Why The Peaks On MTB Helmets? Aren’t Visors Dangerous?
Off-road helmets in general, and Mountain bike helmets in particular, do have a distinct look. They’re easily recognizable from helmets used in any other cycling discipline due to a visor – coined as “peak”. This is basically a removable shield out of plastic or carbon attached to the front of the helmet. Straight-forward enough. But what’s the point of a peak on a mountain bike helmet?
Protection against sun glare, rain, branches, trail debris and impact absorption is what a peak on a mountain bike helmet is for. Also called a visor, it helps in keeping anything from hitting the biker’s face and eyes, even the ground. By tilting the head downwards, the effectiveness of the shield is increased.
They’re specific to MTB because mountain bikes are designed for a more upright body position to better allow the rider to adjust to uneven terrain. In addition, due to the lower average speeds compared to road cycling, aerodynamics are not meaningfully impacted by a larger helmet surface area.
How MTB helmet visors work
A typical aspect of mountain biking is going in and out of woods, which means constantly changing light conditions. With clear vision being crucial to identifying the trail ahead, anything to improve it is welcome. Even with proper riding goggles or sunglasses, sun glare is a constant issue (unless living in the UK).
And one way to improve your riding is when the sun doesn’t even hit the goggles and eyes directly but is blocked by a visor.
The same goes for rain: Better on the helmet than on your goggles or in your eyes. Let’s be realistic here: a peak will not prevent all rain from hitting your face, but it’s definitely a welcome improvement. In preparation for wet races, you may have even seen professional mountain bikers extending their visor with make-shift solutions like goggle lenses or mudguards on it.
Your head is always going to be tilted down on a bike. More so on an uphill-focused marathon bike with a more horizontal body position and less so on enduro or downhill bikes. That’s why helmets for either category look different from each other in terms of visor design and length. So you don’t even have to do anything extraordinary for the peak to do its job.
Unlike a chin bar on a full-face helmet, the peak isn’t primarily there for shock absorption, but for creating distance between your face and objects like trail debris from other riders or your own front tire, and even the ground.
The trail surface is seldom smooth, with roots and rocks sticking out. In the case of a crash, the peak is another important layer of safety so that uneven terrain stays a couple of inches further away from the face, even when the helmet impacts the ground.
One aspect of being out in nature isn’t only the challenging trail surface, but also what’s surrounding the track. Namely bushes, trees and flying insects. I can’t count the number of times branches and bugs have hit my peak over the years, but I’m always glad it wasn’t my face in contact with them. And that I can focus on what’s on the trail rather than beside and above it.
What to look for regarding helmet peaks
Modern MTB helmets may have long visors, but screw-on visors can usually tilt up enough so that they are not visible while wearing. Especially in combination with goggles (also used in motocross), the field of view is more narrow anyway. Nothing impacting the situational awareness negatively, but the chin bar and visor are hidden behind the goggle frame anyway.
Aerodynamic design isn’t anything to consider, but shape, length, tight fit and tilt adjustment are. A wider, flatter peak is generally more useful, even for mounting a helmet camera on it. Manufacturers keep proper length in mind for each discipline, but for helmets with removable chin bars, lengths are variable. It needs to attach securely at a minimum of two contact points to eliminate wiggle and noises. But most important of all is the range of motion so it can tilt high enough to not be in your field of view.
Types of visors
Fixed visors. Common for low-end helmets, they’re short more often than not, and thus not actually doing much besides the looks. Longer also means easier to break off, and fixed visors usually can’t be replaced.
Screw-on visors. These are the most common overall and also recommended due to the easy handling. Adjustment, replacement and removal are very easy to do and most of the time don’t even require tools. If screws are visible, it’s a helmet with a screw-on visor.
Magnetic visors. Some manufacturers are experimenting with magnetically attached visors. Their unique benefit is easily breaking off in a crash, not affecting the rotational forces on the head negatively. Hitting branches with these may be the biggest difference-maker when it snaps off instead of catching and jerking your head.
Snap-on visors. These are uncommon nowadays but used to be around in the past. Preceding the magnetic solution with a similar idea: easy snapping off. If you’ve still got one of those, it may be time to retire the old, brittle helmet for a fresh one.
What Helmet Visor Length is Best?
Longer helmet visors are generally better for downhill riding and shorter ones for trail and cross country biking. That means longer doesn’t equal better. Rather, it depends on the mountain bike discipline and personal preference. Also, full-face helmets usually have the longest peaks to go with the extended chin bars.
