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Kids' Bike Helmets : head dress : It's not just the law for minors; it's a fashion statement for wheelers and dealers of all ages. The look of these shells on wheels has been changing gears as safety awareness has risen.


Bicycle riders are breaking away from boring white helmets.

Wearing a helmet while riding a bike became state law for the under-18 set Jan. 1. Yet while parents and legislators fret about safety, riders have an additional concern: fashion.

Children--and adults--no longer pedal around in clunky helmets that make them look like lunar astronauts. Thanks to innovative designs by helmet manufacturers, bicyclists can sport sleeker, colorful helmets that fit a wide range of tastes, not to mention heads.

Companies such as Giro and Bell have pulled ahead of the pack with adult- and child-size helmets that come in trendy colors such as purple and teal. Some helmets come in "fader" tones that go from light to dark or fancy metallic hues that match the bikes. A few helmets have fun graphics such as paint splotches, stripes and even dog paw prints.

Helmet styles began changing gears several years ago, when wearing a bike helmet became more common.

"People became more aware of how important it is to wear a helmet," says Sue Grisson, co-owner of Rainbow Bicycle Co. in Laguna Beach. "And they were more likely to wear them if they looked cool."

Riders now have their pick of helmet styles at Rainbow Bicycle Co. For kids, there's a white helmet by Bell festooned with a colorful alphabet soup ($42), a "Rover" style by Troxel covered with black paw prints ($35) and Troxel's teal-colored helmet adorned with barking dogs and abstract swirls and zig-zags ($35).

For adults, there's the sleek "Diva" from Troxel with a pearly finish that fades from deep purple to white or red to yellow ($50) and the "Black Light" from Giro with purple streaks that glow on the helmet's black surface ($84), as well as assorted solid-colored and metallic helmets.

Some companies have souped up their helmets to look like something out of the Indianapolis 500. The "Streetrider" style from Bell comes with racing stripes down the sides, available at Performance Bicycle Shop in Brea, Fountain Valley and Irvine. The shop also carries "Air Blast" helmets by Giro that look like they've been worn while riding through a rain of blue paint. Helmets range from $30 to $140.

"Giro's known for wild colors. And they change colors every year, just like fashion designers," says Greyson Tipping, manager of Performance Bicycle Shop in Irvine.

Giro's '94 helmets come in deep jewel tones, including a few "faders" in graduating shades of purple, red or yellow. One of Giro's newest helmets has webbing that drops down onto the neck--it helps stabilize the helmet, Tipping says, and riders think it makes them look cool.

Next year's styles promise to be even wilder.

At bike shows, Specialized has been showing off its "Piranha" prototype, a blue helmet with a small fin on top and a mouth full of sharp teeth in front, Tipping says. While some helmets have only four vents, the "Piranha" will have 20.

"They're designing helmets so that it's just as cool to wear one as not to, due to wind tunneling and the placement of the vents," Tipping says.

Extra vents help keep the head cool while riding, and it helps that most helmets no longer cover the ears.

"Older helmets were cumbersome. They were almost painful because they were so heavy," Tipping says. "Now they weigh only seven to nine ounces."

Helmets have become more bearable thanks to a thin plastic shell and insides made from lightweight Polystyrene foam.

"It's like high-tech ice chest material," says Kenny Woods, manager of Bicycles Etc. in San Clemente.

"Years ago helmets were heavy and hard. Now they're lightweight with lots of ventilation holes," Woods says. They also have a sleeker, more aerodynamic shape instead of the bowling ball looks of the past.

When choosing a helmet, experts recommend first finding one that fits well.

"It should fit snugly but not too tight," Woods says. "Everybody's head size is a different shape and size."

Some manufacturers make their helmets more oval, while others make them rounder. The helmets come with foam pads that adjust to fit the head. One top-of-the-line helmet by Bell comes with a Reebok pump system that inflates to the exact proportions of the rider's head. It sells for about $140 at Performance Bicycle Shops and Bicycles Etc. in San Clemente, Mission Viejo and Lake Forest.

"You put it on and pump the little bladder inside up for a perfect fit," Woods says.

Riders should choose a helmet that meets the safety standards of the American National Standard Institute or the Snell Foundation, which has even stricter safety guidelines.

Wearing the right helmet can save a rider's life, and no one knows that better than Tipping. He credits a bike helmet with saving him from a serious head injury.

"It was during a race. I got cut off and hit a cone and went head first over my bike. When I crashed, I hit the front side of the helmet going 30 m.p.h.," he says. "Other than a road rash and a little headache, I was fine. But the helmet was destroyed."

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