The Latest Cycling Controversy Involves a Big Helmet

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God Bless professional cycling for producing goofy and hilarious controversies.

In 2023, we had the kerfuffle involving a blown pee stop, as well as an accusation of beer drinking during the Tour de France lobbed at French riders. The latest squabble involves a bike helmet that Darth Vader might wear to a space disco.

On Monday, Dutch cycling team Visma-Lease a Bike unveiled a radical new helmet design at Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico race, a warmup event for stars of the Tour de France. The helmet, called the Giro Aerohead II, looks pretty weird, right? I suggest analyzing the thing from multiple angles to properly bask in its garish and deranged glory. It’s as if the nose cone from a Boeing 747 and the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile met on Tinder and, well, you get the rest of the joke.

The Aerohead II represents the latest feat of bike-industry engineering aimed at attaining an aerodynamic advantage during road cycling’s individual time trial—yes, the feared race against the clock. In these painful events, cyclists pedal by themselves over flats, hills, and descents, and often the margin of victory is determined by whomever has the most aerodynamic gear and gizmos.

Cycling has a long history of goofy time trial helmets designed to cheat the wind, and I could write thousands of words about the zany designs of yesteryear. Back in the days of Lance Armstrong, aero helmets were little more than sleek, paper-thin plastic fairings that offered zero skull protection in the case of a crash. But over the years, the Union Cycliste International (UCI), the sport’s governing body, passed rules requiring the helmets to pass safety tests—you know, so they actually protect a bike racer’s brain. To meet these benchmarks, helmet manufacturers were forced to create wider and more bulbous models with all manners of aerodynamic innovations, such as golf ball-like dimples, skull-cooling vents, and in the case of the Specialized TT5 helmet, an unfortunate elastic face sock.

The Aerohead II is simply the latest and not-so-greatest product berthed by the aero arms race, and boy did it ruffle feathers. Photos of the helmets quickly circulated on social media, and within a few hours the meme brigade did its thing, comparing the Visma-Lease a Bike riders to Dark Helmet from the 1987 comedy Spaceballs and other helmet-wearing figures from popular culture.

The memes, of course, were followed by the takes—mostly negative. It sucks! It’s ugly! But a lot of the opposition was followed by an important caveat—maybe the Aerohead II is faster than the other helmets out there. Visma-Lease a Bike is the most dominant team in cycling at the moment, having won the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a España in 2023. The squad employs an army of coaches, trainers, and gear specialists. Armchair experts wondered: would the team really approve of a weird helmet if it wasn’t faster than the others? In total, the hubbub around the Aerohead II produced an impressive tonnage of online discourse. Late in the day my  father—who is as casual a cycling fan as they come—texted me with a photo of the helmet. What the hell is this thing?

There are times when any attention is good attention, and for pro cycling, early March is one of those periods. Nobody outside of the inner circle of hardcore cycling nerds cares about Tirreno-Adriatico, yet the Aerohead II got at least a few casual cycling fans to talk about bike racing in late winter. I wondered to myself how the wider world would react to the strange helmet this July, when Visma-Lease a Bike riders wore it at the Tour de France.

But that’s unlikely to happen. On Tuesday, the UCI issued a statement saying that aerodynamic helmets like the Aerohead II had pushed the boundaries of acceptable design, and that the agency would review its own standards for helmets. “The Aerohead II… raises a significant issue concerning the current and wider trend in time trial helmet design, which focuses more on performance than the primary function of a helmet, namely to ensure the safety of the wearer in the event of a fall,” the statement said. The release also said that the Specialized face sock was now banned—which, let’s be honest, is for the best.

Anyone who follows pro cycling knows what is about to happen: the UCI will likely ban the Aerohead II and probably a few other helmets from competition. You see, in addition to enforcing the rules of fair play, the UCI acts as the sartorial overlord for pro cycling, and over the years it has prohibited products and outfits that violate the style sensibilities of pro cycling’s cultural history. For instance, there are rules that govern the height of a rider’s socks, and ones that govern the fabric that can be used for bike jerseys. The bike itself is governed by a whole set of regulations that govern everything from the angle of a bike’s handlebars, to the shape of the tubing used for frames. These regulations prevent the sport’s look and feel from evolving too far from that of the olden days, when riders puffed on cigarettes and swilled wine during major races.

I’ve covered pro cycling since 2004, and my guess is the Aerohead II is toast. Anyone who followed the ordeal play out on social media this week likely just witnessed the shortest lifespan of a piece of cycling gear in history. I assume the Aerohead II will soon fade into cycling lore alongside other banned items, like the Cinelli Spinaci handlebar extensions, or the weird Old Faithful bicycle ridden by Scottish racer Graeme Obree, or Spinergy Rev X wheels.

But hey, we’ll always have the memes.