The Bontrager Starvos WaveCel is Bontrager's entry-level WaveCel protection-equipped helmet. It's comfortable, well ventilated and comes with the top score from Virginia Tech, the world's most trusted independent impact tester, but it's heavy, and looks bulky too.
According to Bontrager, WaveCel is a collapsible cellular structure that lines the inside of your Bontrager helmet (the tech is exclusive to Bontrager). It works like a crumple zone that absorbs the force of an impact before it reaches your head. It is designed to be more effective than traditional foam helmets in protecting your head from injuries caused by certain cycling accidents.
WaveCel caused a massive hoo-ha when Bontrager launched it last year. Long story short, Swedish company MIPS, rival helmet liner maker, claimed that its own preliminary test results of WaveCel helmets could not substantiate Bontrager's big claims for WaveCel.
Then Virginia Tech gave all Bontrager WaveCel helmets its top five-star rating in independent impact tests – although the overall best-performing road helmets were still MIPS equipped.
We don't have the capacity to do our own independent impact testing, so if you want to look at Virginia Tech's results they're here and you can make up your own mind.
We all hope we'll never have to test a helmet's ability to protect our heads from impacts, and equally it's down to you whether you wear one or not. For the record, at road.cc we are firmly anti helmet compulsion.
When WaveCel first appeared last year, one worry was that it would be hotter than MIPS, that the cells would trap heat rather than channel it out of the rear. The helmet I was wearing directly before testing the Bontrager Starvos was the Bontrager Velocis MIPS so I was able to compare them directly.
I preferred the WaveCel for hot-weather riding for the simple reason that, unlike MIPS, WaveCel doesn't use a plastic liner that sits directly on your head, where it becomes very sweaty. Rather, the cell construction above the (removable) pads allows the head to breathe through the multiple tunnels.
Not only is WaveCel designed to protect your head against angled impacts, but I also discovered it protects it against bugs – maybe more by accident than by design. While wearing the Velocis MIPS I got stung by an angry wasp that got itself wedged between between the MIPS liner and outer shell. With the wider but fewer vents of the latest aero road helmet styles it's just more likely to happen. Usually it's only entry-level helmets that have bug nets – proper cyclists are clearly too tough to worry about wasps – but WaveCel does the job of one perfectly while allowing the wearer to keep up their tough 'Scared of wasps? Me?' persona. Having said that, WaveCel looks disturbingly similar to a wasp's nest, but I haven't noticed any homesick wasps trying to chase me down so far.
The downside of WaveCel is that it's heavy. Bontrager's MIPS helmets were already not the lightest, but now the WaveCel-equipped lids are markedly overweight compared to the competition. Although in its defence the Starvos is a mid-range helmet – and Bontrager's entry-level WaveCel helmet – where low weight is not so crucial, just as Mat found with the Bontrager XXX WaveCel, it's not uncomfortably heavy but I have been more aware of it in use than with lighter helmets. However, it's worth pointing out that the size medium Starvos tested here is lighter than the same-sized XXX WaveCel, which costs double the price.
Like saddles, helmet fit is always going to a personal thing. If it doesn't fit your head shape, it's unlikely it will ever be comfortable no matter how finely you fettle the retention system. As luck would have it, the Starvos WaveCel fitted me so well it could have been custom moulded.
Strangely, the Velocis MIPS hadn't fitted so well despite being nominally the same size (medium, 54-60cm): I was always having to push the front up no matter how tight it was ratcheted down. But the Starvos hardly needed the Bontrager Headmaster dial – which, incidentally, is not as smooth as the Velocis's geniune Boa dial, so it's just as well. I drew from this that the Starvos fits a narrower head better than a round one.
Although the Starvos was perfectly comfortable on a narrow head, outwardly it looks as if it was more designed for a round one. Although it appears sleek and modern in these photos, on my head it looked bulkier and very close to the dreaded mushroom shape that distinguishes entry-level helmets. However, like my head, my face is long rather than round, which could accentuate this.
Lastly, WaveCel doesn't leave a gap for storing your sunnies when not wearing them. The best I could do was to wedge the arms of my Rudy Project Defenders between the WaveCel and the shell, but I would not be confident to ride with them there on anything rougher than A roads.
