Picture two egg yolks suspended in water, jostling slightly when shaken, but staying intact and relatively fixed in place to represent the closed, sealed system that is your brain and cerebrospinal fluid within a helmet-clad skull. Most linear impacts won’t disrupt the yolks, but an angled hit, which creates a spinning impact, will scramble the yolks, rendering you concussed (or worse).
“Helmets are fantastic at protecting the skull from breaking, but we found space to improve helmets to protect the brain from what it’s most vulnerable to: rotational forces,” says biomechanical engineer Michael Bottlang, Ph.D., directory of the Legacy Biomechanics Lab in Portland, OR. Since 2002, Bottlang’s been working to develop a better helmet, with the help of a research grant from the National Institutes of Health.
From slip liners to honeycomb-style inserts, Bottlang tested a multitude of materials and shapes to see what would move with the brain, as opposed to simply providing a cushion between the head and, say, asphalt. A better material, he thought, would shield brain tissue against damage during quick, twisting impacts, even if there’s no skull fracture.
Creating the Perfect Brain Injury-Preventing Partnership
Bottlang met his research partner, Steven Madey, M.D.—an orthopedic surgeon and part of the Legacy Biomechanics Lab team—at the University of Iowa. As Bottlang studied to get a Ph.D. in biomechanical engineering, Madey worked as a resident in orthopedic surgery.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called brain injury a silent epidemic,” says Madey. “It can lead to changes that affect thinking, sensation, and emotions that don’t always readily appear and can sometimes be lifelong. We’ve learned how to fix bones with plates and screws, and in those cases, they tend to heal even stronger. But that’s not the case with the brain.”
The idea of rotational forces triggering serious brain issues isn’t new. They’re believed to cause more injuries than straight-on impacts, according to a 2003 Wayne State University study. And Swedish company MIPS created their Brain Protection System (BPS) back in 1996, which companies integrated into helmets a few years later. Their tech involves a layer of “low-friction” material between the shell and liner of a helmet that lets the helmet slide relative to the head when it gets hit.
WaveCel is up to 48 times more effective in preventing concussions than standard foam designs.
So what took so long for a new material to hit the market? Well, it’s not so easy to create something from scratch.
Bottlang and Madey could never quite get the results they needed from traditional shapes and materials. That is, until they experimented with manmade cellulose—malleable enough to fold onto itself, yet dense enough to protect from head-on impacts—to create a non-foam, lattice-like material that’ll “flex, crumble, and glide” upon force, according to Trek. In short: It protects your brain whether a crash is a head-on hit, or one with angular twists and turns. They coined the technology WaveCel, and it’s already been integrated into a new line of Trek helmets.
If you’re curious about the collaboration, it was a bit serendipitous. In 2013, Bicycling magazine featured the duo in an article on head injuries, pointing out their research on rotational impact and concussions. One of the engineers on the Trek team happened to spot the story and reached out to discuss a potential partnership. At the meet-up, both Trek and the Bottlang-Madey teams were impressed with each other’s level of dedication to research and building a helmet from the brain up.
“For Trek, we believe in not only having fun and being health-conscious, but getting people on bikes,” says Sam Foos, marketing manager for Trek. “We hit it off with the doctors as soon as we met them. There were always conversations diving into the actual research, but we also talked about how this can be applied.”
It took nearly 5,000 helmet designs, countless tests, and four more years for the teams to reach a final product, says Foos. And while the WaveCel helmet meets the standard safety tests, the team went even further in challenging its protective qualities.
You’ll see in any story or promotional post that WaveCel is up to 48 times more effective in preventing concussions than standard foam designs. Both Trek and the Bottlang-Madey team tested WaveCel to come up with this number, but they also had third-party researchers pedal in from Virginia Tech University to confirm the high-set standards. The safety held up in a peer reviewed study, too, which found WaveCel stood out in rotational force protection. (Note: MIPS released a statement saying they couldn’t confirm the results in their own lab.)
Trek and WaveCel: The Safest Helmet Available?
Of course, you can’t release a helmet without also making sure people will actually wear it, says Foos. So after they nailed the safety component, they turned to comfort, fit, breathability ,and some aerodynamic features. They landed on four new Bontrager helmets that now include WaveCel: Spector ($150) and XXX ($300) for road biking, Blaze for mountain biking ($300), and Charge for commuting ($150).
“We came out with a carbon bike in 1992, and we’ve been perfecting that since then,” says Foos. “The same goes for this [technology]. But the things we’re going to fine-tune are the nuances—the material and shape are ready to rock.”
As for the future of WaveCel and helmets in general, it looks pretty bright on the safety front. Everyone on the team hopes to integrate this new tech into football, hockey, and snow sport helmets in hopes of preventing even more concussions across all disciplines.
“The great thing about this is it doesn’t matter the terrain you’re on or what your head shape is—it all works the same,” Foos concludes.