13 May 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: Giro Athlon helmet

While they share quite a bit, mountain and road biking put different demands on equipment. Style aside (baggies vs. Lycra, tees vs. jerseys), there are gains to be made by optimizing a piece of gear for one discipline over another. Take shoes, for example. Roadies tend to value stiffness and light weight over mountain bikers' concerns for durability, walkability and traction. Sure, one can use mountain shoes on the road bike (many do) or vice versa (few do), but the best tool for the job is often optimized for that job.

Take helmets. On the road, riders' heads tend to be tucked down lower and their speeds higher than in the dirt. A helmet company could look at the angle of the riders' heads and the airflow they can expect to see and optimize their products' vents for maximum cooling either on the road or off. Similarly, mountain bikers tend to fall over backwards more than their road brethren and a bit more protection at the back of the head can be useful (while it would be uncomfortable on the road, interfering with the back of the rider's neck). Almost by definition, a product optimized for use in one setting (road, dirt, recumbent, etc) is sub-optimal in another.

Back in December, a crack forced the retirement of the last in my long line of Giro E2s. Introduced not long after the turn of the century, the E2 was the first cross-country optimized helmet to gain much of a foothold in the market. Sure, there were earlier attempts (my teal-to-purple fade Giro Hammerhead was an embarrassing example), but few took off in the way that the E2 did. With its large vents aimed to take advantage of the wind in an upright riding position and increased rear coverage, it was well suited to the average XC rider's needs. Better still, it fit most folks' noggins well and looked cool (and was cooler than subsequent 'all mountain' helmets). After a number of years, however, Giro decided it was time for a change. My interest was piqued by early photos of what would be called the Athlon the promise of a lighter, sleeker XC helmet.

When my Athlon and Soros (a mid-range road helmet) arrived, the boys down at the shop were unimpressed. It looks like a road helmet I remember Lucero saying, and he was right. The Athlon was a clear break from the aggressive, identifiably mountain design language shared by the E2, Hex and Phase (among others). Looks, however, aren't everything (and are highly subjective), and I can hardly see my helmet while on the trail. More surprising (and less subjective) was the fact that the Athlon appeared to have gained 40g over the E2 while decreasing rear coverage slightly.

On the bike, the Athlon feels hotter than the E2 it replaced. While it was less noticeable when temperatures were in the 40s and 50s, now that they've topped 85, I'm feeling the heat. After a particularly warm ride one Friday, I pulled my E2 out of retirement for the following Sunday's ride. At this point, there's no question in my mind that the E2 is a cooler helmet on the trail. Also annoying is the adjustable POV visor. Where the E2's visor was perfectly positioned for the majority of riding in its upper position- with a lower position available when the sun was low on the horizon, the Athlon's visor is a few degrees higher in each position, providing virtually no sun protection when riding into the sunset. That's fine for those who think that its alright to ride with a visor and drop bars (its not- doing so compromises your field of vision in the drops and looks, well, awful), but disappointing for a range-topping mountain helmet from a company as established as Giro. It also sat oddly on my head. Initially, I thought that the Athlon's front-high stance was a strap and retention system setup issue. Five months and no end of fiddling later, I have to say that it just sits funny and almost always needs repositioning before I'm comfortable riding with it.

One day, walking past the hooks on which my bags and helmets hang, I stopped dead. There, sitting side by side were two identical helmets. Yes, the ultimate competition-specific MTB helmet was a poorly positioned visor away from being Giro's second least-expensive road helmet. Remember that bit about optimization earlier? To say that I was disappointed was an understatement.

Of course, this goes a long way to explaining the orientation of the vents and reduced rear coverage. One can hardly blame Giro for wanting to save money on complex and expensive helmet molds, but the suggestion that a mid-range road helmet becomes a mountain bike helmet solely by virtue of its added visor is a bit insulting. With the E2, Giro proved otherwise. What this doesn't explain is the added weight, slapdash visor placement or fact that the SarAthlon wants to sit front-high on my head, even with the rear retention system in its lowest position and the straps adjusted properly.

I know that Giro has been busy diversifying into gloves and sunglasses and being brought under the Easton-Bell umbrella, but those are no excuse for a market and innovation leader to miss the mark in so many aspects of what should be a flagship product. Its not that the SarAthlon is a bad helmet, but its not even a very good road or mountain helmet. Even if its not explicitly claimed to be an E2 replacement, the Athlon costs about the same ($130) and as the E2's been discontinued, one can be forgiven for making that assumption. Unlike the E2, however, I just can't see the Athlon becoming a classic, long-running, or ubiquitous helmet in the mountain bike world. Shopping for a cross-country mountain bike helmet? There are deals to be had on the E2 and the competition will no doubt be stepping up to fill the gap it has left. Look for a Saros review in the coming weeks to see how this helmet performs on the pavement...



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very good report, thanks.
I´m not buying that model.