Sub-£100 for a helmet with a protection system such as MIPS or WaveCel is not bad, although for the helmet market in general it's mid-level. The Starvos costs the same as the MIPS-equipped Giro Syntax and the MIPS-equipped Met Vinci, both of which we liked. The XXX WaveCel is Bontrager's top-line WaveCel-equipped helmet and goes for double the price.
If you're looking for a helmet that's top rated for protection and you're keeping under £100, the Bontrager Starvos ought to be on your list. It's also very comfortable, it doesn't overheat and build quality is good. However, it's on the heavy side, it looks bulky on narrower heads and doesn't have anywhere to stick your shades.
Good value helmet that offers top-rated protection, good ventilation and comfortable fit, but feels and looks heavy
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Bontrager Starvos WaveCel Helmet
Size tested: Medium
Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
Bontrager says: "Starvos WaveCel is a versatile, high-value cycling helmet for new-to-seasoned riders who want the added protection of WaveCel, a leading technology in the protection against cycling-related head injuries.
"WaveCel is a collapsible cellular structure that lines the inside of the helmet. This Bontrager-exclusive technology disrupts the safety standards that the industry has accepted for over 30 years."
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
From Bontrager/Trek's website:
WaveCel advanced helmet technology
Virginia Tech 5-STAR rating
Intuitive, one-handed Headmaster fit system makes height and circumference adjustments easy
LockDown dividers make helmet strap management clean and easy to adjust
Soft, comfortable and moisture-wicking washable helmet pads
Available in XL sizing
The Crash Replacement Guarantee provides a free helmet replacement if involved in a crash within the first year of ownership
Very slick, nicely made.
There's quite a bit of exposed EPS at the back and sides, so care needs to be taken not to dent it when storing it.
WaveCel is heavy stuff, there's no getting around it.
Full marks. I loved the fit, the way it stayed in place, and I didn't find the WaveCel trapped heat at all. Up there with the most comfortable helmets I have ever worn.
It's half the price of Bonty's top of the range XXX WaveCel, so if Virginia Tech's five-star rating is important to you then a WaveCel-equipped helmet for sub-£100 is good going, especially bearing in mind that the helmet that encloses it is very comfortable. You can buy lighter MIPS-equipped lids for the same price though.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Fortunately I haven't had to used it for its designed purpose, which is protecting my head and absorbing the energy of an angled impact. But it performed pretty well in Virginia Tech's independent testing and was awarded five stars, the top score.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
The fit was great. I may have got lucky with the Starvos and found a helmet that fits the shape of my head exactly, but the fact is it does and it's what I like about it.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
The weight mostly, but also the shape. It's a bit more mushroomy than the Bontrager's more expensive, racier helmets, giving it an entry-level look.
How does the price compare to that of similar products in the market, including ones recently tested on road.cc?
The Bontrager XXX WaveCel is Bontrager's top-line WaveCel-equipped helmet and goes for double the price of the Starvos. The Starvos costs the same as the new MIPS-equipped Met Vinci, which we liked, and the same as the non-MIPS LEM Gavia (LEM's top helmet).
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? If I could find the same fit in a lighter, better-looking Bontrager helmet I would pay the extra and buy that.
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes, if their budget was £100.
Use this box to explain your overall score
If WaveCel and MIPS are important to you and you're on a budget, a WaveCel-equipped helmet for under £100 that is as comfortable and well fitting as this one (head shape dependent of course) is great news. However, the weight is not so welcome, and the bulky look might put some people off too. Since protection and comfort outweigh weight and aesthetics, I'd still class it as 'Good'.
About the tester
I usually ride: Racer Rosa custom alu My best bike is: Colnago Master Olympic
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: time trialling, commuting, touring, club rides, sportives, School run on a tandem
Simon finished his MA in online journalism back in 2003 when the internet wasn't very exciting or popular yet. So he got a job as a sub editor on Britain's biggest weekly cycling magazine, where as well as taking out commas and putting them back in again he got to review a lot of bikes and kit.
As a keen time triallist he has spent many hours riding up and down dual carriageways early in the morning and has a national medal, a 19-minute 10 and a few open wins in his palmarès.
He and his eight-year-old son do the school run on a tandem, beating the traffic in car-choked Reigate and getting a great workout at the same time (for one of them).