Smith Helmets

Smith Helmets

Smith Helmets

Josh Ross

A brief look at two Smith helmets, the Ignite and Trace

Smith Trace and Ignite
Smith Trace and Ignite

It was way back in 2015 that I reviewed the Smith Overtake helmet, and I’ve put thousands of miles on it and even replaced the pads once. I did take a look at one other helmet, from Kali protectives, but for the most part, the Smith Overtake has been so good, nothing else has made me feel like taking a look.

The biggest reason for that is weight. On long rides, the weight of your helmet adds up, and at 270 grams for the size medium, the Smith was one of the lightest helmets out there. The fact that it could make aero claims was an added bonus. I wasn’t the only one who seemed to take a liking to the Overtake either, it’s one of the most common helmets I see out on rides.

The Smith Ignite, for aero gains
The Smith Ignite, for aero gains

Despite all the positives the Overtake had, four years is an eternity for cycling technology and a redesign was long overdue. After years of watching Smith add to their helmet lineup and release updates for the rest of lineup, late 2018 saw an announcement of not one, but two, top end helmets, the Smith Ignite and the Smith Trace.

In case you aren’t familiar with the Smith helmets, the most recognisable feature of the Smith Ignite and Trace, is the use of Koroyd in their construction. Koroyd is actually a third party innovation that Smith has chosen to use instead of more traditional EPS foam that most helmets use. It looks a bit like a bunch of plastic straws and glued together.

The Smith Trace, the climber's choice
The Smith Trace, the climber’s choice

The promise is better conversion of kinetic energy in an accident while increasing air flow and reducing overall weight. Both the Ignite and Trace also have MIPS technology on board. MIPS is another third party technology. It’s designed to allow your head to slip against the helmet in low speed, off-axis, impacts. Koroyd is fairly unique in the cycling market, MIPS however, is widely used.

It’s worth noting that very recently Trek, and their accessory brand Bontrager, have announced a helmet with a technology called wavecell. The way wavecell works sounds remarkably similar to Koroyd and MIPS, but Trek has made some rather bold claims about its effectiveness. MIPS and Koroyd have both publicly disputed those claims.

Interior of the Ignite
Interior of the Ignite

Having read everything I can about wavecell and the controversy, I’d weigh in that the truth is likely some place in the middle. Head injuries are incredibly complex, and very small changes in testing can show drastic differences in outcomes. The main advantages of both Koroyd and Wavecell are likely not going to be any great gains in safety, but rather similar crash outcomes as EPS but with packaging and design advantages.

In other words, I have no doubt there are lots of ways to keep your head safe, but the ability to do it in a way that creates a lighter, more breathable, helmet design is where these materials shine. Smith has been using Koroyd for quite a few years now, and the new additions to their lineup definitely show a maturation of the design process as it relates to the use of Koroyd.  

The Trace has more ventilation
The Trace has more ventilation

In other words, I have no doubt there are lots of ways to keep your head safe, but the ability to do it in a way that creates a lighter, more breathable, helmet design is where these materials shine. Smith has been using Koroyd for quite a few years now, and the new additions to their lineup definitely show a maturation of the design process as it relates to the use of Koroyd.  

Road cycling at the moment is very firmly divided into two product categories, climbing and aero. I expect over time that the two will merge more and more. But right now, if you want the lightest option, you can choose a climbers frame. Or, if you don’t mind gaining a bit of weight for increased aerodynamics, you can choose the aero frame. The same options exist in most cycling kit lineups. While Smith’s marketing language doesn’t exactly describe the two helmets in these terms, that’s my take on what they’ve created.

There's something insect like about this view of the Ignite
There’s something insect like about this view of the Ignite

The Ignite is the aero helmet and the Trace is the climbers helmet. That means the Ignite is meant to give up a bit of breathability and weight in pursuit of the ultimate aerodynamic advantage. Smith shows testing data for drag at 30mph. I don’t think it’s terribly relatable to the real world, but if we do a bit of math, the difference is the Ignite exhibits 9% less drag while being 30 grams heavier. The price, $250, is the same between the two helmets. For those interested, the Trace claims to be about 6% faster than the outgoing Overtake, and it’s only 10 grams heavier.

If you are considering one of these helmets, the big question is likely going to be which one to get? One of the things I frequently saw in reviews of the Smith Overtake was a discussion of it being hot. I just don’t feel the same way. When it’s hot, and you are climbing, helmets are hot. I’ve never ridden with a helmet where I felt any appreciable difference in those circumstances. When it comes to these two helmets, that trend continues.

Here you can see the Trace's Koroyd material
Here you can see the Trace’s Koroyd material

That’s not to say there aren’t differences, though. There is definitely a different feeling to the delivery of the air. There might be less ability for heat to rise directly in the Ignite, but when you get moving a bit, it has the feeling of hot air being sucked out. The Trace feels more airy all the time, but there’s less of a difference as you speed up.

Aside from the question of temperature management, there are other differences. I find the fit to be slightly different between the two, with the Trace being a bit smaller. Also the straps are designed differently on each model. The Ignite has a design that sits against your face with less twisting, and it’s in this distinction I find my one dislike about these helmets.

Both helmets use MIPS to increase your crash protection
Both helmets use MIPS to increase your crash protection

The Ignite has a design that splits the straps into three pieces. The upper piece is one unit that threads through the helmet with a buckle at either end, where the under-chin straps attach. This design makes sense for both models, it’s more aero and more comfortable when done right. But Smith has not included any adjustability of the upper portion of the straps, and that limits your ability to adjust where the chin strap falls.

I like the chin strap to be rather far forward to keep the front edge of my helmet from being able to move up. There’s no way to adjust this on the Ignite. The Trace has the adjustability, but it’s done in a way that has to hurt in the wind tunnel.

A soft bag to store your helmet is a nice touch
A soft bag to store your helmet is a nice touch

Overall, this isn’t really a problem because the front of the Ignite stays low enough, and the Trace might give up something in the wind tunnel, but it’s the climbers helmet, so that’s expected. The only reason I call it out is because a very small change to the design of the Ignite strap system seems like an obvious design solution that would benefit both helmets.

Even with that small critique noted, these are exceptionally comfortable helmets, and either one will end up being a good choice. I think that in most situations, I’d probably choose the Trace because it’s a bit lighter, and I like the fit a little bit more. The times I choose the Ignite are the times that I care about 9% extra performance. When I ride gravel, I almost always choose the Trace, but when I was racing gravel, I chose the Ignite, and I’d say this is a perfect illustration of which helmet might be best for you.

Smith Ignite

Smith Trace

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