Bontrager XXX WaveCel Helmet

Bontrager XXX WaveCel Helmet
Claimed by Trek to be “cycling’s most important change in 30 years.”
half of the rear of a Trek WaveCel helmet
Plenty of exhaust ports at the rear of the helmet.

Many people wear a helmet and think very little of it. It has to look good and fit a price point, but there’s often not a lot of thought given to the technology involved. It’s hard to say that helmets are the most high-tech pieces of cycling equipment because when you get into the details, every little piece of equipment you ride with carries a tremendous amount of technology into its creation and sales pitch. That said, helmet technology is no different and definitely an area into which a lot of R&D has poured.

Is your helmet as hi-tec as it could be?

Everyone wants to find the magic formula that ends with a helmet which is both safe, and effective at reducing injuries, but also functional on top of your head. A good helmet has to vent well, has to be comfortable, has to be stylish, and at the top end of the modern road cycling market, it has to do all that as well as be aerodynamic and keep the weight down. I am fascinated with designs that look these requirements and decide that there’s a better option than EPS foam.

WaveCel is another approach to the same problem as Smith’s use of Koroyd and MIPS.

That’s why I recently talked about the new Smith helmets which use Koroyd with a MIPS liner instead of EPS foam. At this moment in history it would be a mistake to talk about Smith and their Koroyd helmets without then discussing the Bontrager XXX helmet with WaveCel technology and the Boa Fit System.

rear view of a white road bike helmet sitting on a stone planter with out of focus plants nearby.
The back view shows the extensive exhaust porting as well as the Boa Fit System.

When Trek launched the Bontrager XXX WaveCel line of helmets, they did it along with some very bold claims. Trek claimed that WaveCel equipped helmets were “cycling’s most important change in 30 years” and went on to list specific numbers correlated to drastic reductions in instances of concussion. Koroyd and WaveCel are visually quite similar, and there were immediate comparisons. At the same time Koroyd, and MIPS, have been quite public about disputing the numbers that Trek has provided along with their WaveCel line of helmets.

Bontrager makes bold claims about the effectiveness of WaveCel.

My own personal take on the whole thing is that it’s hard to put a finger on when, exactly, a specific collision will result in a concussion, or not. Every accident involves an infinite number of variables, and even if variables hold constant, no two people will respond in exactly the same way. One person might walk away unharmed, and another might walk away with head trauma.

Even helmet testing protocols can be a contentious subject.

That’s why the helmet tests are typically in relation to other helmets. It’s possible that you will get a concussion from the best available helmet, but you’ve got better chances of not getting a concussion compared to a lesser rated helmet. For what it’s worth, Virginia Tech has become the go to for helmet testing, and the Bontrager XXX WaveCel helmet receives a 5 star rating. Unfortunately, the Ignite and Trace that I tested are not in their listings. They have tested the functionally identical Smith Route MIPS and it also received a 5 star rating.

inside of a road bike helmet laying on a stone planter
The design of WaveCel means that Bontrager gets similar crashworthiness without the need for a MIPS liner.

One way in which WaveCel is different than Koroyd is that WaveCel claims to do what the MIPS liner does, absorb rotational impact by allowing your head to slip in relation to the outer shell of the helmet, without needing a separate helmet layer. I wouldn’t call that “cycling’s most important change in 30 years”, but it’s nice, and it is as good of a place as any to start the discussion about what it’s like to actually use this helmet.

The Bontrager XXX helmet is definitely near the top in terms of safety but what is it like to actually use every day?

What it comes down to is that a good cycling helmet is going to keep you as safe as most other good helmets, and so the discussion really has to be about the choices that have been made, and how that affects everyday use.

It’s too bad more helmets don’t use the Boa Fit System.

When it comes to those choices, one of the most interesting is the use of a BOA adjuster on the rear cradle of the helmet. I love having the Boa Fit System on shoes, so I’m always drawn in when I see it used in other places. The BOA adjuster on the Bontrager XXX helmet is part of a really well designed rear cradle, and it works well in this setting.

rear of the Bontrager XXX Wavecell road bike helmet showing the BOA dial with an out of focus background.
The rear Boa Fit System allows for a slimmed down rear cradle.

The way the Boa Fit System works means that it’s easy to use coated wire for the structure instead of a more traditional plastic design. This makes the whole structure less bulky and, again because of the BOA dial, it’s fast and easy to tighten, or loosen, the whole rear of the helmet.

Always make sure the front of your helmet is properly adjusted.

The design of the rear cradle also does a really good job of controlling the placement of the helmet on your brow. If you are going to bother wearing a helmet, it’s important that you keep the brow low enough to protect the top of your forehead.

inside view of the back of the Bontrager XXX WavCel road bike helmet.
It’s easy to adjust the rear of the helmet so that the front falls in the right place.

It used to be a new helmet meant spending a significant amount of time adjusting the straps to get the brow to sit where I wanted. With the Bontrager XXX, it was a completely different experience. Adjust the rear cradle up or down, and it’ll adjust where the front sits.

The rear cradle is quick, and easy, to adjust.

It takes just a moment, and there’s no risk of having things out of balance from left to right. I recently started testing some new cycling glasses, and I needed to move the front up a bit higher to clear the glasses. I was able to do it while on a ride and waiting for the light to change. It’s that fast, and the BOA makes loosening and tightening the rear to put the helmet on, or take it off, just as easy. This is probably my favorite part of the overall design of this helmet, but there are other highlights as well.

closeup image of the padding inside of the Bontrager XXX WaveCel road bike helmet
The Bontrager XXX WaveCel uses thin and comfortable padding.

The padding inside is thin and feels very high quality. MIPS liners aren’t something that I give much thought to generally. They don’t bother me, but at the same time, it’s nice to have reduced complexity inside of the helmet as long as it’s not at the expense of safety.

Despite not being the lightest helmet on the market the Bontrager XXX WaveCel carries its weight well.

Weighing in at 334 grams for a size small, the Bontrager XXX helmet is a bit heavier than the Smith helmets, but it does a very good job of distributing that weight well. Longer helmets can feel a bit like a lever on your head, and the Bontrager is compact and close fitting for a very tidy feeling. Unfortunately, there’s no independent testing that shows just how aero the Bontrager XXX actually is, but it has claimed to be aero optimized, so at the very least, you aren’t completely giving up aero considerations.

Front view of a white Bontrager XXX WaveCel aero road bike helmet on a stone planter.
Stylish and comfortable as well as aero optimized.

At the same time, I did not find the Bontrager to be particularly hot. Similar to what I said about the Smith helmets, on a hot day, climbing is going to be hot no matter the helmet. Nothing about the Bontrager XXX WaveCel felt like it made things particularly hot in comparison to other helmets. Given the excellent fit, aero considerations, Boa Fit System with an excellent rear cradle design, the price of $299 is in line with the rest of the market, and the Bontrager XXX WaveCel is a great choice. As a final note, for whatever it’s worth, I find the XXX WaveCel to be particularly stylish.

Bontrager has 4 variations of the WaveCel technology which cover a variety of price points and types of cycling.
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