I prefer to have longer visors personally. I’ve ridden with MTB helmets for so long that I don’t notice it in the corner of my eye (which may need some getting used to) and because a shorter one doesn’t do much besides being there for the looks. For downhill, I currently use a 100% Aircraft full-face (review) with one of the longest peaks out there. And for enduro riding, where I spend most of the time on uphills, I got a Giro Switchblade, which can tilt the visor extremely high – tool-less with one hand. So I always got a wide field of view, even without goggles.
What to do if the visor on your mountain bike helmet breaks off
Most helmet visors can be replaced with spare parts from the manufacturer since they are a pre-determined breaking point. Taking a broken visor completely off is often better than leaving a crooked one on the helmet. Usually, the visor itself breaks, while the screws stay in. This means it will not keep its position properly and move around while riding. In the worst case, it may fall down and block the rider’s vision.
I’ve broken my fair share of helmet visors in the past. Some have broken off cleanly, but mostly they are still attached at least on one spot. Either way, with damage around the bolt holes, taking it clean off and throwing it into the nearest garbage bin is the way to go.
One way to prevent damage to the visor is to not over-tighten the screws. It should stay in place during riding, but also be moved in the case of an impact. You’ll want it to flip and absorb some impact force instead of translating it directly to your head and neck.
Disadvantages and dangers of helmet peaks
Increased rotational force is the biggest disadvantage of helmet peaks. In natural terrain, there are lots of edges to catch on and violently yank the helmet. In this scenario, a visor is another part sticking out ready to dig into the dirt. This is why it’s important to let it bend by not over-tightening the attachment screws.
Less common but still a possibility is hitting and catching a low-hanging branch and getting your head snapped back violently, hurting the neck in the process. I’ve had the exact thing happen on overgrown trails. But most of the time the peak doesn’t catch but rather deflects.
A peak getting bent down and pushed into the face can happen but is actually a very rare occurrence statistically. And if it does, it likely has prevented other stuff from getting in with a crash that violent.
Helmet-mounted cameras compromise safety
Helmet visors are actually one of the best places on a helmet to mount an action camera to film your mountain bike ride. This is because it’s the only movable part. But, as I said before, anything sticking from the helmet and any edges add rotational forces to the head in an impact.
With smaller cameras, like the DJI Action 2 (review here), it’s possible to mount them below the visor so there’s no chance of them contacting and catching the ground. They still can get in your face, however, as the visor gets pushed down. Something like that may or may not have happened to me.
Now, should you even wear a helmet visor or not?
Wearing a peak on your MTB helmet is more crucial for fast downhill-oriented biking, but less so for uphill riding and long-distance touring. It helps with keeping sun, rain, dirt and branches away from the face when going at high speeds. But it limits the field of view and adds a little more weight to the head and neck.
Believe it or not, having or not having a visor on a mountain bike helmet is actually a hot topic and passionately discussed in the community. And every time, arguably the most famous no-visor mountain biker is brought up: Nicholi Rogatkin.
I’m not making this up. Riding without a visor, on a helmet that clearly is designed to have one, is frowned upon by the MTB community. Nicholi has had to explain his reasons on multiple occasions. He rides without goggles, so the visor would be visible to him when doing all kinds of spins and flips on his bike. He needs the extra field of view.
I personally have only ridden “the bullet”, as an MTB helmet without a peak is called, when I broke it clean off. The missing sunblock and reduced weight is noticeable and feels weird. In addition to that sensation, expect to get a lot of weird looks, as this is definitely not proper MTB etiquette and for sure not the style if you want to look cool on your bike.
However, it’s different for Cross Country mountain bikers. They tend to use more road bike style helmets with no visors, high-cut rears and big ventilation ports. Those are very much needed when going uphill for extended periods of time. And a bit of weight saving on the head is welcome with the upper body forward and looking up is the standard position. Not unlike road cycling.
How to remove visor from bike helmet
A regular helmet visor can be removed with a screwdriver or often without any tools. They’re usually attached at two or three points. So, trying the helmet with and without the peak to find out what’s better is an option. Fixed visors, however, are glued on and can’t be removed or attached easily.
These bolts can often also be loosened with a coin or by hand. Be careful to not over-tighten any of them since they’re not of high quality and can break off, especially when made out of hard plastic.