Friday, September 11, 2015

Product Review: Bell Vortex Flying Tigers Helmet

Motorcycle helmets are not something one replaces very often. Safety standards are periodically updated, but those happen so rarely that one can safely wait for the expiration of the helmet before making a change. Yes, for those of you who were not aware, motorcycle helmets come with an expiration date. It is the glue that bonds the EPS foam layer to the shell that, through exposure to the elements during riding, begins to break down and typically five years after production it is recommended that the helmet be replaced. For me, that date arrived earlier this year. My trusty Bell Star, that had served me well for some four plus years, was in need of replacement. Everything about the Star was fantastic, from the quality of the build to the real metal accents to the way it fit my oddly shaped head. The only thing that ever bothered me was the noise, which as a result of being designed to be a racing helmet was not as critical a consideration. So now that I was in need of a new helmet, I once again turned to the Bell line-up and selected a helmet I had been eyeing for a long while.

Allow me to introduce my brand new Bell Vortex motorcycle helmet.

On paper, the Vortex is a couple of steps down the product sophistication ladder from the Bell Star. The Vortex utilizes a slightly heavier polycarbonate shell material and does not have the fancier metal trim bits that come on the Star. This accounts for the majority of the cost difference between the two helmets. However, where Bell did not skimp was the ventilation. The Vortex still uses the Velocity Flow Ventilation setup that was pioneered on the Bell Star. This system allows for surprisingly good airflow and helps keep my head tolerably cool in even the most sweltering of conditions, which I have had plenty of experience with lately. Nearly all of the intake vents on the helmet are adjustable, allowing a rider to tweak how much ventilation they want to accommodate a variety of riding conditions.

Unfortunately, the side effect of great ventilation is noise. My Star was always a bit on the noisy side, allowing a fair amount of air to leak through and swirl around the ear pockets where my comm system was mounted. Even with the chin guard in place to reduce airflow up into the helmet, I generally wore earplugs and had to keep the audio system near the loudest volume to be able to comfortably hear it. With the Vortex, I have discovered that it does a much better job of isolating the ear pockets to make the wind noise less deafening. This means that, while I still wear earplugs for hearing protection, I no longer need to crank the volume on my comm unit to be able to hear it comfortably. When I do not have the comm unit turned on, the helmet is also noticeably quieter just riding around. I attribute this to the larger wind skirt added to the base of the helmet as well as an updated design to the padding and placement of the speaker pockets. It is awesome to be able to get a more comfortable, quieter ride without sacrificing any ventilation.

Out on the road, I am already seeing what a major difference a few years of R&D can make. The Star used to have a few positions where the wind would hit it just right and cause a tiny bit of lift, causing my neck muscles to work to fight against the helmet shifting my gaze or me to tuck deeper behind my bike's windscreen. With the Vortex, being a significantly newer design, that lift is completely gone. With several hundred miles on the helmet now, I have not yet experienced any semblance of lift in any of the variety of riding conditions I have been through. No matter how fast I am going or how strong the winds are, the Vortex feels more secure and aerodynamically sound than my older model Bell Star. Chalk that up to greater experience and better design. Kudos to Bell for doing their homework.

Build quality is impressive and the paint work is decidedly upscale. The matte gray finish that serves as the base on which the graphics are laid looks rich and has a genuine warmth to it that gives the helmet an expensive appearance which disguises the helmets economical provenance. The fact that Bell opted not to cheap out on components and included the very same ClickRelease shield system as on the Star also does not hurt as it allows me to seamlessly transfer my small collection of varied shields from my Star to the Vortex. It is also the single easiest shield swap system I have ever had the pleasure of using and puts systems from other competitors to shame.

A big factor in me selecting the Vortex was this particular graphic pattern. The Flying Tigers, also known as the 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force, were American airmen from various branches of the US military that flew fighter missions in the Pacific Theater during World War II as a part of the Chinese Air Force under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. Participating in combat before the US officially entered the war effort, these airmen resigned their commissions in the US military and volunteered their skills to assist the Chinese defend against the invading Japanese Army. Operating in a grey area of a mounting international conflict, this unit played a major role in the defense of China against Japan during the war. Their Curtiss P-40 Warhawks were emblazoned with the shark-nose design along with the winged tiger that became one of the most recognizable icons of the war. My helmet borrows the shark teeth and winged tiger design overlaid on a convincing facsimile of a fighter aircraft's skin and pays a fitting tribute to a group that had a great impact on my own family's history.

Of course, this is but one graphic set that is available on the Vortex and the selection of varied designs means that any rider can find a helmet to match their personal taste. Best of all, as one of the more budget minded helmets in Bell's line-up, the Vortex is readily affordable at just under $180. For all the high level features, fantastic paint finish, excellent aerodynamic characteristics, and great comfort, the Vortex is one of the greatest helmet values on the market today. I am a staunch believer in Bell's products (my bicycle helmets are also made by them) and the purchase of the Vortex only serves to strengthen my support for their excellent products.