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The History of Bike Helmets

The first bike helmets debuted in the 1880s, when cycling first became a popular pastime. These early helmets were made of pith, a plant-based material that was readily available and relatively protective, but which shattered on impact and was therefore not reusable. In the early 20th century, leather helmets built especially for cycling were introduced. However, they weren’t very effective and broke down easily due to sweat. Not much changed until the 1970s, when foam helmets with plastic shells were developed. The Bell Motor Sports company came up with the first modern cycling helmet, the Bell Biker; it used a Lexan shell over an EPS liner. Around the same time, the Snell Foundation (named after Pete “William” Snell, who passed away in a car race crash in 1957) sought to test and standardize protection levels for helmets. In 1984, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) implemented Z80.4, the first set of bike helmet standards for the United States. Soon after, Bell created a lightweight helmet that still met protection standards by using an all-EPS design. In 1986, Jim Gentes started Giro Sport Design to market and sell vented, all-EPS helmets that were covered in Lycra. Notably, helmets made entirely of EPS weren’t designed to take more than one impact, so in 1989, Pro-Tec began inserting a nylon mesh within the foam to reinforce the structure and durability while maintaining the lighter weight. The 1980s also saw the development of aero helmets, or aerodynamic helmets, which were designed with a sleek, teardrop shape meant to make riders able to go faster. The basic design is still in use by many elite cyclists today. Around the same time, Bell introduced a nylon strap and D-ring for securing the helmet, but the method was quickly replaced by plastic buckles, which were much easier to use. In the early 1990s, shells made of PET and other thin but strong plastics were added to the outside of EPS foam helmets to increase effectiveness, durability, and slide (in case of impact). When molded techniques were introduced to helmet manufacturing, ABS plastic replaced the PET; notably, this allowed for safer helmets without adding much extra weight or bulk. Inner retention systems to improve fit were also added around this time. While the general design of bike helmets has remained largely the same, the materials used have become lighter and safer. Today, bike helmets remain an essential piece of safety equipment for everyone from everyday bike riders to professional cyclists.

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