is probably a good thing, but don’t think that just because non-MIPS helmets aren’t ranked as highly on this list that they aren’t just as safe.

bontrager wavecel helmet impact protection is an alternative to EPS foam

What about WaveCel?
WaveCel is Bontrager’s answer to MIPS technology, and is a honeycomb-like insert in the helmet that decreases linear impacts. Basically, it’s designed to crush just like EPS foam would, just, um, different. While the Bontrager Specter WaveCel helmet wasn’t in the Top 5 road or MTB helmets in Virginia Tech’s testing, it did score 5 stars in their rating system.

endura pro sl road bike helmet with koroyd impact protection

And what about Koroyd?
Some of Smith’s and Endura’s helmets use Koroyd, which looks like a bunch of straws stuck together. Like WaveCel, it’s simply an alternative to EPS foam and is designed to crush and deform to absorb impact before it reaches your head.

how to fit a bicycle helmet properly

This is how a helmet should look on your head when it’s properly fit.

How should a helmet fit?
Remember 2V1: 2 fingers between your eyebrows and the top of the helmet, a V-shape with your index and middle fingers going around your ears to show where the straps should sit, and 1 finger under the strap at your chin. You should also be able to shake your head up and down vigorously without the helmet falling off even when the helmet is unclipped—that indicates it’s fitted properly to your head.

When should I replace a bike helmet?
After any crash where you sustained a hit to the helmet, you should replace it. Many companies will even offer crash replacement helmets for free or at a discount, especially within the first year after purchasing, so check with your helmet manufacturer if you need to replace it.

Check your helmet regularly for cracks or breaks, since occasionally, helmets can hit the ground and get cracked without you in them. The good news though is that if you haven’t crashed in your helmet, it should last for quite a while. Consumer Reports notes that unless there’s a compelling reason -like a crash or a broken strap- to replace your helmet, you can keep it as long as you want.

If you’re still rocking your foam helmet from the early 90s though, you may want to replace it simply because helmet technology has come such a long way in the last 20 years. The foam on your 1992 neon pink helmet might still be intact, but that helmet won’t have MIPS or a BOA-style fit system!

How can I take care of my helmet while traveling?
Remember that helmets aren’t really made to withstand compression, especially from the side with no support. That means you should never put a helmet in a bike bag (unless you have a hard case that can’t be compressed). This editor learned the hard way after a trip to a race with her helmet in her soft bike bag. While thankfully the bike was unscathed, my brand new helmet was crushed sometime between dropoff and pickup at the airport.

Lesson learned: Helmets go in your carry-on when flying. Also, make sure you’re not storing your helmet precariously on a shelf in the garage where an exuberant door slam could knock it onto the cement. Again, helmets aren’t meant to withstand many direct hits, they’re meant to protect you from one. Lastly, store your helmet out of the sun and heat…meaning, don’t leave them in your car or laying out in the backyard.

For more of our favorite helmet options, check out our list of Best Women’s Cycling Helmets here.

12 comments

  1. typevertigo on

    Great to see the Lazer Tonic MIPS do well. It’s an affordable helmet that betters many of Lazer’s more expensive offerings. I’ve had a non-MIPS version of it since 2016, and it’s one of the best helmets I’ve had – and much better ventilated than the Blade MIPS.

    Reply
  2. Andrew on

    Nice to see helmets rated on what matters most – safety, instead of the normal reviews about airflow, weight etc etc.

    Its amazed me that it took so long for the safety aspect of a helmet to become one of the metrics that its judged on…. all it takes is for one of your riding buddies to get a bad concussion to see how important safety is!

    Reply
  3. CrzyMD on

    MTB is going full face/enduro style helmets. If you aren’t wearing one, you are only fooling yourself. The above don’t include any facial protection. So how can they be the “safest” helmets?

    Reply
  4. Stephane on

    For what region are the helmets been tested. (America, Europe, ..) Not all the brands are included in the test. I miss Abuss, Oakley, Mavic, kask helmets. Are there more test coming?

    I like the way the helmets are tested and the information that has been giving of all the aspects of the helmets.

    Reply
    • smithersmpls on

      Virginia Tech only tests helmets that have the CPSC (US Consumer Product Safety Commission) certification. This means only helmets sold in the North American market are included in their ranking results. Note that the CPSC certification is a more stringent standard than the CE (Europe) certification.

      Reply

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